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

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 6: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots bobbles a pass in the end zone as Adam Jones #24 of the Cincinnati Bengals defends in the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on October 6, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Edelman dropped the pass and Cincinnati defeated New England 13-6. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

New England Patriots v Cincinnati Bengals

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 6: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots bobbles a pass in the end zone as Adam Jones #24 of the Cincinnati Bengals defends in the fourth quarter at Paul Brown Stadium on October 6, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Edelman dropped the pass and Cincinnati defeated New England 13-6. (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.

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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