In this week's BGA, I'm going to put some long overdue meat on the bones of a debate that is sure to be revisited all over the place within the next month. With the Jets' two starters at guard (Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore) both out of contract, the team will no doubt be evaluating how well Slauson performed in comparison with Vladimir Ducasse, who rotated in on every third series for the majority of the season. Ducasse remains under contract and therefore looks primed to take over one of the two starting roles. However, the team will be reluctant to hand him the job until they've evaluated how much of a downgrade he represents from Slauson, if any.
After the jump, I present the data which compares how efficiently the offense performed with Slauson at left guard with how it performed when Ducasse rotated in for him.
The Slauson-Ducasse rotation began in week two and was a contentious issue all season long. Offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, who was fired last month, said the platoon was a directive that came from "high above [him]" and was lukewarm in his praise of Ducasse, saying he was "playing well enough to be an every third series guy...maybe."
This article isn't going to dedicate too much time to debating the merits or otherwise of such a system, although there were some important factors that do need to be considered. One was that Slauson had agreed to take a paycut in the offseason and it's possible one of the conditions under which he agreed to go along with the paycut was that he would be the starter as long as he remained healthy. At the same time, the Jets did need to get Ducasse some experience so they could evaluate if he had a future with team, especially with the threat of losing both their starting guards during the offseason looming over them. However, Ducasse had a playing time incentive of his own which would have meant that if his playing time exceeded 45% they owed him a $410,000 bonus. Although that's not a major amount, it's enough that the team would only trigger that if they were going to get their money's worth. It's also worth noting that the Houston Texans, one of the league's better teams, rotated their right guards AND right tackles all year long.
I'm not seeking to evaluate how well they played individually in this study. (For the record, both had positive grades per PFF, although Slauson graded negatively as a run blocker. On a per-snap basis, Slauson did have a slight edge, helped by his 20th best pass protection grade among NFL guards.) Instead, I am going to look at how well the offense performed as a unit with each of them in the game. I feel that gives us the most realistic assessment of the effect that plugging Ducasse in for Slauson had on the team.
Ducasse, following a stellar preseason where he gave up just two pressures in extended playing time, didn't receive any snaps in week one, but the Jets introduced the rotation system the following week in Pittsburgh. Ducasse would basically be on the field for the team's third, sixth, ninth and (if applicable) 12th drive of the game. They didn't always stick to this rigidly, though. If there was a short drive due to an early turnover or if one of Ducasse's turns came at the end of the half when they had no real intention of trying to score, they would often leave Slauson in for an extra series so Ducasse could get the first full series of the second half. They also left Slauson in a few times when it was Ducasse's turn, specifically against the Patriots and in a few games where things were going really badly, for whatever reason.
Overall, this meant that Ducasse's snap count was 27.6% for the season as a whole, but that was because he had fewer than one-third of the drives, not because his drives were necessarily shorter on average.
I was asked a few times during the season whether the Jets called plays any differently while Ducasse was in the game, but I honestly did not see any obvious patterns. It was clear that there were certain things each of them did well (for example, Ducasse was typically better on the move than Slauson was), but there did not appear to be a concerted effort to run those plays when either of them was in the game.
Interestingly, the Jets passed more when Ducasse was in the game (57% of the time, compared with only 52% when Slauson is in), which seems counter-intuitive when pass blocking is not seen as his strength and run blocking was Slauson's weakness. However, these numbers were skewed by two extended drives that saw Mark Sanchez throw ten passes on each. Without both of those drives, the run-pass splits would have been a lot more similar.
Another thought I had is whether the Jets tried to use Tim Tebow more when Ducasse was in the game because the zone blocking techniques employed in the classic Wildcat would tend to suit the more mobile player. The two times Tebow was in at quarterback for more than two straight plays (in Pittsburgh and Tennessee) did coincide with Ducasse being in the game, but even with those, Ducasse was only in on 31% of the Tebow plays, not significantly higher than his overall snap count.
So let's move on and look at the success the Jets enjoyed with Ducasse at left guard and then compare this to the overall numbers...
2012: The Numbers
Whilst compiling the numbers for the offense when Ducasse was in for Slauson, I was pretty underwhelmed. It didn't look like they had a great deal of success. However, let's not forget that the offense was pretty bad all year, so it would be interesting to compare with the overall results.
These were the final numbers:
On 46 drives*, the Jets gained 1,200 yards, scoring seven touchdowns and two field goals. They compiled a total of 72 first downs (including the seven touchdowns) and rushed for 464 yards on 109 carries. Between them, the quarterbacks threw 123 times with Ducasse in for Slauson, completing 70 for 747 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions.
(* Note: On two drives, Slauson was in for the first play and then Ducasse replaced him, so the data for the drive from that point onwards was compiled. There was one series where the Jets simply threw one pass before halftime and then the clock ran out, so that has been omitted from the data.)
On their own, these numbers are pretty underwhelming, but let's compare them with the data for the offense as a whole:
- The offense as a whole gained 25.8 yards per drive (not including kneel-downs at the end of the half). With Ducasse in for Slauson, they averaged 26.0 yards per drive.
- Their drive success ratio (the percentage rate at which the team managed to pick up a first down or touchdown - see above link again) was 64.7% (27th in the league). With Ducasse in for Slauson, this went up to 66.7%, which would have been good enough for 21st.
- The Jets scored 26 offensive touchdowns and seven of them came on drives where Vlad was in for Slauson. That's basically in line with his snap count.
- Having said that, they only kicked two field goals, which contributed to the fact their points-per-drive with Ducasse in for Slauson was under 1.2, whereas overall it was 1.30.
- With Ducasse in for Slauson, the Jets gained 4.3 yards per carry, well above their season's average of 3.8 yards per carry. This was not influenced dramatically by outliers - even if you remove the longest run, a 36-yard Shonn Greene run against Miami from the numbers, you still get 4.0 which is still better than the overall average. Also, any yard per carry numbers could be looked at with skepticism because of the 252-yard game against the Colts which skews the numbers upwards, but they gained just 57 yards on 14 carries with Ducasse in for Slauson in that game, so his average was pretty consistent throughout the year.
- They also gained 80 rushing yards per game with Ducasse in for Slauson, which is 27% of the team total, again in line with his snap count.
- When the Jets passed the ball with Ducasse in for Slauson, they completed 57% of their passes (overall 55%) and gained over 10.7 yards per completion (overall 10.6) but they had five interceptions and only three touchdowns, so the QB rating was lower (66.0 compared with 68.3 overall).
- With the offensive explosion in week one (when he didn't play) and a slow start in weeks two, three and four (16 yards per drive with no scores), Ducasse had a lot of ground to make up over the remainder of the season. For the last 12 weeks, the Jets posted the following numbers with him in the game for Slauson (together with where that would put you in the league standings for the whole year in parentheses): 29.7 yards per drive (19th), 1.54 points per drive (24th), 4.6 yards per carry (7th), 60% completions (17th), 72.5 QB rating (still 30th).
Ducasse AND Slauson
If the Jets had Moore locked up for next season - and maybe that's a priority, who knows? - then the question of Ducasse v Slauson would be a very straightforward matter. You'd pick the one who is the better player - or if it's close, the best value - and roll with them as your left guard. However, that's not necessarily the case. The Jets may re-sign Moore or may fill that other guard position with another free agent or draft pick. However, there's one other option and that's to play Ducasse and Slauson together.
It's a small sample size, but we do have some data on this. Last year, they had Ducasse in for Moore for two series against the Patriots. The first saw them run the ball three times for five yards and then punt. The second was slightly more successful with two runs for 16 yards, a five yard pass and two incompletions leading to a field goal. Some more substantive data exists in the form of the week 17 game against the Bills where Ducasse filled in for Moore at right guard for the final 59 snaps and the Jets ran all over the Bills (gaining 197 yards on 38 carries over those last 59 snaps). The Bills were a demoralized bunch at that stage of the season though.
Note: There was another three plays in 2012 where Ducasse came in at guard when Nick Mangold was hurt and Slauson slid over to center, but we'll ignore these three plays - two runs for 12 yards and a false start penalty.
One alarming thing about going back through the footage to check which drives Ducasse entered the game for was that there were five or six occasions when the Jets committed a pre-snap penalty on the very first play after he entered. This is evidence of one of the downsides of a rotational system - that it can cause people not to be on the same page and take you out of your rhythm. Ducasse only committed one of these penalties himself though and, if anything, it reflects well on him that the offense still had the same amount of success despite this factor. (Penalty yardage is factored into the data).
In terms of pass protection, there was no evidence to suggest Sanchez was under pressure any more often when Ducasse was in the game rather than Slauson and no obvious signs that the Jets were giving one more help than the other. Ducasse only gave up two sacks and one QB hit all year, although that wouldn't be surprising if he was helping someone with a double team most of the time. This didn't seem to be the case though, as both he and Slauson had plenty of one-on-one assignments.
The numbers seem to suggest that there was no real difference in how the offense performed when the Jets put Ducasse in for Slauson, other than in terms of the running game, where they fared better with Ducasse in. In fact, over the last 12 games, they fared considerably better with Ducasse overall.
Maybe it is unfair to do a direct comparison because Ducasse gets to enter the game when he is fresh and others are not and also perhaps once the offense have established some tendencies on their early drives, which they can then break to exploit the defense's expectations. The team may also be more conservative early on in games. However, based purely on the numbers, the suggestion is that if Ducasse was to replace Slauson at left guard next year, the offense wouldn't suffer dramatically and might even see some improvements.
Nobody knows how well Ducasse will adapt to being a full time player - although in his limited extended action in the regular season and in preseason he has shown an ability to settle down and get comfortable. Another factor is the new system, which is a concern considering how long Ducasse took to pick up Bill Callahan's blocking scheme. However, Ducasse's athleticism should serve him well in a west coast offense that will likely use a lot of stretch/zone runs and he did seem to pick up Sparano's system pretty well (faster than Mangold by some accounts).
In weighing up who is the better value between the two, obviously Ducasse is earning the minimum in 2013 so that figures to be a lot less than what Slauson will command (although I'd only expect him to get a deal somewhere around $3m per year). However, if Ducasse does a decent job this year, the Jets could find that extending him at the end of the season ends up costing them more than Slauson would have, so that could be another consideration.
While this study gives me comfort that Ducasse can probably handle a starter role, that doesn't answer the question of what to do with their other guard spot. Moore seems to be the guy most fans would like to see back, but Slauson could end up returning instead of him and getting paired with Ducasse instead.
One thing Slauson has in his favor is an ability to play center and either guard position. He's even worked at tackle (for "emergency purposes"). Moore, a converted defensive lineman, has only ever played right guard and Ducasse - while he has played tackle in the past - cannot play center in the event of another Mangold injury like Slauson can.
It's up to the Jets to make this crucial decision count but based on this study, spending anything substantial to keep Slauson in the lineup and Ducasse on the bench probably wouldn't give you very good value for money...and that's something which should be of prime importance during the first year of the Idzik regime.
I'll be back next week with something "special" as we head towards free agency. I've got several articles in the works, but if there's anything you'd like me to investigate or revisit, let me know in the comments.