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

Dolphins great Dan Marino holds two pocket management skills in high regard when evaluating players at the position. Ryan Tannehill demonstrates facility with both.

Note: The analysis you’ll find in blog posts on RB David Wilson, WR Kendall Wright, and my first post about 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.

“If I worked out a quarterback for an NFL team, he’d have to show me 100 throws off his back foot.”

-Dan Marino

This is one of two statements about quarterbacking from Marino that football analyst Pat Kirwan shared in his book Take Your Eye Off The Ball that demonstrates the difference between the theory and practice of the NFL game for a pro passer. The second statement is about having a good internal clock – the awareness of the length of time a play should take, how long its actually taking, and what the defense is doing to add or subtract from that amount of time. Marino says a good internal clock “can be a quarterback’s most important asset.”

A player I’d like to watch with Dan Marino – alright, ONE of ANY player I’d like to watch with Dan Marino – is Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill. The 2012 NFL Draft prospect has good pocket presence for a college quarterback. In fact, against Oklahoma State in September, Tannehill put on a clinic of what defines good pocket presence. In the previous post of Managing the Pocket, I analyzed two plays of Tannehill’s that involved the subtleties of avoiding pressure. Today I’m featuring three plays that demonstrate two of Marino’s preferred traits of a quarterback and likely a third that I don’t have a quote from him about: managing adversity.

The Off-Balanced Throw

Certainly one has to realize that Marino was ridiculously talent – perhaps unique among quarterbacks in the history of the NFL for his internal clock, speed of light release, and uncanny skill to avoid pressure despite conventional athleticism that some might term below average. However, just because Marino comes from a place of superhuman standards doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the value in watching a quarterback execute off-balanced throws.

Tannehill shows a little of what he’s got on a 2nd and 5 pass with 3:22 in the first quarter. A&M comes to the line in an 11-personnel pistol set with receivers 2×1 versus Oklahoma State’s 3-3-5 defensive alignment.

A presnap look at 2nd and 5 with 3:22 in the first quarter versus a DB blitz from the slot. Linebackers circled in red.

At the snap, we see all three linebackers drop into coverage while the DB over the slot receiver comes off the edge. Tannehill initially drops two steps from the gun while looking to his right.

Photo of the initial drop post-snap. Note how the threat of the three linebackers – especially the LB dropping into the right flat – caused the line to set its calls that leave the TE on an island with the DB. This is a mismatch in favor of the defense.

Tannehill’s internal clock and feel for pressure comes into play after finishing his drop and not spotting an open receiver after his back foot hits the ground. The freeze frame of the 3:16 mark of this play displays how close Tannehill is getting blindsided.

What you’re about to see transpire from this precarious point is a strong display of feel and footwork combined with athleticism.

Right away we see that Tannehill does a great job of feeling that backside pressure from the slot DB working outside the TE, but look at how Tannehill slides up field with his shoulders and ball carrying arm in a position to deliver a throw. The ball in is a position for a quick release and the shoulders a angled in the direction of what he’s seeking down field.

There are drills that simulate this very movement. At the risk of my Tarheel wife divorcing me, here’s Duke alum Ben Bennett – now a coach – with his Arizona Wrangler QB Matt Snider performing pocket drills that reinforce a player’s technique to hold the ball in position to throw while on the move.

Tannehill actually has to sprint forward rather than slide like Snider in this video, but his carriage of the ball and position of his shoulders is excellent.

Tannehill’s carriage of the ball, angle of his shoulders, and eyes downfield is a great display of form.

The A&M QB climbs the ladder away from pressure rather than spinning outside and further away from the line of scrimmage. When he clears the TE, Tannehill slides left and displays the kind of form that actually looks like training film photos that make the technique look robotic when caught in a still shot. But good technique refined with practice becomes fluid even if awkward in a frozen moment.

The front arm, front shoulder, and knees are pointing down field with the ball at chest level as Tannehill begins his release.

When Tannehill clears the LT, he squares his shoulders and delivers the ball on the move to his WR Swope who settled in the middle of the field 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. The pass covers 22 yards from its release point and the receiver gains another seven yards after the catch – weaving up the left flat to the sideline.

Here’s the end zone view of the play:

End zone view of the snap of this 2nd and 5 play with 3:22 in the first quarter.

From this view, we see that Tannehill’s eyes go from the middle to the right as he drops back. Once that back foot hits the turf, the quarterback sees that his receiver in breaking to the right sideline has three defenders in the area over and under and this does not include the CB at the sideline. Because Tannehill has a good internal clock and feel of the pocket he knows the location of his escape hatch and that he’s worn out his welcome on this patch of grass beneath his feet.

Tannehill’s choice to climb the ladder forces the linebackers to him and opens the zone behind them for his WR Ryan Swopes.

Another nice thing about Tannehill’s choice to climb the pocket over rolling away from pressure by spinning outside the DB and taking a long curve to his left is that Tannehill remains in a downhill position to throw at moment’s notice. This doesn’t happen if he spins and rolls. If he backs away from the pressure like most college quarterbacks, Tannehill then gives the linebackers more time to get up field and pressure him when he’s not in a position to deliver the ball.

His choice is more efficient and places immediately pressure on the linebackers in the left flat.

Swope is now wide open and Tannehill’s form while climbing the pocket keeps him in position to deliver the ball for a 27-yard gain.

The release is fast and the elbow is even with the shoulder with a three-quarter motion. Marino would probably like this play. Granted, its not the throw off the back foot in a tight pocket that Tannehill and other rookies will have to make with velocity and accuracy but it is a throw on the move to his left after avoiding a certain sack. For a right-handed quarterback, it’s a good display of skill on a naturally awkward direction to move and throw.

Sometimes Bad Plays Reveal Good Things

Even when he’s sacked, Tannehill demonstrates a good internal clock on this 1st and 10 play from a 21-personnel strong side I formation with 14:16 in the half.

Tannehill versus a 4-3 alignment early in the second quarter. Receivers are 1×1 in this strong side I formation.

Tannehill takes a three-step drop and wants to make a quick throw to the right sideline, but the receiver doesn’t break open and the DE off LT works through a cut block.

This cut attempt by the LT on the back side reveals this play is supposed to be a short, quick throw.

Tannehill clearly understands that he doesn’t have a lot of time to stay in the pocket on this play because as soon as he finishes his three-step drop and the receiver isn’t open, the alarm sounds in his head.Tannehill slides to his right and continues to look down field.

Photo of Tannehill and the backside DE at the end of the QB’s third step of his drop.

He doesn’t have to see if the backside DE is in pursuit because he knows before the play begins that his LT is assigned to cut that edge defender. Most important, Tannehill knows that if the ball is still in his hands by that third step that he better move like that DE is breathing down his neck.

Tannehill’s feet dance a couple of week beats and he’s off to the right hash with the DE in hot pursuit.

One could argue that Tannehill actually waits too long on this play, but the fact he leaves on his own volition without seeing the DE is a good sign of an internal clock. Remember this is the third rush on the blindside I’ve shown you in a little over a quarter where Tannehill avoids contact without seeing the pressure. That’s a sign of a pretty good internal clock.

The QB may be toast on this play, but we still see the same good habits of the other plays: eyes downfield, good feel of the pocket, and evidence of an internal clock.

By the time he reached the hash, he was wrapped from behind for the sack and a loss of four yards. Tannehill did a good job not losing control of the ball because the DE tried to chop it away with the initial hit. Although taking a sack is never a good thing, Tannehill continues to demonstrate timing and feel of the pocket while keeping his eyes down field and his body in a position to release the ball once he spots a receiver coming open.

Responding to Adversity is as Important as Avoiding it Altogether

As good as the first half was for A&M in this game, the second half was equally bad.  It was the third quarter where the A&M offense self-destructed, turning a 20-10 lead into a 20-24 deficit within a series of snaps. On 2nd and 6 with 7:21 in the third quarter, Tannehill completed a pass to his receiver for 33 yards only for that receiver to fumble the ball away.

The series after giving up the lead to Oklahoma State, Tannehill takes a five-step drop and holds the FS before throwing to the strong side to his WR on a 15-yard comeback in the flat . However, the CB undercuts the WR and steals the ball after a fight for possession. The interception is the result of A&M wide receiver Jeff Fuller slipping to the ground as he begins his break. This gives the CB the chance to under cut the route and make the catch at the same time as the WR and then roll away with the ball.

In the early fourth quarter with momentum seemingly lost, Tannehill is sacked by the DE off the blindside for a loss of five yards just as Tannehill tries to climb the ladder. Now it’s 3rd and 15 with 13:31 left, the Aggies have squandered a lead, and the offense is backed up deep in its own territory. However Tannehill maintains his composure and completes a 25-yard play from an 11-personnel pistol set with receivers 2×1.

Tannehill facing a 3-3-5 defense with a single-high safety from his own 15 on 3rd and 15 and down by 7 after squandering a 10-point lead. Linebackers circled in red.

After the snap, Tannehill drops a couple of steps, feels the pressure off RT and climbs the ladder two steps while looking to his left.

Tannehill drops as the DE gets around RT.
Note the position of the ball as Tannehill reduces the shoulder while hitching forward to avoid the DE now on the RB.
Now Tannehill is in position to throw. The poise to execute with good technique under durress might have only been two steps forward, but the resulting gain is more than 10 times that amount.

Tannehill’s throw is a pass up the left hash covering 20 yards to his slot receiver, who catches it on a line at his back shoulder in stride and just over the trailing defender.

Excellent throw in stride to his receiver up the hash for a first down.

This is excellent pocket management given the the kind of poise a quarterback has to display in this down and distance situation in bad field position after a sack. Its plays like these that make me a fan of what I see from Tannehill. Don’t be surprised if a team like Washington or Miami considers the A&M signal caller. Mike Shanahan values mobile quarterbacks with good feet but strong pocket skills and the Redskins are not the optimal match for Peyton Manning. Tannehill’s head coach Mike Sherman is now the Dolphins offensive coordinator. It’s hard to imagine a better situation for a young rookie than to transition to the NFL with a veteran coordinator who knows him well.

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

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

  1. […] I’ve written about Tannehill here recently and with the Redskins’ exchange of three first-round picks for the second spot in the NFL Draft, there is a lot of debate among draftniks about Tannehill’s value as a top-10 overall pick. I’ve read one former scout write on Twitter that he’s the most likely player to get a GM fired. I read another say he’s overrated. On the other hand, Tannehill’s former coach Mike Sherman compares his A&M starter favorably to Bengals QB Andy Dalton – with a better arm. […]

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