QB Kirk Cousins: Footwork and Pocket Management

Spartan’s QB Kirk Cousins has to refine his footwork and feel for the pocket or his arm will fail him. Photo by Matt Radick.

[Author’s Note: I tag this post and others like it as “scouting reports,” because readers seeking this type of information search the Internet with this terminology. This post and others like it are not scouting reports. It’s a few plays used as talking points to discuss technique. For a complete assessment of a player for my annual RSP publication, I examine multiple games and every snap.]

Bill Walsh was a big proponent of studying a quarterback’s footwork and building on a prospect’s coordination to develop an accurate and efficient passer. Good footwork helps a passer generate good timing, accuracy, and velocity. There are some quarterbacks with great arm talent that have thrived despite poor footwork.

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins will not be one of them. I have colleagues with NFL scouting experience that think highly of Cousins’ pro prospects. He has a quick release, experience in a pro-style offense, and he can make some difficult throws down field into coverage with accuracy. According to the Twitterverse, Cousins also looks and talks the part of an NFL quarterback.

But the feet tell the immediate story. And presently, Cousins has work to do. I’m going to examine three plays from Cousins’ 2011 performance versus Notre Dame that illustrate how a sub par footwork and pocket management skill can hold back a promising player.

The Interception That Didn’t Count

Michigan State’s opening play is a 1st and 10 play action pass with 10:41 in the first quarter that results in an interception, but the CB in pass coverage is called for defensive holding and the officials negate the turnover. Even if the CB doesn’t commit the penalty on the WR, Cousins is still likely to make an errant throw. This makes the play worth examination.

The Spartans come to the line in a 12-personnel, 1×1 receiver, set versus the Irish’s 4-3 defense.

With the SS and FS inside the SLB and DE, it’s a fairly reliable tell that the outside receivers have man coverage.

The play begins with Cousins executing a play fake to the RB. While Cousin makes several thorough play fakes in this contest, his first is not one of them – and there are others like it. The action is brief and there’s more of a two-handed jab of the ball outward that recoils as fast as Cousins extended it.

Notice how Cousins is already bringing the ball back to his body before the RB has even reached a point where he’d realistically take an exchange (green circle). This may have left the second and third level of the defense to pause (yellow circles), but it hasn’t sold them on the run. None are moving forward.

As Cousins stares down the middle of the field and its evident that the free safety didn’t bite on the fake and is now dropping into his zone. At the same time, the NT is beginning a monster bull rush up the middle.

Pressure up the middle is a difficult obstacle for a quarterback to avoid and still keep his eyes down field. It also forces a quarterback to make off-balanced throws that lead to inaccurate passes.

Over two seconds have elapsed since the snap and Cousins is like a statue in the pocket despite the NT two yards away with his outside shoulder free to the QB. Cousins can’t see his back side protection but he should have a feel for where it’s supposed to be and make one of two decisions: climb the pocket to his left if what he knows about the pocket design matches its reality or break the pocket to his right to throw or run.

It’s time step up or turn tail, but Cousin’s feet are frozen in place like a squirrel in the path of an oncoming car. The yellow circle is the pocket Cousins should have some feel is there.

In less than a second, Cousins is within a yard of the NT steamrolling him into the MSU 12. There’s still room to reduce the throwing shoulder and slide to his left, but Cousins opts to stand tall and attempt a power throw without the ability to turn his hips and generate torque.

This still photo illustrates that Cousins will have no room to step into a throw on this attempt and the pass will be off his back foot. Just a half-beat earlier he had time to slide to his left.

Cousins demonstrates a fast release, making the delivery of the ball just before the NT hits and wraps his waist. But no one will ever be mistaken with Cousins throwing off his back foot with the power of Jay Cutler or Matt Stafford.

You don’t see it now, but Cousins is targeting his receiver on a post pattern. Rushing a throw on a pattern that’s going to break at least 25 yards down field isn’t a sound decision.

As the camera pans to the receiver breaking open, the ball is clearly shy of the target. What the camera doesn’t show is the brief hold of the CB on the WR during the initial release, but all that means is the receiver would have been another 2-3 steps down field and Cousins’ under thrown pass would have been more severe.

Based on the receiver’s location as he breaks on the post, the ball would need to be 7-10 yards further down field for the receiver to make the catch in stride – and that accounts for the CB’s hold during the WR’s initial release. The safety (circled) makes the shoe-top INT.

As you can see, the WR is at the 45 and the sinking pass arrives at the 42 as the safety makes a shoe top catch. Cousins’ decision to throw the ball is a poor one because he attempted an all-arm throw to hit his receiver an a route where he needs to drive the ball. Without the benefit of good mechanics, Cousins lacks the elite arm talent to make the play. There’s a line between aggressiveness and recklessness. On this opening play of the series Cousins crossed that line.

Perceiving Pressure

This phrase has become a buzzword for Blaine Gabbert’s problems because the Jaguars quarterback’s behavior was an extreme example of reacting to pressure in the pocket – in in his case, the idea of pressure. I often cite Matt Ryan as player with a less serious case of pressure sensitivity. However, most players with an internal clock experience these moments to some degree. Cousins does in this contest.

After an offensive holding penalty, Michigan State’s offense comes to the line on a 2nd and 17 with 4:49 left in the game. The alignment is an 11-personnel, 2×1 receiver, shotgun set.

Notre Dame’s weak side corner (bottom) plays tight to Cunningham, which likely indicates man coverage with possible safety help on deeper routes. This is a good opportunity for a sideline comeback.

Cousins begins his drop looking to the strong side where his twin receivers and tight end release from the line of scrimmage.

A benefit to Cousins beginning his progression to the right side is that it holds the free safety closer to the middle of the field and if the QB decides to throw to the weak side, it will likely be a one-on-one situation.

When Cousins turns to the weak side of the field he begins to sense pressure up the middle from the two defensive tackles. Cousins’ response is to take a step backwards. Now he’s flat-footed with two options: throw the comeback or check down to the RB in the left sideline

This play is less than a half-second from ending badly for Cousins if he doesn’t make a quick decision and based on the direction his feet take, he has no business throwing a 17-yard comeback

Throwing the ball to the sideline will require a high-velocity pass and Cousins has a clean pocket to step into the throw. One might scoff that its easy to second-guess how much room Cousins has to make a play. However, every quarterback should have a feel for how fast a pocket collapses and how much room he needs to make certain throws. Cousins also needs to be acutely aware that he can’t successfully drive the ball 17 yards down field without stepping into the throw. But instead of stepping forward, he hops a step back.

A quarterback is taught to step into the throw with his front foot, Cousins has room to do so here but he opts to hop a step back in the next split second.

Although he throws with his feet at an angle that appears as if he stepped into the pass, he actually did the opposite and the lack of zip on the ball becomes evident as it travels down field.

Cousins is nearly flat-footed on a release he has to drive to generate power and he just hopped backwards so much of his weight is still on his back foot as he begins his release. He can’t get good torque with his hips this way.

Cousins’ throw is slow enough for the safety to jump the route.

The safety actually breaks on the route before Cousins’ throw, but it further underscores the importance of driving the ball. I think the decision to throw to the sideline was a poor one on 2nd and 17 when a dump off to the RB could earn 7-10 yards and put the offensive in a more manageable 3rd and 10 or 3rd and 7. Regardless, if a quarterback is going to try to beat the safety to a point he better put some mustard on the ball and hopping backwards to deliver a flat-footed pass the inhibits hip torque isn’t going to get the job done.

Loosen Up

One of the common factors with both of the plays above and the one I’m about to examine is Cousin waiting too long to deliver the football and then trying to rush his delivery process with poor results. He almost appears stiff in the pocket as if he’s not comfortable working it from side to side or stepping into pressure. It’s not as if Cousins avoided punishment in this game, but he moves in the pocket like someone who has never danced before.

Another good example is a 2nd and 8 pass from the Notre Dame 18 with 1:11 left in the game. Michigan State comes to the line in a 1×2 receiver, 11-personnel shotgun set.

Cousins’ dancing partner on this play is the strong side DE, but the MSU QB is not moving to the music well. He’ll need to get the steps down if he wants to remain on the NFL’s stage.

At the snap, the DE gets to the edge unblocked with a complete mismatch of the RB ahead.

A QB with great pocket presence sees this potential issue now and is thinking about how to avoid the pressure. Cousins lacks great pocket presence.

A few steps later, the DE is outside the RB’s attempt to cut block. Within the DE’s next two steps Cousins needs to have an evasive maneuver ready.

A QB with good pocket presence is alerted to this potential issue and is ready to elude this DE. Cousins lacks good overall pocket presence.

The DE is a step beyond the RB and this is Cousins’ last chance to evade the edge rusher. He lacks the angle to climb the pocket, but a spin to the inside that begins a role to the right flat is probably the best move. His receivers can flood the zone and work open or he can either throw the ball away or stop the clock by running out of bounds.

Cousins has two escape routes and even if these aren’t great options, he can take one step outside the hash and throw the ball away without a penalty. He lacked the pocket presence to even make that decision.

What Cousins does is wait for his receiver to break and attempt to deliver the ball flat-footed while getting creamed by the DE.

Cousins once again doesn’t step into a throw and his body is actually leaning away from his front leg. There’s virtually no chance Cousins gets the velocity he needs for this throw. There’s only one Robert Griffin III in this draft.

Cousins does not try to reduce the shoulder and climb the ladder. He doesn’t try to spin away from pressure. He doesn’t even try to throw the ball away. He stands tall and tries to deliver the ball while getting hit. The contact alters the throw to the inside, travels a path too far for the receiver to make a play, and nearly gets picked off by the safety coming from the inside. Once again, nothing smart about this play.

The fact that Cousins will stand tall to make the tough throw is a positive. But at least in this contest, the Michigan State QB couldn’t tell when to step into a throw and when to retreat. He lacked a feel for the pass rush and his footwork, his accuracy, and his velocity suffered. If these three things suffer enough, he’s soon called a former quarterback.

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

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