We’re a quarter of the way through the NFL season already, and while some things remain in flux, others seem to be just the same as they were a season ago.
When Tim Tebow signed with the Jets the media began rubbing its hands together, knowing it was just a matter of time before things went crazy. If the Jets’ backup was any other person this week likely would have seen Mark Sanchez sat down by the fourth quarter in a shutout loss to the 49ers. Things had gone south and he was only sinking deeper into the quicksand, but the Jets don’t want the headache of a Tebow controversy just yet.
Sadly though it seems inevitable, because after years starting and more time than most quarterbacks can dream of to develop, Mark Sanchez is still making basic, inexcusable, rookie errors. Three such mistakes surfaced in this game, and our Analyst Sam Monson is going to look at them more closely.
Christian Ponder Syndrome – San Francisco @ New York Jets | 2nd Q, 1.22
On 3rd and 7 Mark Sanchez holds onto the ball surrounded by pressure leading to a sack and fumble recovered by the 49ers in a game that was still just 7-0 in 49ers territory.
What I call ‘Christian Ponder Syndrome’ is something common to a lot of young, inexperienced quarterbacks. It is not something you expect from a franchise quarterback or someone with as much playing time and experience as Sanchez has at this point in his career. It is the combination of a blissful lack of awareness of where pass-rushers are and the belief that you can canter around behind the line of scrimmage without the spectre of a 270lb pass-rusher chasing you down with the express purpose of turning you into burger meat.
You hear people talk about how quarterbacks need to have a clock inside their head that alerts them to the point in the play that they need to get rid of the ball. NFL offenses are built with designed reads and places to go with the football, but at some point all of the best quarterbacks have a mental alarm go off that tells them to get out of dodge, to cut their losses and live to see the next play. Sanchez evidently still doesn’t have that, and on this play it led to a significant swing on the scoreboard and in momentum in the game.
The play begins normally enough, but the 49ers lock down in coverage and the place Sanchez wants to go with the ball is blanketed (the inside slot receiver running down the seam). Despite this he still has to talk himself out of forcing it in that direction, and pulls the ball down 2.6 seconds after the snap. The 49ers are rushing four, with two quick edge rushers being guided past Sanchez as he initially stepped up into the pocket. The worst thing about the play is that he actually had a receiver open close to the markers on a hitch route just to the right of the receiver he banked on getting open. Jeremy Kerley ran a quick hitch and would have been close to the first down, with Carlos Rogers to try and prevent it. Had Sanchez come off his primary target earlier he may have been able to make the play. As it happened he waited too late before trying to escape to left field and work an angle to dump the ball off to his running back in the flat.
The problem with this is that you can’t just jog out of the pocket to left field after a couple of seconds and expect there to be nobody chasing you down. Maybe it’s muscle memory from the days where they were amongst the best athletes on the field, but Ponder and Sanchez don’t seem to appreciate that NFL pass-rushers will chase you down, and then they will crush you like a grape.
At the point Sanchez is trying to buy time to hit his running back (blanketed by NaVorro Bowman by the way), he is on borrowed time, and the dogs are closing in quickly. Ahmad Brooks is just a couple of yards behind having turned the corner and begun chase, and Aldon Smith isn’t far back. Brooks leaps onto his back like a leopard taking down a gazelle, only for Sanchez to drop his shoulders and shuck him off, but the damage has been done. He tries to cut back across the field but before he can move anywhere he is wrapped up by Aldon Smith, forcing the ball loose in the process. The 49ers recover the fumble that should never have been, and start a drive that would end in a field goal, having just avoided conceding one of their own.
Sanchez has been in the league long enough to know the speed of NFL defenses, the pursuit of edge rushers, and how long he can spend dithering around behind the line of scrimmage without being snared by defenders. Apparently it’s a lesson that still hasn’t been learned.
Forcing The Ball – San Francisco @ New York Jets | 3rd Q, 10:29
On 2nd and 7 Mark Sanchez forces the ball down the seam to a covered receiver and needs his tight end to bail him out by preventing an easy interception.
The next in the series of mistakes that Sanchez should know better than is this play early in the 3rd quarter. It’s important to note that despite this game ending up looking like a one-sided blowout, at this point the game was still just 10-0 to San Francisco, and the Jets had enjoyed some success despite not yet scoring. That is to say that the game situation was in no way an excuse for trying to force this kind of pass into coverage.
Quarterbacks in the NFL have to be able to accept when the place they want to go with the football just isn’t an option. It might look great pre-snap, give you the matchup you want against the coverage you want, but after the ball is snapped it’s just not open. On this play Mark Sanchez can’t bring himself to come off the pass he wants to throw even though it is covered and shut down from the outset.
The Jets open up with two receivers split out, one either side of the formation. Sanchez is in the shotgun with split backs behind him, and a tight end to his left. The 49ers have stayed in their base 3-4 for this play, and that leaves tight end Jeff Cumberland covered one on one by a linebacker. The Jets have Cumberland running a seam deep down the middle, which seems like the perfect play call for this scenario. The only problem is that the linebacker in question is NaVorro Bowman, who right now might be the best inside linebacker in football, and he was having none of it. Bowman draws man coverage on Cumberland and drops with perfect position and inside leverage on the play. He tracks the run down the seam, gets the receiver on his hip and then turns to look for the football. At the time Sanchez decides that it’s a good idea to try and fit the ball in he would need to actually throw the ball through Bowman to complete the pass.
I might understand it had he led his receiver to a place where either he was getting it or nobody was, or he lofted a jump-ball and relied on Cumberland becoming Jimmy Graham before it got there, but he did neither of these things. Instead he just decided to fire it right to Bowman and rely on the pretty slim chance that by the time the ball arrived for some reason the linebacker would no longer be there.
Strangely that wasn’t the case and Sanchez got lucky as Cumberland turned DB to break up a pretty simple interception for Bowman. The bottom line is that you would be angry with any rookie for making this throw. You would put it up on tape the next day and point out to him that at no point was it ever going to work and sometimes you need to accept that in the NFL the throw you want to make simply isn’t open and move on. Sanchez still can’t talk himself out of some throws, and this is the result.
Understanding Linebackers – San Francisco @ New York Jets | 4th Q, 7:58
On 1st and 10 Sanchez leads his receiver right into a big hit from a linebacker over the middle causing an incomplete pass.
This is the least egregious mistake of the three both in terms of potential negative outcome of the play, and in terms of how far along in the process of a quarterback’s development you expect him to have grasped things. The problem is that this play specifically could get a receiver hurt (and the Jets aren’t exactly loaded with receivers right now), and the underlying cause of this throw could cause major problems on other throws.
The NFL isn’t like college. NFL linebackers are freaks of nature. They are 250lb monsters that can hit like a MAC truck and cover like college defensive backs. When people talk about the jump in the speed of the game from college to the NFL, often what they’re talking about is the speed of linebackers, and not simply sideline to sideline pursuit speed. They’re talking about the speed in which they can react over the middle and blow up plays that looked wide open when the quarterback cocked his arm to throw. Young quarterbacks usually struggle the most on throws over the middle because it takes them a while to get used to anticipating the freakish speed that windows can close and the ludicrously small amount of time they are open for.
On this play the 49ers begin with their linebackers up at the line of scrimmage, but they drop off into coverage, rolling to the left side of the defense as they do. The Jets run a crossing pattern in front of them and when Patrick Turner clears Aldon Smith he has a short window where he is legitimately open. Unfortunately Sanchez is late seeing it and instead of throwing before he’s open, anticipating the fact that he is about to break open, he waits for him to actually be open, at which point, paradoxically, he no longer is.
Bowman is the other linebacker on this play who is rolling to his left, but as soon as he sees where Sanchez wants to go with the ball he stops, turns and essentially paints a target on Turner, who is being led right into a devastating hit. Luckily for his own safety Turner sees what he is being led into and bails on the throw, receiving a mild pop from Bowman that drops him, rather than the full-bore highlight reel hit that was being prepared.
Sanchez isn’t a rookie quarterback, and he has to understand how NFL zone coverage works, and how fast linebackers over the middle can react to throws. He can’t wait until his receiver comes open, because by the time he gets the throw there he will be running right into the next zone defender and about to get his head taken off.
The Jets insist that Mark Sanchez is still the answer. Maybe they don’t fully understand the question, because right now the only question Mark Sanchez is the answer to is ‘Which 4th year starting QB is still making mistakes that would embarrass a rookie?’
If Sanchez continues to play like this it’s inevitable that we will see Tim Tebow start before very much longer.