How to Slow Down Michigan QB Devin Gardner
Denard Robinson was classified as a "dual-threat" quarterback, but he was just as one-dimensional as someone like Blaine Gabbert. He could run as well as any player in college football, but no team respected his arm.
When Devin Gardner relieved him last season, he gave Michigan something it had sorely lacked: a quarterback who is actually capable of being a dual weapon.
Equally adept with both arm and legs, Gardner was a revelation for the Wolverines late last season. And now, entering 2013 as the full-time starter, bigger things—much bigger things—are expected.
So how does a defense go about slowing him down? The answer lies solely in how it pressures him:
Gardner doesn't take a lot of designed runs, but make no mistake about it: He's one of the most mobile QBs in college football. As such, he is able to create time outside the pocket when he scrambles.
So the job of the defense, much like the United States Military after World War II, is one of disciplined containment.
Here Gardner is against Minnesota. It's 3rd-and-17 and the Gophers rush just four. Everyone is covered downfield, but Gardner sees a crease and rolls out to extend the play.
Minnesota's defense collapses on the rollout, in full pursuit of Gardner. But for the right defensive end, pursuit isn't his job. His job is to stay in the middle of the field and keep Gardner from reversing. He's supposed to contain, but he ignores his responsibility to pursue a sack:
Because of the end's mistake, when Gardner doubles back and rolls to the left, that side of the field is one block away from being wide open:
And by the time Gardner reaches the open space, sets and gets ready to deliver a deep ball, the Minnesota secondary has been in coverage for almost 10 seconds. That's too long for any defensive back tandem to keep someone from getting open:
Because the right end was eager to chase down the sack, Gardner had the room to operate and make a play. It ended up in a touchdown. Breaking containment is exactly what Gardner hoped for when he rolled out, and Minnesota played right into his trap.
Pressure From the Blind Side
Devin Gardner is still, by most standards, highly inexperienced under center. He played well at the end of last season, but he began the year as a wide receiver. And even though the plan was always to move him back to QB at some point, the switch forced him to lose a few reps at his natural position.
So he doesn't have the same, innate, second-nature-type feel of other top college passers. That kind of pocket presence comes only through repetition. And right now, Gardner can be exploited.
Here's a play from the Ohio State game last season, Gardner's worst career outing at quarterback. Michigan is spread out and Ohio State brings five (plus keeps one linebacker in Spy), which makes Gardner a little uneasy:
Young quarterbacks often see through tunnel vision, especially when they see blitz. Gardner is focused solely on the rushing linebacker and, maybe, one target downfield.
The linebacker is taken out by a good chip block in the backfield, at which point Gardner assumes he is clear. He isn't yet able to feel pressure; he's only able to see it. And once he sees one threat averted, he forgets about the potential of Adolphus Washington on the blind side:
Washington gets by Taylor Lewan, which is easier said than done, strip-sacks Gardner and Ohio State recovers. Red-zone threat averted.
No team can bank on its ends beating Taylor Lewan. If it could, that would be an obvious strategical choice. But even if you can't count on beating him one-on-one, you can bring extra pressure from the blind side.
Gardner still struggles reading pressure schemes. That's another thing that comes with time and experience. If a defense can mask its rush and bring two from the blind side, even Taylor Lewan might not be able to stop the onslaught.
Getting to Gardner from the blind side is even more effective than other quarterbacks He doesn't yet have the presence to wriggle out of it.
The key to stopping Devin Gardner isn't just bringing pressure—it's bringing the right pressure. Yes, he's one of the most athletic QBs in football. But that doesn't necessarily mean he can't be forced into mistakes. Ever watched Michael Vick try to handle a blitz for the Eagles?
If a defense is judicious with how it rushes, it may be able to reveal Gardner's greenness. It may be able to make him uncomfortable, force him to scramble when scrambling is unwise, create a big loss or turnover out of what should have been an incompletion.
But if a defense rushes willy nilly, merely for the sake of rushing, and without any pretense of discipline, Gardner will rip it apart. He will buy time and create space and open up opportunities with both his legs and his arm.
He'll face some stiff competition this upcoming season. Past just Ohio State, Michigan plays rival Michigan State in East Lansing and the stout defensive unit of Notre Dame. Those are three of the best defenses in the country and each one will have done its due diligence on Gardner before kickoff.
Only time will tell if Gardner is up to handling them.
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