Cody Kessler On Two: Downfield Vision

Like any good researcher, Mark Schofield despises a small sample size. Unfortunately, prospect evaluation is almost always too early, or without all the information necessary. Thus, we have the latest installment in our series: Cody Kessler On Two, in which Inside The Pylon examines two plays from a quarterback that address traits that scouts are talking about.

Following three years as the starting quarterback for the University of Southern California, quarterback Cody Kessler hopes on-the-field success translates into being selected during the NFL draft. Kessler has limited pure arm strength and small stature, making him a less than ideal QB prospect. But, along with his experience, there are a number of traits where he excels, including his ability to remain calm in the cauldron, keep his eyes downfield, and find receivers for a big play.

On One

On this play against Colorado from 2014, Kessler stands in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel. The quarterback is flanked by running back Tre Madden (#23) to his right and wide receiver Nelson Agholor (#15) to his left. A single receiver is split wide right, while tight end Randall Telfer (#82) and WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (#9) align in an inverted slot to the left, with Telfer on the inside.

The Buffalos have their 4-2-5 nickel showing Cover 6 in the secondary. The weakside cornerback shows press coverage over the single receiver, while the rest of the defensive backfield is in off coverage. Nickel corner Greg Henderson (#20) uses off man alignment over Telfer in the slot:KesslerOTVisionStill1

Prior to the snap, Agholor goes in deep motion to the right and will run a swing route on this Mills concept:KesslerOTVisionStill2

In addition to the swing route from Agholor, the single receiver releases on a go route on the weakside, setting up a two-level design. Back on the strongside of the formation, after meeting Kessler at the mesh point, Madden also releases on a swing route. Telfer and White execute the Mills concept, with the TE running the deep dig route while Smith executes the post route.

As the play develops, Kessler checks his first read, which is the straight go route on the weakside of the play. Seeing this covered, Kessler works to the high-low of the Mills design. But that is when interior pressure poses a threat:

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Kessler does a great job of sliding around the inside penetration, but rather than completely breaking the pocket, he starts to climb. This quick move and footwork is yet another example of Kessler demonstrating flow within structure. Rather than give up on the design of the play, he does what is necessary to get himself and the offense back on design. From there, he keeps his eyes downfield to find White on the deep post. Look at all the green grass in front of the QB at the moment of release: KesslerOTVisionStill3

Kessler can probably tuck the ball away and pick up an easy five yards, setting his offense up with a very manageable 2nd and 5. But by working his progressions, and keeping those eyes downfield, he finds the big play. A very impressive display from the Trojans’ QB.

On Two

There are times when “keeping your eyes downfield” means something as simple as finding a shallow crossing route when the play and pocket have completely broken down. This next example comes from USC’s 2015 game against the Washington Huskies. To give this play the full context it deserves, the game comes at the apex of the Steve Sarkasian era at USC, and the coach would be dismissed in the wake of this loss. Kessler and the USC offense struggled throughout the night, as the QB threw an interception on his first throw, was sacked on his second attempt, and threw a nearly-disastrous pass on his third.

Midway through the third quarter the Trojans trail by four, facing 2nd and 6 on their own 27-yard line. They line up with Kessler in the shotgun, using an inverted slot formation to each side of the field, and tight end Tyler Petite (#82) the outside receiver on the right side. Washington has a 2-4-5 nickel defense, using linebackers at each defensive end spot.  The secondary shows soft Cover 2, with the three defensive backs all giving about five yards of cushion. One exception is linebacker Keishawn Bierria (#7), who aligns in the slot over Smith-Schuster in press alignment, which is a potential blitz indicator:KesslerOTVisionStill4

USC runs an all curls design, with the three WRs and the TE running curl pattern just past the first-down marker. The Huskies, however, have a nifty blitz called on this play:KesslerOTVisionStill5

Both Bierria and fellow linebacker Psalm Wooching (#28) blitz off the right side of the offense. On the backside, LB Cory Littleton (#42) feigns a blitz, before dropping into an underneath zone.

The formation of the offense and the blitz design force running back Justin Davis (#22) to come across the formation and try and pick up Bierria in pass protection. But as the linebacker attacks the pocket, he is able to loop around the back and put pressure on Kessler:

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As with the previous example, Kessler deftly loops around the pressure before climbing the pocket. But Bierria isn’t the only defender he needs to avoid. Wooching works off the right tackle and is the next threat, but Kessler nimbly steps around him as well, using a swim move to remain alive in the pocket. From there, he keeps his eyes downfield and spots Smith-Schuster, working to the outside the scramble drill. Kessler delivers a solid, well-placed throw to move the chains.

The replay angle provides a great view of how Kessler extends the play while keeping his eyes downfield:

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This is a wonderful example of a quarterback’s feel for the pocket, as well as Kessler once more showing flow within structure. His eyes remain trained downfield, despite everything happening around him.

Kessler does have limitations as a quarterback. Most do. But in the right setting and scheme, he is a passer who can carve out a role at the next level.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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