You’re reading Significant Digits, a daily digest of the numbers tucked inside the news.
In further proof that I have no idea what’s going on, a photograph of an egg, posted on Jan. 5, has become Instagram’s most-liked post of all time with, as I write, some 19.5 million likes. This vaults the egg, that is, a photograph of an egg, ahead of a photo of Kylie Jenner’s newborn daughter to claim the record. Congratulations? [CNET]
The people who make meat are concerned, amid the proliferation of veggie burgers and tofu dogs, about the misuse of the word “meat.” In Nebraska, for example, the country’s largest commercial red meat producer, lawmakers are considering a bill that would define meat as “any edible portion of any livestock or poultry, carcass, or part thereof” (sounds right), and punish any misuser with a misdemeanor and up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. [Associated Press]
The new White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, has in recent weeks hired 17 new lawyers. The staffing spree is in anticipation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impending investigations by the newly elected Democratic House. Ah, job creation. [The Washington Post]
A man in Novato, California, in the Bay Area, splashed gasoline on the floor, threatening to burn a convenience store down. That didn’t work, so he then fled to and holed himself up in another gas station, where he was followed by police, and demanded cigarettes in exchange for his surrender. Instead, after a six-hour standoff, the police dispatched a robot that delivered the man a vape pen, thereby ending the standoff. [The Sacramento Bee]
Elsewhere in California, in San Jose in Silicon Valley to be precise, a man rented a $1,500-a-month studio to two cats. That’s really all there is to this story, to be honest. Ah, capitalism. [The Mercury News]
Costco, God bless it and keep it, is selling a 27-pound tub of mac and cheese, with a 20-year shelf life, that goes for $89.99. In what will come as a surprise to no one, it is currently sold out. [CNBC]
Love digits? Find even more in FiveThirtyEight’s book of math and logic puzzles, “The Riddler.” It’s in stores now! I hope you dig it.
If you see a significant digit in the wild, please send it to @ollie.
Throughout the 2018 regular season, the Seattle Seahawks made a conscious effort to establish the threat of the running game in the minds of their opponents. In the face of record offensive production across the NFL — driven in large part by prolific passing offenses — head coach Pete Carroll doggedly maintained that sticking with running the ball gave the Seahawks the best chance to win. Though they attempted the fewest passes in the NFL, the Seahawks went 10-6 and earned a playoff berth.
But that reliance on the run may have been Seattle’s undoing in its 24-22 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC wild-card game. In the first half the Seahawks’ running backs rushed nine times for an anemic 2.1 yards per carry. Most of those runs came in a particular sequence: rush-rush-pass. All but three of Seattle’s first-half rushing attempts originated from the rush-rush-pass play sequence. And despite the lack of success using that pattern of plays against the Dallas defensive front, Seattle opened its first possession of the second half by calling it again. The result was a punt.
The notion of establishing the run is deeply ingrained in NFL culture. Coaches and play-callers laud the approach for its ability to keep a team “on schedule” and “ahead of the chains,” both of which are football shorthand for picking up enough yards on first and second down that you stand a good chance to extend a drive. True believers think that if you abandon the run too early, you make your team one-dimensional and forfeit an important edge in toughness. You’re no longer imposing your will on a defense, and this will manifest itself in worse results overall. But is this true? Does running help a team convert more first downs and extend drives? And does the order in which you call pass and run plays matter?
To answer these questions, I looked at every play called in the NFL regular season from 2009 to 20181 and compared the result of each of the possible permutations of run and pass play sequencing2 using expected points added and success rate.3 I calculated EPA and success rate for every first-down play; then I looked at every sequence that did not absorb into a first down and extended to second down and then third down, calculating the EPA and success rate for each call. Only sequences of three plays are included in the final analysis.
Leaguewide, rushing is the preferred play call on first down, after which passing takes over as the dominant play type, especially on third down.
Over the course of the 2018 season, there was no three-play sequence that Seattle favored more than rush-rush-pass. The Seahawks called rush-rush-pass 26 percent of the time, a rate 10 percentage points higher than league average. Yet despite the high frequency with which Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer used the pattern, they were not successful with it. Just 41.2 percent of their rush-rush-pass sequences ended in success. Meanwhile, on three-play sequences where the Seahawks started with a pass and mixed in a run afterward, they were successful 88.9 percent of the time (pass-rush-rush), 71.4 percent of the time (pass-pass-rush) and 50 percent (pass-rush-pass) of the time.
These results hold generally across the league as well. Pass-rush-rush is the most successful three-play sequence, followed by pass-pass-rush and rush-pass-rush.
On first down, passing will net you at least 5 yards (enough to make the play a success) 47 percent of the time, while running the ball will get you the same result just 32.8 percent of the time, 14.2 percentage points less often. On second down, the gap closes to about a 7 percentage-point advantage for passing.
Play-calling patterns that end in a pass on third down have a negative expected value across the board. If we look at each sequence in terms of EPA per play, we see that the only positive EPA values on third down are on running plays. This makes sense: If you are passing on third down, it strongly implies that the first two plays in the sequence did not end well, and you likely have a third-and-long situation.
Meanwhile, the opposite outcome is true on first and second down. There are no positive EPA rushing nodes, and all passing plays return positive expected value.
This result is the exact opposite of what we would expect to find if establishing the run via play sequences like rush-rush-pass were winning strategies. Instead of making a team less predictable, establishing the run on first and second down creates a game state that is often quite predictable for the defense. The opposing team is expecting a pass on third down because the first two plays were unsuccessful.
Surprisingly, two of the top three teams in net yards per passing attempt in 2018, the Rams and the Chiefs, actually do have success with the rush-rush-pass play sequence.
Kansas City, the most dominant passing team in the league, was successful 53.3 percent of the time with rush-rush-pass. But the Chiefs ran the sequence just 15 times all season for a total share of 9 percent of all plays — 7 percentage points below league average — and they were mostly unsuccessful with the first two plays in the chain. When the Chiefs called back-to-back runs on first and second down, the second run was successful just 47.7 percent of the time. This suggests that the success of their third-down passes owes itself more to the strength of the Chiefs passing game and quarterback Patrick Mahomes than to the running plays that led up to them.
The story is similar in Los Angeles. Sixty percent of rush-rush-pass play sequences ended in success, and the Rams used the pattern at exactly the league-average frequency. Again, however, when the Rams called back-to-back runs to begin a sequence, the second run was successful just 46.1 percent of the time, leaving them 5.8 yards left to gain for a first-down conversion on average. The success the Rams enjoyed on third-down passing attempts appears to be independent of the rushing plays that preceded them.
While the precise order in which passes and runs are called may not matter so much — several combinations are roughly equivalent to one another according to success rate — some trends are clear. Passes are more effective when called on early downs, and runs are more effective on third down. Running on first down, while often a mistake, can be salvaged with a pass on second down. And if you’re going to rush on back-to-back plays to open a series, you should do so sparingly because it will leave your team in an obvious passing situation more often than not. Your passing attack — and QB especially — will need to be well above average to consistently convert in those high-leverage spots where all deception is gone and defenders can be confident that they know what’s coming.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
For decades, the draw play has been one of the NFL’s most reliable tricks to fool overeager defensive lineman. The play mimics a pass — in the action of both the quarterback and the offensive line — until the last second, when the ball is handed off to the running back. When it works, the runner can often slice through holes untouched because defenders are busy trying to evade offensive linemen for a sack of the quarterback.
The play may seem like the perfect countermeasure to keep a defense honest in the modern NFL. Yet for some reason, the draw play has been all but erased from teams’ playbooks.
As the story goes, the draw play was invented in the middle of a game to slow unblockable pass rushers. It quickly became a staple of the modern offense by the sport’s “master innovator” Paul Brown, after a desperate hand-off on a busted passing play ended up working. “You fool one guy with a trap block,” Brown said. “You fool a whole pass rush with a draw play.”
Offenses today are more pass-happy than ever before. And defenses have had to respond with more aggressive stunts and blitzes by rushers quicker and more desperate to pressure passers. So what better way to cross them up than by using a draw play? But during the 2018 season, teams ran the play just a little more than once every two games, down from well over two per game just 10 years ago.
This is despite the success rate of the play used on first or second down being better than that of all rushes by running backs on those downs.1 According to the ESPN Stats & Information Group, the success rate2 on first- and second-down draws this year is 41.8 percent, compared with 38 percent on all RB runs on those downs. And draws on any down result in longer gains on average (5.29 yards per attempt) than other running back runs (4.35).
The Los Angeles Rams called only one draw play all season. (It didn’t work.) The New Orleans Saints waited all the way until Week 10 to run their first draw play of the season — a successful one. That two of the league’s most innovative offensive coaches — Sean McVay and Sean Payton — basically ignore the play seems like a bad harbinger for its survival. But the maestro of the NFL’s best offense, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, is one of the league’s greatest proponents of the play. That makes perfect sense: He’s essentially a Brown disciple, given that his West Coast offense was originally conceived by Bill Walsh when Walsh coached on Brown’s staff with the Bengals.
The Chiefs, who will play Indianapolis in the divisional round this weekend, have run a draw 16 times this year and have had success 10 times. That success rate of 62.5 is by far the best of the 10 teams that have run more than 10 draw plays. The Chargers also have used the draw well, generating 64 rushing yards in 10 attempts, six of which graded as successful.
The draw is often thought of as a play of last resort: When teams are faced with virtually hopeless distance to convert a third down, they can use the draw to stop the bleeding before punting. But only 37 third-down draws this past season were in situations when the offense needed at least 7 yards to convert. The vast majority were used on first and second down (256 out of 307 draw plays) and out of the shotgun (253 total draw plays). Of course, the latter makes sense given that the main purpose of the play is to mimic a pass.
Reid primarily uses the draw when teams have virtually no defenders dedicated to the run, meaning no more than six defenders “in the box” at or near the line of scrimmage. That was the defense deployed 13 of the 16 times Reid called a draw this season, and the call was successful eight of those times. If defenses continue with this look, a draw could be the perfect call.
With the Chiefs offense setting records and NFL coaches looking at it for design and play-calling inspiration, there’s a good chance that teams will soon discover that one of the oldest forms of NFL deception may have even more relevance in the modern game.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
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The play-action pass is one of the most effective calls in all of football. The three teams that use the play-action the most — the Rams, the Patriots and the Chiefs, according to data from Sports Info Solutions — each locked down a first-round bye in the playoffs. Across the league in 2018, quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts average 1.39 yards per attempt more out of play-action than they do on all other plays.1 This pattern of play-action success holds true for every year that we have data.2 Yet despite this success, the league average share of plays that are play-action passes is just barely above 20 percent.
Why is play-action so effective? When defenders bite on a play-action fake, they move out of position for defending the pass and create clear lanes for the QB to throw to the intermediate and deep parts of the field.
But NFL coaches tend to run them only a handful of times per game because they appear to believe that overuse of play-action will cause linebackers to stop biting on the fake. Diminishing returns will set in, defenders will stop respecting the run, and the superiority of play-action will vanish. But is this actually the case? Do linebackers start to ignore the fake handoff if they see it many times in a single game?
Until very recently, we had a hard time answering this question with the data that was available. But in the past couple of weeks, the NFL released a tranche of Next Gen tracking data for 91 games from 2017 via its inaugural Big Data Bowl. Michael Lopez, the NFL’s director of analytics, spearheaded the effort to allow analysts to dig into the tracking data and mine it for insights. I was able to use this data to quantify the effect of play-action on the movement of middle linebackers — and to see if a high number of play-action plays had any effect on the outcome of the plays.
I took each of the 1,235 play-action plays in the sample and isolated just the middle linebacker’s movement from snap to throw.3 I measured the distance traveled by the defender while moving forward toward the line of scrimmage at any angle, and I stopped counting the distance as soon as he turned and retreated into coverage. If two linebackers were playing on the inside, I included only the player who moved the most toward the line of scrimmage during the play. Below are three animations that help illustrate the process.4
The first shows the entire play with all players involved:
The second shows the entire play with the middle linebacker and quarterback isolated:
The third shows when I stopped counting the linebacker’s movement as “wasted” for the purposes of the study:
Distance traveled by a defender while biting on a play-action fake is a fairly precise way to quantify just how fooled a defender was on a play. Continuing to move toward the line of scrimmage when the offense is passing is a problem; defenders want to “get depth” as soon as they can if they identify pass. Any movement toward the line of scrimmage is usually wasted.
After summing up the total distance traveled for each of the plays, I calculated that on the average play-action pass play, the middle linebacker covers 7.5 yards of wasted ground. In seven instances in our sample, teams ran 15 or more play-action plays in a single game. Those games would have offered the middle linebacker the most opportunities to figure out the play-action, but the average distance traveled was 8.2 yards — even higher than the overall average.
I broke out the average wasted distance traveled by linebackers by the number of times a play-action pass was called in a game to see how teams reacted. It turns out that the wasted distance traveled was remarkably stable.
|PA Pass||LB Wasted yards|
Linebackers bite just about the same amount the 11th time a play-action pass is called in a game as the first time it’s called. It’s only after we get to 12 play-action passes in one game that things start to get wonky — but that may be because of the small sample sizes of those instances.
Across the entire sample of 91 games and 1,235 plays, I found no correlation at all between the number of times a team ran the play-action and total yards of wasted ground by middle linebackers.5 We’d love more data to examine, to look closer at what happens when more play-actions are run. But given what we know about the effectiveness of the play, the self-imposed threshold set by play-callers of roughly six to nine play-action fakes per game is likely too low.
Stopping the run is a major focus at every level of football, and the NFL especially makes it a high priority to effectively defend the run. Teams do this by coaching their linebackers and box safeties to play the run first in nonobvious passing situations. This emphasis on run stopping comes at a cost, however. Defenders must read their “run keys” — movements by the offense that indicate a run is coming — and react quickly to fill their gaps and prepare to make a physical play. It could be the case that defenders simply don’t think about how often the team is faking the run but instead just read and react to their run keys.
To play fast in the NFL, it’s often said, you can’t think but instead must react based on instinct and training. Perhaps that instinctual reaction explains why play-action continues to be effective no matter how often it’s used. It’s also probably the case that certain teams and players are more susceptible to play-action than others, and smart NFL teams will identify and exploit their opponents’ tendencies.
Those smart NFL teams should also pay attention to exactly how they use the play-action. According to the Sports Info Solutions data, passes thrown 7 yards deep or less are caught less frequently on play-action than on other passes. This could be because defenders have moved toward the line of scrimmage and are in better position to make a play on the ball. Play-action is only more effective than other passes when the ball travels at least 8 yards in the air — over the head of the linebackers who’ve been fooled.
There is a lot of good research showing that teams don’t run enough play-action. Most of the arguments for limiting its use are unsupported by the evidence. Now, thanks to the NFL’s Next Gen data, we can add evidence that middle linebackers won’t stop biting on the play-action, even if it’s used more than NFL coaches have been comfortable running it.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.