Awareness and Urgency on Third Down (with Sam Bradford)

A quarterback earns his stripes in critical situations. Whether it be 3rd/4th down, in the red zone, in the 4th quarter, etc., quarterbacks have to be able to operate when the stakes are higher. Quarterbacks must be able to assess the situation and execute accordingly.

3rd/4th down situations can be especially tough. More often than not, teams are bringing extra pass rushers in order to force the quarterback to get the ball out quickly. Quarterbacks have to be able to identify the number of pass rushers and where the blitzers are coming from in order to know when and where to get rid of the ball. When facing the Houston Texans in Week 5, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford showed that seemingly minute mistakes can be the difference between having to punt instead of earning a fresh set of downs.

The Vikings were in a 3rd-and-7 situation here. The Texans defense came out in a Man-Free look (man coverage with one deep safety). There are five defenders on the line of scrimmage, while another defender is lurking close to the line of scrimmage about five yards off of the left guard. Given the pre-snap look, it would be fair to assume that the Texans are bringing at least five and the critical defender is the player creeping toward the line of scrimmage over the left guard. If he comes, the ball should replace him; if he stays in coverage, the quarterback needs to go elsewhere.

The creeping defender ended up being a blitzer and ultimately the sixth rusher. For Bradford, that should have confirmed that he had 1-on-1 coverage across the board and a deep centerfielding safety over the top. Bradford’s first look should be to the slot receiver Jairus Wright running the skinny post. Furthermore, the ball should start coming forward as Bradford completes his three step drop. Fortunately for the Texans defense, that is not what Bradford did. Bradford took an extra ‘reset’ step at the end of his drop, which gave edge rusher Whitney Mercilus just enough time to sack Bradford from his blind side.

Bradford’s left foot is hitting the ground. This is his first step. As his first foot hits the ground, it’s already apparent that the Texans are, in fact, bringing six rushers. Unless there is an unexpected late drop from one of the rushers, there won’t be a defender hovering the short/intermediate middle of the field area.

Second foot in the ground. The Texans are still showing six rushers. By now, Bradford needs to be deciding if he wants to throw the skinny post to Wright or not. If not, he needs to set up to go vertical to one of his outside receivers or prepare to wait on the late-developing route from his tight end.

The ball should be coming forward right now. Bradford’s back foot is coming down at the end of his drop and Wright looks to be starting his break to the inside. The throw is there if Bradford pulls the trigger from this platform.

Instead of throwing at the top of his initial drop, Bradford waits on the route and takes an extra ‘reset’ step. This still shot show Bradford bringing back his left foot in order to begin his reset, as opposed to bringing that foot forward in order to plant and throw.

As a result of not anticipating the route opening up, Bradford held onto the ball too long and got sacked inside of his own 20-yard line. Bradford, a seven year veteran, should have been able to recognize the coverage and execute accordingly, but he fell short in this instance.

Now, in all fairness to Bradford, he had a quietly impressive season and played about as well as the Vikings could have expected him to. He executed well in plenty of other situations like this one, and this sort of piece could be written about any quarterback. Every quarterback has botched a third down like this at some point or another. Sam Bradford just happened to be the unlucky pupil that I chose to use as an example of how precious every morsel of time is on 3rd/4th downs.

The fragility of decision making on 3rd/4th downs is something that can make or break quarterbacks. Good quarterbacks must be able to handle these situations and be able to convert at a high rate. The better the quarterback, the more likely it is that they are excellent on 3rd/4th downs and being able to sustain drives. Even a couple more critical conversions per game than the “average” quarterback can be monumental to a team’s success. 3rd down isn’t referred to as the “money down” for nothing.

DeShone Kizer and Winning in the Red Zone

Confidence is a necessary trait for quarterbacks. If a quarterback doesn’t believe he can hit the throw, he won’t hit it. Quarterbacks have to take a number of factors into account before determining the confidence they have in themselves to complete a pass. Anything from the intended target, opposing talent, coverage scheme, and so on and so forth, can boost or diminish a quarterback’s confidence in a particular route concept.

Part of confidence is knowing what the defense is going to do. Quarterbacks can operate much smoother when they have a good idea of what they are in for. Of course, defenses can disguise and shift coverages, but every quarterback does his best to identify coverages pre-snap and reassess the coverage post-snap to determine where the ball will go.

In the red zone, confidence is necessary. The field is shortened and mistakes are magnified. Quarterbacks have to be even more aware, precise and, most of all, confident than they are between the 20’s. The difference between one extra hitch, a slight misread or a slight hesitation can be the difference between a touchdown or settling for a field goal.

How DeShone Kizer Attacks the Red Zone

Cover-2 is one of many coverages that a defense can employ. Below is a diagram from Inside The Pylon of a basic Cover-2 look:

Cover 2

The two deep safeties have a lot of responsibility on this play. They must be able to cover one half of the field from beyond about 10 yards. The position of the safeties help take away the seams (around the numbers), but leave some room for the quarterback to fit the ball down the hash marks or on the sideline. Quarterbacks have to be able to manipulate the safeties to stay away from their desired route, as well as have the arm to fit the tight windows down the hashes or to the boundary.

In the red zone, Cover-2 bodes well for the defense because the shortened field makes throws to the boundary even tougher, while the bevy of linebackers over the middle give a clouded view of the middle of the field. That doesn’t seem to matter to future NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer.

Kizer19.gif

Kizer talked about this play during his ESPN visit at Jon Gruden’s QB Camp. As Gruden and Kizer went on to dissect, this play should have been dead. Trying to fit this ball into that window requires great confidence, timing and arm talent. Kizer put all of that on display here.

Through his drop back, Kizer must quickly determine the position of the field side safety and decide if he can make the throw around the safety. Kizer notices that the safety is still in a stationary position by the time his drop is finished. Without second guessing, Kizer fires over the cornerback and wide of the safety, perfectly placing the ball in a spot where only wide receiver Will Fuller could get to it. Few quarterbacks have the talent to complete this pass, let alone the gall to even attempt it. Great quarterbacks can hit throws that aren’t really there, and Kizer has that ability.

Kizer can attack the area between the two deep safeties, too. During Notre Dame’s battle against Texas at the beginning of the season, Texas tried to stop Kizer with a two deep safety look in the red zone. Although the receiver couldn’t hold onto the ball, Kizer fired in a dart that ranks among some of the best passes from any player in this class.

Once again, Kizer attempted to fit a window that few others have the talent or bravado to attempt. Texas rolled out in what looks Cover-2 coverage where the outside linebackers are carrying the vertical threats up the seam to high-low them with the safety on their side of the field. In all reality, this is good coverage. The safety near the left hash is holding outside leverage and the linebacker is playing just under and inside of the receiver. The window for this throw is virtually nonexistent.

Instead of backing down to the coverage, Kizer trusted his ability and fired away. The ball was rifled into the receiver’s mitts, both away from the safety on the left hash and above the linebacker underneath the receiver. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the far safety read this play well and was able to fly over to hit the receiver as he was coming down, ultimately forcing the ball out of his possession for an incompletion. Regardless of the result, Kizer made a special throw to try to give his team the lead.

Of course, Kizer can beat more than just two deep coverages in the red zone. Duke attempted to slow down Kizer’s red zone triumphs by employing a Cover-3 look that was heavily shaded to the short side of the field. To no surprise, Kizer found a way to beat it.

Duke heavily shaded their coverage to the trey (trips with a tight end) side of the formation. With so many defenders to that side of the field, it would take a massive blunder for someone to come open on that side, assuming the defense doesn’t blitz from that side. Kizer is then left with essentially 1-on-1 coverage to the far side of the field.

To make sure credit is given where credit is due, the receiver runs one hell of a route on this play. The way he helped sell the inside slant was perfect and gave credence to Kizer’s pump fake. With Kizer and his receiver coming together to sell the inside slant, the task then becomes fitting the ball somewhere between the defender and the far boundary. Luckily for the Fighting Irish, they had one of the only quarterbacks in the country who could hit this throw–if not the only one.

Not unlike the other examples above, there is no margin for error on this throw. The timing, velocity and placement has to be perfect. Also like the examples above, the sheer confidence that Kizer possesses to believe he can make this throw is mesmerizing. He knows that is going to be a daunting throw, but he wastes no time in going for it.

As the cherry on top of Kizer’s red zone ability, he is a legitimate running threat. Notre Dame often used him as an integrated part of their run game, whether it be speed options, read options, or quarterback power.

Here’s a shot of Notre Dame’s speed option. Kizer measures in at 6’4″, 233 pounds and has enough speed to force defenses to account for him. On this play, Kizer shows his ability to stick hit foot in the ground and get up the field once he decides that he isn’t going to flip the ball to the running back. Once Kizer has his path to the end zone, he wiggles through the traffic and marches into the end zone for a touchdown.

Notre Dame scored plenty of touchdowns over Kizer’s two years as the starter through concepts like this one. Kizer is good at initially reading the key defender, then making himself a lethal runner, if that was the best option for a given play.

DeShone Kizer is a menace in the red zone. He has the intelligence, confidence, arm talent and rushing ability to be a multi-faceted red zone quarterback. No matter the coverage or defensive front, Kizer has proven that he can find a way to get his team into the end zone. Kizer’s maturity and multiplicity in the red zone will give him a great advantage in the NFL, both as a rookie and as he grows into his own as a veteran. There are a bevy of reasons to buy into Kizer as a top prospect, but his best selling point just might be his proficiency in the red zone.