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Evaluating the quarterback position: Pocket presence

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How do quarterbacks handle the “controlled chaos” when they are looking to pass

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The pass rushers have the same objective as the rest of the defensive unit: to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you do what you don’t want to do. They go about this by trying to sack you, knock you down after a pass, or at least make you run for your life. Standing in the pocket in the face of a heavy rush has been compared to auto racing, and that’s not too far off. Personally, I always thought it was more like standing in the middle of the freeway.

-”The Art and Magic of Quarterbacking” by Joe Montana

Life in the pocket is controlled chaos amidst designed discomfort. It is not for the meek, or the faint of heart, or the timid. Playing quarterback requires a person to remain calm and level-headed as a number of (usually larger) human beings try to put him or her in the hospital. The pocket has a way of messing with your head.

When evaluating quarterbacks, examining how they fare in the face of all of this designed discomfort is a necessity.

There are many factors to consider when evaluating a quarterback’s pocket presence. How is their footwork in the pocket? Can they remain calm in the cauldron and make smart decisions? How do they respond to pressure? Do they climb the pocket and move around in concert with the protection, or do they bail the pocket and run into sacks? Do they display happy feet when pressured? Does accuracy and/or decision making dip when pressured? These are all critical factors to examine.

Another important one is simple: Can they hang in the pocket and take a hit, knowing full well it is coming?

Among all the difficulties associated with playing the toughest positions in sports is that proposition: Can you stand tall in the pocket as defenders are bearing down on you and deliver a throw knowing full well you might not get up afterwards? It sounds gruesome, but it is a fact of human nature. A wise man once wrote “deny emotion and you only see a fraction of the game.” Pulling off of throws or giving up on routes because of pressure is a quick way to stall an offense as a quarterback, and a quick way to earn a nice and comfortable seat on the bench.

So how does one go about evaluating this trait? We can start with one of the best at it: Philip Rivers.

Rivers’ pocket presence is one of his best traits as a quarterback, and his numbers under pressure were impressive last season. Although the Chargers lost their Week 11 meeting against the Denver Broncos, that game is a very good place to start this line of analysis. Facing Von Miller and a defense that was willing to bring the heat, Rivers showed the ability to stand in the pocket and make plays in the face of that storm.

Early in that contest the Chargers face a third-and-6 in their own territory, and the Broncos show pressure. Denver sends five after Rivers, and they drop into a Cover 2 Man Underneath coverage in the secondary. A rusher comes free after the QB, but Rivers stands in the pocket and delivers on this crosser to Keenan Allen (13) to beat the pressure and move the chains:

Watching this play from the end zone camera you can see Bradley Chubb (55) work free late in the play and have a straight shot at the QB, but Rivers absorbs the blow and drills in a strike to Allen for the first down:

The depth of this route concept tells the quarterback that he needs to hold onto the football longer than normal. That will give the pass rushers more time to win their matchups and get to him. Rivers, knowing all of this, stays tall in the pocket and delivers on this crossing route, while taking an absolute shot to the back.

Now on this play Rivers gets hit from the blind side, so while he may expect pressure he is not fully aware of the impending hit. Tougher still is hanging in the pocket when you know full well the hit is coming. Some call this “staring down the gun barrel,” and while again - gruesome - it makes the point.

This is an example of that aspect to life as a quarterback:

Face it, you were not getting out of this article without a Brett Rypien reference. Here, the Boise State quarterback adjusts the offense pre-snap as he expects a blitz, so he changes the protection and alignment. Then, even though he has solidified the protection scheme a linebacker comes free right in his face. No matter, Rypien stands in the pocket, takes the shot, and delivers on an out route to move the chains on this third and long.

In addition to hanging in the pocket, a QB needs to move around back there to create time and space. Rivers is again very adept at moving in response to pressure, yet remaining at the ready to deliver a throw. The quarterback must walk a fine line in these moments between being an athlete and being a passer. Some athletic quarterbacks transition from passer to runner in these moments, and struggle to transition back. This is something I know from experience. Back many...many years ago in my playing days, one of our offensive coaches would often tell me that “once my feet get going, they don’t stop.” The great ones do not let that happen.

Here are two examples of Rivers moving in the pocket in response to pressure. First against the Arizona Cardinals Rivers shows some ability to slide in the pocket in the face of a blitz, and he delivers on a dig route to Allen to pick up another first down:

On this play, the Chargers pair some jet motion with a Mills concept, using a post route from the tight end and a dig route from Allen. The Cardinals show blitz and do indeed come, bringing an extra pass rusher off the right edge. The pocket, however, starts to break on the left side of the offense, and Rivers is forced to slide forward a bit to create just enough space to get off this throw:

Finally, like any other crafty veteran, Rivers also has a few tricks up his sleeve. In their Week 10 game against the Raiders, the Chargers faced a first-and-10 in the second quarter, just before the two-minute warning. Rivers aligns under center and the Chargers have 12 offensive personnel on the field. They are going to run a variation of the Yankee Concept, incorporating jet motion into the mix. Rivers comes out of the play-action fake to Gordon and instantly sees the blitz to his left. The veteran QB then bails the pocket a bit, sliding to his left, before finding Gates on the deep crosser:

On both of these plays the QB moves just enough in response to the pressure, remains calm in the cauldron, and delivers on downfield throws. What is impressive about the second is that many quarterbacks, as previously mentioned, keep the feet moving once they break the pocket. Here Rivers resets his feet, giving him the ability to make a strong throw on this crosser.

Now, there is a “feel” element to life in the pocket as well. Given that your eyes are trained downfield, it is difficult - if not impossible - to see every potential threat as it steers towards your chest. Quarterbacks need to “have eyes in the back of their head,” or “feel” pressure as it lurks towards them.

More than any amount of avocado ice cream, Tom Brady’s pocket feel is the reason he is still playing at a high level into his 40s:

On this play from the 2017-2018 season Los Angeles sports a stout pass rush, thanks to the combination of Joey Bosa (99) and Melvin Ingram (54). But on this play Brady gets the better of them, thanks to a mix of feel and footwork. It is not an overly athletic play, but his ability to step up, evade pressure that he feels coming from the backside, and deliver is picture-perfect. He also has the presence of mind to make one last peek backward, to find Bosa, before wriggling around him one more time to release the pass to James White (28). Brady does this so often, and if you start to tally all these “near-sacks” that he avoids, you can build out the formula to his longevity. If these “near-sacks” were hits, his career might take a different arc.

Speaking of climbing the pocket:

There are other things you need to do, despite what that logical side of your brain is telling you to do: step up, remain calm, don’t give up on the play. In the face of outside pressure you need to move forward, stepping up into the pocket. It’s an unnatural reaction, but you have to do it.

-”The Art and Magic of Quarterbacking” by Joe Montana

That previous play from Brady is an example of the quarterback stepping up in the pocket. It is a completely illogical decision to take yourself closer to the people trying to do you harm, but it is the right one. Sometimes, however, it takes years to be comfortable making that decision.

Handling the pocket is a critical component to playing the quarterback position. Essential to any QB evaluation is identifying those passers willing to stay calm in the cauldron. Perhaps it is no surprise that the bulk of examples used here are from two of the game’s elite quarterbacks. Pocket presence is one of the position’s non-negotiables.