Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

y Doug Farrar

When what you're watching drifts into the realm of hyperbole, it can be tough to separate yourself from that sense of amazement and report objectively on what you're seeing. More than any other year in which I've analyzed football players at any level, the top two picks of the 2010 NFL draft -- Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh -- have left me wondering if I was putting a little too much sugar in the cake. I've been comparing Suh to Mean Joe Greene for almost exactly a year. Although I did so with some trepidation (I believe Greene was the most disruptive defensive lineman in NFL history) ... from an evolutionary perspective, Suh appears to be at the beginning of a very special path.

I first experienced this phenomenon with Bradford in April when I was doing draft reports for Yahoo! Sports, and quarterbacks obviously came first. The more I looked at Bradford, especially during his incredible 2008 season in which he threw for 4,720 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions behind what may have been the greatest offensive line in NCAA history, the more one name came to mind, as much as I dreaded it. I could have cheated and gone with the Matt Ryan comparison, but Sam Bradford has reminded me of Tom Brady for quite a while, so that's what I had to go with. Specifically, it was (and is) Bradford's deep accuracy that brought the Brady who fired zinger after zinger to Randy Moss in the 2007 season to mind. That Brady, who threw for 4,806 yards, 50 touchdowns, and just eight interceptions, seemed to be Bradford's antecedent in more than just a statistical sense.

For me, those expectations were tempered a bit after the shoulder problems that plagued Bradford through his 2009 season, and the fact that he'd be doing time with the St. Louis Rams -- a team with just six wins in the last three years. For all his talent, there's only so much you can expect from a rookie quarterback. Little did I know that, after half a decade of bumbling around in the dark, the Rams were putting things together with a series of effective personnel moves. With a decent offense around him, and despite an almost comical string of receiver injuries, Bradford has been able to bring his talents to the NFL at an impressive level. He has also shown off a few new tricks.

I've written about Suh a lot in the past year, but I've waited until there was a decent sample size to make initial impressions of Bradford in the NFL. Now that it's time to do that, I also asked Greg Cosell, Executive Producer of ESPN's NFL Matchup show, to give me his take on where Bradford stands in the recent pantheon of rookie quarterback seasons, and just how he's getting to the top of that list. We'll start with his first NFL game, in which Bradford set an NFL record for pass attempts in a professional debut.

Arizona Cardinals 17 at St. Louis Rams 13
September 12, 2010

Of the 55 passes Bradford threw in that game, just a handful traveled more than 10 yards in the air before they were caught; he didn't air it out until there were just 27 seconds left in the first half. On this play from the Arizona 48-yard line, the Cardinals went with an A-gap blitz in Cover-3 against the Rams two-back shotgun. Bradford stepped to the right in the pocket and threw the deep sideline pass to Mark Clayton, who did an amazing job falling away from cornerback Greg Toler to make the 39-yard catch. There was another example of Bradford's deep ball with 4:05 left in the game. The Rams were down by four and driving when Bradford hit Clayton again, this time under cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie out of a four-wide shotgun set. Clayton ran a quick in 12 yards out and cut back outside as Rodgers-Cromartie bit on the initial route. In both cases, Bradford exhibited nice accuracy and excellent anticipation. Receivers don't seem to have to do too much adjusting to his throws, and this was true even in his opening NFL game.

The interception that ended that last drive was a different story. With fourth-and-10 from the Arizona 21 and 1:47 remaining, the Rams went shotgun again with tight twins right against Arizona's quarter-quarter-half coverage (Fig. 1). Bradford's two right-side receivers got lost in the zone, and he telegraphed his third read to tight end Billy Bajema on the other side just enough for safety Kerry Rhodes to jump the route and return the pick 65 yards to keep the lead safe.

Figure 1: Bradford's interception

Still, most of Bradford's passes came on quick timing routes and underneath routes that allowed him to make instant reads and get rid of the ball. I asked Cosell about how the Rams have been indoctrinating Bradford in this offense at a conservative pace -- he has the NFL's lowest pass length per completion at 4.79 yards -- and what it means in the grand scheme of things.

"I think it's a multi-dimensional offense that has everything in it, and I know that for a fact, but they're playing to their talent," Cosell said. "They've had a carousel at the wide receiver position, and they seem to be settling in now that people are getting healthy with Laurent Robinson, Danario Alexander, Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola as their slot guy and moveable chess piece. It would not surprise me to see them stretch the field a little more, and they're starting to do that. In the last couple of weeks, they've clearly designed plays in which the ball should go down the field. Sometimes it does. Sometimes, for reasons that have nothing to do with Bradford, it may not. But they're clearly trying to orchestrate more downfield throws, because I think they feel more comfortable with their offense."

St. Louis Rams 6 at Detroit Lions 44
October 10, 2010

That theory was stretched to its limits against a Lions defense that ranks 24th against the pass. Bradford threw 45 passes against Detroit, 19 of which went to Amendola, and 12 were caught ... for a total of 95 yards. Five yards per attempt to your primary receiver won't feed the bulldog, but I found this game to be an instructive example of how even the best rookie quarterback will struggle at the NFL level -- and how Bradford backed his way out of adverse circumstances.

One thing that hit Bradford hard was losing Clayton for the game on his third pass attempt -- yet another deep sideline route in which Clayton got tangled up with Lions cornerback Alphonso Smith. From there, it was all dink-and-dunk. His next pass, out of a rollout left, was flat-out dropped by tight end Darcy Johnson.

From there, the Rams dialed it way back, using Amendola as that moving chess piece Cosell mentioned. Amendola hit short route after short route (quick slants, bubble screens, and pretty much everything else out of the "Welker for Dummies" playbook), often right out of motion, in pass plays that were essentially treated as running plays from a yardage perspective.

I found this strategy frustrating because it seemed that offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was retrofitting Bradford with the West Coast Offense Backup Quarterback System. But Bradford has distinct and different skills that put him above the fray. Especially as the Rams were falling further behind, I was curious as to why the team wouldn't open it up the passing game. I didn't see another pass that went for more than 10 yards in the air until Bradford hit Mardy Gilyard for 17 yards with five minutes left in the first half. Tack on another 15 yards on a Detroit face mask penalty, and it was easy to see that the Lions really didn't like it when Bradford aired it out.

The Lions knew that, for the most part, they could play everything underneath -- witness the pass interference call given to Smith on the next pass after the Gilyard play. It was a quick in to Amendola, and the Lions didn't even look like they worried about the deep stuff. It was a questionable strategy, especially against a defense which makes a lot of subtle front changes and drops defenders. By the time the Rams aired it out to any degree, they were down by 25 points late in the third quarter, and the Lions' defense was obviously dropping more defenders into deep zone. I understand the need to bring the young quarterback along, but Bradford seems to be a possible exception under circumstances like these.

Cosell has told me before that, especially when analyzing draft prospects, he isolates the player from the surrounding cast to focus on specific attributes. But in this case, I asked him about Bradford's specific ability to raise the games of those around him.

"Because of his accuracy, he will always make his receivers better in the long run," Cosell said. "Because he's very compact, and he's very accurate. Believe me, I'm not comparing him to Tom Brady at this point in time, but I think he has attributes like that. Brady had Moss for a few years, and Moss was a certain type of player, but for the most part, Brady has not has what you would call elite receivers. And Bradford is the kind of guy -- because he's so compact and accurate, and he's exhibited such great timing and anticipation -- who can make receivers that you would not say are Top 10, better."

Carolina Panthers 20 at St. Louis Rams 10
October 31, 2010

Bradford's best statistical game against a serious defense (his performance two weeks ago against the Broncos doesn't really count) came against a Panthers defense that has been great against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. Shurmur stayed with the conservative game plan for the most part. Bradford didn't throw a deep pass until the second quarter, and that was a misfire to tight end Daniel Fells out of trips right that was upset by a completely uncovered James Anderson on a blitz. Anderson saw the trips to his side, saw the empty backfield, and must have been kicking his chops at that one. The first successful deep pass came early in the fourth quarter, on a stutter-go to Gibson. For the most part, Bradford managed the game he was given successfully, but the more I have watched this Rams offense this season, the more I'm wondering if Shurmur isn't taking a Lamborghini and racing it around a supermarket parking lot.

Because of the limited game plans, you have to take certain things with Bradford as you can get them, and that's what I wanted to focus on separately from his performances in specific games. One of the things I like most about him is his accuracy when he rolls right. He's obviously not leaving the pocket to open up throwing lanes like the more vertically impaired Michael Vick or Drew Brees. Instead, bootleg plays and boot-action work for him because the concept shrinks the picture, gives motion to possible zone-busting extended routes, and allows him to process his reads in longer blocks of time. Cosell reminded me how important running back Steven Jackson is to the boot-action concept.

"Well, boot-action is also a function of your running game ... Normally if you have a good zone running game, boot becomes extremely effective," Cosell said. "It's a 'flow' run game, and you get the defense moving in one direction, and you come out the other direction. And it limits the reads; not to say that Bradford can't make the reads, but he is a young quarterback, and it makes it easier."

When he's not rolling out, Bradford has also impressed me with his ability to stay calm in the pocket. A high percentage of quarterbacks will develop happy feet when they hit the NFL. Given Bradford's shoulder injuries in 2009, you might expect that he'd go that route, but Cosell cited this as a primary Bradford attribute more than once during our conversation.

"I think the thing he's exhibited consistently, which you're always concerned with when a quarterback comes to the NFL, is his poised composure and pocket mobility when there are people around him," Cosell said. "That doesn't happen a lot in college, particularly in those quick-strike offenses. Oklahoma ran something very similar to what Oregon is doing now -- getting the ball up quickly, snapping the ball within 20 seconds ... He didn't have to throw with a lot of bodies around him, but in the NFL, you do. I think he's shown a great ability to do that without any fundamental breakdowns.

"Bradford plays the game quickly, but not hurriedly. It's the old John Wooden maxim, 'Be quick, but don't hurry.' Bradford plays like that. It's like Aaron Rodgers -- he may have the quickest delivery in the league, and what happens then is that you are able to dilute pass rush pressure because the ball comes out so fast."

We talked about where Bradford ranks among the recent wave of quarterbacks having good-to-great rookie seasons. Cosell told me that while it's obviously difficult to get a clear picture of any quarterback after just 12 games, he would put Bradford above Matt Ryan and below Joe Flacco when talking exclusively about the specific array of skills required for elite quarterbacks.

I find it more difficult to place Bradford in a competitive sense right now because of the limited offense he's running. I see rookie mistakes, and I see flashes of the embryonic Brady I saw when he was at Oklahoma, but mostly, I'm waiting for the Sam Bradford I haven't yet seen. He's a big part of the Rams' resurgence, and Shurmur's "game management" concepts certainly seem intelligent in that regard.

Bradford's team is 6-6, and the Rams hold the tiebreaker over the Seattle Seahawks in that cauldron of mediocrity known as the NFC West. So it will be very interesting to see if Shurmur takes the training wheels off. I think that Bradford is ready to take those steps, even in an unexpected division chase. He's certainly not Brady yet (nor may he ever be), but there is something special in him.


25 comments, Last at 01 Jan 2013, 5:22am

3 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Bradford scares the life out of me, he's playing at a very high level for a rookie. His precise footwork, quick release and most specifically his accuracy set him apart from other young passers. The Rams are the only team in the NFC West that has any sort of long term solution at quarterback and so look to dominate the devision for quite a while.

His ability to get good production from mediocre receivers, coupled with their good young offensive line means that the Rams can look to bolster their defense over the next couple of years and become a real championship contender. (Which as a niners fan is even more annoying)

4 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

It is impressive that Bradford has been able to do what he has done with the WRs he has. Between him and Chris Long, the NFC West might turn into the Rams' playground for the next while unless my Seahawks get it together and find a guy to throw it.

5 Ryan vs. Flacco

So, Cosell would say that Flacco has had a better array of skills required for elite quarterbacks?

Maybe he had. If you count "elite defense" as a skill required for elite quarterbacks.

6 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

First of all, thank you!

I know it’s an exaggeration, but I’ve felt like the lone voice on the Bradford bandwagon around here. It’s nice to see him getting some recognition. Sad thing is, even now, you turn on sports talk radio in St. Louis and you’re more likely to hear about the Cardinals than the Rams.

I had my doubts when they drafted him, but I was converted by the end of September. You really do sense that he’s a special player and that the career arc on him seems limitless. Part of that, of course, is exuberance for a young player who has completely energized the franchise. But part of it is that he really does look that promising.

It’s frustrating that the best part of his skillset – his deep ball – is the part that is least showcased. The problem is that his receivers really are that terrible. I keep finding myself comparing this entire rebuilding process to the job that Andy Reid did in ’98 and ’99. The parallels are amazing, and not just because they both seem to have gotten the QB right, and not just because they signed underskilled free agents who knew the system (Feeley:Bradford :: Pederson:McNabb; James Butler reprises the Tim Hauck role, etc.). It’s clear that Spagnulo sat under the learning tree while he was in Philadelphia. And much like those early Eagles teams, the WRs are the last priority. The icing on the cake. Quite franky, they’re terrible. The worst I’ve seen in the NFL in many years.

Amendola as Welker doesn’t fit the “like the Eagles” paradigm, but it’s still an apt comparison. The problem is that Welker is a #2, arguably #3 WR when the Pats offense is optimal. In St. Louis, he’s the only guy they have. After that, they have a bunch of young guys, injured guys, under achievers, and various other flotsam. Dannario Alexander is considered exciting mostly because you hold your breath and hope this isn’t the play where he injures himself again. Laurent Robinson went from being a guy with upside to being just bottom of the roster flotsam. Clayton and Avery could be competent if they weren’t on IR. Mardy Gilyard got hyped up locally as a guy who could be a difference maker, but he’s suddenly a healthy scratch and can’t even beat out the likes of Brandon Gibson to dress on Sundays. Get them all back and healthy and you have a deep group with talent and potential, but you still don’t have “that #1 guy.” How many times did that drum get beaten in Philly over the years?

They don’t throw deep simply because they don’t have the a player who is capable of getting open deep. I am a little surprised that they haven’t implemented more fade/stop routes and comeback routes to try to compensate. Shurmer won’t “take the training wheels off” until there’s a guy who can get open deep. Otherwise, it’s a waste of a down. I suppose the most impressive thing to me – and something that you rarely see in young QBs – is his ability to extend the play with his mobility. You touched on it a bit, but it bears repeating. Most young QBs, you see them get pressure and they either take a sack, throw the ball away, tuck it under and run, or force a bad throw. Almost from day one, Bradford has shown the poise to roll out, but keep his eyes downfield and give his mediocre receivers an opportunity to get open. It’s a cliché, but he’s making them better. He’s got tremendous calm when the ball is in his hands.

I was thinking about this the other day. We’ve seen a run of rookie QBs have certain levels of success in recent years. Is there a shortening of the learning curve at the position? It seems like it. Or, at least, it seems like it’s worth looking into. A generation ago, the cliché was that it took 5 years before a guy was ready. Then you had a run of guys who were ready much earlier, but rookies who played at a high level as a QB used to be few and far between. In the name of Vince Lombardi, “what the heck’s going on around here?”

10 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Well, I would agree that when you're tasked with basically rebuilding an entire team as Spagnuolo and Devaney are now, receivers probably shouldn't be near the top of the priority list, especially when your rookie quarterback can make Mark Clayton look like MARK CLAYTON. Then again, I probably tend to see receivers as superfluous entities more than most. They've got the three most important positions handled, in my mind: quarterback, 4-3 MIKE, and left tackle. Much easier to work everything else in whan you have that covered.

As far as the shortening of the learning curve, the one things that comes to mind is the enormous recent increase in shotgun sets at the NFL level. Even guys like Alex Smith probably would have benefitted from being drafted just two or three years later. It makes for an easier transition in a general sense, though that is a blanket statement that isn't system-specific.

11 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

I tend to agree with you that WRs should be the last priority on offense, but I don't know that I agree on the MIKE.

Jimmy Johnson and Andy Reid both won a lot of games emphasizing speed and perimeter players on defense, and devoted much fewer resources (i.e. high draft picks and salary) on linebackers.

There's more than one way to skin a cat, but I think both of those guys, if they'd been picking #2 or #9 in 2000 would have traded down rather, for better or for worse, rather than devote that much towards LaVar Arrington or Brian Urlacher. Of course, they might have taken Chris Samuels or Deltha O'Neill, so there's no guarantee they'd have used the resources wisely. Eh, there's no right or wrong answer here.

22 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Of course, they might have taken Chris Samuels or Deltha O'Neill, so there's no guarantee they'd have used the resources wisely

Chris Samuels wasn't a great pick? How do you figure? He was one of the better left tackles in the NFL for exactly 10 years. That is a solid pick if there has ever been a solid pick...

13 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Interesting, I would have thought that defensive end is more important in a 4-3. The Rams have a good pair in the Chris Long and the underrated James Hall. I'd say that Laurinitis is at most the fourth most valuable player for the Rams defense after Atogwe and the two ends.

17 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

I'm curious as to why you consider 4-3 MIKE one of the three most important positions for a team.

I always thought that all three LB positions were considered the least important positions on a 4-3 defense, and that the ranking of defensive importance went from most important to least important in this manner: DE, CB, DT, S, LB.

19 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Laurinaitus runs the Rams D. He makes all the calls and checks and what have you, and is essentially the QB of the defense. I think its this role that makes him the most important player in the D, rather than his position.

I'd say Long is the more important (and better) player purely from a positional value standpoint, but I'd say Laurinaitus is more valuable because of what he adds beyond just his position. Also, if he has anything like the improvement from year 2 to year 3 that he had between year 1 and year 2 he'll be one of the best MLBs in the league.

21 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

But Doug specifically said "three most important positions handled, in my mind: quarterback, 4-3 MIKE, and left tackle".

That means he consideres 4-3 MIKE one of the three most important positions on any roster, regardless of who they have playing the position at St. Louis.

I'm curious as to why he considers, in the abstract, 4-3 MIKE more important than, say, 4-3 RDE, or even CB.

23 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

The Bears have put together some rather good defenses while basically ignoring corner, but they have devoted a lot of resources to LB and D-Line (and have tried a lot of players, although maybe not a lot of resources at safety). Scheme matters a lot.

I do agree with you that end is most important position in a 4-3 defense.

20 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Hey, I've been firmly and vocally on the Bradford bandwagon since 2008. I thought he was the best quarterback prospect I'd ever seen, and that although the relatively low college start count made him a risk in the sense that it increased the likelihood I and the pro scouts were wrong about him, and even though I loved Suh, the Rams were doing absolutely the right thing taking him #1. See comment #55 in this thread, for example. He's really something. The one sense in which I feel I was wrong about him was that I thought he might struggle early in his career in terms of pocket presence, given how dominant his college OL was. Nope. He's just awesome.

8 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

"Bradford's best statistical game against a serious defense (his performance two weeks ago against the Broncos doesn't really count)came against a Panthers defense that has been great against No. 1 and No. 2 receivers."
Eep. That one hurts, right in the soul. When your favorite team is compared to one of the worst teams in the league and comes off worse... That's bad. And when your immediate response is to agree with that assesment... That's worse.
But more to the point, I don't watch a lot of college ball, but I did wind up keeping an eye on Bradford, as I had gotten in the habit of watching Oklahoma for Adrian Peterson, and I was super-impressed with him before the shoulder injury. I was nervous that he wouldn't be able to come back effectively, but I'm glad to see that he's coming along so well. And speaking as someone who saw that Broncos game in person, even though the competition was weak, it was still a *very* impressive game in some brutally cold, swirling wind.

15 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

Having watched Bradford through his career at OU, I knew that - if he could play at the NFL level - he would improve the players around him. When he wasn't able to play, OU struggled much more than just the drop at qb would explain. On the other hand, OU was undefeated when Peterson wasn't able to play.

As for why where the young quarterbacks are coming from - the same thing is happening at the college level, so they've had more starting experience when they get to the pros. My personal suspicion is that the relatively new 7on7 summer leagues have a lot to do with it kids coming out of high school nearly ready to play. Doubling the number of seasons played in high school has got to have some effect!

24 Re: Cover-3: The Education of Sam Bradford

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