Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
30 Sep 2009
by Doug Farrar
The first thing I noticed about Mark Sanchez wasn't his arm -- it was his feet. Watching the quarterback drills in Lucas Oil Stadium during the 2009 Scouting Combine in February, I saw the USC star put everyone else to shame with his footwork. Decent arm, great feet. I filed it away, figuring that a team with a need for a mobile quarterback well-versed in accurate short to medium throws would benefit from Sanchez's acumen. His 16 college starts? A point to consider, but people who follow the college game much more closely than I do were starting to report that Sanchez was a rare bird. Rob Rang, Senior Draft Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, flew from his near-Seattle hometown to sunny California to see Sanchez's Pro Day on April 1, and came away with a different impression than the one formed at the Combine.
"Sanchez was brilliant, showcasing better-than-expected arm strength and the accuracy to rival the pro bowl quarterbacks whose NFL practices I've scouted over the past five years," Rang told me. "He zipped the ball on intermediate routes, consistently hitting his receivers in stride and where defenders had no chance to disrupt the throw. When he finished the throwing session that he and former USC standout Rob Johnson had scripted for the workout, Sanchez didn't appear fazed at all when Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan asked him to throw another dozen deep passes. The confidence and personality he exhibited in team interviews have been publicly touted as a primary reason for Sanchez's late rise up draft boards. But the arm strength and accuracy in this workout were critical elements to his ascension. The impressive Pro Day continued Sanchez's trend of performing at his best when the lights were brightest."
The lights would get no brighter than in the NFL -- after trading the first day of their draft to the Browns to move up and take Sanchez fifth overall, the Jets announced that the kid would start right away. Sanchez "won" (ugh) his first three NFL games, but that bothersome stat aside, what did he show us? Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who also serves as the Executive Producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup, was kind enough to give me his time and expert analysis on the subject, and you'll see his commentary throughout this column.
After an off-right-tackle run by Thomas Jones for a loss of three yards, Sanchez had his first shot at an NFL receiver in regulation. On second-and-13 from the New York 19, he took the ball in a single-back set, gave a convincing play fake to Jones, rolled left and threw the ball downfield to Chansi Stuckey, who ran an out route from the near left slot. He didn't telegraph the play all the way, looking quickly to his right before throwing left -- but cornerback Dunta Robinson had it read and jumped the route for a deflection and near-pick.
Operating out of the shotgun on third-and-13, Sanchez hit Leon Washington underneath for a gain of 8, and Washington was caught in Houston's middle zone. Sanchez and the Jets started their next drive at their own 26 with 8:35 left in the first quarter. Washington gained a yard on first down (question for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer: Que pasa on the weakside run with the unbalanced line, dude?), then a tipped pass over the middle and a defensive holding call on Robinson. Two more runs by Jones for no gain, and the Jets faced third-and-11. Like a pitcher who stays in a game due to a great defensive effort, Sanchez got a nice bailout from Stuckey on the money play -- he threw a quick hitch to Stuckey from wide left, and Stuckey blew through the Texans defense, dragging Robinson about five yards downfield for the 11 yards needed to continue the drive.
Two more incompletions followed -- a wide but catchable ball to Jerricho Cotchery on a comeback left, and a very ill-advised floater as Sanchez tried to elude pressure. After a play action fake right, Sanchez used his estimable footwork to meet Mario Williams halfway. As he tried to get away from Williams's furious rush, he lobbed up a prayer in the air. Linebacker Zac Diles had a bead on the pop-up, and Leon Washington's pass deflection was the only thing that kept Diles from a pick-six. Bad throw, but the Jets now know that Washington could probably play safety in a pinch ....
On third-and-10, Sanchez went shotgun again, pump-faked to his left, and threw a quick screen to tight end Dustin Keller, who rumbled for 18 yards. Through the first quarter, Schottenheimer's strategy was obvious and sound -- short, safe passes to playmakers who could exploit Houston's defensive deficiencies. We saw a little more on the next third down; third-and-7 from the Houston 36 on that same drive. Sanchez lined up in a shotgun, two-back set and, with excellent precision, hit Cotchery on a 10-yard comeback to the left side. It's worth mentioning here how great the pass protection was on this and most other plays -- Sanchez had a nice little horseshoe pocket to work out of. An incompletion to Stuckey on the next third down -- third-and-5 from the Houston 6 near the end of the first quarter -- led to a field goal and the first points of the day.
Sanchez started the first drive of the second quarter with two more incompletions, one on third-and-3 from the Jets' 27 with 12:40 left in the first half. He could only throw it over the middle in the vicinity of Stuckey, because linebacker DeMeco Ryans was bearing down on him something fierce. This time, however, he threw the ball on a straight line, away from any defenders.
With 6:29 left in the first half and the Jets on their own 38 with second-and-9, Sanchez got fooled by his first NFL regulation zone blitz, as Williams almost came up with a pick near the 50 after peeling back into coverage. The Texans let tight end Ben Hartsock through to the second-level zone to give Sanchez a more positive read than he really had; the rookie fell for it. A certain amount of quarterback success comes down to sheer luck, and that definitely applied to Sanchez in his first game -- he left several near-picks on the turf due to errant throws and deflections. On the next play, however, we saw a glimmer of greatness. Sanchez evaded pressure up the middle with the patented Dan Marino Sidestep and gunned the ball to Stuckey, 20 yards downfield. Many quarterbacks aren't going to make that play because they can't set their feet quickly enough after moving to be in the right position to make the accurate throw. Once again, Sanchez's quick feet came through.
|Figure 1: Sanchez-to-Stuckey TD|
Another short pass to Cotchery on the next third down, and then Houston defensive embarrassment with 3:27 left in the first half. The Jets had third-and-10 from the Houston 30, and the Texans brought seven in the box and played Cover-Zero (four-across man) behind. The Jets lined up in shotgun, two backs, three-wide. Houston's problem wasn't the coverage scheme per se -- it was that rookie Brice McCain, playing inside to Stuckey, blew his assignment and stopped the trail, expecting to hand off coverage to another defender. Stuckey blew right by him and ran five yards past before McCain realized his error and tried to catch up.
It wasn't just McCain's mistake, however -- Keller, clearing out of the backfield, took safety Nick Ferguson (25) out of the blitz. The Texans brought five, not six, and the Jets line gave Sanchez enough time to exploit the coverage. A better defensive team might reasonably expect that blitz to get home and force the short throw, but not the Texans.
Is Sanchez's ability on third down a big deal? Through three games, he's competed 21 passes on 33 attempts for 245 yards and a 63.6 completion percentage on third down, and those are his best per-down numbers. The Jets rank fourth in third-down DVOA, and they ranked 25th in 2008.
"I think he's a very aware player," Cosell told me when I asked about Sanchez's intangibles -- the little things that great quarterbacks glue together into something special. "I'll give you a perfect example. Against the Patriots, they had three consecutive runs by Thomas Jones of 8, 9, and 10 yards on three consecutive plays. On the fourth play, the Patriots were clearly in an eight-man front. Most teams that are in an 8-man front that are zone-based, and the Patriots are that kind of team. They play their corners off a good 7,8, 9 yards. The fourth play was a called run, but he threw it to what we call 'Smoke,' you've seen this before, where it's a called run, but the quarterback just takes one step and throws it to the wide receiver because the corner is way off. He called that, and threw it to Stuckey, who made the tackler miss and gained 15 yards."
The series in question started with 11:24 left in the second quarter and the Patriots up 6-0. The Jets had gained three total yards on their first four drives, but now, Jones was able to find seams inside the tackles as the line tightened up and got tough. He gashed the middle for runs of nine, eight, and 10 yards in rapid succession, and I'm guessing that Jerod Mayo's agent is going to use a loop of that series in a few years when it's time for his client's second contract ("This is what happens when my guy isn't in there and Gary Guyton is, Bill ...."). As Greg said, the Pats had to clamp down, and they brought extra defenders to the fore. Sanchez saw it, and checked down immediately to Stuckey, who hung around at the line from a wide twins set.
Once again, the game plan was to exploit the offensive advantages around Sanchez, give him reads and options he could digest, and put the ball in the hands of those players who could turn a quick opportunity into something bigger. The more you watch Sanchez, the more you're impressed with his understanding of the concept -- take what is given to you and don't try and do too much too soon. That doesn't make him Captain Checkdown -- it makes him a quarterback who's going to survive in the NFL until all the lights go on.
"I think that he's helped by Schottenheimer, who does an excellent job with personnel and with formations, dictating match-ups in coverage," Cosell said. "I think he really helps Sanchez with identifying the looks and reads, and this is what coaches are supposed to do. This is not a knock on Sanchez, this is what good coaches do."
From the start, Sanchez has shown excellent ability to read when a defense is cheating up or stacking the box. That sounds rudimentary, but it isn't, and I wonder how much that has to do with the myriad of formations he must see in practice every day when Rex Ryan lets loose with the overloads and crazy stacks he's famous for. At the start of the second half, Schottenheimer let Sanchez loose. The first play was a deep slant to Cotchery, who took the ball at the New England 37 and cruised down to the 11-yard line. Sanchez drew the five-man front in with play action, diagnosed the coverage, and saw Cotchery surfing inside the zone. A two-yard Jones run later, Sanchez hooked up with Keller for a nine-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone. Another offset-I, and once again, Sanchez's feel for play action (and the Jets' pass protection) helped make it go.
Sanchez could get nothing going offensively in the first half -- he was three of five for 15 yards. What becomes more obvious and impressive as you watch him is his ability to recover and shake off the obstacles. This is not a guy who lets adversity shape him; he's confident enough in his own ability, and the system he's in, to be patient and wait it out.
Sanchez began his day against the Titans with a little screen to Jones, then an 18-yard zinger to Keller from the shotgun. He exploited the zone on a quick square-in to Cotchery on the next play, with the Jets' line showing great determination in blocking downfield. Next, a quick receiver screen to Stuckey, and a quick out to Cotchery to the left. From the Tennessee 14 on third-and-10, Sanchez took off running after eluding the blitz and finding no open targets. When he hit the end zone, Sanchez put his head down and got all fullback-y on safety Michael Griffin. He broke the plane just before safety Vincent Fuller knocked the ball loose. Given the potential for injury and turnovers in those situations, I'd imagine Sanchez heard a little bit from his coaches on this (literally) heady play.
I asked Cosell about Sanchez's ability to take on the blitz, and the results to date are inconclusive given Cosell's take on the three teams Sanchez has faced so far: The Titans and Patriots don't blitz often, and the Texans don't blitz particularly well. According to Cosell, the next step comes when he has to face constant pressure packages. "I'd like to see a team pressure him, because I think he will have a tendency to play fast and get a little out of control. Although I really like the fact that when he moves, he always sets his feet to throw, but I still think that he'll end up playing fast when he gets consistent pressure. We don't know when that'll be. He's playing New Orleans this week. I think (New Orleans defensive coordinator) Gregg Williams will attempt to pressure him, but I'm not sure the Saints have great blitz players. He had some moments in the game against Tennessee, but their defense line was clearly quicker and faster than the Jets o-line. There were stretches in this game where the pressure got to him. He got a little out of rhythm, but then he got back in rhythm and that's impressive, too, because they were trailing in that game."
The play that impressed me more than the touchdown run was the ridiculous play fake on the subsequent touchdown pass to Ben Hartsock; Sanchez's feel for play action is pretty tremendous, and he had every Titans defender believing that Jones was going over the top at the goal line. The play that impressed Cosell came in the fourth quarter, on the drive that put the Jets up by a touchdown for good. "He made an unbelievable throw to Cotchery for 46 yards in the 4th quarter, which they called on 1st and 10 off play-action, knowing they'd get the match-up on the perimeter. It was a terrific throw. You couldn't have handed it to him any better."
The play happened with 13:30 left in the game and the Jets with first-and-10 at their own 40. Sanchez took the ball under center out of an offset-I and threw a rainbow of a ball downfield to Cotchery, who was fighting with cornerback Jason McCourty for outside position on the left sideline. McCourty stayed with Cotchery very well in single coverage, but Cotchery adjusted to the ball late in his route and the throw was good enough to pull in for the long gain, down to the Tennessee 14-yard line. With all the talk about Sanchez's intelligence and intangibles, he begins to sound like a junkballer who's getting by on what's above his neck and nothing else, but this isn't Chad Pennington 2.0: Sanchez has a functional and reasonably consistent ability to throw deep.
So, he's a great young quarterback in an ideal situation -- great running game, great defense, smart coaching staff. How does he compare to Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco, last year's prodigies? "If you isolate skill-set, I think Flacco has the best skill-set of the three as far as an NFL starting quarterback," Cosell told me. "He gives you the most in dimensions because of his arm-strength and the kinds of throws he can make. Of the three, I would put Sanchez at number 3. But again, you're dealing with two guys in Sanchez and Ryan who are very good, potentially great NFL quarterbacks. Ultimately, I like Flacco more than I like Ryan, and I love Ryan, but I think Flacco just has a skill-set in terms of throwing a football that not many guys have."
"[Sanchez is] in a great situation. And again, this is not a negative. He's on a team that has a defense that can dictate and dominate. He's on a team that is clearly driven by the run game. It's not that they're looking to hide the kid -- you can't hide your quarterback in the NFL. He still has to make the throws -- but they can dictate what they do more so than other teams because of the rest of the team. So they can put him in positions with personnel and formations, spreading and getting different things where they can dictate how they want to play. They're not at the mercy of the other team's defense."
According to Deadspin.com, the primary word used in relation to Mark Sanchez through his first three NFL games is "poise." (I would argue that Sanchez also has swagger, but that might discount his moxie.) What does that mean, aside from the fact that the world needs many more thesauruses? Cosell's more informative take: "I think he's good at the subtle things at the position, which is why I think he'll end up being a very good player. Like I said, I defer to Ron Jaworski on this because he sees guys live and I don't. And Jaws told me that standing next to him, watching him throw, that he thought his arm strength was just slightly above average and that he thinks Matt Ryan has a better arm. But as far as the subtle nuances of the position, I think that Sanchez is very good. And you can try to teach guys how to move safeties -- some guys do it and some guys don't -- I think that's almost innate. I'm not sure you can just go on a blackboard and tell a guy to move a safety. You can either do that with feel and intuition, or you can't and I think he can do that. I think he has a very good feel for the position."
I agree wholeheartedly. The Great List of Sporting Intangibles is horribly overused in non-descriptive phrases, but Sanchez seems to have more of them than most. It's the little things that will define his career, and right now, the little things are pulling away.
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