Stills Silent

Stills Silent

Wait, wasn’t last week supposed to be Kenny Stills’ coming out party?

A week after his 3 catch, 129 yard, 2 touchdown performance, all signs seemed to point at clichéd breakout game. But one of the more surprising outcomes to come out of the Jets loss last week was the missed opportunity by Kenny Stills. Sure, he was on the field, but he didn’t have a big play and wasn’t even given the near obligatory deep pass attempt from Drew Brees.

I fully expected Stills to have a huge game because the Saints have never been thinner at pass catchers as they were going into Sunday’s game: Graham seemed to still be hobbled with a partially torn plantar fascia, Colston missed his first game since 2008, and Sproles was injured on the first drive of the game.

Saints fans were left anticipating a huge performance by their rookie wide receiver.

Except it didn’t happen and I want to know to why.

First let’s look at the wide receiver snap counts for the day:

Jimmy Graham 60, Nick Toon 55, Kenny Stills 44, Lance Moore 35, Robert Meachem 30

There are a few notable things to be gleaned here.

  1. Jimmy Graham obviously wasn’t relegated to his role as pinch hitter in this one. He played more snaps than any player that wasn’t on the offensive line or named Drew Brees. What’s more, Graham was targeted 12 times, returning to – roughly – his pre-injury usage. This isn’t a post on Jimmy Graham, but rest assured, a healthy Jimmy is a good thing for everyone involved.
  2. Holy schnikes Nick Toon! Toon was on the field a lot in this game. Before last Sunday, Toon wasn’t on the field more than 35 snaps in a game. Last week his snap count was nearly doubled from previous weeks. Unfortunately Toon didn’t do anything (well, anything positive) with his time on the field. In fact, his only two targets in the game resulted in a drop that could have turned into a touchdown, and a dropped pass that did result in Brees’ first interception of the day.1
  3. Stills was on the field a good bit, but had only four targets and finished with a forgettable 3 catch, 25 yard day.

I couldn’t figure out why, so I performed a quick GIF study and came up with two representative plays that best explain Stills’ lack of impact.

11:52 1st Quarter, 1st and 15

Week 9 Stills GIF 1

Here Stills lines up on to the right and – for one of the few times all game – has a play that’s clearly designed for him to make a play.

It’s a simple go route, but Stills doesn’t outrun the man coverage and is quickly bracketed by the safety. Meanwhile, the pocket breaks down around Brees and he’s forced to quickly throw a shovel pass at the feet of the running back. This is a maneuver that’s always been in his repertoire, but I can’t remember seeing it on display as much as last week.

I chose this play for a couple of reasons, but I think one of the crucial elements here is the disruption caused by the Jets defensive line. At this point in his rookie season, Stills is used primarily in the Devery Henderson role of deep threat. By the nature of the play, that takes time to develop and Brees often wasn’t afforded that luxury. According to ProFootballFocus, Brees was pressured on 34% of his dropbacks in Week 9, compared to his season average of 30%. Not a significant increase, but PFF also breaks down quarterback performance by time in the pocket.

In Week 9, 23 of Brees’ drop backs lasted under 2.5 seconds (43% of passes). This is generally a good category for Brees, but on Sunday his quarterback rating was just 77.4. By contrast, Brees’ season QB rating with a short pocket is 113.6. Credit the Jets defense for getting in Brees face and taking away a strength.

Stills often ran deep routes in the game, but he rarely seemed to even catch Brees’ attention. My guess is with Colston out, Stills drew a bit more attention than he’s used to and Drew never saw a favorable matchup for his young receiver and went elsewhere.

The second play was memorable for the wrong reasons:

0:13 First Quarter, 2nd and 10

Stills and Toon line up on opposite ends of the field and they’re both sent deep. Stills never breaks free of his man and Brees instead launches a pass deep to Toon (who dives unnecessarily, misses the catch, and screws up what was almost certainly the first touchdown of his career).

Brees enjoyed a relatively clean pocket on this play and he got a pretty good deep look. It just wasn’t to Kenny Stills. Sometimes, it’s just not your day.

In hindsight, Stills isn’t at the place in his development to — even temporarily — fill Colston’s shoes. He’s shown flashes of brilliance and speed, but he’s not yet versatile enough to be The Man in Brees’ offense. More often than not, Brees didn’t even glance at Stills before deciding on another receiver.

He clearly trusts him on deep passes, but when the pocket breaks down before the play can fully develop, Stills isn’t in a position to make a play. Maybe he’ll develop a better knack for sensing pressure on Brees and coming back to the ball to help Brees out instead of finding himself too far downfield when Brees is scrambling. Even when there wasn’t pressure on Brees, Stills found himself facing a safety taking away the deep pass, relegating Stills to the role of decoy.

I think he can evolve into an integral part of our offense as more veteran receivers begin to fade, but when given a chance to show that he’s ready now, I think last week is a pretty clear indication that we’re not there yet.

But no worries, I Stills have the faith.


Ryan Chauvin
A native of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but with a surname that indicates his importance to the history of a tiny town in South Louisiana, Ryan Chauvin currently lives in Houston, TX, doing general (read: non-sports) internet things. Ryan was on Jimmy(!)’s bandwagon before it was cool, and has never predicted that the Saints will lose a game.

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