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.