Mark Schofield takes an in-depth look into the non-negotiables of quarterbacking through the tape of Justin Herbert and remains impressed with the Oregon quarterback despite the perception that Herbert’s draft stock is sliding.
If you ask any draft evaluator or draftnik, the race for QB1 has come down to two players, Tua Tagovailoa from Alabama and Joe Burrow from LSU. As luck would have it, those players will square off this Saturday in Tuscaloosa in a game that many are calling “The Battle for QB1.”
But if you had those players vying for that title back in August, well, congratulations—and quit lying. Entering the 2019 campaign Burrow was viewed by most as a later round pick while the battle people expected was between Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert from Oregon.
After a loss to Auburn in their season opener when Herbert threw a short Hail Mary out of the back of the end zone on the game’s final play – and some slow play early in the season, Herbert has largely fallen off the radar as a contender for the title of top quarterback prospect.
None of this is meant to diminish the rise of Burrow. The LSU passer is putting together an impressive resume this season and has many very excited about the growth he has shown this year as well as his potential at the next level. A win in Tuscaloosa might cement his status as the top dog in this class.
Now allow me to make a nuanced case for Herbert. Perhaps not as the top guy in this group, but as a player that we should not be sleeping on.
The more and more I study, evaluate and think about the quarterback position, the more thoughts I have about how the position is evaluated, and what some of the non-negotiable traits are that matter when playing QB.
One of the traits that seem to matter at the quarterback position is processing speed. As a QB you are routinely tasked with deciphering large amounts of information and then making appropriate decisions based on that information in a compressed space of time with large men trying to cause you physical harm. Even on the simplest of route concepts, you can see how a quarterback’s inability to quickly decipher information and make a decision can lead to mistakes.
Let Mitchell Trubisky be a guide:
Trubisky is in the shotgun and the Bears run a simple half-field read. On the left side of the formation, they have a slant/flat concept, and on the right side of the formation, they run a curls concept.
Again, what is one of the traits that we so often highlight as having critical importance in playing the quarterback position?
Processing speed. Ingrain this into your thinking.
Trubisky first reads the slant/flat on the left, then quickly snaps his eyes to the right side to look at the curls concept, and despite having options open to him, he never gets the ball out. Despite having options downfield, Trubisky takes the sack.
Take a look at this play from Herbert against Stanford. Herbert is in the pistol formation, and Oregon runs a variation of the Mills concept with a post route coming from the right, and dual dig routes crossing from left to right out of a stacked slot alignment.
Herbert carries out a play-action fake here where he turns his back to the defense. That’s the critical aspect of this play, the run fake and how he drops his eyes from the secondary.
This action further shortens the time Herbert has to read this play. Still, he spots what’s vital about the coverage as he ends his fake. He sees and understandings that the man-match coverage the Cardinals are running on this play will open the first dig route and he makes a good throw.
Here is the play from the end zone angle:
This angle highlights another aspect of the processing speed Herbert displays on this completion. He needs to be sure that the underneath linebacker, as well as the backside cornerback, are not going to get under this throw.
He can be pretty sure that the corner is going to stick on the post route, but he needs to be wary of the linebacker. So Herbert feathers this throw to the outside a bit using touch, to exploit the leverage he sees in the secondary.
Reading and exploiting leverage is vital.
On a recent episode of The Quick Game, Matt and I discussed this topic. The more and more we see combination coverages and matching coverages in the secondary, the less and less it matters whether the quarterback can differentiate between say Cover 4, Cover 2, or Cover 6 on the fly.
With the tweaks and adjustments defenses are making, it is sometimes hard to decipher a coverage with the luxury of time and tools away from the field—even with the advantages of slow-motion, pausing, or asking for help.
As an example, I recently had a discussion offline with three other football minds about one particular coverage. Among the four of us—one of us an actual defensive coach—we could not figure out what the defense was doing on the play.
This just in about Football: It’s hard!
Of course, this makes me feel like an idiot for all the time I have spent talking about how well quarterbacks decipher coverage. What matters more is deciphering leverage, and exploiting it.
This is a basic run/pass option design. Herbert is reading the linebacker and deciding whether to throw the slant or hand the ball off. Pre-snap, there is a slot defender over the slant receiver, and the quarterback needs to make sure the throwing lane is clear if he decides to pull and throw.
The linebacker slides inside and the slot defender jumps outside. It doesn’t matter what the coverage is, the slant receiver now has the leverage advantage.
You see something similar on this throw on an out pattern to the left:
Whether the Cardinals are in Cover 1 or Cover 3 or some man match coverage here does not matter from where Herbert stands. He sees that the defender over the out route is using inside leverage and giving up the sideline.
That enables the quarterback to make an anticipation throw on this pattern. He exploits the leverage advantage and the defender has no chance to make a play on the football.
Yes, the pass falls incomplete, but as you’ll see from the end zone angle, Herbert puts this in a perfect spot and the pass goes through the receiver’s hands:
With processing speed, leverage, and anticipation covered, a final non-negotiable we can highlight from Herbert is pocket movement. There is more than one way to approach the issue.
We saw them play out on a Sunday night recently, with contrasting styles of pocket movement from Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady. You can be an elite athlete like Jackson, or a deftly-moving battleship like Brady, but you need to avoid pressure, keep your eyes downfield and make plays happen in the face of pressure to be a good QB.
Herbert displays the ability to click, climb, and slide in the pocket on this throw, all while keeping those eyes downfield to find the crosser late.
The best part about this play from Herbert might be the second move he makes in the pocket. First, he climbs the pocket in response to edge pressure, which is a textbook move from the quarterback. But he also has some interior pressure as well, so he deftly slides to the left to create additional space and produce a better throwing lane for this underneath route:
Herbert may end up being the third quarterback taken in the upcoming draft, or even lower on some boards. But as we have seen so many times from previous drafts, the selection spot does not matter as much as the landing spot.
Most importantly, I would posit, are the non-negotiables at the position. The traits that matter. Herbert shows some of them on these plays against Stanford.
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