Grouping the passers
With the playoffs upon us it is time for the most honored of media traditions: The rankings article. Although anytime I’ve given the assignment of ranking quarterbacks, I retreat into my safer position of putting them in tiers, rather than putting outright rankings to paper. That is true preseason, and it is certainly true given this crop of playoff quarterbacks. Here is how I would tier these passers headed into the postseason. Are these tiers perfect? Probably not, as I’m just another guy with a keyboard.
(Data taken from Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference)
The Tested Two
We will start with two passers in the NFC who are playing at very high levels, and one of whom would probably be your league MVP if it were not for that guy down in Baltimore...
Studying Wilson for The QB Scho Show this week and I was left with one basic impression: How do you Beat this guy? He is great under pressure and thrives in chaos, but he is also very good from a clean pocket. He has a Super Bowl ring under his belt and some emerging weapons around him such as D.K. Metcalf.
How He Wins: We know what he can do in chaos and how he creates in scramble drill situations. The Seahawks’ receivers are great - including Metcalf - at getting into Wilson’s line of sight in those moments. Wilson outside of structure and outside of the pocket is perhaps where he is at his most dangerous.
How to Beat Him: A very tough question to answer. I think the best approach is to try and get pressure with four. A standard answer, I know, but something that is doable against this Seattle offensive line. Back in Week 16 the Arizona Cardinals were able to use some stunts and twists up front to get pressure on Wilson while taking away escape lanes. Teams might also be keen to use some “rain” type blitzes, where the two inside linebackers read the turn of the center. If he turns away from you in protection you blitz, and if he turns towards you you look for the hot route/spy the quarterback.
Perhaps he was a snub from the NFL100 team, but Brees is still one of the game’s most dangerous passers. With Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara around him, plus additional pieces such as Jared Cook and Taysom Hill, this is a dangerous offense to face.
How He Wins: Brees is a precision thrower with a computer for a mind. His processing speed is elite, and his ball placement is as well. A very difficult combination to stop.
How to Beat Him: Pressuring him does not do the trick, as he is one of the game’s best under duress this season (a league-high Adjusted Completion Percentage of 83.1% when pressured this season). Dropping eight into coverage does not do the trick, as he is also deadly from a clean pocket. A defense will need to try some different things and really vary the approach against him. At times teams have doubled both Thomas and Kamara on a given play, making Brees look elsewhere with the football. Showing him a variety of different looks from drive to drive, even from snap to snap, is probably the best answer. Keep him guessing as much as possible.
Young and Talented
This next crop of passers might form a nucleus of the next wave of NFL quarterbacks. Each of them has delivered this season for their teams, in different ways, and the league MVP is in all likelihood in this mix.
It is often said that teams want to be playing their best football come January, and the Kansas City Chiefs might be the 2020 version of this rule. Mahomes and the offense clicked down the stretch, winning six-straight games and securing the second overall seed in the AFC. In addition, the Kansas City defense - an Achilles’ Heel for them a year ago - is a much better unit this season. Also helping Mahomes is the fact that in this group, he is the only one with a true playoff victory.
How He Wins: With Mahomes he can beat you in a number of ways. His ability to throw off platform and from any arm angle remains perhaps the best in the game, and with the assembled talent around him this Chiefs’ offense can stress a defense at every single level of the field.
How To Beat Him: It is difficult to point to one thing teams can do to beat Mahomes. In the large scale, you need to have an offense of your own that can put up points to keep pace. On a more micro level, Mahomes has struggled at times when his primary reads are taken away, although he has improved in this area of play in this season. But last year the New England Patriots had success against him by double and even triple-covering Travis Kelce at times. Confuse him, take away his early primary read, and hope for the best.
This is your league MVP, and if John Harbaugh is correct, this is the cornerstone of the revolution in the NFL. Jackson has transformed the Baltimore offense this season and their ability to put up points while bending a defense to their will has been fascinating to watch. Strip away everything else about their offense, the critical fact is this: They make you wrong as a defense no matter what you do.
How He Wins: We know Jackson’s ability to make defenders miss in open space with the football in his hands, either as a runner or extending plays as a passer. But an underrated reason for Jackson’s success this season is his play from the pocket, and his work presnap with his mind. In the Ravens’ offense there are a number of empty formations and designs that stress a defense before the snap, and in those moments Jackson is a decisive quarterback who knows exactly where to go with the football.
How To Beat Him: Rely on history? Last year late in the season the 8-6 Ravens went into Los Angeles to take on the Chargers, who were still in a fight for the AFC West and were the proverbial “team no one wants to play.” But Jackson and company won in a bit of a stunner.
A few weeks later the Chargers came to Baltimore on Wild Card Weekend and dispatched the Ravens in a game where Jackson struggled mightily.
There could be a recipe here for teams to learn the lessons of Jackson and the Ravens in a first meeting, and then apply them in a second meeting. In these playoffs on the AFC side alone, Baltimore has a number of potential second chance meetings: New England, Kansas City, Buffalo and Houston all played the Ravens so far this season.
After a disastrous early December loss to the Miami Dolphins dropped them to 5-7 and seemingly left them for dead in the NFC East, Wentz and company rattled off four straight divisional wins to secure the division and a home playoff game. Wentz has been a big part of that last season run, putting the team on his back in the words of his head coach and leading them to some comeback wins. Yes, you can question the level of competition, but the fact is, Wentz delivered down the stretch for the Eagles.
How He Wins: Appropriate aggression. One of the hallmarks to Wentz’s play, even dating back to his college days, is how he is willing to fight to the whistle on every single snap. He won’t give up in the pocket, will fight to extend plays with his legs and will make some very impressive plays outside of the pocket and off of structure. This is of course a blessing and a curse, as it has led to injury concerns and some mistakes and turnovers at inopportune moments.
How to Beat Him: Slay the two-handed dragon. If there is and area where Wentz struggles right now it is with ball security in the pocket. Too often he will fail to secure the football with both hands while fighting and moving in the pocket, and that has led to fumbles and turnovers. Pressure him and generate turnovers, and you’ll give you offense a chance to make Wentz and the Eagles pay for his mistake.
Watson led the Houston Texans to another AFC South title, but this time they hope to avoid the “one and done” mark they set a season ago when they lost on Wild Card Weekend to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Something to watch with Watson is his splits with Will Fuller in and out of the lineup. This season Watson has struggled when the speedy wideout is sidelined, perhaps due to the fact that opposing defenses can then truly key on DeAndre Hopkins and take away Watson’s favorite target.
How He Wins: We all know the struggles the Texans had last season with protecting Watson, and that was evident with how they handled the draft and offseason along the offensive line. So this season the Texans have done two things schematically to help Watson. First, and this is not really new, they have utilized a number of play-action concepts off of maximum protection. You can still stress a defense with Hopkins and Fuller as the only receivers downfield, and that gives you extra bodies to protect the QB. But they have also gone to some empty formations to spread the defense out, giving Watson a chance to see what the defense is doing before the snap, and enabling him to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
How to Beat Him: Force him to reset in the pocket. Despite the schematic changes and upgrades up front, Watson was still sacked 44 times in the regular season: Sixth-most in the league and behind only Wilson in terms of playoff passers. While some of those sacks are on protection issues, a large number of them are on Watson holding the football too long. If you can confuse him at the snap and take away his first read, he will then reset in the pocket and it is in those moments where he holds on to the ball too long, inviting pressure and sacks.
Legends With Questions
When this season began these two passers were in that top group of quarterbacks in my mind. The guys I’d be willing to hand the ball to if I needed to win a game to save my life. Now? Now I’m not so sure.
This offseason it was believed that a change from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur would unlock the dormant greatness inside of Rodgers. New route designs, fresh thinking and a new approach would spark Rodgers back into his old form. Despite the fact that the Green Bay Packers are enjoying a bye week there are still questions about Rodgers and the passing game. His QBR of 53.5 this season (yes, just one data point) is 18th in the league, behind rookies like Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones. According to Pro Football Focus his adjusted Completion Percentage of 73.3% is tied for 23rd in the league. With Kyle Allen. Ben Baldwin of The Athletic Seattle has even more data to highlight how Rodgers has not yet returned to an elite form.
How He Wins: If there has been one area of improvement this season, perhaps mild improvement, it has been on the use of play action. Last season Rodgers’ completion percentage on play-action throws was 61.5%, which was actually a 1.1% drop from when the Packers used non-play action designs. This season, Rodgers has an increase of 5.0% (from 60.8% to 65.8%) when using play-action. In addition, his yards per attempt also saw an increase on play-action designs this year. It might not be a huge boost, but it helps. With the emergence of Aaron Jones as a runner (and yes, you do not need a huge running game to be effective on play-action) that gives opposing defenses one more thing to worry about.
How to Beat Him: Bracket Davante Adams. That is where Rodgers wants to go with the football. Force him elsewhere.
Is this the end of an era? Depending on who you listen to, it might be. Despite a strong start to the season for the New England Patriots they limp into the playoffs after a disastrous loss in Week 17 and find themselves playing on Wild Card Weekend for the first time in a decade. The last time they did that, the results were not pretty. Are we seeing Brady in a Patriots’ uniform for the last time?
How he Wins: Brady is still effective before the play, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels does some much to help Brady prior to the snap with movement, alignment, shifting and tempo. But an underrated part of his game - even at the age of 42 - is how well Brady moves in the pocket. With some protection problems this season Brady has still been able to move and slide from pressure and create space to get off throws.
How to Beat Him: We know the standard book on Brady is to pressure him and to get him off the spot in the pocket. But another thing teams have done - including the Tennessee Titans - is to confuse those around Brady. Take first the Buffalo Bills. They have enjoyed success against Brady in recent meetings by spinning their safeties at the snap and clouding the coverage picture. New England’s playbook is heavily dependent on route adjustments, and while you might not confuse Brady, you might confuse one of his potential targets, resulting in the receiver running a route Brady is not expecting. Last year it played out up front between these teams, as the Titans relied on an “amoeba” package that disguised who was rushing the passer, and who was dropping into coverage. Expect to see both from New England’s opponents, starting this week.
Player or Scheme
These next two passers enter the postseason also with some questions around their play. But perhaps none of them are bigger than this one: Is it them, or the scheme?
Garoppolo and the 49ers are your top seed in the NFC and are coming off a huge road victory in Week 17 to secure both the NFC West and homefield advantage. But Garoppolo and this San Francisco offense still face questions over just how good they really are. For example, Garoppolo’s Intended Air Yards per Pass Attempt (IAY/PA of 6.2 is dead last among qualified passers this season. His 13 interceptions this season are the most among any of the playoff QBs.
How He Wins: Putting some of those numbers aside, Garoppolo can still beat you with his release and his touch. Garoppolo’s passing mechanics are nearly textbook, and his crisp release often affords him an extra second or so in the pocket to work through his reads. His touch enables him to be one of the league’s best deep passers, and his adjusted completion percentage of 74.2% according to PFF on deep throws (throws covering 20 yards or more) is tops in the league. Case Keenum is actually second in this statistic, checking in at 54.5%...so it is a big gap.
How to Beat Him: Pressure is one way. While his completion numbers under duress are solid five of his interceptions this season have come when Garoppolo is feeling heat in the pocket.
Similar to Garoppolo, Cousins has gotten the benefit of his offensive system to put up some good numbers this season. His Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 7.73 is seventh-best in the league, and there was a time when he was in the MVP conversation. But thanks to two pivotal losses in the final weeks, against the Seahawks and Packers, the Vikings find themselves on the road as a wild card team this weekend.
How He Wins: Play-action. It is no secret that the Vikings want to run the football and then build a play-action passing game off of that. Cousins sees a jump of 2.3 yards per attempt on play-action plays as opposed to standard dropback passes, and his 14 touchdowns on play-action passing plays is tied with Jackson for the most in the NFL.
How to Beat Him: Discipline on the defensive side of the football. This off-season I compared Cousins to a baker. If he follows the recipe word for word and does what he is told, he can beat you. But if forced to improvise or get off script, that is where things fall apart. If a defense is disciplined in the face of run action and forces Cousins to improvise, they will have success.
Both of these passers have been fascinating stories this season, with one making a comeback of sorts while the other tries to prove he is the long-awaited answer for a proud franchise. Both of them also might have a wildcard of their own that could propel them - and their teams - into the Divisional Round.
When Mike Vrabel made the switch to Tannehill in replace of an ineffective Marcus Mariota, there was skepticism that the veteran passer could provided a much-needed spark for the Titans’ offense. Yet he did, guiding the Titans to the final playoff spot and performing incredibly well at the quarterback position. His ANY/A of 8.52 is the league’s best this season.
How He Wins: Similar to the Vikings, the Titans establish the run with Derrick Henry and then build in a strong play-action passing game off of that element. While Tannehill has been a very good QB this season both on play-action plays and on standard dropbacks, his game does kick up a notch when using run action. His completion percentage jumps from 67.5% on dropbacks to 76.7% using play-action, and that difference of 9.2% was fifth-most in the league and the highest among any playoff QB.
Another area to keep in mind, both this week and beyond, is what Tannehill can do with his legs. He is still a very athletic QB and when he sees man coverage in the secondary he is more than willing to pull the ball down and get what he can on the ground. What does Bill Belichick love to do in the secondary? Play man coverage…
How to Beat Him; That is a hard question to answer for Tannehill, at least this season. Ideally a defense would be able to stop the running game and neutralize A.J. Brown, and the Patriots might have enough on the defensive side of the football to accomplish that task. Of course, keying on the running game opens up that play-action attack...
Josh Allen: Timing and rhythm passer? Believe it or not that is probably the strongest part of his game right now. Coming out of Wyoming no one would have believed that Allen’s strength would be in the short areas of the field, but this season that is where the Bills’ offense and their passer have been best. Interestingly enough, the Texans are weakest defensively in the short/middle, at least in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt:
Doing work for a playoff Upset Watch and... the Texans defense was absolutely CRUSHED by "short middle" passes this year. League worst 83% completion, 10.8 yd/pass. Cole Beasley alert. #WeAreTexans #GoBills— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) January 1, 2020
Play Cole Beasley in any playoff DFS lineups…
How He Wins: Again, under Brian Daboll this season Allen has become a timing and rhythm passer, who can deliver on routes along the boundary with anticipation and placement. Not what we expected from Allen coming out, but that is where he excels as a passer. In addition, he can beat you with his size, athleticism and strength. He is tough to sack, he can extend plays with his legs and he can beat you as a runner if given the chance.
How to Beat Him: Force him to throw deep. Again, it goes against everything we thought about Allen but he is struggling as a deep passer this season. His adjusted completion percentage of 30.9% on deep passes this season is 33rd in the league among qualified passers, ahead of only Dwayne Haskins, Mason Rudolph and Kyle Allen. Crowd the box, take away the shorter throws and force him to beat you over the top. He has the talent to do it (he hit on a huge deep throw against the Patriots in Week 16) but the consistency has not been there.