Case Keenum is the most surprising bench player in the NFL this year. I’ve studied his three starts and I believe the Cardinals defense provided the best evidence that the Texans’ new starter has the potential to succeed long-term.
I’ve kept a close eye on Case Keenum for the past three weeks. The first-time starter was solid against a brash Kansas City defense that loaded the box and dared the quarterback to make quick decisions. The Colts tried a similar approach and Keenum made them pay with an aggressive vertical game. Although the Chiefs have a better overall defense in the stats column, last weekend’s game versus the Cardinals was Keenum’s stiffest test to date, and the quarterback impressed me with his poise and maturity.
Arizona presented a true litmus test for Keenum, because its pass rush is most dangerous up the middle. Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby can wreak havoc on a passing game when the Cardinals use them in conjunction with Darnell Dockett to penetrate the pocket through the A gaps. How a quarterback handles A-gap pressure is a great indicator of his poise and maturity. Keenum had some rough moments, but far fewer than I expected.
The first play of the game featured John Abraham making a strip-sack-fumble recovery for a touchdown off the edge. The Cardinals smell blood and the second offensive play of the game is an illustration of what pressure up the middle can do to a quarterback. Although the Cardinals fail to force the turnover, it should have been 14-0 Arizona after two plays.
Keenum is facing another defense with one safety high. His check-downs on this play are his fullback and receiver Andre Johnson running the cross. His deeper routes are the tight end and DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins has single coverage, but the development of the play forces Keenum to abandon a deeper throw. I haven’t had a chance to access the All-22 on this play, so while it’s possible Keenum lacked the anticipation and confidence deliver the ball to Hopkins, past performance dictates it’s unlikely – especially with the corner peeking into the backfield from the get-go on this play.
Keenum looks to the safety as he begins his drop from center. It’s worth noting that Keenum is earning more looks from center as he earns more starts, but the quarterback still spends a majority of his time in the pistol or the shotgun. The motor coordination to read the field and execute on a drop from center is more difficult than a drop from the other two formations: More steps, more momentum to control, and more reads to make closer to the line while on the move. While I believe it is overstated, one of the reasons teams favor tall quarterbacks in a traditional pocket game from center is the ability to see over some of the passing lanes when closer to the line of scrimmage.
As Keenum completes his drop, the Cardinals defense has the tight end well-covered and neither of the shallow routes are at the stage of breaking open. At the same time, the right guard is getting bulldozed into the pocket and Keenum’s path.
Keenum is a mobile player, but what are his options? If he moves right, he gives the edge rusher a free path. If he slides to his left, the linebacker on the fullback has a shot to make the play and there’s still the defensive tackle crashing the middle who has the inside shoulder of the guard and the angle to pursue without resistance.
Keenum does the right thing by staying in the pocket. In contrast, here’s the mobile Seneca Wallace on Sunday leaning too hard on his mobility in a similar situation.
Wallace has two receivers to his left and one to his right. This play will end with Wallace in the right flat desperately trying to get rid of the ball to one receiver and the whole orchestration is his doing – and ultimately his undoing as the Packers’ starter in short order.
Interior pressure begins to build off right guard in the photo above. Although the pressure isn’t nearly as intrusive as what Keenum experiences, watch Wallace perceive the pressure and react to his right.
This opens the pursuit lane for the edge defender off right tackle and Wallace has just made his job even more difficult. If he remained patient in the pocket, he would have had more options to target in the passing game. This move to the right cuts off half the field and two-thirds of the receivers he has running routes at the moment.
Look below and you can see the defensive lineman also have open pursuit lanes to the flat. Instead of one defensive tackle pushing the pocket up the middle – who, by the way gets addressed when the guard recovers enough to shore up his protection – now Wallace has three defenders with angles on him for a sack.
Moreover, there’s only one receiver for Wallace to target. This is at least until the tight end breaks from the line of scrimmage and releases as an outlet that Wallace would have to target with a throw across his body while on the move.
Wallace has to deliver a pump fake to freeze the defense before targeting his receiver returning up the sideline for a whopping completion of . . .
Negative yardage before the receiver becomes a ball carrier. This play isn’t about physical ability. Wallace has enough speed and arm strength to play in the league. What he lacks on this play is the ability to stay in the pocket at the first sign of pressure or the knowledge of where he should break the pocket to maximize his chances for a positive play and minimize the potential of a negative one. Wallace also injures his groin on this play and left the game.
Keenum, demonstrates this patience Wallace lacked and it’s clear from this game that he doesn’t perceive pressure too early. He stands his ground, waits for the crossing route to come open, and delivers the ball from the pocket. The problem is that the crossing route is never really open. Keenum, in a hurry due to the pressure up the middle, forgets that the safety has position to come over the top to cut off the target. This is why more patience with the single coverage or throwing the ball away might have been wiser options. I would have also considered sliding left and throwing the ball away if Keenum couldn’t bait the linebacker to come downhill.
As the ball arrives (see below), the safety comes over the top. If he makes this catch there is a ton of green grass and blockers to pave the way for a pick-six. Imagine the complexion of this game with Arizona up 14-0 after two plays – and two Keenum turnovers. Could this have altered Keenum’s confidence? Possibly. However, I’d like to think that the same guy who listened to Cris Collinsworth say, “You’re not exactly 6’6″ . . . ” and responded, “Not yet . . .” without missing a beat, would have the confidence not to retreat into a shell.
The question is irrelevant now; the safety gets his hands on the ball, but cannot secure the interception.
Keenum lives for another play. After this trial by fire, the Texans quarterback learns from the experience and begins to make wiser plays under heavier pressure.
The first-year starter’s highlight plays have often been flights from pressure where he flushed to one side of the of the field and throws the ball deep. Fun plays to watch, but what about pressure situations where the defense forces Keenum to exhibit more control? This 2nd-and-14 play in the first quarter is a great example of Keenum doing just that.
Keenum has two vertical routes inside with his outside bunch receiver Hopkins crossing the middle. Houston’s fullback runs a flat route on this play-action pass.
Keenum finishes the play fake and the defense, sending five and dropping six, has strong intermediate and short coverage in the middle of the field. The pressure will come from Keenum’s blind side.
Keenum feels the pressure working loose from the left as he finishes his drop and does a good job of climbing the pocket in rhythm.
His eyes stay focused downfield and he’s able to see three options: Hopkins on the cross, Johnson in the middle of the field, and the fullback in the flat.
As Keenum works towards the line of scrimmage, this forces the secondary to slide to Keenum’s right and towards the pocket. Keenum’s movement opens the fullback in the flat.
The fact that Keenum climbs the pocket in rhythm helps the quarterback keep his feet under him to deliver an accurate throw.
Pressure forces impulsive behavior, especially interior pressure. However, Keenum exhibits the poise of a veteran in a situation where many veterans turn their back to the pressure or force the ball into coverage. The play begins with Hopkins and Johnson running dual crossing routes, the tight end stretching the seam, and the fullback running a wheel route to the left sideline. The Cardinals send five defenders to the pocket, running a twist with John Abraham working from the right edge to the middle.
Keenum is again under center, so there’s more to process on the move with less field to see at the early stages of his drop.
As Keenum finishes his drop, Abraham is making his way to an open lane up the middle. As you can see, the Texans receivers are well covered with the exception of Tate in the right flat. Even Tate isn’t a great option, because he’s seven yards behind in the line of scrimmage with a Karlos Dansby waiting in the flat. Considering that Dansby has 78 tackles this year and a huge majority of them unassisted, Keenum is seeking better options.
Nothing comes open within the next beat and the defense is constricting the pocket. Keenum has no running lane, but what he does display is a quarterback’s best friend if he can execute it: a pump fake.
Keenum flashes the ball, freezes the defense, and opens a crease in the pocket with this move. Not all quarterbacks have the skill to execute a good pump fake. Those that do often lack the awareness of when to use it.
Keenum’s pump fake gives him second life in the pocket. He keeps his eyes down field, slides to his left, and when nothing comes open, delivers a second pump fake. I love the small slide. Many NFL quarterbacks in this situation would have turned their backs to the defense and tried to roll away from the inside pressure 2-3 frames ago. This is the type of poise that is proving the Texans coaching staff right about Keenum and something they must have seen enough in practice to hope he could display it when the lights came on.
At this point, Keenum freezes the secondary and this buys him just enough time to flee the pocket to the left flat.
I also like that Keenum opts to slide with plenty of room to avoid a huge hit. Another small sign of maturity that I hope is a pattern for him during his development.
Third and short is much better than most of the consequences that could have come from this play.
Patience With Eyes And Feet
This touchdown pass is essentially a two-man route using play action. Andre Johnson makes one of two fantastic catches in this game, but Keenum does a ton to make his play happen.
This is a max protection scheme where the fullback and running back block and eventually release from the line of scrimmage as receivers once the play breaks down. The quarterback has to execute a strong play fake, patience, and excellent pass placement against a zone defense that has a lot of defenders occupying very little space.
Keenum begins the play with his back turned to the line of scrimmage while executing the play fake with good extension of the ball towards the running back.
The initial action is good, but Keenum’s decision to duck lower to sell the fake is an added touch that forces the linebackers up field.
Once Keenum finishes his drop he’s staring at Hopkins crossing between four defenders in a tight zone over the middle. What I like is that Keenum remains patient and sells the defense on the idea that he’s waiting for Hopkins to clear the middle and deliver the ball in that direction.
It helps that Keenum’s second look continues along the trajectory of Hopkins’ break, but also gives the quarterback the opportunity to spot Johnson running the opposite direction behind Hopkins. This is a conceptual benefit to routes that crisscross at various depths.
As Keenum spots Johnson breaking open from left to right, the interior pressure makes its way into the pocket. Keenum has time to slide to his right to avoid a hit, but if he does he likely tips off Johnson’s cross and forces a scramble drill to the right side where the defense will flow to the area and eliminate any openings.
Keenum stands his ground and delivers the ball to a spot where only Johnson can make the catch. It’s a 25-yard throw that requires good timing and velocity with a 300-plus-pounder breathing down his back.
Johnson makes an excellent catch at the boundary for the score, but it’s Keenum’s play fake, use of his eyes to hold the defense in the middle of the field, and the willingness to stand his ground to deliver a strike that sets up the highlight reel play.
The Blurry Line Between Patience and Hesitation
Not everything Keenum did was good without question. Here’s a second-quarter play where Keenum converts the first down after leaving the pocket, but I wonder if he forced the scramble because he was hesitant to act on what he saw. This is 2nd-and-six pass where interior pressure forces Keenum to flush right, but did Keenum wait too long? See for yourself.
Keenum’s primary read is the tight end in the slot running an out at the first down marker. Good anticipation on this play would be for Keenum to deliver the ball just as the receiver begins his break (at the top of his stem).
This is the top of the receiver’s stem and Keenum should be in the middle of his release if he’s going to deliver the ball with impeccable timing. However, the cornerback is sitting on this route. It posses a good question: Is the tight end open? Based on the position of the corner to the outside with his pads downhill, I think Keenum made a wise choice not to throw the ball. However, you can see below that he’s still thinking about it for another beat.
As the tight end makes his break, you can see that the defensive back has a clear angle to cut off the throw and it’s a pick-six if he wins. If he loses, the tight end might have possession with the corner flying up the sideline in the opposite directon without the ball, but it’s a risky play. Meanwhile, the defensive tackle is working inside the left guard and the window of protection is closing in this pocket.
Many a reckless or freaked out quarterback under pressure still throws the pass at this point, but to Keenum’s credit he’s not one of them. This consistent interior pressure is something I’ve been waiting to see Keenum face before I could give an opinion on what I think of the quarterback long-term. Now that I see how he handles interior pressure, I think the quarterback has the goods to remain in the league for a long time as a contributor on some level – at least as a high-end backup or short-term starter. Perhaps more if he can demonstrate the ability to overcome what defensive coordinators will do to game plan against Keenum once they see enough of him on film.
There’s no climbing the pocket on this play. Keenum must retreat, reset, and choose a direction to roll.
The Texans’ starter does a good job keeping his eyes downfield and his body ready to deliver the ball as he moves to the right flat.
Solid technique to throw with his feet mostly under him as he spots the receiver coming back to him at the sideline.
Lingering Concerns: Reading The Middle of The Field
The most difficult area of the field to master for a quarterback is the middle. Defenders are changing positions, disguising zones, and demonstrate more range than most young quarterbacks are used to seeing most weeks at the college level. This is the last great frontier for Keenum’s development.
This play from the Texans’ end zone is a lucky outcome of a bad decision and it exemplifies the pass protection skills of linebackers the Keenum isn’t used to seeing outside of perhaps his old buddy Phillip Steward at Houston. Playing the bigger, faster, more experienced version of Steward is veteran linebacker Karlos Dansby – one of my favorite vets in the game today.
Keenum begins this 3rd-and-7 with his receivers tight to the formation. His primary read will be Hopkins, the outside receiver in the left flat. Dansby, circled below, reads Keenum’s eyes, gauges the receiver and works to his spot in the zone to defend the pass.
Dansby, who has played both inside and outside linebacker with success in the NFL, is a known for his skill as a pass defender despite the fact that he was an excellent blitzer as an inside player at Auburn – and now during his second stint in Arizona.
Keenum does not anticipate the drop or he believes he can fit the ball over Dansby to Hopkins. This proves to be a tighter window than he anticipates.
Dansby high-points the ball, nearly intercepting it with room up the flat to score if he does. Instead, the ball flies through his mitts and into the arms of the rookie Hopkins.
The receiver makes the catch, turns up field, and turns a disastrous decision into a fine play. Good outcome, bad process.
Throughout this game, Arizona sent pressure up the middle and Keenum demonstrated the awareness to throw the ball away, scramble to an open spot as a runner, and even in some cases take the sack rather than risk a turnover. With 5:15 left and down by 10, Keenum opts to take a risk. This is a good example of what some coaches or analysts will call “pressing”, when the quarterback tries to force the ball to make a play when the team is behind. It’s a negative connotation, but there are points in a game where the quarterback has to take chances or the game will end.
At this point in the game, I can see how Keenum might feel this is the time to gamble. It’s a two-possession game and even if the Texans can score in the next two plays, it might run another 30-45 seconds off the clock. A player like Manning or Brees might not press in this situation, knowing that the offense is built for big plays and high tempo. The Texans haven’t been built in that image.
Keenum has three deeper routes and one crossing route on this play. The Cardinals send an inside linebacker and safety up the middle on a blitz to disrupt Keenum’s process, dropping the outside linebacker at the left hash into coverage of the shallow zone.
Keenum takes his drop looking at the deep coverage. All three deep routes are accounted for, save potentially a deep throw up the left sideline to Hopkins, but Patrick Peterson is on the rookie with outside technique. Considering that Keenum lacks a great arm and this is an opposite-hash throw to one of the better press corners in football, it’s not going to happen.
Once Keenum reads the deep zone, the pressure is already coming. Keenum sees the shallow cross, but he doesn’t have a strong sense of the passing lane where he’s delivering the ball. There are two players of defense at Keenum’s left in position to defend this throw. As we saw earlier, the young quarterback still isn’t used to the level of athleticism of linebackers and defensive linemen.
Keenum forces the ball on the cross as he’s hit. The first defender tips the ball skyward.
The second defender nearly makes a play on the ball. This is one of three potential interceptions that Keenum could have thrown in this game and two of these plays had a strong shot of becoming pick-sixes.
I could tell you that I think the Texans’ starter is going to become a good starter in the NFL – and I like his chances more than I did three weeks ago. Keenum may lack the great arm or size, but he has all the tools to help an offense compete every week. But based on what I’m watching I’d just be rolling the dice if I told you he’s a passer with a future to bet on.
Keenum has shown me enough that I think he’s a good player and a bargain. That said, I like his poise, pocket presence, and aggressive mentality. If he can maintain those three qualities and get better at reading defenses, he has a shot to maintain the starting job in Houston for longer than this year.
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