When it comes to player evaluation, seemingly minor issues often get magnified with the intensity of pressure. Utah State Chuckie Keaton’s performance versus Wake Forest is proof.
Pocket presence to quarterbacks is like vision to running backs: most agree it’s a vital part of playing the position at the highest level regardless of athleticism. This draft season, I’ll be posting examples of good and bad points of pocket presence as I encounter them. While I hope you’ll generate some insights about the players featured here, these posts aren’t meant as overall evaluations or definitive takes on the futures of the prospects mentioned this series.
Pocket presence is an integral part of quarterback play, but this concept has several layers to it. Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keaton leads off the series with plays taken from the Wake Forest game.
A vital aspect of pocket presence is the quarterback understanding his blocking scheme and the area he has in the pocket not only to maneuver it, but also maintain the integrity of the blocking that creates the pocket in the first place. On this 2nd and 16 with 10:55 in the first quarter, Keaton’s unnecessary movement compromises the integrity of the pocket structure.
Keaton and the Utah State offense are in an 2×2 receiver, 10 personnel shotgun set with the ball at the left has of the Utah State 39. Wake Forest appears to be in a dime defense with two deep safeties outside the hashes at 11 yards depth.
Understanding the basic alignment of the defense is important to the context of Keaton’s performance on this play, because there are only five men in the box to pressure the quarterback, which makes the offensive line’s job a little easier. The Demon Deacons defense is relying more on good coverage to foil Keaton than instant pressure.
Keaton begins the play with a read-option-like play fake to the back before dropping to pass. Keaton’s drop is only two steps but that’s the depth needed to gain distance from the interior of the pocket but not drop too far from the edge blocks that will try to funnel the defensive ends outside. The further back a quarterback drops, the easier it will be for the defensive ends to win the angle on their blocks.
Note how Keaton’s feet move after the initial two steps: They’re jumpy and actually drifts further backwards, ruining the protection off the right edge. The defender gains an angle and gets his hands on Keaton, who fails to spin away from the grasp.
Although the sack technically doesn’t count due to a face mask foul, Keaton induced this play with his antsy pocket demeanor. It’s a great example of a bad process earning a good result and why simply looking at data like sack count doesn’t tell anyone the whole story about a player’s skill or lack of it in the pocket.
There are plays where a quarterback should drift from the pocket, but they exceptional instances and not the norm. One of the first signs that a quarterback lacks refined pocket skills is his first instinct to retreat from edge pressure rather than climb. It’s not always a death knell, but it’s often a bad sign and a difficult tendency to reform.
This 3rd and goal with 7:43 in the first quarter of the Wake Forest 13 is a blatant example of where a quarterback must retreat–interior pressure–but he overreacts to supplemental edge pressure coming from his left and reverses his field with disastrous consequences.
It’s okay that Keaton rolled left from the blitz up the middle, but the reversal of field is an example of the all too common Hero Syndrome that manifests in quarterback play with strong-armed, or athletic signal callers. Russell Wilson, Fran Tarkenton, and Doug Flutie were often exceptional cases of players capable of escaping pressure with a combination of a roll and a reversal of field to buy extra time.
Even these three players would be less apt to try this maneuver in the red zone on a 3rd and goal early in a scoreless game where the priority is to get points on the board. Settling for the field goal is alright here. Instead, Keaton tries to be the hero not only with his reversal of field, but with an inexplicable throw down field to avoid a sack.
The pass attempt compounds the error and turns what should have been a roll left for a short loss to the sideline or maybe a sack for a loss of 8-10 yards leading to a field goal attempt into a pick-six. Small tendencies like drifting from the first play will get magnified when the defense increases the intensity of the pressure. This is what happens with Keaton above.
The answer for Keaton is to understand when to retreat and how to curtail his “drifting,” which is more nervous energy (not that he’s afraid, just expressing his energy without focus) expressed in a negative way. This 3rd and 5 below with 8:46 in the first quarter is a good example of when drifting has a positive purpose.
Keaton leads an 11 personnel shotgun set with the ball at the right hash with a single receiver motioning across the formation from left to right before the snap. Wake Forest employs a 3-3-5 defensive look and the quarterback delivers the ball into a tight window on a dig route at the 11 with pressure in his face.
Drifting is important to the success of this play. Keaton knows the timing of the route, doesn’t overreact to the pressure, and displays the willingness to stand up to the pressure and make the throw. The slight retreat buys Keaton enough time to make the throw without losing his stance to deliver the ball. After the drift, note how Keaton gets on his toes to drive the ball from this retreating position.
A quarterback’s pocket presence, like vision for a running back, requires the ability to use his tools in a balance, mature way. It requires knowing one’s limits, the context of the down, distance, and series within the game, and what his teammates and opponents are likely to do based on his knowledge of scheme.
It’s a lot to process in a short period of time, but so is driving a car or playing a musical instrument when you think about it. Getting good at multilayered motor and conceptual tasks takes study, practice, and performance experience.
As applied to quarterback evaluation, there are questions that, when answered, ultimately should signal to a team if that quarterback has a chance to succeed:
- Where is a passer’s pocket presence lacking?
- Which of these issues are based on fast reactions ingrained over time?
- Are these ingrained reactions bad habits that haven’t been addressed in part due to their strengths as an athlete or passer and they could get away with them at lower levels of football?
- Does the quarterback have the physical tools to win at the highest level in spite of these bad habits?
- Which habits can change with practice and experience and which are ingrained?
- Does the quarterback work hard enough and smart enough to address those issues he can reasonably control?
If the NFL truly knew the answers to these questions, the NFL Draft and player development would be a boring process.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2014 Rookie Scouting Portfolio – available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.
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