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The question is not whether Saquon Barkley is the best running back in this draft class. The question is whether any running back, even one as good as Barkley, warrants a top-five draft selection in the NFL in 2018.

30 Sep 2009

Cover-3: The Jet Sweep

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.

Game 1: The Third Downs
New York Jets 24 at Houston Texans 7

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.

Game 2: Coming Back
New England Patriots 9 at New York Jets 16

"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.

Game 3: Keeping His Head
Tennessee Titans 17 at New York Jets 24

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.

Posted by: Doug Farrar on 30 Sep 2009

21 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2009, 12:44pm by Brady'sLeftKneeCap


by Independent George :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 2:17pm

Does anybody else think that Sanchez's attempt to reach the ball across the goal line this week was incredibly stupid? I haven't heard anyone criticize him for it, but I thought he was incredibly lucky it crossed the plane before being stripped. The fact that it worked doesn't mitigate the fact that the upside was not worth the risk.

by Dennis :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 2:29pm

I read quite a few articles that were critical of the play. Worse than reaching with the ball was diving head first.

by Anonymous231 (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 3:27pm

I think there's a point in the gun's of the navarone where they say it's better to be lucky than talented. i think i agree.

by Anonymous C (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 4:43pm

I'm a huge Jet fan that was at the game. I gasped when he did it. I wouldn't call it stupid, but it was very ill advised. He's a rookie and this is what you get (growing pains). The coach and the NY media did criticize all week. In addition, they should some training camp footage where Rex told Sanchez never to do that or Woody (the Jets owner) would fire all of them. Believe me, it did not go unnoticed.

by C (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 2:39pm

People try and reach the ball over the goal line all the time ( at risk of it being swiped away). The thing that got me was the quarterbacks willingness to take a shot from Michael Griffen ( not a slide) to score. The fact that he was left standing inches away from the goal line and reach the ball is a common thing you'd see from a back/receiver/Purple quarterback.

Sanchez thus far looks far better than Matt Stafford Stafford who really only had his first non terrible game ( pre season or not) last week against Washington. So far about the ONLY advantage I see in Stafford is stronger arm but Sanchezs arm is easily strong enough for success. He's quicker, smarter, better feet, better everything than Stafford except he's had less starts, is smaller and has a little bit weaker arm.

I certainly wouldn't credit Sanchez with "making" the Jets 3-0... I think he got too much credit after the Patriots game, but the guy has played much better than a "rookie" thus far.

I was in the camp that he or " and any" rookie QB for that matter not named Peyton ( or maybe Matt Ryan) should sit at least 1/2 a year but Sanchez certainly hasn't impeded the Jets.

If you are going to start a rookie QB though, it helps that he has a strong defense, and a strong offensive line that were probably both underrated by the National Media.

by whatyousay :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 2:47pm

This was especially bad though -- he held the ball in one hand away from his body with his back to the endzone, then proceeded to spin around with the ball outstretched. Too risky . . . but it worked!

by Independent George :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 3:19pm

Having his back to the end zone is the part I have a problem with - he couldn't see if there was another defender coming in to help!

It's one thing to have the ball out while diving forward - the ball carrier can see the distance to the goal line, the location of the nearest defender, and bring the ball back in if needed. From where Sanchez was, he had no idea where anybody was, and just blindly stuck the ball out with one hand. The ball just barely crossed the plane, and in fact was stripped less than a second later. That play came very close to being six going the other way.

by njjetfan12 :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 2:46pm

So far on the year the thing that I've been most impressed with is how quickly Sanchez has been able to learn from his mistakes. When you compare how he looked in the preseason to how he looked in week 1, to how much more he's continued to improve, it's pretty obvious he "gets it." In addition, as was mentioned earlier, his footwork in the pocket is astounding. Although he has a bad habit of drifting out of the pocket and into the path of a pass rusher, his ability to sense rushers and keep his head downfield is very impressive, and I think that has been one of the primary reasons for his success, along with Keller becoming a top tight end, and Cotchery being nothing short of awesome so far this year.

by Dave M (not verified) :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 10:45am

"So far on the year the thing that I've been most impressed with is how quickly Sanchez has been able to learn from his mistakes."

I wouldn't be so sure. In a training camp full contact drill Sanchez ran the ball into the end zone, diving past Bart Scott (who for obvious reasons didn't hit him) and later said he thought his teammates would be impressed with his gutsy decision. Scott told him "bad career decision, rook" because he could have forgot that Sanchez was wearing a red jersey. Six weeks later and it doesn't look like he's learned. It'll probably take him getting creamed and turning over the ball a few times for him to learn his lesson.

by loneweasel (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 2:55pm

So, if I read it correctly, this cat's best case scenario is Aikman, always overrated (by the media) and underrated (by stats) at the same time.

by peteymac (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 3:25pm

As far as Sanchez "getting it" and learning from his mistakes. He nearly fumbled on the TD run and later held the ball out and low while being sacked, having the ball knocked away for a costly fumble. Next time he was sacked was in the second half and Sanchez tucked the ball in immediately when touched. We'll see if he exhibits better ball control in the future but loved the fact that he seemed to learn from his previous mistake and made an adjustment. He's been asked to do a little more every week...

by sennafan (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 4:23pm

Regarding Greg Cosell -- he doesn't appear to have a column in TSN anymore (my only reason for ever going to that site) has someone else picked-up his column for 2009-10 or feature his writing?

by Pats fan.... (not verified) :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 4:36pm

Geeze, I didn't know Flacco's arm was that good. I'm sure I'll learn this weekend when we find out just how soft the Patsie's D is.

by bmerryman :: Wed, 09/30/2009 - 4:48pm

Flacco has a serious cannon. I also like that he's very tall. Exciting to see a good bunch of young QBs in the league.

by Led :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 9:51am

Flacco is the real deal. I was very impressed with the way he played against the Jets in the preseason. A bunch of sharp, accurate intermediate passes thrown on time. Because of good timing and accuracy, he was completing passes even against tight coverage. That is the sign of a good QB. So I'm not surprised by his success so far this season. I'm interested to see how he does against NE. Lot of good games this week.

by Hank (not verified) :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 12:03pm

Why don't more teams aggressively go after rookie QBs? Every team should have rookie blitz packages, designed for use only when playing 1st or low experience QBs. Throwing a quick pass when the defender is way off the line isn't a difficult read.
Getting your linemen to change protection schemes at the snap because pressure is coming from suddenly different directions is going to rattle even experienced guys.

by tuluse :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 12:31pm

As a fan with no rooting interest in the Jets, I loved watching Sanchez lower his head and reach for the endzone.

Also, he was like an inch away, I think it was likely that he was going to cross the plane before any player could force a fumble.

by freeberd (not verified) :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 12:32pm

I dont know how anyone can compare Sanchez and Stafford yet. Sanchez is asked to do very little compared with Stafford. He has a tremendous pass blocking line (the best?), and quality experienced playmakers at RB, TE, and WR. Stafford basically has Calvin Johnson. Its amazing to me that after all these years of football outsiders, people still carry with them the same impressions of their youth. Football is about team...the greatest footwork in the world mean substantially less if you cant even stay upright. All in all, Sanchez (like Matt Ryan last year) is ahead of the curve - he'll temporarily plateau at Year 2. Stafford, meanwhile (like Flacco),is on or below the curve. He is likely to have a larger improvement in Year 2.

by Jetspete :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 1:56pm

This Jets team is starting to remind me a lot of the 2004 Steelers.

by nickeverett (not verified) :: Thu, 10/01/2009 - 10:41pm

Sanchez has been successful, but its the defense winning these games. He's simply managing and trying to limit mistakes.

Houston has/had tremendous upside and could have put up huge #'s...but the defense smothered Schaub and the run. Sanchez threw for 260-ish, 1 score, 1 fumble, 1 pick. Better than Schaub, but the defense never allowed Houston a chance.

Against a much-changed NE defense, Sanchez had 160 and 1 TD. Modest performance against a defense that Trent Edwards put 2 scores and 210 on. Brady had 215 and a pick. Thats a defensive victory. I think everyone outside of NE could agree that w/o the huge names on offense, the pats would be 1-2 or 0-3 if Atlanta chose to play the second half.

Tennessee is being exposed and its pretty obvious they arent the same defense w/o hainesworth. Jets D made 2 mistakes and allowed Chris Johnson big numbers. But Collins only had 170 and 2 picks. Sanchez had 170 1 pick and 2 fumbles.

Sanchez will hopefully be great one day. Right now, he just needs to stay on the field long enough to rest his defense.

by Brady'sLeftKneeCap (not verified) :: Sat, 10/03/2009 - 12:44pm

More than anything, when it comes to luck, I'm struck by just how important it is for a young QB to land with a good coach. How many guys just had their careers crushed -- I mean, no chance whatsoever -- by being in a system and with a coach that couldn't or wouldn't develop them, or who insisted on running a system that didn't suit the personnel he had. Imagine what we'd be saying about Sanchez if he'd been drafted by the Browns (or if Mangini was coaching the Jets instead of Rexy)?

I'm generally opposed to starting rookies at QB, but I recognize that sometimes that's just the way it's going to be. But when that happens, you'd better be sure about your coaching staff. I think there's even money that Brady Quinn could become a fine NFL quarterback. But two more seasons under Mangenius will end that dream.