Mark Schofield spent a short lifetime playing quarterback. Now he is in the midst of a second lifetime watching, evaluating, and writing about the position. In this summer series covering techniques for playing QB he takes us through some of the books he used to learn to play the position, using film to illustrate these important concepts.
My 2015 NFL Draft quarterback profiles, referred often to the concept of “climbing the pocket.” This skill is fundamental to a quarterback’s success, demonstrating the ability to handle pressure from a defense, and making life easier for the offensive line. This is a difficult aspect of playing the position for any young quarterback, as your natural instincts tell you to avoid pressure, not move toward it. But don’t take it from me, take it from arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history:
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 outside rushers’ momentum will carry them right past you if you step up. Joe Montana, “Art and Magic of Quarterbacking,” pp. 74-75
Let’s look at this concept in action, with Brett Hundley, the former UCLA Bruin and current Green Bay Packers rookie. Against cross-town rival USC, the Bruins face a 1st and goal just outside the Trojans’ 10-yard line. Hundley is in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, with dual slot formations and a running back to his right. USC counters with their nickel personnel with talented defensive lineman Leonard Williams (#94) aligned as a defensive end on the left of the defense:
At the snap, Williams uses a speed rush to get up the field and into the offensive backfield, forcing Hundley to make a decision. Many young quarterbacks try and escape pressure by vacating the pocket toward the sideline, but that would lead right into Williams’ hands. Instead, the quarterback moves forward, stepping up into the pocket. Watch as Williams’ momentum carries him right past Hundley, just as Montana predicted:
The new Jets lineman tries to track back to the quarterback with a spin move, but he cannot get to the passer before Hundley delivers a touchdown strike. By climbing the pocket, Hundley gains separation from the pressure and enough time and space to finish the play.
One of the most adept quarterbacks in the pocket in today’s NFL is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and his ability to climb the pocket is no exception to this rule. On this play from their wild card victory against the Bengals, Luck displays flawless technique as he climbs the pocket to avoid pressure. Luck stands in the shotgun and the offense has 11 personnel on the field. Indianapolis utilizes a tight slot formation to each side of the field, while Cincinnati displays a blitz posture, showing both a double A-gap blitz and a corner blitz on the offense’s right:
At the snap both linebackers drop into coverage, but cornerback Leon Hall blitzes off the edge, beating right tackle Joe Reitz. The CB is not the only threat, as the entire right side of the Colts’ offensive line collapses. But watch as Luck climbs the pocket:
The QB creates space by climbing the pocket, moving with quick steps and keeping his eyes locked down the field to find a target. Another element displayed by Luck is the placement of his left hand. The quarterback keeps his off hand secured tightly to the football throughout his drop and climb, until it is time to throw. This is tremendous technique and ball security, emphasized by former Bengal Ken Anderson in his book “The Art of Quarterbacking.”
Often, the success – or failure – of a passing play depends on almost imperceptible split-second decisions made by the quarterback. On these two examples, tiny decisions such as climbing the pocket and securing the football with both hands lead to big plays for the quarterback’s offense. All of these little traits and decisions go into the art of playing the position.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.