Work In Progress: Nate Sudfeld and Accuracy

Not all quarterbacks come enter the draft as polished as NFL teams would like. However, before a team pulls the trigger on a pick they must figure out if these flaws are correctable or if the signal caller is a lost cause. Mark Schofield looks at a few plays that demonstrate an area that Nate Sudfeld struggled with at times at Indiana: accuracy.

One of the fundamental aspects to quarterback play is accuracy. In “The Art and Magic of Quarterbacking,” Joe Montana stated that “[f]or me, there are other, much more important physical attributes than height and weight, namely the ability to throw a football accurately. The importance of being able to throw the ball 70 yards in the air is overrated, especially in today’s passing game where timing and precision are so much more critical…As long as you’re smart about execution, everything else will fall into place.” Former Cincinnati Bengals signal-caller Ken Anderson went a step further, writing this in “The Art of Quarterbacking:”

I always have felt very strongly that a quarterback must have a purpose in mind whenever he is loosening up. First should be improving his accuracy, and this begins in the simple act of playing catch with another person because it will carry over onto the field when the ball is going to receivers. There is a belief that if a quarterback will throw the ball at a person’s body in practice, then he will be happy in a game to throw anywhere around it. Always reject this notion and be specific when throwing the ball. If the person with home the quarterback is playing catch wears a helmet, then pick out the facemask and aim for it with every throw, because the more refined the throw, the more accurate it will be as a habit. This emphasis on accuracy should underscore every drill that is involved with throwing the football.

Anderson completed a then-record 20 straight passes against the Houston Oilers in 1982, and led the Bengals to Super Bowl XVI. Montana is regarded as one of the greatest to play the position. They know a little something about quarterback play.

Inaccuracy can manifest itself in a number of ways, and can be present even on plays that are successful. These throws from Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld demonstrate an inconsistency in this area that will need to be improved if he hopes to last in the NFL.

Play One

The first example is a bubble screen against Southern Illinois. These plays serve as an extension of the running game and require precision in the placement of the throw. A poorly-placed pass can disrupt the timing of the design and allow the defense to react, turning a potential gain into a costly loss. The goal is to lead the receiver toward the line of scrimmage, hit him in stride and place him in a position to make a football move immediately after the catch. A throw behind the receiver forces him to stop his momentum and wait for the football, leaving him flat-footed after the catch.

Sudfeld stands in the shotgun and the Hoosiers have 11 personnel lined up with a single receiver to the right and trips to the left. The Salukis use their 4-2-5 nickel defense for this play, and show Cover 4 in the secondary:SudfeldAccuracyStill1

Notice the slot cornerback and the positioning of the safety behind him. The CB is angled inside, walking down toward the box. This, coupled with the alignment of the safety behind him, is an indication that a blitz might be coming. Which is what the offense wanted to see, because with the bubble screen play called, the Hoosiers will have a chance to capitalize:SudfeldAccuracyStill2

However, this play goes for a loss. Pay attention to the placement of the throw. As the receiver bubbles to the outside, Sudfeld’s pass is thrown behind the WR, to his backfield shoulder. This forces Mitchell Paige (#87) to stop and turn back for the football:

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This is a tricky play to execute, because of the speed with which the football needs to be released, and the angle of the receiver moving away from the QB. Sudfeld tries to get the football out quickly, but the accuracy suffers as a result. Because of the poor placement here, Paige cannot see what is happening downfield, specifically, the playside cornerback beating the block and converging on the football. A better throw and Paige maintains stride, recognize the developments in the secondary and make a football move after the catch. Even with the poor block, he would be in a better position to evade the CB, allowing the Hoosiers to exploit the coverage. Instead, the offense now faces a 3rd and 7, due in large part to the inaccurate throw from Sudfeld.

Play Two

This next example, also from the Southern Illinois game, is another missed opportunity because of poor ball placement. With the score tied and just over two minutes remaining, the Hoosiers face 2nd and 5 on their own 22-yard line. Sudfeld is in the shotgun with 11 personnel, and three receivers to his right. The Salukis nickel defense shows Cover 6, with the weakside CB in press alignment, and the slot cornerback lined up with outside leverage over the middle trips receiver:SudfeldAccuracyStill3

Indiana runs the stick concept, with the the outside receiver releasing vertically while Paige runs the quick out pattern. Tight end Michael Cooper (#85) runs the stick route, and is Sudfeld’s target on this play:SudfeldAccuracyStill4

Cooper settles down on a curl right at the first-down marker, and from a clean pocket with a nice throwing lane Sudfeld uncorks this throw:

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The pass is high and to the outside, forcing the TE to leap and fully extend for the football. Cooper gets his fingers to the ball, but cannot secure the pass. From a mechanical standpoint, even with the clean pocket Sudfeld does not really step forward on this throw with his lead foot, which might have closed off the rotation of his upper body and impacted the placement of the throw. For the offense however, Rather than converting the first down, the Hoosiers now face a 3rd and 5 in their own territory, late in a tie game.

Play Three

Indiana would go on to win the game, however, thanks to a big play in the vertical passing game later in the drive. Facing 2nd and 10 on their own 28-yard line, the Hoosiers line up with 11 personnel using trips to the left, and a single receiver split wide to the right. Southern Illinois again shows Cover 6, this time with the press corner across from Ricky Jones (#4), the outside trips receiver:SudfeldAccuracyStill5

Jones runs a go route, while Paige runs a deep pivot route from the slot:SudfeldAccuracyStill6

Sudfeld sees Jones get a free release along the sideline, and uncorks a deep ball:

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The play goes for a huge gain and sets up the game-winning field goal, but I do come away with some concerns over the placement of the throw. In the deep passing game you don’t expect precision, but you like to see general accuracy place the throw on the receiver. Look at the placement of Jones right after Sudfeld releases this football:SudfeldAccuracyStill7

The receiver is right along the sideline, with both the cornerback and the free safety to the inside of him. Now, look where Jones is on the field when he pulls in the pass:SudfeldAccuracyStill8

The throw has taken Jones toward the middle of the field, and he is on the numbers when he makes the catch. If the free safety is in better position on this play, he is able to make a play on this ball. This is not an accurate throw, and while it looks great in the box score, this throw is likely incomplete, or even intercepted, in the NFL. Indiana won the game but I think we’ve shown it as an example of what not to do.

Play Four

Having touched on accuracy to multiple levels, we can return to the intermediate passing game, where teams sustain drives through moving the chains. Again, as Montana wrote “[a[s long as you’re smart about execution, everything else will fall into place.” In their bowl game against Duke, the Hoosiers face a 2nd and 3 early in the game. Sudfeld stands in the shotgun and the Indiana offenses uses 11 personnel in a 2X2 formation. Using a packaged play design, the offense runs the tosser concept to the left side while setting up an outside zone run to the right. After meeting his running back at the mesh point, Sudfeld can either hand the football off or throw to the left:SudfeldAccuracyStill9

The quarterback throws to Paige on the inside slant route:

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Sudfeld works from a relatively clean pocket here and Paige is open, behind the linebackers and well in front of the safeties. But the throw is very low, right to the receiver’s feet and the pass forces Paige to break stride. He tries valiantly, but cannot secure the pass.

“…timing and precision are so much more critical.”

The failures in ball placement illustrated here might seem small, but they are critical to the success of an offense. If a team cannot sustain drives, or is forced to play behind schedule because of inaccuracy, then the coaching staff faces a decision regarding the quarterback position. In a league starved for quarterback talent, Sudfeld will be in a position to demonstrate his worth to a NFL coaching staff this summer. But he will need to demonstrate improved precision in the passing game to his future coaches if he is to remain in the league for a long career.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter.  Buy his book, 17 Drives.  Check out his other work here, orVad Lee overcoming fear, and the no-throw decision with Jake Rudock.

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