Mobile quarterbacks who can run and pass are in vogue right now in the NFL, and with good reason. They create matchup problems for the defense and can turn broken plays into big gains with their legs. The Seattle Seahawks open the season against just such a QB in Carolina's Cam Newton.
I've spent much time studying the game film of the NFL's most mobile QBs. I've been specifically looking at the games in which those QBs have had their worst games in terms of running the football.
I was hoping to find some common threads in opposing defensive game plans. While the personnel and overall schemes varied greatly, there were three common themes discovered in those games where the QBs struggled.
Here is what I found, complete with examples of each found in last season's Week 5 game between the Seahawks and Panthers.
Keep it Simple
One of the first things I noticed in my tape study is that blitzing tended to create some really long runs for the QBs. This was most apparent in the playoffs when Green Bay was torn apart by San Francisco QB Colin Kaepernick.
Dom Capers tried to put pressure on Kaepernick by using a variety of stunts, twists and blitzes. The only results were large gaps in containment and big runs by the QB. Instead, the most effective game plans were those that were the most vanilla.
The best way to illustrate this is to take a look at an example where getting too creative defensively resulted in a big gain for the offense.
You can see right from the initial formation that it is going to be difficult for the Seahawks to keep Newton in the pocket.
The Seahawks are trying to bring pressure by lining up both Jason Jones and Chris Clemons outside the left tackle. They are clearly trying to bring pressure, hoping either the LT or LG will be unable to get over quick enough to prevent the pass-rushers from getting around the corner.
Compounding the problem is Bruce Irvin, lining up well outside the TE on the other side of the formation. The Seahawks have four defensive linemen on the field, but only one is lined up between the offensive tackles.
When the ball is snapped, all three of the linemen, who are outside the tackles, quickly rush up the field and run themselves right out of the play. Newton is able to run right through the center of the formation with no resistance.
With no convoy in front of him, Newton ran for a big gain.
The Seahawks have to remember to keep things simple and don't try and get cute with their play calling and blitzes. Trying to overload the blockers means losing containment on the QB, and Newton can exploit that for big runs.
Keep the Defensive Ends in Front of the QB
When playing against a mobile QB, containment is usually more important than pressure.
To show you what I mean, let's take a look at another play. The Seahawks will rush four on this play, and the Panthers will keep six in to block. I've numbered the defensive linemen, so we can keep track of who is who.
About a half-second later, you can see what I was referring to in terms of the DEs. Neither is trying to get around the OT, choosing, instead, to try and maintain proper spacing and make sure that Newton cannot escape to the outside. Take a closer look at Clemons (labeled No. 4) and you'll see he's not even making contract with the blockers yet.
At this point, Alan Branch (labeled No. 2) defeats his block and forces Newton to pull the ball down and look for a running lane. Defensive end No. 1 (who appears to be Jason Jones—difficulty in seeing his number) had already begun moving inside to close off that running lane, even though Newton had yet to begin scrambling.
At this point, it's easy to see where this play is going. The running lane to the left is non-existent. There's also no hope for Newton to get outside, thanks to Clemons keeping proper depth and width on the play. The only place for Newton to go is through the hole on the right, and Clemons is already shedding his block moving into that space.
Clemons makes the tackle after a measly two-yard gain.
Containing a mobile QB like Newton takes discipline. It isn't easy for speed rushers like Clemons to ignore their instincts and focus on things like spacing and containment, but doing so is necessary in order to prevent big gains when the QB takes off running.
Had Clemons and the other DE not worked to stay in front of Newton on this play, the QB would have taken off for a huge gain.
Get the Ball Out of the QBs Hands
This is referring to the read-option element that teams began implementing last season. These plays are much easier to stop if the defense forces the QB to hand the ball off the RB. Let me show you what I mean:
This is a standard read-option play. The Panthers have lined up two TEs, and the Seahawks have countered by bringing SS Kam Chancellor down into the box.
The numbers game on this play are clearly in favor of Carolina, as they have seven blockers to account for all seven of the Seahawks who need to be blocked on this play. I indicated the blocking assignments in blue.
Clemons (circled in orange) is intentionally left unblocked. He's is the "read" part of the "read-option." If he goes upfield toward the QB, Newton will hand the ball off. If he crashes inside at the RB, Newton will keep the ball and run to the outside.
If we roll forward a few frames, we can see how all of Seahawks are blocked except for Clemons (still circled). Clemons is clearly not crashing to the inside, so Newton hands the ball off.
It's important to note that Newton made the correct read on this play. Clemons played the QB the entire way, and even gave Newton a little love tap at the end of the play. The reason this play was stopped was because all three Seahawks near the hole (numbered) were able to shed their blocks.
With everyone blocked, someone has to defeat their block for a read-option play to be stopped. On the inside, there were three different players who could make that play. If it goes to the outside, only the outside linebacker has a chance to get there.
It's simply a game of probability. There are more bodies on the inside, so it's more likely that one of them will be able to get off their block and make a play. This play was a win for the Seahawks because Clemons forced the play inside where his teammates could do their jobs.