Blitzing linebackers and athletic defensive linemen can make playing quarterback in the NFL can be a frightening proposition. To deal with the pressure, signal callers need to have nerves of steel. Mark Schofield demonstrates how Kevin Hogan is cool in the cauldron.
One of the more popular images/memes on Twitter is the dog sipping coffee as an inferno rages around him:
Humorous, but when watching film the image also conjures up a quarterback, facing down a blitz. Some quarterbacks melt in the face of pressure, and others, like Stanford’s senior Kevin Hogan, appear completely calm in the cauldron.
For a quarterback, facing the blitz should be a good thing. Provided you can process the information and recognize the scheme, there is a chance for a huge play because someone is open. Hogan’s film illustrates a quarterback who thrives when facing the blitz. He remains poised, and perhaps, the game slows down for him a bit in these situations.
Stanford faces 3rd and 7 against Notre Dame, trailing by two, with the football on their own 48-yard line and the left hashmark. Hogan is in the shotgun with 11 personnel. There is a tight end bunch formation to the right and a single receiver split left, aligned beyond the bottom of the numbers.
The Fighting Irish counter with 4-2-5 personnel. They align defensive tackle Sheldon Day (#91) at one defensive end spot, and place linebacker Jaylon Smith (#9) at the opposite end. Romeo Okwara (#45) ‒ who usually aligns as a defensive end ‒ is off the line of scrimmage as a linebacker. The secondary shows Cover 4, with free safety Matthias Farley (#41) down in press alignment over the middle bunch receiver:
The Cardinal run a sail concept here to the side with the bunch formation. Tight end Austin Hooper (#18) is the inside receiver, and he releases to the flat. Receiver Francis Owusu (#6) is the middle receiver, and he runs a slant-corner route ‒ cutting inside before breaking vertically, then back out toward the corner. Finally, the outside receiver, Devon Cajuste (#89) runs the go route. Backside, Rollins Stallworth (#13) runs a deep dig route:
Notre Dame does not stay in Cover 4: rather, they blitz, running Cover 0 behind the pressure scheme:
Smith comes off the edge, while fellow linebacker Joe Schmidt (#38) and safety Max Redfield (#10) blitz up the middle. The rest of the secondary is in man coverage, with Okwara checking on the running back before buzzing outside to the flat, in the direction of the bunch formation.
Over the three-receivers, Farley gets a jam on Owusu before turning to run with the receiver. The other two defenders ‒ cornerback Kevin Butler (#12) and strong safety Elijah Shumate (#22) ‒ employ a “banjo,” or switch, concept. The corner starts to the outside over Cajuste while the SS lines up inside, over the tight end Hooper. When the tight end cuts to the outside, the cornerback stays with him, while the safety rotates over to pick up Cajuste’s vertical route.
The blitz nearly gets there, but it does not faze the quarterback. Hogan executes a five-step drop and uncorks a deep ball to Cajuste:
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As the defenders switch to the bunch side, Shumate stays on Hooper just a second too long before picking up Cajuste. This is gives the receiver a step ‒ enough to get separation and break wide open.
Hogan’s pass is underthrown ‒ and a better throw is likely a touchdown. But it is an impressive throw ‒ and decision ‒ given the pressure. Rather than panicking, the quarterback stays calm and delivers a big play.
Earlier, I mentioned the game might slow down a bit for Hogan when he faces the blitz, and this next play serves as an example. Fans and coaches alike love big plays that lead directly to points, but sometimes the most important plays are the ones that turn second and long into a manageable third and short. Sustaining possession is the quarterback’s primary job, and keeping the offense on schedule and in good field position is integral.
On this play the Cardinal face 2nd and 11 against conference rival California early in the third quarter. The football is on the Stanford 33-yard line and the left hashmark, and Hogan stands in the shotgun with an 11 package in the game. The offense has a tight end trips formation right and a single receiver split wide to the left. The Golden Bears deploy a 4-3 defense showing Cover 1, with linebacker Anoa’i Hamilton (#25) aligned over Hooper, the inside trips receiver:
Stanford runs a double-in design on this play, with the middle and outside receivers running short dig routes while Hooper runs a corner route over the top. Backside, Michael Rector (#3) runs a straight go route:
(Note: The outside receiver is outside of the frame to the top of the screen.)
Defensively, California stays in Cover 1, but they blitz two linebackers:
Jalen Jefferson (#7) cheats forward before the snap, and runs a straight blitz. Fellow linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr. (#47) runs a green dog blitz, checking running back Christian McCaffery (#5): once the back shows his intention to provide pass protection, Nickerson explodes forward.
Hogan learns a bit more during his dropback, with Nickerson quick to get after the passer on his green dog. But even in the face of two blitzing linebackers, Hogan does not panic. Staying within structure ‒ or perhaps even expanding it ‒ the QB opens left, toward Rector’s vertical route, and delivers a pump fake, which freezes the free safety:
We don’t know for certain if the pump fake was by design, or something Hogan incorporated during the flow of the play. But, despite the blitz, Hogan is calm and confident enough to pump the football to the left side, before working back to the trips side of the field, reading his progressions. He does not speed up ‒ rather, he takes a extra few moments to pump fake the deep route. With both linebackers blitzing, the underneath area of the field is now wide open:
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Hogan delivers a strong, accurate pass to Cajuste. The WR catches the pass in stride and immediately cuts upfield, but is quickly tackled. However, this great read and throw picks up nine yards, putting Stanford in position for third and two. While McCaffery would be stopped for a short gain on the next play, the the decision and execution from Hogan on second down kept the playbook wide open for offensive coordinator…excuse me, The Andrew Luck* Director of Offense, Mike Bloomgren.
Defensive blitzes are a great chance to produce a big play, or even just extend a drive. But for the offense to capitalize, the quarterback needs to remain calm and let play come to him. By staying calm in the cauldron on both of these plays, Hogan was able to deliver.
*Editor’s Note: Really, Stanford? Did you at least ask John Elway?
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.