NFL Quarterback Rundown: Week 7
No Offensive Line, No Problem
The Seattle Seahawks did not get off to the start they were hoping for, opening the year 1-2, with their only win being a 12-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Over those first three games, the offensive line looked a mess, the defense was not playing quite up to par, and Russell Wilson did not look right. Something has changed as of late. The Seahawks, and Wilson in particular, look more like their old selves.
Wilson simply was not accurate to open the season. His mechanics looked off and, as a result, he was not hitting the mark as often as he’d hoped. Over the past few weeks, Wilson has rediscovered his sense of self. This week’s performance versus the New York Giants spotlighted that.
Few quarterbacks can throw well when fading away from the throw. It requires great core strength and control of one’s release point. Aaron Rodgers is the best at it, as is the case with most any quarterback trait, but Wilson is not far behind.
On both throws, Wilson quickly recognizes a breakdown along his interior offensive line. Rather than panic, Wilson trusts his pre-snap reads and knows where to go with the ball. He hops away from the incoming pressure and tosses two perfect in-stride passes over defenders. The immediate presence of a defender is not there in the second play as it is in the first play, but Wilson really did not want to get hit. When a quarterback can consistently make this fadeaway throw, it is hard to discredit or discourage them from doing it.
Of course, Wilson is best known for his Houdini-like qualities. No quarterback in the league makes uncanny escapes from the pocket quite like Wilson does. On this occasion, three interior offensive linemen fail to block a single pass-rusher. Wilson has to move off his spot and quickly find an outlet among eight coverage defenders. As he slides up in the pocket, Wilson is able to locate a receiver who sat down in between the zone coverage. Wilson gets off a throw as he is crushed, giving Seattle a first down despite the odds stacked against the quarterback.
This is the standard Wilson has to play to in order to save Seattle this season. The offensive line is as bad as it has ever been, which is quite the feat for this team. Luckily for Wilson, the defense has also picked up the slack, so he does not quite have to do everything by himself. If Wilson and the offense can keep this up, they should remain comfortably in the playoff picture.
Josh McCown is Running an Air Raid
“Air Raid” is a taboo term in the NFL atmosphere. It is looked down upon as a gimmicky system that only works at the college level. There is a notion that the concepts ran in the Air Raid are nothing like that of the NFL, or that the system just can not translate to the NFL. News flash: Your favorite team runs Air Raid concepts, and some teams run a lot of them.
The New York Jets are particularly Air Raid-y this season, which may be odd considering 38-year-old Josh McCown is their quarterback. Nonetheless, the offense feels as wide open as it has ever been. McCown is in ‘empty’ formations (only the quarterback is in the backfield) often and many of the passing concepts are Air Raid staples. It is all working exceptionally well, too. At least as well as you can expect of a McCown-led offense.
This is as simple as it gets. Across the board, the Jets run five-yard “hitch” routes with one wide receiver running a straight vertical route. The idea is that the quarterback can either throw the vertical (known as the ‘alert’ route, in this concept) or work the “hitch” routes from the inside-out. McCown trusts his receiver to win vertical versus a slow Cordrea Tankersley, and his wide receiver comes through. The receiver gets comfortable separation and McCown is able to lace in a nice touchdown throw.
Two Air Raid concepts in one! While lined up in ‘empty’ formation, McCown has a “hitch-seam” and “Y-stick” combination to his left. “Hitch-seam” is designed to beat two-high safety looks by pulling down the cornerback with the “hitch” route and isolating a vertical “seam” player with a safety. The “Y-stick” is a short option route that can function as a sort of “hitch” route or extend into an “out” route, depending on the positioning of the inside defender. In this example, McCown simply needs the first down. He targets the “stick” route versus the zone coverage and picks up an easy first down.
“Scissors” is a common Air Raid concept for combating two-high safety coverages. In short, two receivers run mirrored “post” routes, one being ran over the top of the other. Oklahoma State is notorious for this at the college level. On this play, the strong-side safety (right) bites down on the shorter post route. The cornerback is then left 1-on-1 with the wide receiver, and the receiver cooks him over the top for an easy touchdown.
Bless the Air Raid.
Easing Ben Roethlisberger’s Workload
Ben Roethlisberger can not be the focal point of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense. After toying with retirement this offseason, it is no wonder Roethlisberger does not have the stamina or wherewithal to be throwing 40 times per game. Through the first five weeks of the season, that is exactly what he was being asked to do. Roethlisberger averaged 39 attempts per game. He threw at least 30 attempts in every game, maxing out once at 55 attempts. Over that stretch, Roethlisberger was throwing for fewer than seven yards per attempt.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has asked Roethlisberger to throw just 49 times over the last two games combined. Roethlisberger has thrown three touchdowns to one interception over the past two games, while averaging nearly 10 yards per attempt. He is not necessarily that much better than he was to begin the season, but the ease of pressure off of him has allowed him to not feel like he has to force plays.
Le’Veon Bell has become the workhorse for the offense, as should have been the case all along. Bell is the best running back in the league, both as a runner and as a receiver. Additionally, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is better on the ground than they are as pass protectors. They are arguably the best run blocking group in the league. By all accounts, this is an offense that should be leaning on the running game, while supplementing that with shot plays.
That is what Haley has done the past couple of weeks. Bell has 67 rushing attempts to Roethlisberger’s 49 passing attempts, and Bell has caught six of Roethlisberger’s 31 completions. The offense is now living through Bell and being maximized through play-action throws over the middle and down the field.
Though this is not play-action, Cincinnati’s linebackers are caught playing down low and peeking into the backfield. They do not want to get abused by Bell on short catches, though Bell ended up doing that at some point anyway. The conflict of Bell pulling defenses down while using two receiving options running vertically down the seam is infuriating for a defense, and finally creates the conflict the Steelers want.
Whether or not the Steelers can keep this up is to be seen. Given Todd Haley is a fantastic coordinator, it feels safe to assume the Steelers can stick to these adjustments. The Steelers offense is too talented to falter again, even if Roethlisberger can not carry them the way he used to.