Keenan Allen Is Back to Being Keenan Allen
A lot has gone wrong for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017. They’ve already lost three games, two by just one score. They’re having trouble filling their 30,000-seat stadium and high percentage of those who do attend have been fans of visiting teams. Jason Verrett is done for the season with an injury. These are just some of the problems.
One bright spot has been the return of wide receiver Keenan Allen. Allen was injured in the first half of the first game last year and missed the rest of the campaign with a torn ACL. He was healthy to start 2017, and so far he’s gone right back into the role he left.
In 2017, Allen is one of two receivers who have been targeted at least nine times in each of the first three games, along with Antonio Brown. Bring that down to eight looks, and the list includes DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, and Zach Ertz, if you’d like to include a tight end. However you want to frame it, there's only a select amount of players getting targeted that often that consistently.
Overall, Allen has the fifth-most targets among wide receivers (29) and the seventh-most receptions (17). He’s done well with that volume, too. He is 11th among receivers in Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) and 15th in Reception NEP per target (0.64) among the 28 receivers thrown to 20 or more times.
Those efficiency numbers are down in the bottom half of that group in part because of a tough game against the secondary of the Denver Broncos to start the season in Week 1 -- though that game also accounts for Allen's lone touchdown on the season. In the past two games, even without a touchdown, Allen has been worth 0.87 Reception NEP per target, which leads the team in that span.
We can expect many rough days for wide receivers against Denver’s cornerbacks, but the bounceback in the following two games is a helpful sign for Allen’s production going forward.
One of the things that has made Allen a great wide receiver when he’s on the field is his ability to get himself open. He’ll never be listed as one of the fastest receivers in the league -- he ran just a 4.71 40 at his pro day after not running at the combine -- but he’s one of the smoothest route runners in the league. His quickness and understanding of defenses allow him to create passing lanes for Philip Rivers to get him the ball.
Take this play against the Kansas City Chiefs from Week 3. Allen lined up on the left side of the offense and as the ball is snapped, Allen ran a vertical stem past Daniel Sorensen (49), a safety who crept up to the line before the play. Once Allen is past the safety, he made his cut inside against the cornerback playing outside. It gave Allen easy separation on a deep cross to pick up 17 yards.
Crossers have become a big part of the Chargers getting Allen the ball this season, and it’s not just reliant on Allen’s ability to get himself open.
In Week 2, Los Angeles ran a play that invoked two other Chargers receivers to get Allen open. Allen lined up isolated on the right side while three other Chargers lined up on the left. At the snap, the two receivers from the right slot ran slants to the middle of the field, while Allen ran a shallow cross underneath them. That caused cornerback Byron Maxwell (41) to run over the top, which gave Allen tons of space after the catch. He was able to turn up field for an easy 21-yard gain.
Capping It Off
For Allen to really dominate, though, he might need to get back into a groove in the red zone. During his rookie season, Allen saw 20 targets inside the 20 and caught 7 touchdowns. The following season, those numbers dropped to 12 and 2, respectively.
Through two games, Allen has seen just two targets in the red zone -- one was a touchdown -- but the Chargers have thrown just nine passes inside the 20 and only run 16 total red zone plays. Los Angeles ranks 12th as an offense by Adjusted NEP per play, so it’s not as if the offense hasn’t been good enough to score points. Of those nine pass attempts, Rivers has thrown three touchdowns. While the targets have been spread out thus far -- three Chargers have been thrown at twice, with one each for three others -- it remains to be seen what a red zone target share could look like in a bigger sample.
Allen’s ability to win in confined spaces has been shown previously, and a boost in the red zone could bring him back to the highest level of production. At the moment, he's having success because of his consistent ability to get open, which has already been a welcome return for the Chargers’ offense. Most of all, it’s been fun just to have Keenan Allen back on the field, doing Keenan Allen things again.