You want to be a quarterback in the NFL? Well you know you need to be gifted physically. You need to have the arm to zip the ball into tight spots, the accuracy to hit your man, and the mobility to avoid defenders that are crashing in around you.
You also need to be smart. You need to recognize defenses and see what is coming. You need to process information quickly and make the right decision.
Nowhere is that ability (or lack thereof) more apparent than in the face of a blitz. It doesn’t matter whether the defense is bringing everyone or dropping an end into coverage and overloading on the other side. You need to pick it up and get that ball somewhere.
It’s what can separate a good quarterback from a truly great one and that begs the question: who are the best in the business when it comes to dealing with the blitz?
Well, fortunately, Pro Football Focus tracks every blitz and every result of every blitz and we’re going share with you what the numbers say. It only took a spreadsheet with over two hundred columns to process it all.
The qualifying minimum to be part of this study was being blitzed at least 100 times.
Bullseyes On Their Backs
I guess if you’re going to break down how quarterbacks deal with the blitz, it would be nice to look at which quarterbacks get blitzed most often. Something of particular interest to Raider fans, who will see two of their players in the top six.
Having the house thrown at him more than any other was Bruce Gradkowski. The former Buc and Brown felt the blitz on 57.8% of all of his drop backs for Oakland in 2010 with the next in line, Joe Flacco, finishing a figurative mile behind, seeing blitzes on 49.51% of his drops from center. Just outside of the Top 5 was the aforementioned other Raider, Jason Campbell. Elite quarterbacks Matt Ryan (44% of plays) and Ben Roethlisberger (41.21%) both saw a lot of men coming their way as teams tried to slow them down.
In less of a surprise, rookies Colt McCoy (45.59%), Sam Bradford (42.03%), and Jimmy Clausen (41.28%) all faced their share of blitzes, while defenses smelt blood with Ryan Fitzpatrick (45.95%) and those multiple receiver sets the Bills liked to use.
Here’s a complete list of how much each quarterback was blitzed.
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Down near the bottom, teams shied away from attacking the aging trio of Shaun Hill (30.36%), Matt Hasselbeck (31.98%), and Jon Kitna (33.33%). Meanwhile, it would appear teams were scared of sending more men after Tom Brady, for fear of leaving his receivers even more room to roam.
One figure that did catch my attention was how low Michael Vick was on the list. Understandably, teams have to account for Vick’s mobility, but the Vikings showed how susceptible he could be to pressure off the edge as Antoine Winfield got the zone blitz working. Furthermore, Vick wasn’t exactly seeing the whole field, with just 15.55% of his throws going to the right side.
Philadelphia can expect more of this. If you want to know why, you need only look at Vick’s completion percentage when blitzed as it dropped to 52.98%.
At the top of this next list – completion percentage when blitzed – it’s no real surprise that Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers are securely among the best, but there may be a small shock in store for some with Chad Henne ranking so highly. When you consider Miami’s preference for keeping extra guys in to protect, some explanation is offered. With 5.84 men kept in on average, Miami’s number was third highest in the league. Comparatively, teams like New Orleans and San Diego keep in a relatively low 5.51 men per pass play.
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Down where you don’t want to be, you get a little bit of numbers to back up what we already know when it comes to Derek Anderson. After our deep ball article looked favorably at his accuracy going downfield, you see the true problem with him. He gets flustered in stressful situations. While others excel against the blitz, he’s completing just 40.94% of his passes. When you’re ranked lower than Jimmy Clausen you got some explaining to do.
Points Not Picks
So we’ve looked at accuracy, but what about the plays that show up on highlight reels? Which players are using the blitz to put up points, and which ones are feeling the heat and turning it over? In a shocking result, Peyton Manning is at the top.
Turning the sarcasm off for a second, it is a surprise to have him joined by Mark Sanchez. For all his faults (and he has a few), Sanchez tends to work best when teams give him more of the field to exploit, handling the teams that go after him.
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Again it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Derek Anderson, and it gives some numbers to the widely held feeling that Brett Favre should never have come back. A more surprising figure sees Drew Brees towards the bottom at 23rd. Given how many times he threw the ball when blitzed you can understand the six interceptions to a degree, but it’s slightly stunning there weren’t more touchdowns.
Lastly, as everyone knows, we grade plays on a certain scale. Some of that was explained briefly in this article. I reviewed our grades specifically for blitz situations. Things that won’t astound are how well our the top three in this list did, but Eli Manning probably doesn’t spring to mind as a guy expected to rank well. The same goes for Carson Palmer, who may not be coming off his best year, but there’s something left in the tank if the Bengals are prepared to let him go.
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That brings to a close our look at the quarterbacks against the blitz. With metrics there are always mitigating circumstances and it’s so with our grading: players who are blitzed more are rewarded with more opportunities to make plays.
Such is life that things are rarely perfect, but there’s plenty of food for thought here as you wonder why some quarterbacks make it look so easy, and others seem like they’re playing a different game.
That’s what the blitz can do to quarterbacks.