Managing the Pocket Part I: Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill

When it comes to managing the pocket, Texas A&M Ryan Tannehill put on a clinic in the first half  versus Oklahoma State in September ’11. Photo by SD Dirk.

Note: The analysis you’ll find in blog posts on RB David Wilson, WR Kendall Wright, and today, Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill are merely snapshots of plays I have compiled from game study. These spotlights focus on a subset of the individual’s talents or deficiencies and are not an overall report on the player. My comprehensive analysis of the player will be available April 1 in the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – now in its seventh year of publication.

Former Jets coach and personnel manager Pat Kirwan noted in his book Take Your Eye Off The Ball, that the only scrambling quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl was Steve Young. Some may infer from that fact that scramblers are not the ideal style of quarterback for an NFL team. I think it’s probably more accurate to take this statement as a historic reflection, but not a basic truth about today’s NFL.

I’m nitpicking the point because Fran Tarkenton, Steve McNair, John Elway, Brett Favre, and Donovan McNabb could all scramble and they led their teams to the Super Bowl. I believe the spirit of Kirwan’s statement is that a quarterback must know how to manage the pocket in order to win in the NFL. Scrambling is a bonus.

I believe there’s a subtle, but important difference between playing out of control and knowing how to play when the situation is chaotic. Scrambling quarterbacks might be the easy target of critics, but I actually think there are just as many pocket passers that cannot manage chaos well enough to achieve the highest level of success in the NFL. It has less to do with having the gift of great athleticism as a ball carrier than people think.

When I study college quarterbacks I place a lot of value on decision-making and pocket presence. First and foremost, a quarterback is a manager. There are two broad extremes of managers in this world: micro-managing, task-oriented administrators that do a great job of what is demanded of them in a predictable environment and creative, visionary leaders with the skills to produce under pressure and stay ahead of an ever-changing landscape. The best quarterbacks, like the best managers in any organization, learn to draw from both sides without going to extremes.

There is no better scenario to test some of the quarterback’s decision-making prowess than when he’s in the pocket and pressure is on its way. With an abundance of college offenses employing spread passing games, there are fewer opportunities to evaluate a quarterback in a pocket under pressure that is similar to what they will experience in the NFL. Somtimes I can watch Arizona State, Texas Tech, Houston, or Oklahoma State and not even see pressure in the pocket during an entire game.

Texas A&M plays a pro-style offense that former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman brought to College Station. While there are spread concepts incorporated into this offense, the Aggies run personnel sets with fullbacks and tight ends and its quarterback under center. And their quarterback Ryan Tannehill put on an impressive display of what it means to possess pocket presence from both pro-style and spread concepts against an Oklahoma State defense that caused more turnovers than any team in the FBS last year.

I should note that Tannehill threw three interceptions in the second half of this game, but only one was actually a poor play on his part. The others were a tipped pass and a wide receiver slipping during his break with the ball already in the air and giving up the outside position to the cornerback on a deep comeback. Tannehill, for multiple reasons that I’ll explain in the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio, is one of the best quarterback prospects in this class. Today we’re confining the analysis to pocket management.

Good Pocket Management Is Often Subtle

On the first play of A&M’s second series,a 1st and 10 with 9:32 in the first quarter from an 11-personnel, 1×2 receiver set, Tannehill scrambles for a four-yard gain. A&M’s TE is on the wing of the RT and the RB flanks the QB behind that same tackle against Oklahoma State’s 3-3-5 alignment.

The LBs in this 3-3-5 alignment on1st and 10 play with 9:32 are circled and labeled for your viewing pleasure.

At the snap, the RB crosses the formation as Tannehill executes a play fake and then drops with a half roll to the right. The DE paying the RT does not bite on the play fake and takes a path inside the wing to the QB.

The TE holds his gap on the play fake, which leads to pressure on Tannehill a second later.

When Tannehill’s back foot hits the ground during his quick drop, he feels the pressure coming.

The play fake fails when the DE doesn’t bite and now Tannehill has make a play with his feet.

That play Tannehill makes with his feet begins with an attempt to keep his arm as a final possibility. The A&M QB takes a hitch step in an attempt to clear the pressure to his outside.

The red circle is where Tannehill was before the hitch step and now the DE has to corner hard to even get his inside arm in range to make contact.

Note that Tannehill also turns his back shoulder away from the defender to reduce the surface area the DE can potentially reach with his inside arm (circled in white). This is much like a receiver reducing his surface area when releasing against press coverage. Smart Football recently posted a great NFL Films episode where legendary 49ers Bill Walsh and Joe Montana demonstrate footwork and that hitch step comes into play immediately.

Although the hitch step and reducing of the shoulder buys Tannehill some space, he senses the immediate pressure getting too close to deliver the football. At this point he ducks his back shoulder and takes off, dipping inside the hash and gaining four yards.

Tannehill drops the shoulder, turns up field, and makes like the former starting wide receiver he was for the Aggies until Jerrod Johnson’s shoulder injury rendered him ineffective.

He finishes the play by spinning inside an LB to fall forward and avoid the brunt of a hit.

Tannehill finishing the run with a spin to avoid the full force of contact.

Reducing, Sliding, and Throwing

Here’s a play where Tannehill manages the pocket better than some current starting quarterbacks in the NFL with multiple years of experience. The play is a 1st and 10 with 8:09 in the first quarter and A&M is in a 3×2 receiver, empty shotgun set versus the Oklahoma State 3-3-5.

1st and 10 with 8:09 in the first quarter. A&M in a 2-3 empty vs. OK State’s 3-3-5.

The Cowboys’ LB and DB off LT are in position to potentially blitz. At the snap, Tannehill looks left while taking a step from the shotgun. When the DT crosses the face of the RG, he splits the A gap (inside the center) and eventually gets within a yard of the Aggies QB.

The potential for two defenders blitzing off right end creates a situation where both the RG and RT slide to protect and this leaves the DT (white circle and arrow showing presnap alignment) to slide inside C for easier penetration of the pocket up the middle.

When the DT gets within a yard of Tannehill, the QB does a great job of reacting to the pressure while keeping his eyes down field. It’s a combination of technique, feel, and poise that helps Tannehill manage the pocket in this situation.

Note how Tannehill plants his back foot and begins to bend at the waist. This is the QB setting up his slide to the left of the oncoming pressure. The head is still up so he can keep his eyes down field.
Tannehill now turns his shoulder inside the defender so the ball is ahead of the DT’s path. Note the receiver Swope in the shallow zone and where he winds up.
Tannehill’s ball arm/shoulder clears the DT due to the reducing technique and the DT is now just hoping for a shot at the QB’s feet. Swope begins to break across the field.

As Tannehill clears the DT, his eyes are clearly on the slot receiver. In the next two frames he resets his feet and squares his shoulders to the receiver breaking across the middle.

Note the difference in the legs and feet in this frame and the next as Tannehill resets to throw a pass to his slot receiver circled in green.
Now Tannehill is in position to make a good throw. Note the DT that was a yard from him over top is now a foot behind and on the ground and the QB only moved a yard to his left. That’s technique.

In the span of a little more than a second, Tannehill avoids what looks like a certain sack, keeps his eyes down field, resets his feet and delivers a perfect pass that leads his slot receiver on the cross to a huge open swath of grass. Swopes gains 23 yards up the middle for a total of 27 on the play. Considering that many top college quarterbacks react to pressure up the middle by backing away and breaking the pocket outside, Tannehill already demonstrates that in this respect he’s ahead of the game.

Tomorrow: More Tannehill from the pocket making an off balanced throw that Dan Marino would want to see 99 more if he were running a pro day workout.

For more analysis like this at every skill position, purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Buy the 2012 RSP and buy past RSPs (2006-2011) here.

11 responses to “Managing the Pocket Part I: Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill”

  1. Great write up!!! Are there specific drills to measure how good a QB is at doing this? Are there specific exercises that help a QB get better at moving his feet, his torso, and turning his shoulders the proper way while under pressure in the pocket? Do NFL personnel guys test QB’s at Pro Days or other workouts to help gauge pocket presence and physical ability at moving in the pocket while under pressure the correct way?

    • Jeff, there’s a great clip of Jim Harbaugh giving coaches a seminar on quarterbacking. Its well over an hour in length. I’ll find it and post the link soon.


  2. ———————————–
    Note how Tannehill plants his back foot and begins to bend at the —>> “waste” <>
    Does anyone use spelling/grammar checking or simply just re-read their own work anymore? I’m just asking. I’m not trying to be a troll, but it’s annoying when you’re TRYING to read articles with bad grammar and spelling in them. Sorry if I’m busting your chops.

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