Evaluating quarterbacks is hard. Playing quarterback is even harder.
Do you know how difficult it is to drop back snap after snap with your eyes downfield, mechanics consistent and burly athletes running downhill in your direction?
It's a tough task, especially when the burly athletes are coming from all directions and have to be sidestepped in a crammed pocket by the quarterback, who is trying to look off the safety to make a first-down throw. Not to mention, if mistakes are made, they are magnified by critics.
Critics are tough on quarterbacks, especially when it comes to pocket presence. They analyze if the signal-callers can avoid blindside pressure with subtle steps. But one of the biggest problems in today's NFL that has been overlooked when it comes to pocket presence is a signal-caller's ability to deal with front-side pressure.
We all know about a quarterback's ability to deal with blindside pressure, which comes from the opposite side of the throwing arm.
It's hard to describe how pocket presence works, because it's like a clock in the passer's head. He knows he probably has between one and three seconds to get rid of the ball, and he has to have a "feel" for the pressure. If he doesn't, he's likely to get obliterated by a pass-rusher while being stripped of the ball.
A quality example of the ability to sense blindside pressure is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, who has improved in this area of his game and displayed it against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
Flacco came out the huddle and lined up in a shotgun set with a split backfield. The Ravens were in 11 personnel, meaning they had one running back and tight end on the field.
The former Delaware passer dropped back during the two-minute offense in the fourth quarter and sensed pressure from his left while looking down the field. The Patriots defensive end speed-rushed the offensive tackle before eventually engaging with him and approaching Flacco.
Because of the pressure, Flacco was forced to climb the pocket while keeping his eyes down the field prior in order to keep the play alive.
This type of pocket presence is littered throughout the league because the majority of starting quarterbacks have the ability to avoid blindside pressure, but the same can't be said for front-side pressure.
Front-side pressure is related to having space to work with at the feet. In other words, when an offensive lineman is pushed back into the quarterback, he still has to be able to throw the ball despite not having room or "functional space" to work with.
During the same drive, Flacco proved that he could make throws without functional space in crunch time.
With more than a minute-and-a-half to work, Flacco came out of the huddle and lined up with 11 personnel split backs in a shotgun set. The split backs consisted of running back Ray Rice to his right and tight end Dennis Pitta to his left.
When Flacco dropped back, he looked deep down the middle of the field to identify how many safeties were deep.
Subsequently, he looked at his first two options, receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, who were unable to get open. As Flacco went to his third and final option, Dennis Pitta, center Matt Birk was sent flying back by a powerful bull rush from mammoth New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork walked Birk deep into the pocket and nearly knocked Flacco over. Fortunately for the Ravens, Flacco found his outlet, who picked up five yards to help set up a manageable third down, before Wilfork made his mark.
Another instance of quality pocket presence from Flacco came with slightly more than a minute left in the game on 2nd-and-10. Flacco and the offense were once again in their 11 personnel, consisting of a single running back and tight end, except this time they had a Trips set (three threats to one side) to Flacco's right.
When Flacco put the ball in play and dropped back to pass, right guard Marshal Yanda was pushed back into the pocket, eliminating any possible space for Flacco to step through his throw.
Despite the lack of room, Flacco delivered an impressive pass. It was a high degree of difficulty, with Flacco throwing accurately from the far hash to a diving Anquan Boldin in the wide side of the field.
These are the types of throws that raise a quarterback's performance and propel him into the upper echelon at their position.
In Flacco's case, he hasn't been able to become one of the league's best because of issues with other crucial aspects of the quarterback position, particularly mechanics.
Despite this, he has improved in getting rid of the ball in a timely manner while in the pocket, which is also important. It is important because of how many defenses apply A-gap (areas between center and guards) pressure. This type of pressure is seen through defenses "sugaring" the interior gaps or using some form of zone pressure, such as the fire-zone blitz.
The fire-zone blitz is a popular package that features any combination of five defenders blitzing while six drop in pass coverage.
Defenses utilize this pressure package over a dozen times a game, which is why the quarterback's ability to handle front-side pressure is more important than ever and has made interior offensive linemen more valuable as well.
Passers that are unable to deal with this kind of pressure are likely to struggle in the NFL. The reason for this is because when crunch time comes, they will have to make crucial throws on 3rd-and-long with the defense sending blitzes up the middle.
If they are unable to do so, they are unlikely to lead their team to the Super Bowl.