Pressure cooker: QBs who shine or wilt when facing defensive pressure
Quarterbacks play in a world of pressure. There's the pressure of knowing that your team's fortunes are resting on you more than on any other player on your team. There's also the far more literal pressure of defenders moving toward you at high speed with intentions to hit. The NFL's best quarterbacks are defined in part by their ability to navigate this pressure and conversely, lesser quarterbacks are often exposed by pressure—their poor field vision and inconsistent mechanics show up at the worst possible times.
Last season, Jacksonville's Blake Bortles was educated in the NFL's version of pressure. The Jaguars' front office, long known to be believers in sabermetric theory, selected Bortles third overall in part because he was so good when chased out of the pocket by defenders during his time at Central Florida, averaging 7.8 yards per attempt when under pressure.
But behind a severely depleted offensive line in Jacksonville, Bortles had a nightmare 2014 season. The rookie QB was sacked a league-leading 55 times in just 14 games, and the Jaguars' offensive line surrendered a franchise record 71 quarterback takedowns. Moreover, Bortles was terrible when he wasn't sacked—according to Pro Football Focus' metrics, he completed just 54 of 118 passes when under pressure, with no touchdowns and eight interceptions.
New offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who did a great job with fellow rookie quarterback Derek Carr in Oakland last season, has said that he wants Bortles to maintain his mobility while working on all the little things that make some quarterbacks downright dominant under pressure. The good news is that Bortles has the tools to get past a rough first season. The bad news is that some guys never get it, or lose it as quickly as they once had it. In this tape-driven examination of the best and worst quarterbacks under pressure, we'll look at those necessary attributes.
First, a few of the guys who need to play better when under pressure.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Dalton has never really gotten the hang of throwing accurately and consistently when forced to bail from the pocket, which rendered his line's efforts last season somewhat wasted. Only Peyton Manning faced pressure at a lower percentage than Dalton's 25.0 rate, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth led all players at his position in pass-blocking efficiency, allowing no sacks, one quarterback hit and eight hurries in 533 passing snaps. A better quarterback would eat defenses up with that kind of protection, but Dalton is a careless player when things aren't going his way, and the stats showed it. PFF has him with 46 completions in 101 attempts under pressure, with six touchdowns and eight interceptions.
This pick against the Buccaneers in Week 13 typifies Dalton's vapor locks against pressure. Defensive end Jacquies Smith gets in his face from the front side, and Dalton throws up a total duck in the remote vicinity of receiver James Wright. But the real target here appears to be cornerback Alterraun Verner, who gets one of the easiest interceptions of his life. One of the reasons Dalton continues to frustrate is his tendency to let everything break down under pressure—he doesn't re-set, he doesn't adjust, and the result is far too many ill-advised passes.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees? Really? Yes. It didn't used to be this way, but with an underperforming offensive line and perhaps a letdown in his own velocity, Brees was actually one of the NFL's worst statistical quarterbacks under pressure in 2014. He completed 109 passes when hit or hurried last season—second to Atlanta's Matt Ryan—but managed just three touchdowns against nine interceptions. In 2013, he threw 10 touchdown passes to six picks under pressure on 79 passes. This has to be a serious concern for head coach Sean Payton, especially with so many of Brees' targets gone in the offseason.
One of those nine interceptions came with 4:04 left in the first quarter against the Falcons in Week 16. Receiver Marques Colston takes an in route from outside twins right, but Brees throws the ball early because he's pressured by defensive tackle Jordan Babineaux. Left guard Ben Grubbs hands Babineaux off to center Jonathan Goodwin, but there was some kind of miscommunication, because Babineaux shoots right through the line. Cornerback Desmond Trufant jumps the route perfectly—basically, he's where Colston is supposed to be—and he's rewarded with a pick. Hurried throws were a major issue for Brees in 2014.
Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers
Likewise, it's tough to believe that Rivers was one of the worst quarterbacks under pressure last season, but the stats line up with the tape. In 2014, Rivers threw eight touchdown passes when under the run, but he also threw eight interceptions. The problem was more acute in the second half of the season, and it was a direct function of San Diego's protection issues. In the first eight games of the season, Rivers was sacked just 13 times, and threw 20 touchdown passes to five interceptions. In the season's second half, he was taken down 23 times, and threw 11 touchdowns to 12 picks. Rivers has never been especially mobile, and he's known to be extremely tough in the pocket—he'll stand there and get leveled by pass-rushers while still making the throw.
Well, most of the time. That certainly didn't happen in Week 13 against the Ravens. With 10:06 left in the first quarter, Rivers' pocket collapses completely as Chris Canty pushes left guard Chad Rinehart into the quarterback, while Elvis Dumervil blows right by right tackle D.J.Fluker. Rivers' response was this flubbed pass directly into the hands of linebacker Daryl Smith. This is one time when it would have been better to just take the sack.
Now, let's look at the best quarterbacks when under pressure—the ones that make enemy defenses live with regret.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
There are all kinds of things that make Rodgers the best quarterback in the NFL, but one of the most important—and underrated—aspects of his game is his tremendous ability to throw on the run after the original protection has broken down. This was tested more frequently in years past, as Green Bay's line has since improved, but Rodgers has never lost his knack.
In 2014, he was pressured on 153 of his dropbacks, completing 53 passes in 116 attempts for nine touchdowns and just one interception. It's long been a truism around the league that when you have Rodgers on the run, you're the one with the disadvantage. This game-deciding touchdown pass in Green Bay's divisional playoff win over the Cowboys is proof positive of that.
With 9:10 left in the game, Rodgers bails out of the crumbling pocket to somehow thread the needle to TE Richard Rodgers as two Dallas defenders converge in vain. Watch his mechanics on the move—Rodgers never panics. He's tremendous when he needs to re-set his body in a hurry and create a new play out of nothing.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
After just three years in the NFL, Luck has become the league's best play-action passer and its most prolific deep thrower. But it's his mobility that makes him nearly impossible to stop. In 2014, Luck threw for 11 touchdowns when under pressure. And while the six picks in those situations is cause for concern, we're betting that coach Chuck Pagano and offensive coordiantor Pep Hamilton will have the occasional negative residue when their guy can make preposterous plays like this one in the Colts' wild-card win over the Bengals.
There's 7:37 left in the third quarter, and Luck manages a front-side safety blitz from Reggie Nelson by moving to his right and into a free space. Well, almost. Luck gets tripped up as he's throwing past end Carlos Dunlap, but still makes this ungodly throw to receiver Donte Moncrief for the touchdown. Bengals safety George Iloka and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are left dumbfounded. Watch how Luck keeps the play alive: There's no desperation—until the second his body hits the turf, he's thinking like a quarterback and ensuring that his mechanics are as straight as possible.
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
We saved the best for last. Big Ben has been making big plays with defenders hanging all over him for years, so it's no surprise that he'd be one of the better throwers under pressure. But over the last couple seasons, it's his accuracy, efficiency and ability to read defenses on the run that have set him apart. In 2014, Roethlisberger was pressured 177 times, completing 89 of 140 passes (a league-leading 63.6% completion rate under pressure) for 11 touchdowns and not one single interception.
This play against the Chiefs in Week 16 was perhaps the best example of why Roethlisberger is so frustrating for defenses. He beats the line pressure with some nimble footwork after the protection breaks down, dances his way through the trash, and fires a bullet to Antonio Brown for the touchdown. Bonus points to Brown for navigating the coverage and getting free over time -- this is one of the primary skills any top receiver for a mobile quarterback must master. But it was Roethlisberger who perfectly read Kansas City's pressure-to-coverage concepts and created the opportunity when many quarterbacks would collapse under the pressure.
Put simply, that's what the great ones do.