"He keeps opponents up at nights."
It's a common phrase in NFL circles, used to describe players who are so unique that opposing coordinators are forced to burn the proverbial candle at both ends in order to prepare for Sunday afternoon.
The expression has been used, repeatedly, about last year's crop of young passers. The rookies—Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III—as well as sophomore sensation quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, epitomize the idea that defensive coordinators need to go back to their drawing boards to think up new strategies.
So, the next question must be: What do they actually think about?
Seriously, it isn't just a platitude. These coaches really are worried about dual-threat passers, but what is that next step? How do you stop these athletes? What is the answer?
Is a Next Generation on Its Way?
Anytime I get to write a column like this, I relish the opportunity to reach out and get the opinions of some of the football community's greatest minds. Greg Cosell of NFL Films has been watching coaches' tape since most of us were gleams in our respective fathers' eyes. When I asked Cosell about this next generation, he immediately (and wryly) questioned the premise:
The sample size is too small to assume that this is the "next generation" of QBs...We have to be careful about that. I think it will continue, but to what degree?
Even while questioning the long-term impact, it's almost impossible to write off the quarterback "revolution" of 2012 as a fluke. When one starts to add in names like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and even more of the spread-option/pistol quarterbacks down the pipeline, it's clear that something is afoot.
The question Cosell raised is not "if," but rather "for how long."
Matt Bowen played professional football as a safety for six years. Before moving to the defense in college, he was a high school option quarterback. Now, Bowen writes for the National Football Post, among other outlets. He pointed to that aforementioned pipeline as evidence that this may be a longer-term generational shift:
If I were a coach in college, what would I want? Would I want (Arizona Cardinals quarterback) Carson Palmer or would I want a guy like Kaepernick, (Texas A&M quarterback Johnny) Manziel, Wilson, etc…making plays, extending the pocket. If I'm a coach, I want an athlete at quarterback. I would be multiple in my approach.
Manziel is an interesting test case because he's generally considered more athlete than thrower. Where he ends up in the minds of NFL scouts and decision-makers will be more telling than other prospects. Still, he's not the only athlete at the collegiate level playing quarterback. Cosell specifically mentioned UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. Others include: Washington quarterback Keith Price, Missouri quarterback James Franklin and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
At the top of the list, however, is Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who may end up as either the first or second overall pick this spring and is quickly becoming the consensus No. 2 prospect behind South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Bridgewater isn't running around like many of the quarterbacks listed above. No, Louisville wants to keep its investment healthy and in the pocket. However, he's got the athleticism to do many of the things asked of this next generation of passers, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he's drafted into a situation where he is asked to become even more of a dual threat.
Gerald Alexander is a defensive graduate assistant at Arkansas State university. Before that, he played safety in the NFL for four years and was a second-round pick out of Boise State University. He's seen a lot of option football as both a player and a coach, and he's seen a lot of dynamic athletes at quarterback. His thoughts:
With anything that works, people will try it...It becomes the flavor of the month and coordinators try to implement it. Eventually, people are going to have an answer—at least, a better answer—than they had last season. (*chuckles*) I hope I find the answer.
In the long term, the answer may not come from Xs and Os, but from X-rays and MRIs. Cosell called the upcoming 2013 season a "telling year," pointing out that pro-style quarterbacks like the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco don't miss games. Even New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who have missed extended time, have played most of their careers healthy.
If someone like Kaepernick or Wilson misses extended time, or Griffin gets injured again, it could change not only how their respective teams treat these concepts, but also how much other teams are willing to copy them.
One thing is certain: This is not a gimmick like the Wildcat that took the league by storm a few seasons ago. The difference between putting a running back like San Diego Charger Ronnie Brown or even a quarterback like the Patriots' Tim Tebow behind center and one of these quarterbacks is simple: these guys can throw.
Teams Need to Find Versatile Athletes On Defense, Not One-Trick Ponies
Imagine yourself as a defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. You've trained for years for this moment. The offense has just broken its huddle, and you find your spot at the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle. You're looking at him, but you really only have eyes for the quarterback. This is what you were meant to do. The ball is snapped, and everything goes perfectly. You're in the backfield...
Where the heck did the quarterback go?
If that anecdote leaves you with a fraction of the stress that NFL defenders feel on a weekly basis as they face off against these athletes, you may understand just a bit of what NFL personnel gurus and coaches are dealing with. Quarterbacks are supposed to be in a spot. For years, coaches from Pop Warner leagues all the way up to major colleges were teaching pass-rushers how to get to that spot.
Now, that spot is getting less and less crowded as athletic passers are moving the pocket and extending plays. Bowen explains the frustration:
You're telling Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware, "Hey, you gotta read something now. You can't play fast anymore." You're telling the elite athletes in the NFL, "all of a sudden, you're unblocked and now you have to read something." It's a thought process. You're taking the speed of the game out of the defense.
Pass-rushers aren't the only ones who have to play differently against these speedy passers. Linebackers who are taught sound gap-protecting principles also need to be able to peel and scrape the second a quarterback starts moving toward the edge. Fundamentally, it's nothing different than what's taught at high schools around the nation, but against NFL athletes, things move a little faster.
Above, Kaepernick is able to run for a big gain because a blitz got caught up in traffic and a gap was left open for only a moment. A small mistake against other quarterbacks becomes a big problem against the 49ers.
That's a key to stopping these offenses that no one really brings up. So often, critics of these innovative offenses will opine that they "can't work" against NFL defenses, which are so much faster than college defenses. The problem for defenses is: These athletes on offense—from the quarterback, to the running back and on to the offensive line—aren't college-level athletes either.
Here, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans (1) makes a solid play—scraping through traffic for a tackle. Heck, defensive lineman Trent Cole (2) made a pretty good play as well, blowing up the dive possibility. All around, it was what defenses are taught to do against the option.
It was still a first down for Newton.
This is why Kaepernick and the 49ers were able to outclass the Green Bay Packers last winter. The Packers defense was perfectly suited to beat the 49ers with quarterback Alex Smith under center, but Kaepernick's athleticism gave them fits. They had stout linemen, feared pass-rushers, and bulky interior run-stuffers. They didn't have anyone who could deal with Kaepernick.
"Guys are getting blown by because they don't remember their responsibility," Alexander told me. It's as if he had the Packers in mind when he said that. Or, perhaps the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are one of the top defenses in football but still had some bumps against guys like Griffin.
This is a perfect play. Against other quarterbacks, it's probably a sack or one of those halfhearted quarterback rushes where the passer is looking for the ground more than yardage. Instead, it's a seven-yard run.
Cornerbacks, too, need to be at their best against these passers because, again, they can pass! As Cosell pointed out, teams "need to decide how many players to commit to the run." When they commit players to the run and to the quarterback's potential to run, that leaves cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage—often with little to no help. At best, it will be a single high safety, who is distracted by the possibility of that aforementioned passer running for about 20 yards in the blink of an eye.
Safety Play Is Key
Across the board, everyone I talked to described the pressure that safeties are put under against this breed of passer. One could say it isn't exactly surprising, considering that I spoke to two former safeties. Yet, it was because of this that I sought out Bowen and Alexander. Bowen explained that pressure:
I've seen some of the most talented safeties in the NFL lose their keys against the read-option. It's not even the quarterback running the ball, just get it on tape. Even if you get it on the chalkboard—when it's 3rd-and-2 in the fourth quarter, some are going to get it, some aren't.
Cosell, too—although he was never a safety to the best of my knowledge—pointed out how troublesome it can be to find safeties who will excel against this type of passer: "The safety, for the most part, needs to be more multi-dimentional," adding, "the safety has to be a box player, eventually."
Compare that to Bowen later telling me, "[Teams] need two free safeties," and it starts to become clear as mud what type of player is needed—an elite player. Seriously, all we have to do is clone San Francisco 49ers great Ronnie Lott and Houston Texans safety Ed Reed about a thousand times, and maybe we'll nip this trend in the bud.
In this play, Griffin throws a short dump-off pass that turns into a huge gain because the Steelers have blitzed. The pressure, then, is put on the defensive backfield, which has to play back to prevent the big play but also get up field the second Griffin releases the ball. That doesn't happen. It's actually a little embarrassing to watch but completely par for the course against Griffin and his peers.
It's more difficult to see with the coaches-tape angle—seriously, NFL, high def please—but these are a bunch of eyes in the backfield. This allows Kaepernick to find receiver Randy Moss, who has settled down into a zone, for a reception. This isn't vintage Moss; this is last season. Against many other quarterbacks, this is a broken-up pass or an interception. However, the defensive backs need to be prepared for Kaepernick to take off, so they get caught flat-footed.
It isn't easy for safeties, as Bowen further admits: "Read run-pass and tackle Cam Newton in the open field, are you kidding me? Oh, and by the way, it might be play action." Bowen and I talked about New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccaro, who will face that exact issue twice a year against Newton. Bowen believes that Vaccaro will be "fine" in New Orleans but pointed out that there will be "no room for error" because he'll be put in plenty of opportunities to succeed (or fail).
Against athletic passers, that's really the long and short of it. At their best, safeties can look like all-stars. Yet, those same situations can make even talented safeties look like scrubs. In an NFL where there's already little room for mistakes, dual-threat passers make the margins even slimmer.
Be Ready for What Comes Next
The biggest chore for defensive coordinators isn't necessarily stopping what they saw last season. No, it's figuring out and stopping what offensive coordinators are going to do off of what happened last season.
How will Seattle's offense change with the addition of a dynamic receiver like Percy Harvin? What can the Buffalo Bills do with a quarterback like EJ Manuel and a running back like C.J. Spiller? How do the 49ers cope with the loss of receiver Michael Crabtree and will it include a heavy dose of two-back sets featuring Frank Gore and LaMichael James?
For coaches, it always comes down to fundamentals, as Alexander explains:
First thing you have to do is establish your rules—who plays the dive, here, there, every situation. You have to have clear-cut rules so there's no confusion. As you prepare, you need to have detailed rules, so you let your players play fast.
Those rules are just the start, however. As we've talked about, the rules don't always work in the grind of a game where so much is thrown at a defense. So, the real solution needs to also include responding in kind, by throwing a lot at the offense.
"Teams will blitz the **** out of it," Cosell added. Remember, these are young quarterbacks who haven't seen the varied blitzes and coverages that are about to be thrown at them in the coming season. Confusing the offense before they have a chance to confuse your defenders is a pretty good method of attack.
Confusion and contact can also lead to turnovers. In the above play, the New York Jets blitz gets to Russell Wilson turning what could've been a huge extended play into a fumble recovery and touchdown for Gang Green. Credit goes not only to the defensive line and the linebackers who provided pressure, but also the defensive backs who held their coverage for longer than what would normally be expected.
Furthermore, teams are ready to go all-out at these young passers with reckless abandon. As Dallas Cowboys great Drew Pearson said about stopping Griffin:
The way you do that is you go out on that field and you knock him around. Any chance you get. Even if it costs you a 15-yard penalty, and I’m only saying this if it’s not a critical situation or anything. Sometimes you've got to deliver that kind of blow, that kind of message to somebody to let him know it’s going to be like this all day and it's not gonna be a walk through the park. We've got to establish this with RGIII and the Redskins as well.
Cosell called this year, "fascinating" as we get a firsthand look at a potential evolution of the NFL. Yet, perhaps more than ever, defenses get a chance to affect that evolution by stopping it in its tracks.
All of this assumes that defenses will be able to successfully confuse, blitz, hit and stop this next generation of quarterbacks. That assumption puts a lot of pressure not only on coaches but also front offices as different types of players are added specifically to stop these guys. If the offenses continue to evolve, defenses will follow suit.
In the end, it still comes down to throwing the football. That's what sets this generation apart. They're not runners like Tebow. They're not even runners with cannons for arms like Philadelphia's Michael Vick. No, these are quarterbacks who can run really well. As long as these passers can pass, they'll be dangerous. Until defensive coordinators can figure out how to stop them, they'll be lethal.
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. Unless otherwise noted, quotations were obtained first hand.