Which NFL Quarterbacks Thrive Against the Pass Rush?
Some NFL quarterbacks can handle it. Some cannot. Pressure, as Queen and David Bowie once noted, "puts people on streets." When a quarterback can't handle the pressure that defensive coordinators throw at him, his career is likely to be short and the subject of a lot of ridicule.
It is said that great quarterbacks have an internal clock and an almost sixth sense of feeling the rush around them even when they cannot see it. While it's hard to quantify a skill that seems to border on the omniscient, it's laughably easy to tell when a professional quarterback doesn't have it.
David Carr entered the league as a first-overall pick out of Fresno State in 2002. When he took over the expansion Houston Texans, it was clear that the blitzes, defenses and athletes he saw in the Western Athletic Conference paled in comparison to those in the AFC South and beyond. By the time Matt Schaub took over for the Texans in 2007, Carr was well on his way to being considered one of the biggest draft busts ever.
Carr didn't fail because he wasn't a good enough athlete (he was), and he certainly didn't fail because he didn't have a good enough arm (he did, and he still does). No, Carr failed because his time spent in the pocket often looked like a cartoonish caricature of someone playing charades, and the word was always "jittery."
Not to trivialize the actual disorder, but some have even bandied about the idea that the constant shots Carr took behind the Texans' terrible offensive line led to some sort of football variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—as if his internal clock simply runs too fast.
Nearly 10 years later, my scouting report of Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert (now with the Jacksonville Jaguars) referenced Carr a number of times, as Gabbert's inability to deal with the pass rush was blatantly reminiscent of the former's struggles.
So, which quarterbacks excel at dealing with opposing pass-rushers? And just how do they do it?
The Old Guard
When looking at quarterbacks and pressure, the easiest way to quantify the success is simply looking at the starting quarterbacks and seeing which ones took the least number of sacks. Using that basic metric, it's simple to hop onto Pro Football Focus (paid link) and sort quarterbacks by those who took 75 percent or more of their team's snaps and then sort by sacks.
Using that standard, the New York Giants' Eli Manning is the best quarterback at avoiding pressure, having taken only 19 sacks last season. His brother, the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning, is No. 2 on said list with 21.
The Manning brothers exemplify what I call the old-school method of avoiding sacks. For years, the quarterback position was the one area in football that didn't kowtow to the ever-increasing athleticism at every other position on the field. (The mere fact that Jared Lorenzen has a Super Bowl ring should prove that point nicely.)
No, while scouts and general managers looked for elite speed measurable traits out of 99 percent of their players, they still accepted quarterbacks on the basis of their throwing ability and how savvy they were on the field. "Moxie" is a word rarely used with any position other than quarterback, and frankly, no one really cares how much of a leader a defensive tackle is compared to the signal-caller.
Tom Brady was a sixth-round pick of the New England Patriots out of Michigan in 2000. He fell to the sixth (in part) because scouts felt that he didn't have the size to hold up against NFL-caliber defenders and lacked the minimum-allowable athleticism to avoid the rush.
This is notable, because Brady has made an absolutely stellar career out of doing just that:
Against the blitz last year Tom Brady threw 18 TDs...ZERO interceptions. Is that good? pic.twitter.com/7wqOjUecsJ— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 20, 2013
Brady isn't good against the blitz because he's developed some recent growth spurt or was bitten by a radioactive Fran Tarkenton. No, he's one of the best quarterbacks ever against the blitz because he's smart, has a command of his offense like few others and has one of the quickest releases this side of Johnny Unitas.
Brady is so good against the blitz that the Giants developed what we now know as a "NASCAR" package in order to avoid the need to blitz. In the "NASCAR," the Giants line up four of their most fearsome and speedy pass-rushers, completely eschewing the traditional defensive tackle position.
Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post laid it all out before the Patriots and Giants faced off:
Brady is among the fastest decision-makers in league history. And few quarterbacks are as effective moving just a few inches within the limited space behind the line of scrimmage to avoid the pass rush. A step there, a slide there, and Brady frustrates hardworking defensive linemen perhaps more than any other quarterback.
Brady's ability to exploit a blitz also means most defenses don't send extra pass rushers because he is so quick to find the openings left behind in coverage. That's why four-man pass rushes are considered to have the best chance of impacting Brady's performance.
Of course, we can all remember how the Giants harassed Brady in that Super Bowl, and the trend has continued.
The idea is simple physics—the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. A safety blitz certainly has a lot further to go than a defensive tackle. Add in the extra person in coverage because the defense isn't blitzing and things look even brighter against a quarterback like Brady.
If you follow the link in that tweet above, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is mentioned right alongside Brady as a quarterback who can't handle pressure up the middle. Now, Brees only took 26 sacks last season, tied for third among full-time starters along with now-Arizona Cardinal Carson Palmer and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Josh Freeman—two more quarterbacks who lack the elite foot speed to outright outrun defenders.
Like Brady, Brees loves to spread defenses out and attack with multiple receiver sets. Because both quarterbacks are so adept at finding holes in zones, blitzes are mostly ineffective. This ramps up the effectiveness of strong interior pass-rushers like the Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins, the Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy and Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh.
Let's go back to Palmer and Freeman for a moment, because they fit perfectly in with the last "old-school" method of avoiding the rush—just throwing the darn football!
Former NFL coach, personnel man and all-around guru Bill Parcells once told then-New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms: “All right, Simms. If you don’t throw at least two interceptions today, that means you’re not trying enough. I need plays. Make some daring plays. Go for the big plays. Don’t be afraid.”
It's no coincidence that Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Tony Romo crossed paths with Parcells during his formative years as well. Romo is the king of chucking up high-risk passes under pressure. Many times it works out for him, but critics have plenty of backbreaking interceptions to point to as well.
It's a backward idea to fans who understand the importance of ball security, but it's a question of philosophy. When in doubt and without a Brady or Manning on the roster, certain coaches want to have a quarterback who is willing to take chances in face of the rush.
Former AFC South scribe Nate Dunlevy wrote about this phenomenon for Bleacher Report regarding Bruce Arians and the Indianapolis Colts' 2012 offensive scheme (now belonging to the Cardinals after Arians' hire as head coach). Dunlevy called the offense "high-risk and high-reward" and went on to say:
This is a choice by the Colts to be aggressive at all times. There's no denying that more short passes and completions would greatly prop up [Andrew] Luck's personal numbers, but it's hard to argue with the success of the offense...
In time, Luck's decision making under pressure will mature. People forget how many interceptions Peyton Manning threw from 1999 to 2002. His pick rate of 3.2 percent is right in line with where Manning was in 2001 and 2002. Manning didn't fully grasp taking what the defense gave him until 2005.
No coach would rather have an interception rather than a sack, but plenty of quarterbacks opt to take the chance of throwing an interception (or making an amazing play) rather than the 100 percent chance of losing yardage due to a sack.
The Young Guns
By now, some readers are mostly likely thinking to themselves: "Hey, aren't sacks a reflection of line play, and by the way Mike, you're one snappy dresser." Well first, thank you for the compliment, and you're right on both accounts! However, the first part is only partially correct.
Sacks, as a stat, are relatively new. They were first tracked in the 1960s, and the recently departed Deacon Jones helped coin the term. Before "sack," people were calling the act "dumps," which would've made the 2012 New York Jets season a lot more hilarious.
Too often, sacks are forced upon the offensive line like a thrift store suit on a gawky preteen. Sure, it looks correct if one doesn't know what to look for. On closer inspection, however, the fit is uncomfortable and just isn't right.
First, the entire point of a blitz is to bring more pass-rushers to a side than there are blockers. Secondly, we've already discussed how a quarterback is valued for his poise under pressure. Holding the ball for an extra second in that circumstance isn't exactly what coaches are looking for.
Anyone who has spent any time on a football field (at any level) knows that the offensive line and quarterbacks often quibble about who the sack was "on." As a former offensive lineman, I'm proud to point out that many times, the quarterback is the one at fault.
Of course, that's just a general maxim, but unless the lineman failed to hold up his assignment at all, there's probably more to the equation than "Player X gave up sack to Player Y."
So, the way we talk about pressure is evolving. Most fans are comfortable with the idea of QB hurries—throws that are made with the defender bearing down on the passer. QB hits are also tracked more and more frequently—we can probably thank Carr and the Texans for that one, as the quarterback is contacted after he has released the ball.
Pro Football Focus has compiled all of these stats into a metric and measured quarterbacks' success under pressure. First, I looked at the total number of pressures a quarterback faced and sorted by the amount of completions he made under pressure. As a measure of success under pressure, this isn't perfect but is certainly steps ahead of "sacks taken."
Many of the names we've already talked about are there, and it's a testament to the "just throw the darn ball" method that Romo, Palmer and Luck are all on top of—with the Lions' Matthew Stafford, Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisberger, San Diego Charger Philip Rivers and Chicago Bear Jay Cutler all on the list as well.
It's also a credit to the sheer amount of pressure all of those quarterbacks faced. All of those passers have front offices that have looked to improve protection this offseason and for very good reason.
So, Pro Football Focus took it a step further and created a formula that inputs the data, not only on a percentage basis, as it also negates the effects of drops on the statistic. Since Pro Football Focus is a paid site, I encourage you all to check out the proprietary "signature stat," but many of the names on the top are not the prototypical pocket-passers we've already discussed.
Just as the way of looking at quarterback pressure has changed, so too have the methods of creating that pressure and scheming against that pressure.
Aaron Rodgers has been in the league since 2005, when the Green Bay Packers rescued him from the green room with the 24th pick in the draft. He is, in many ways, the prototype of the new breed of quarterback that the NFL is experimenting with.
He arrived in the league in an era of pocket-passing, but his ability to extend plays with his legs—both behind and past the line of scrimmage—has helped usher in a new crop of quarterbacks who elude pass-rushers by simply not being where they're supposed to be.
Think about it: Defenders are taught to pin their ears back and aim for a spot on the football field where that quarterback is supposed to be. The angles they take and the techniques they use are ingrained because they work. Well, at least they used to.
Take one look at San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick against the Packers in the NFC Divisional round last season, and that's enough evidence that things are changing right there. B.J. Raji said it best after the game: "It's assignment football. Everybody knew their assignments tonight, and it came up short."
That's the point, though. The assignments work against quarterbacks who have a completely different skill set as Kaepernick. Considering they have the guy who made the mold on their team, one would think the Packers could've seen this coming.
Rodgers took 51 sacks last year, but Pro Football Focus has him completing 71.4 percent of his passes under pressure last season (again, accounting for drops). That's an insane stat when one thinks about it, but it's only fourth in the league. The three names above him are Robert Griffin III (75 percent), Ryan Tannehill (72.9) and Roethlisberger (71.7). Of those four, only Rodgers ranked in the top 10 of total dropbacks under pressure.
That means that not only does Rodgers excel on a per-snap basis under pressure, he also does so at a quantity that is truly special. Maybe $110 million over five years isn't enough after all.
Like Rodgers, Griffin and Tannehill both skirt the line between using their arms and their legs to thrive under pressure. It takes on an almost organic feel when watching them on tape and really starts to feel as if maybe these guys do have that aforementioned sixth sense.
That was Griffin's first touchdown pass in the NFL, and he made it—on the money—with a defender bearing down in his face. By Pro Football Focus' count, he'd throw four more of those TDs under pressure in his rookie season. That tied for first among rookies with the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson—yes, another dual-threat quarterback.
As the quarterbacks have evolved, so too must the methods of creating pressure on this new breed of pass-rusher eluding wunderkinds. The only two ways to win in today's NFL is to pass the ball and stop the pass. Whether through the air, on the ground or both, these passers have figured out how to thrive under pressure.
Your move, defenses.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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