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How Lions, Patriots can improve their passing games: Start by catching the ball

New England Patriots v Cincinnati Bengals
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Julian Edelman of the Patriots bobbles a pass against the Cincinnati Bengals (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The Detroit Lions and New England Patriots ranked third and 10th, respectively, in passing yards in 2013. The numbers beyond the numbers show they should have been even more productive.

The Lions dropped a league-worst 46 passes last season, per sportingcharts.com. The Patriots were second in that category with 41. Yes, they throw the ball more often than most teams, but even from a percentage standpoint, they ranked 32nd and 31st in the NFL, respectively.

Drops are very subjective. Always up for debate: Was it a catchable ball or not? But as I understand it, a receiver is credited with a drop when, beyond a shadow of a doubt, he should have caught the dang thing. So let's start with that and work from there.

The guys over at Pro Football Focus are meticulous in their tape study, and they also compiled dropped-pass totals. (Note: To find that data, you're going to need a membership. But totally worth it.) Let's just say they are tougher graders than their brethren, as the chart below shows. But that's not a bad thing.

I tallied both sets of drop numbers and came out with an average of the two, then divided that average by each team's pass attempts to get a drop percentage from last season. The Lions and Patriots still finished worst and second-worst overall.

Team Completions Attempts SC drops PFF drops Avg. drops Comp % Drop %
Saints 446 650 15 25 20 68.6% 3.1%
Seahawks 267 420 12 15 13.5 63.6% 3.2%
Cardinals 363 574 19 20 19.5 63.2% 3.4%
Chargers 378 544 13 24 18.5 69.5% 3.4%
Vikings 325 546 17 26 21.5 59.5% 3.9%
Eagles 310 508 17 24 20.5 61.0% 4.0%
Packers 366 570 18 29 23.5 64.2% 4.1%
Texans 371 633 24 30 27 58.6% 4.3%
Panthers 292 473 21 23 22 61.7% 4.7%
Dolphins 357 594 24 33 28.5 60.1% 4.8%
Colts 350 582 25 32 28.5 60.1% 4.9%
Ravens 363 619 27 34 30.5 58.6% 4.9%
Cowboys 375 586 25 33 29 64.0% 4.9%
Jets 266 480 20 28 24 55.4% 5.0%
Falcons 445 659 27 40 33.5 67.5% 5.1%
Buccaneers 291 514 22 31 26.5 56.6% 5.2%
Bears 373 579 27 33 30 64.4% 5.2%
Raiders 298 519 26 28 27 57.4% 5.2%
Giants 325 567 27 32 29.5 57.3% 5.2%
Bengals 364 587 27 35 31 62.0% 5.3%
Steelers 377 586 26 36 31 64.3% 5.3%
49ers 244 417 19 26 22.5 58.5% 5.4%
Jaguars 349 592 28 37 32.5 59.0% 5.5%
Titans 328 533 22 39 30.5 61.5% 5.7%
Broncos 461 675 35 44 39.5 68.3% 5.9%
Bills 299 522 29 35 32 57.3% 6.1%
Redskins 355 611 32 46 39 58.1% 6.4%
Browns 379 681 36 51 43.5 55.7% 6.4%
Chiefs 333 546 31 39 35 61.0% 6.4%
Rams 301 506 30 35 32.5 59.5% 6.4%
Patriots 380 628 41 53 47 60.5% 7.5%
Lions 371 634 46 58 52 58.5% 8.2%
Averages 346.9 566.7 25.3 33.6 29.4 61.2% 5.2%

 

It's not hard to look at the top of the list and see three very efficient offenses from a good-hands standpoint in the Saints, Seahawks and Cardinals — and all won 10-plus games a year ago. Why does Sean Payton trust Drew Brees to throw it so often? Well, because he makes great decisions most of the time. But both he and Payton clearly trust their surehanded group of pass catchers, too.

It's also easy to look conversely at a team such as the Browns, who were crippled by an anemic run game and often forced to throw way more than they wanted to, especially considering they started three different quarterbacks for at least three games apiece and had very few reliable receiving targets outside of Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron.

Gordon was credited with eight drops in 159 attempts (5.0 drop percentage) per sportingcharts.com and nine in 149 (6.0%) per the tougher-grading PFF; Cameron was dinged for two drops in 118 (1.7%) and five in 109 (4.6%), respectively. That means the rest of the Browns' pass catchers dropped somewhere between 26 and 37 combined passes in the remainder of the 404 to 423 passes thrown (the difference of those numbers can be explained by the subjective "intended target" determination). But by PFF's drop totals, that equates to a cringe-worthy drop rate of 8.7 percent, or one out of every 11.4 passes. 

The Lions and Patriots dropped an unacceptably high percentage of passes last season. it hindered their production and unwittingly changed their offensive identities. They often tried forcing the ball into Calvin Johnson and Julian Edelman, which was the best that Matthew Stafford and Tom Brady, respectively, could hope for at times. The Patriots adapted better, it would appear, as they forged a power run game that helped bring them all the way to the AFC title game, but it was still clear that their lack of passing diversity was an issue.

If the Lions and Patriots had drop percentages that were more in line with the league average of 5.2, we would have seen the Patriots catch 15 more passes and the Lions an additional 19 (both rounded to the nearest reception). Don't think one extra catch per game would make that big a difference?

Tell that to the Patriots, whose four regular-season losses all were by one score. Three of those four ended with interceptions in or on the doorstep of the end zone against the Bengals, Panthers and Dolphins, all three on the road. Winning an additional game or two could have put the AFC title game in Foxborough not Denver, where the Patriots' season came to an end.

Six of the Lions' nine losses last season were by one score, including the all three losses in Weeks 15, 16 and 17, which came by a combined six points, where a playoff berth was coughed up and Jim Schwartz's job was taken away. One or two more key conversions could have dramatically changed several of those games. 

So it's not stunning that the Lions sought to sign free agent Golden Tate, who registered a very respectable drop rate — two in 98 passes his way (2.0%), per sportingcharts.com, and three in 93 passes (3.2%), per PFF) — as a free agent. It is, however, a bit odd that the Patriots would sign Brandon Lafell, who dropped six of his 86 attempts (7.0%), per sportingcharts.com, and eight of his 83 (9.6%) per PFF.

Tate, Johnson and Eric Ebron should make for a strong trio and help keep defenses from selling out completely to stop Johnson, although the scouting report on Ebron — per NFL.com, he's guilty of "the occasional concentration drop" — does make us a bit squeamish, considering the team's overabundance of those the past few seasons.

Interestingly, the Patriots' approach appears to be more centered on getting better internally. They signed Lafell and drafted Jeremy Gallon (NFL.com: "Good hand-eye coordination," but "not a natural hands catcher and will often body the ball") in Round 7 but otherwise added very little from the outside at receiver or tight end, which was slightly surprising considering the health concerns of Rob Gronkowski and how much losing Aaron Hernandez unexpectedly last summer crippled the offense.

The Patriots are hoping that Gronk gets healthier, yes, but also that second-year receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins become a lot more consistent catching the ball. Those three players were guilty of 16 combined drops in 161 passes (9.9% drop rate) per SC and 17 in 159 by PFF's count (10.7%), both astoundingly high rates. No wonder Brady started looking elsewhere last season.

Another shockingly high drop rate came from Patriots running backs Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden — a combined 10 in 98 per SC (10.2%), and 12 in 93 (12.9%) — which might explain the team's fourth-round selection of Wisconsin's James White. NFL.com's scouting report does not directly assess White's receiving proficiency from a scouting standpoint, but we can point to the fact that his school-record (by a running back) 670 receiving yards and two lost fumbles in 754 college touches as indications that he's a natural catcher and that he values the football. Vereen might also improve this season with better health. He suffered a serious wrist injury in Week 1, and upon his return it was clear he was fighting the ball a bit when trying to catch it.

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Joique Bell attempts to catch a pass (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Joique Bell attempts to catch a pass (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

The Lions' running backs also struggled to catch the ball consistently. Joique Bell was guilty of six drops in 69 chances (8.7%), per SC, and six in 64 per PFF (9.4%). Regarded as one of the league's better pass-catching backs, Bush was a far more egregious offender than his teammate; Bush dropped nine of 80 (11.3%), per SC, and 10 of 79 (12.7%) per PFF. Those numbers are just stunningly high, even for Bush, whose passing tree might be a little more expanded than your garden-variety back.

The running back portion of the dropped-pass equation really is a fascinating and underrated element of the passing game. The fact that the Lions' and Patriots' backs struggled to catch the ball consistently is rather stunning considering that (a) most running back routes are shorter and (in theory) higher-percentage passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and (b) when screen plays are called, there are two tangible options: the quarterback can throw the ball to the back, as designed, or at his feet if the defense blows up the play and lost yardage appears likely.

Other than the occasional wheel route, when do running backs go downfield? It's rare. Ergo, on a screen, the back has no excuse — he knows he's the only target on that play — and should catch the ball at a higher rate than a wide receiver would on a 15-yard "square-in" route.

A quick look at the best-hands teams on the above chart shows that the 1-2 teams, the Saints and Seahawks, suffered very few RB drops. The Saints had a total of four RB drops in 204 pass attempts (2.0%) per SC, and six in 195 (3.1%) per PFF. The Seahawks had three drops in 67 attempts (4.5%) by SC's numbers and two drops — they counted fewer! — in 64 attempts (3.1%), in PFF's eyes.

There's a good chance that these drop numbers will improve overall for the Lions and Patriots. The Lions are bringing in Joe Lombardi to call plays, and he came from New Orleans and saw first hand what catching the ball means. And Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Brady almost certainly know all about these numbers and will have spent the entire summer driling into the pass catchers' heads that they — duh — need to catch more of the passes thrown their way.

It feels idiotic to write those words, but it must be emphasized — fewer drops means better down-and-distance situations and that leads to better play-calling options. If you rush for two yards on first down and drop a pass on second down, the defense has a pretty good idea how to defend that offense on 3rd and 8. But even at 3rd and 1 or 2 yards to go, almost the entire offensive playbook is in play.

So simple, but — for some teams — so elusive. What a different a dropped pass or two can make.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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