How do you plan to deploy a pass rush against a mobile quarterback? Do you contain on both sides? Do you add a spy to keep tabs for the entire game or in key situations? What if your data presents a different picture? What if it says you don’t need to do any of that?
For Super Bowl Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, devising his rush plan starts with the quarterback, not the offensive line. He detailed this philosophy in a 2015 C.O.O.L. (Coaches of Offensive Linemen) Clinic.
“We didn’t look at your stances, we didn’t look at the individual techniques or anything else because it didn’t have as much to do with [the offensive line] as it did that quarterback.
What we wanted to see is where is the quarterback? Because it didn’t matter if you could beat the offensive tackle on an outside move if the ball wasn’t there, if the quarterback wasn’t there. We started talkin’ a little bit more about rushing spots and rushing a quarterback rather than rushing protections and individual techniques of offensive linemen. And lookin’ and sayin’, ‘if this guy escapes where is he going?’”
How do you quantify where a quarterback typically throws from and how he likes to escape the pocket? Schwartz helped develop a process for this during his 2001-2008 stint as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans. They started with graph paper, marking an “X” for every throw at the correlating space on the graph. Later the process would be computerized.
What did they find with this charting data?
“And it was shocking, you’d look at this report and some guys like Peyton Manning would never escape.. all the marks where he released the ball it looked like a sniper, all of them were in the exact same spot, he wasn’t straying very far from that...
Other guys, you didn’t know where the guy was gonna be… but that was really where we started our pass rush plan. How much time do we have to get there… and if he’s escaping where is he escaping? Is he stepping up, is he bailing to his hand? Is he bailing away from his hand? Is he coming in to get out or is he bailing deep to get out?
We want Peyton Manning to leave the pocket, we want him off the spot. We don’t care if he breaks contain. Michael Vick, if he’s going to escape, we gotta make him escape away from his throwing hand because he’s dangerous when he can go out with his throwing hand.”
This allowed Schwartz to sell the idea of moving away from a non-traditional pass rush plan. If they knew where a quarterback liked to escape and where they, in turn, wanted to flush him, then they could present that quarterback with options that played into the defenses hands. Ideally, one option is a quarterback could step into pressure or get rid of the ball with haste and the other option would be taking a path that the quarterback was uncomfortable throwing from.
Additionally, if you knew where a quarterback liked to escape, you didn’t have to cover up every gap in your pass rush plan. This is something we’ve talked about constantly on The Kist & Solak Show regarding the Eagles’ defensive line freelancing and not concerning themselves with gap discipline on passing downs. Schwartz confirmed our suspicions and gave the why:
“You got to the old manuals and you see four pass rush lanes and you’ll hear coaches 30 years ago, 40 years ago talk about, you know, four man pass rush there has to be a guy in the A lane, and the B lane, and the C lane and the D lane and you keep contain on this side and you keep contain on this side. But because of those graphs and because of the information we got from them, we threw all that stuff out...
Where do we need to keep contain? Because we didn’t keep contain on both sides.. we wanted to give our guys free reign to make inside moves, particularly that right defensive end working that left tackle. Most right handed quarterbacks have a hard time escaping out to their right side… we want him escaping [away from his hand] and then trying to get reset.”
Finally, Schwartz would go on to note the differences between down and distance situations and how that played a role in how it limited or expanded the options available to an individual pass rusher.
“When you start breaking down, okay here’s all the 1st & 10 launch points, what you find out is you get a lot of play-action, you’re getting a little bit deeper shots, you’re not getting rid of the ball as quick, and now you have time to be able to rush deeper spots. It might be the time for that speed rush, where on third down and three it’s not the time.”
This also impacts his philosophy in the red zone, where the ball gets out quicker. He advised against moves like the speed rush in those situations, stressing the quickness in which the ball comes out of the quarterback’s hand when the field condenses.
Knowing what we now know about Schwartz’s process, it was time to put it into practice. I charted every throw from Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton in Week 6. I marked each throw with a yellow circle and then connected it with a thin yellow line to it’s throw location. Shout out to Next Gen Stats for the initial data and the graph.
What does this tell us about Newton? First, it tells us he’s an extremely stationary thrower more in the mold of a pocket quarterback than what you may have imagined. Newton would much rather hitch up in the pocket and get rid of the ball before pressure arrives than dart out of it and throw on the move. Whether this attitude was always there or developed over years of taking a beating from designed runs (of which there are still plenty) and taking shows trying to deliver on the move, I’m not sure.
What I am sure of is that the Eagles’ game-plan doesn’t need to involve a heavy emphasis on contain or spying. To further illustrate that point, I charted every single scramble from Newton in 2018. This confirmed what I saw in the Week 6 data.
In fives games only 4 throws come from outside of the pocket on a scramble and only one went for a completion. This does not include designed play-action roll-outs where he moved along his natural track, but there weren’t many of those either. He opted to run from a scramble on only 11 occasions. 11 of 15 of these scrambles move toward his ball-hand.
I noticed on his film that on third down teams would overload or shift their line to the right of the offensive line. This tells you teams are certainly cognizant of the obvious fact that Newton is right-handed, not only as a thrower but as a scrambler. That may be the only change that the Eagles make in their plan against the Panthers from this data.
Make no mistake though, Newton is not exactly Peyton Manning, he’s still a viable run threat. But the restrictions placed on rushers against perpetually scrambling quarterbacks like Russell Wilson will likely not be installed to such a high degree in this instance. Those restraints include eliminating the “two-way go” from a pass rushers repertoire and putting him strictly in a contain role.
Simply, the spot the Eagles are rushing is the the most frequent launch point. For Newton, that launch point is in the pocket.
If they alter their tactics for other factors, like how the Panthers often pull a lineman or tight end across the formation to block the backside EMLOS (end man on line of scrimmage), that’s an entirely different beast. This will take discipline from our defensive ends and also present them with some non-conventional rush angles. There’s also the matter of accounting for Newton in the Panthers’ option game, which is likely a stronger focus for Schwartz this week.
Ultimately, this knowledge in invaluable. Knowing how and why Schwartz develops his rush plans allows us to go beyond conjecture and decipher why certain schemes were deployed or not deployed. In this case, the Eagles’ plan involves trying to flush a stationary quarterback out of the pocket and to his left, away from his ball-hand. Also, sacking him would be ideal. If they don’t, Schwartz will have a report with every throw and how quickly the ball was released on his desk on Monday morning.