Where Coaching Matters – AFC Edition

by Ikey Azar · NFL

Team Plays Per Game have been a relatively stable statistic among coaches, fitting into the narrative of how they want their culture and team philosophy to be represented on the field. In 2020, we saw the average team run 1,030 plays for the season, which is a league-high since 2015. 

With the increased use of play action, higher neutral Game Script pass-to-run ratios, and going for it on fourth downs, we saw teams average 43.8 touchdowns. 

In this series, we will attempt to provide insights on how coaches can affect your fantasy teams. While players on the field are mainly responsible for their production, there are some clues we can pull from a coaches tendencies to see how they can either help or hurt a player’s volume and efficiency. 

2020 AFC Neutral Pass Rate

2020 AFC Average Target Depth

AFC 2020 Play Action Rate

2020 AFC Go For It Rate


Miami Dolphins

Brian Flores enters Year 3 with the Miami Dolphins after a surprising 10-6 season in 2020. Flores is now bringing in his third change at offensive coordinator in as many seasons. However, over the course of the first two seasons, both teams averaged nearly 64 plays per game, which ranked No. 11 in 2019 but only No. 22 in 2020. Miami’s Pass Rate dropped nearly eight-percent last season due to an improved defense and more positive Game Script. Despite that drop, they still had a league average 58-percent Pass Rate. If the defense regresses, or with a tougher schedule, we could see a slightly higher Pass Rate in 2021.

Buffalo Bills

Brian Daboll’s offense was finally unlocked with Josh Allen’s unprecedented leap of play last season. They have slightly picked up the pace and total volume of the offense over Allen’s three years as a starter. The biggest difference for the Bills is they went from averaging only 506 attempts (54-percent) over their first two seasons to a 60-percent rate resulting in 596 attempts. No team in the NFL ran a higher percentage of snaps (86-percent) of at least three wide receivers on field. The Bills ranked No. 6 in neutral Game Script Pass Rate, No. 7 in Average Target Depth, and a top four Play Action Rate despite a well below league average rushing offense. With the way Allen played last year, we should expect more of the same in 2021.


New York Jets

The Jets finally fired Adam Gase and his coaching staff. General manager Joe Douglas brings in former San Francisco 49ers assistants Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur to replace them. Saleh will undoubtedly be the culture setter/defensive mind while LaFleur implements the now famous Kyle Shanahan system. Mike’s brother Matt famously spent nine of 10 assistant seasons under Shanahan and Sean McVay before becoming the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and now Mike gets his first coordinating job after spending all seven of his NFL coaching seasons under Shanahan. It will be interesting to see which path Mike takes. Matt’s Packers have typically been slower and less voluminous than Shanahan’s. However, both rank in the top 10 in Play Action Rate.

New England Patriots

The Patriots turned back the volume in their first season without Tom Brady, running the fourth-fewest plays per game. They went from averaging nearly 67 plays per game to just 61 plays per game last season. With Cam Newton under center, they also completely flipped the script with the second-lowest Pass Rate in the NFL, even while in neutral Game Script situations. The 2021 Patriots still figure to be extremely run heavy. However, we should expect a higher Pass Rate in 2021 with a revamped passing group including the free agent signings of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Last season, the Patriots ran two back sets 43-percent of the time, a top five rate in the league that would be expected to flip to two tight ends sets, or seeing Smith in the backfield attempting to remind everyone of the Gronk/Hernandez days.



Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens nearly did a complete 180 in 2020 verses previous seasons. They averaged 62 plays per game, putting them at No. 25 after a 2019 where they ranked No. 7 and averaged 66.5 plays per game. This was in line with their previous four seasons, where they averaged nearly 67 plays per game. With Lamar Jackson’s unique running ability, they remained a 56-percent run team. However, losing those additional plays per game capped their fantasy output compared to 2019. The question now is whether this was an outlier season or whether it was more ball control/clock usage which, if here to stay, which would limit the ceiling on their running game particularly. Baltimore’s passing offense did rank top six in both Average Depth of Target and Play Action Rate, providing spike week abilities for their pass catchers that are appealing for DFS and best ball formats.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Despite an elite defense, Ben Roethlisberger’s return in 2020 reverted this offense right back to where it was in terms of volume and pass-to-run ratio. Since 2012, the Steelers have attempted at least 574 passes and 1,011 plays, putting them in the upper echelon of both categories. Roethlisberger missed the entire 2019 season, which necessitated a totally different gameplan, but he’s basically the offensive coordinator when on the field. They went right back to running 65 plays per game while passing the ball 64-percent of the time, the league’s second-highest rate. However, Pittsburgh had the league’s lowest Play Action Rate, ranking No. 27 in Average Target Depth and limiting the ceiling on an extremely voluminous passing offense.

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals ranked No. 9 and No. 13 in plays per game in Zac Taylor’s first two seasons, passing on 62-percent of those plays. Taylor has been aggressive, ranking No. 4 in Neutral Game Script Pass Rate, No. 13 in Average Target Depth, and going for it at a top ten rate on fourth and short. While the thought was that they’d scale that Pass Rate back with a rookie QB, Joe Burrow averaged over 40 attempts per game before tearing his ACL in Week 11 and missing the remainder of the season. On pace for over 640 passes when only six rookie quarterbacks have surpassed 540, Burrow would’ve set a rookie record. Taylor should take a note out of Sean McVay’s book and increase his No. 19-ranked Play Action Rate to provide better looks and less pressure for Burrow in 2021, especially coming off the knee injury.

Cleveland Browns

Head coach Kevin Stefanski pretty much replicated his 2019 Minnesota Vikings strategy, where he was the offensive coordinator, with the 2020 Cleveland Browns.

2019 Vikings-2020 Browns Comparisons

The Browns are returning their entire offensive unit from 2020 to 2021. With their defensive additions in free agency, this could make them even more run-heavy this coming season.


Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars made the splashy hire, bringing in longtime college coach Urban Meyer as their head coach. Meyer was known for running a spread offense with mobile quarterbacks. He hired long time offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell who, over his tenure with the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, predominantly ran a run-first offense. However, over his tenure with the Seahawks, Russell Wilson saw an increase in pass attempts over each season until Bevell was fired. While they may want to bring their rookie quarterback along slowly, unlike those Seahawks teams, the Jaguars do not possess the type of defense that can hold off the need to pass the ball throughout games and the regular season.

Tennessee Titans

Mike Vrabel enters his fourth season as a head coach going no worse than 9-7 and having a combined 29-19 record over his first three seasons with the Titans. He’s known as a defensive coach, though the defense has progressively gotten worse; their points per game and yards allowed rising each season. This culminated in allowing 27.6 points per game last season, while nearly allowing 400 yards of offense. Over this timeframe, they have also gone from No. 16 to No. 6 to No. 3 in plays allowed. This combined with Ryan Tannehills amazing play has bolstered the Titans offense over the last three seasons. Now that they have had this offensive resurgence, Arthur Smith has been hired away as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Former tight ends coach Todd Downing became the new offensive coordinator after Smith came up through the same position. While their offensive philosophy will remain the same, the state of their defense and their schedule will determine if they will be able to carry it out to the extent they would like to. They ran the ball on 50.5-percent of their plays last season, while running play action at the highest rate in the NFL. For a team so committed to the run, and one that has Derrick Henry, a super efficient passing connection in Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown, and an elite offensive line, the Titans should consider going for it on third and short at an above league average rate, especially given the state of their defense.

Houston Texans

Despite firing Bill O’Brien after the season’s first three weeks, the Houston Texans finished dead last with an average of fewer than 59 plays per game. Part of the low volume certainly had to do with an awful defense that allowed the fourth-most plays against and the third-highest yards per play. This led to the fourth-highest passing rate in the NFL at 63.4-percent, but that resulted in just 546 attempts, No. 23 in the league. The Texans have hired David Culley as their new head coach, who has been a longtime assistant under Bill Cowher, Andy Reid (who he’s spent the majority of his time with from 1999 with the Eagles all the way through 2016 with the Chiefs), Sean McDermott, and John Harbaugh. Culley decided to retain offensive coordinator Tim Kelly, who helped Deshaun Watson with what has been his best season of his career thus far.

Indianapolis Colts

In his first five seasons as an offensive coordinator, Colts head coach Frank Reich’s teams ranked inside the top 14 in pass attempts and ran plays at a top five rate. Over the last two seasons, Reich has turned it back, having been outside the top half of the league in plays run in both 2019 and 2020. His team volume fluctuates based on his quarterback. He had Philip Rivers in San Diego, then Carson Wentz in Philadelphia, and Andrew Luck before his retirement. 

How well Wentz plays back in Reich’s system will not only skew how pass or run heavy they are, but also how voluminous they will be. If the Colts follow last year’s plan, Wentz could be aided by the team’s No. 26-ranked Average Target Depth, keeping things in front of him and installing easier looks on two to three-step drop backs out of pistol formations like what they ran with the Eagles in 2017.


Kansas City Chiefs

Just another season of the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes experience. From 2015 through 2017, when Alex Smith was the quarterback, the Chiefs were among the league’s slowest-paced teams, while finishing with a high Pass Rate of 58.9-percent in 2017. Since Mahomes took over as quarterback, the Chiefs have not dipped below a 61-percent Pass Rate and are among the league’s fastest-paced teams in the first half and neutral game situations. The defense took a step back, leading the offense to run the seventh-most plays per game, and the highest amount we’ve seen from the Chiefs since Reid took over as head coach in 2013.

Las Vegas Raiders

Jon Gurden’s plays per game over his career have been near league average, including his pass-to-run ratios. Operating as one of the slower teams in the league in part to possibly hide their No. 28-ranked DVOA defense, the Raiders still only passed the ball 55.9-percent of the time while getting a career year from Derek Carr, who completed nearly 70-percent of his first down passes at 8.3 yards per attempt. However, the Raiders ran the ball on 58-percent of their first down plays. Despite Carr’s success and a horrendous defense, he has thrown just 513 and 517 passes over the last two seasons.

Denver Broncos

The Broncos finished as a bottom seven team in third down conversion rate while leading the NFL in turnovers, consistently allowing opposing teams to possess the ball. Trailing on nearly 62-percent of their offensive plays, Denver ranked among the fastest-paced teams in the league. They were basically league average when it came to plays per game and pass-to-run ratio last season. Losing Von Miller for the season, and with the underwhelming play of cornerback A.J. Bouye, Fangio’s defense still finished No. 13 in defensive DVOA and were top 10 in Pressure Rate. If they can upgrade their quarterback situation, we could see a slower paced and even lower offensive volume in 2021, like we saw in 2019 when they ranked bottom 10 in all pace situations and bottom five in plays per game.

Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers fired head coach Anthony Lynn and hired ex-Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley for his first head coaching job. Staley spent his first three seasons in the NFL under Vic Fangio before taking over the Rams defense in 2020. The Rams defense finished first in points allowed, yards allowed per play, and No. 4 in defensive DVOA. In order to get some insight on how he may want his new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to operate, we can take a look at a core defensive philosophy. In an interview with The Athletic’s Robert Mays, Staley was quoted saying “I know the quickest way to lose is to give up explosions in the passing game. It takes a lot of four and five yard runs to add up to a 50-yard pass.”

Lombardi has spent 12 of his 15 NFL seasons as an offensive assistant/quarterback coach to Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints. Over his first eight seasons with the Saints before Drew Brees turned 38 years old, he watched Payton’s offenses average 638 passing attempts a season. And in his only two seasons as an offensive coordinator with the Lions, Stafford attempted 604 and 632 passes. While Staley may be able to improve the Chargers defense, it is unlikely we see him take them to the heights the Rams defense accomplished this season. They were already a top ten DVOA defense in 2019 before his arrival.