Red Zone Smash Starring Cody Kessler and Dak Prescott

Playing quarterback takes a tremendous amount of skill, quick thinking, and the ability to stay calm under pressure. Doing all of that in the red zone is necessary to be successful in the NFL. Mark Schofield looks at Cody Kessler and Dak Prescott each running the smash concept within striking distance of the end zone.

Two of the quarterbacks looking to move up draft boards this spring are Cody Kessler from USC and Dak Prescott from Mississippi State. Both players were multi-year starters in college, and both stayed on campus for a senior season that might not have lived up to their personal expectations. Both quarterbacks were invited to the Senior Bowl, where Prescott was named the Most Outstanding Player. Given their experience, they have decent feel for and understanding of passing concept, including the smash concept. We will look at both players throwing the smash concept route design in the end zone, and illustrate the decision-making process, play-speed, and mechanics of both signal callers in this particular situation.

Cody Kessler

On this play from USC’s 2014 meeting with Colorado, the Trojans face a 2nd and goal at the Buffalos’ 7-yard line. Kessler (#6) stands in the shotgun and the offense lines up with 11 personnel. They employ a pro alignment to the right, and use a stack slot with wide receiver JuJu Smith (#9) lined up off the line of scrimmage. Colorado shows Cover 1 in the secondary, using 4-2-5 nickel personnel. The cornerback over the stack lines up in press alignment across from Nelson Agholor (#15) with another defensive back behind him. To the other side of the field, the strong safety cheats down into the box, and is in blitz posture before the play:KesslerPrescottSmashStill1

Kessler takes the snap and rolls to his left, away from the safety blitz off the edge. He rolls towards the stack slot, where Agholor and Smith run the smash concept. Agholor releases to the inside before bending back toward the corner, while Smith runs the quick out route to the flat:KesslerPrescottSmashStill2

Kessler rolls to his left before hitting Smith in the flat for a touchdown:

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The quarterback shows a great decision-making process on this play. In most cases, the deeper corner route is the first read on the smash concept, as this is a high-low design. As Kessler takes the snap and begins to roll, he looks first to Agholor. But this is what he sees:KesslerPrescottSmashStill3

The cornerback has outside leverage on the receiver, and is in perfect position to take away the break to the corner. In addition, the free safety is mirroring Kessler in the pocket, and is converging on the corner route as well. With both defenders in position to break on any pass to Agholor, Kessler quickly comes off this route and looks to Smith in the flat. His second option is breaking to the outside, and has a bit of separation on the defender. Kessler knows where to go with the ball, but here is where timing, his understanding of the play, and his fundamentals and mechanics play a huge part in the execution.

Kessler is rolling to his left, making this a difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback. Now, he can try and flip his feet and reset himself, but that will slow down the play. Not only will it give the defender time to recover on Smith, but the receiver is nearing the sideline and any additional time might force him to run out of room. Kessler also knows he has a backside blitz off the edge to account for. The tight end has done a great job of shoving the blitzing safety off his path but Kessler does not know this. So the quarterback cannot wait. Enter Kessler’s left shoulder.

The only way the quarterback can deliver a strong throw with sufficient velocity is by getting his front shoulder pointed at Smith, allowing Kessler to generate torque as he delivers the pass. He gets that front shoulder curled in toward the target, and then his left arm pulls him through the throw, whipping his upper body around and through the pass. This creates enough force to deliver the pass with velocity. Smith cradles the football and because of the timing and zip on the pass, he still has enough separation that he can gather himself and extend the football inside the pylon for the touchdown.

Dak Prescott

Here is Prescott executing the same concept in the red zone. In this 2014 game against UT-Martin, the Bulldogs face a 3rd and 7 on the Skyhawks’ 11-yard line. Prescott stands in the shotgun with 11 personnel and an empty backfield. The offense has trips to the right with both the tight end and a running back to the outside, and a stack slot to the right. UT has their 3-3-5 nickel defense on the field and they show Cover 2 in the secondary, with cornerback Terrious Triplett (#9) cheated down toward the line of scrimmage over the stack:KesslerPrescottSmashStill4

Similar to the USC play, Mississippi State runs the smash concept to the right, towards the stack:KesslerPrescottSmashStill5

Also similar to the USC example, Prescott hits wide receiver Fred Brown (#5) for a touchdown.

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Now while both plays result in a touchdown, they diverge in some meaningful ways. This divergence provides insight into Prescott’s ability and feel for the quarterback position. This play also employs a QB roll toward the stack, with Prescott rolling to his right. However, while Kessler was able to gain the edge, as Prescott starts his roll he is immediately faced with edge pressure:KesslerPrescottSmashStill6

Rather than continue his roll right into the face of the edge russer, Prescott cuts the movement short and settles into the pocket. This displays great feel and patience in the pocket. Many quarterbacks especially those with Prescott’s raw athletic ability might try and extend this roll outside of the pocket, trusting in their ability to beat that rusher off the edge in a one-on-one situation. But not Prescott on this play. He trusts in the design of the route and settles into the pocket. Perhaps this takes him off structure a bit, but he knows that from the trips backside of this play he has two crossing routes coming over the middle. So if he gives up on the smash concept as a result, he still has options available.

But he does not give up on the smash concept. As with Kessler, Prescott is reading this play high-low, from the corner route to the route in the flat. He’s taught to “throw the corner,” meaning if the CB gains depth then the QB will throw to the flat route, but if the CB breaks forward on the shorter pattern, then the corner route comes open. Here, Triplett tries to play both routes. The CB initially drops under the corner route, but his eyes are in the backfield watching Prescott. When the QB starts to throw, Triplett, thinking he has this read, breaks forward on the flat route:

That’s when Prescott resets for a second, and throws the deeper route.

Can we be sure that is what Prescott saw and did? Not without asking him directly. But given the context of the route structure and how quarterbacks read this concept, it looks to me like Prescott was ready to pull the trigger on the shorter route, and when he saw Triplett stick his foot in the turf and break forward, he knew he had enough time to reset and throw the deeper route. Additionally, he knew that once Triplett began to break, he had enough of a throwing window, even in the red zone, to deliver this pass. This is a split-second, aggressive decision that is right in line with Prescott’s tape. He is a quarterback who can maintain aggression in the passing game, regardless of down-and-distance, game situation and his own performance leading up to the play in question.

Two red zone smash concepts, both resulting in a touchdown. While executed in very different ways, we walk away with an understanding of both quarterbacks, their decision-making, their play speed, their mechanics and their mental makeup as a passer. The differences in execution that we see between these players might be illustrative of how teams evaluate the quarterback position. Some coaches might believe that what Kessler shows here makes him a better fit for their system, while others might believe that Prescott’s traits here make him a better fit for their team. Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder.

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.

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