Mark Schofield’s RSP Scouting Lens: QB Joe Burrow (LSU), Box Scores, and Development

Matt Waldman’s RSP contributor Mark Schofield delivers an analysis of box score scouting, screenshot scouting, and how he navigates between the two when examining LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, a 2020 NFL Draft prospect.

Black And White Is Hard To Find (As Much As We Beleive It Exists)

This may be the Golden Age of football analysis.

With so many different bits of data at our fingertips, analysts and fans alike can find within seconds information on a player, a coach, a team or a scheme. If you are a fan of studying playbooks and coaching manuals, there are websites dedicated to reproducing such documents.

If you are interested in the salary cap, there are websites and writers who do nothing but crunch the numbers for your favorite team. In addition, with the explosion of advanced statistical analysis, there are new ways to examine this game cropping up each and every day.

If you are really into hardcore Xs and Os, there are a number of twitter accounts that you can follow, and in addition, you can follow along with various hashtags as on almost every night of the week high school coaches around the country talk chalk.

While at first blush this should be a good thing, it has created a sort of tension in the media space. An awkward, and at times strained, detente between two camps: The analytics camp and the film camp.

Debates over the value of running backs, the system quarterback concept, and other ideas often find parties retreating to their sides and digging trenches. This was a subject touched upon recently in a piece about the future of quarterback evaluation, with the underlying point being this: Every bit of data should be considered and given weight.

Whether film, analytics, statistics, or anything else you can find, the various pieces of information should all be utilized when forming a picture of a quarterback. Given the complexities involved in playing the position, the difficulties in evaluating the position, and the rocky track records of those engaged in quarterback evaluation (very much including the author) the more data you have, the more informed you can be.

Now let’s talk about Joe Burrow, box score scouting, and projecting development. 

It can be easy at times to point at a quarterback’s slash line and formulate an opinion about that quarterback, whether regarding one game, a season or even a career. Without the proper context and analysis, however, box score scouting can lead to some flawed conclusions in both directions.

Take Tom Brady.

Last year against the Indianapolis Colts he finished the night completing 34 of 44 passes for 341 yards, 3 touchdowns, and a pair of interceptions. His Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) was 7.07, which was his 11th-best game of the season.

What about those two interceptions? Both were catchable throws that glanced through the hands of his receiver and into the waiting arms of a defender. Yet, if those passes just fall incomplete, Brady posts an AY/A of 9.11 for the game, and it becomes his fifth-best game of the season by this metric.

In a loss at Miami late in the season, Brady completed 27 of 43 passes for 358 yards and another trio of touchdowns. That game might have even included his best pure throw of the year—a laser of a seam route to Cordarelle Patterson for a touchdown.

However, before the half, Brady took a disastrous sack inside the Dolphins’ five-yard line when the team was out of timeouts, and the first half ended without a field goal try—three points that might have truly made the difference on that fateful afternoon.

Conversely, one can engage in “screenshot scouting,” a practice that even the best film watchers delve into from time to time. Take a snapshot of a given play and extrapolate, conclusions about a player. That also might fail to provide a full and complete picture of the player. 

The point as always is that black and white areas are hard to find and you usually need to dig deeper. 

Digging Deeper with Joe Burrow’s Game

After two seasons at Ohio State where he saw limited action, Burrow transferred to LSU and took over as the team’s starting quarterback to begin the 2018 campaign. His first start came on a neutral field against the University of Miami, a team that entered last season ranked in the top ten (Feel free to insert your own caveat about pre-season rankings right here…).

Burrow’s line in that victory over the Hurricanes? He completed 11 of 24 passes for 140 yards, no interceptions, and no touchdowns. This works out to a mere 5.8 yards per attempt.

Not exactly flashy.

But that’s just the box score. Digging into his film a bit more uncovers flashes of what you want to see from a young quarterback, and what NFL scouts are anxious to discover. Take, for example, this play that goes into the box score as an incompletion:

Let’s unpack this play a bit more. 

This play takes place midway through the first quarter. The Tigers face a 1st and 10 on their own 43-yard line, and put Burrow (No.9) in the shotgun using 11 offensive personnel. Three receivers align to the right with the tight end in the wing, and a single receiver splits outside to the left. Miami shows the quarterback a single-high safety look before the snap:

The route concept LSU employs here is a vertical concept we can term 969, as it is sometimes called in Air Coryell playbooks. This puts a vertical route along each boundary, and a dig route in the middle of the field:

Miami, however, is a bit tricky with their secondary. They rotate at the snap to an inverted Cover 2 look and bring some pressure:

This asks a lot of the quarterback from a mental perspective, as this is not the most common secondary rotate you will come across at the collegiate level. But Burrow deciphers this well, and comes off a potential hole shot along the sideline to the dig route in the middle of the field. But he needs to navigate the rest of this play well in two different regards. First, the pressure. Miami’s defensive end is getting past the right tackle, so Burrow needs to click and climb the pocket in response. Second, if Burrow wants to throw this dig route he needs to work it around the safety who is squatting like a Tampa 2 linebacker in the middle of the field, between the safety and the rotating cornerback:

Burrow does both things very well. He subtly climbs in the pocket in response to the edge pressure, and using a hitch he throws the dig route before the receiver even clears the safety, a textbook example of an anticipation throw and “throwing a receiver open.” The pass is put in perfect position, but it is dropped:

Here is a view of the play from the end zone angle which highlights what Burrow does on this attempt, including staring down the gun barrel of the incoming blitz, remaining poised, and delivering a strike:

While this play goes in the box score as an incompletion, it is an example of what you like to see from a young and developing quarterback.

Speaking of development, let’s now examine another incompletion — or more precisely a throwaway — that might lead to more questions than answers and illustrates a path for Burrow’s development. The Miami win was a big step for LSU but their signature victory of the 2018 campaign was a 36-16 victory over then-No.2 Georgia.

In that contest Burrow completed 15 of 30 passes for 200 yards and again zero touchdowns and zero interceptions. His yards per attempt did tick up from the Miami game, as he posted a Y/A of 6.7 in the victory.

Yet early in this game Burrow has a throwaway that left me puzzled:

This play comes in the first quarter, with the Tigers facing a 1st and 10 on their own 20-yard line. They line up with Burrow under center and use 12 offensive personnel, putting both tight ends in a wing to the left as part of a three-receiver formation.

A single receiver aligns to the right side. Georgia shows and stays in single-high coverage. LSU then motions the Z receiver in towards the football, and the Tigers run a play-action Yankee concept:

Yankee concept is a two-receiver, maximum protection concept that you are certain to see not just on Saturdays but also on Sundays. The Houston Texans and the New England Patriots are two teams in particular that turn to this design that pairs a deep post with a crossing route underneath it.

Here, the crossing route is coming from right to left, while the post is working from left the right. This is a standard “high-low” concept, with the goal being this: Bracket the safety in the middle of the field, with the post above him and the crosser in front of him, and throw based off his decision.

If he stays deep, throw that crosser in front of his face. If he jumps the dig, throw the post.

As with the previous example, Burrow faces pressure off his edge, but he climbs the pocket well. As he does he sees the safety jump the dig route, and the post come open, and he is staring right at it:

But…he does not pull the trigger. 

Instead, Burrow flushes to his right and attempts a throwaway late in the play, but that is almost intercepted. Thankfully for LSU, Burrow gets just enough on this throw and the defender cannot make the catch inbounds:

I’m dying to know why he did not pull the trigger. Some thoughts have crossed my mind.

He might have been expecting a cut call here, as we saw in Super Bowl 53 when Jason McCourty broke up a pass intended for Brandin Cooks. Sometimes in response to this route concept a cornerback will pass off that crossing route to the safety and replace him in the middle of the field.

Was Burrow expecting that? Or was he expecting something else?

When he made the decision to escape the pocket to the right, was he looking for that post route to continue across the field, or did this become a certain throwaway situation? I love the little shuffle and reset around the pressure, done while keeping his eyes downfield on the post route, but I am so curious as to what he was thinking after that. 

How Burrow answers similar questions in the season ahead will shine a light on his development as a passer. This incompletion has me wondering what he saw and how he will handle situations like this in the future.

If he starts pulling the trigger on routes like this, we will see a quarterback learning from his experience and truly developing as a passer. Which, after all, is what you want to see.

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