Don’t blame PSU’s O-line for Hackenberg’s struggles

In today's Analysis Notebook, Sam Monson breaks down why QB Christian Hackenberg is responsible for his poor performance under pressure.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Don’t blame PSU’s O-line for Hackenberg’s struggles


Christian Hackenberg is one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2016 NFL draft, but if you’ve paid any attention to PFF’s college content since we began grading games at the start of last year, you’ll know we haven’t yet discovered why.

We graded every quarterback from the FBS last season and will be doing so again this year. Hackenberg was the lowest-graded quarterback we saw in 2014. Not among the lowest or one of the lower-graded: the lowest graded. 151st of 151 quarterbacks in the FBS.

He could improve by thirty grading points and still be bad.

He began 2015 with another solidly negative grade, earning a -4.4 for his performance against Temple. That -4.4 would not have been among his worst games a year ago — he had seven performances grade below that mark — but is almost exactly the same as the average of his 13 outings in 2014. That is now 14 straight negatively-graded games from Christian Hackenberg.

Whether we want to laud the pro-style system he plays in or not, the fact remains that right now Hackenberg is not playing well, or anything like it.

The question becomes how much of that is on him and how much on what is around him?

When you start to break down the game against Temple, the answer is that there is plenty of blame to be spread around. However, by no means is the offensive line playing prohibitively poorly, nor is it responsible for Hackenberg’s ugly stat line.

He was sacked 10 times and while six of those were charged to linemen (meaning 40% of them were NOT on the OL at all), they took an average of 2.76 seconds to arrive, a relatively long time in pass-blocking terms, and the group combined to surrender just seven total pressures from 36 pass-blocking plays.

OL Whoop

There were plays like this one where a lineman got beat immediately and the play was dead because of it, but those numbers mean that the vast majority of the pressure was not because linemen were getting beat, it was coming from the free-rusher — the extra man that the protection didn’t account for. That brings the quarterback back into the conversation.

The game began pretty well for Penn State. The opening play sequence was a jet-sweep, then a smoke route that was dropped by the receiver — a solid gain on the 2nd and 10 run — and then Hackenberg completing probably his best pass of the day — a comeback to the sideline to pick up the first down.

Right after that though we saw the first of Hackenberg’s problem plays, tossing a bubble screen right into the dirt at his receiver’s feet. At this point he had yet to be pressured at all, and the only real hiccup from the offense had been the earlier drop.

Miss

This was just a simple unforced error. They happen, but they are unusual on passes as simple as this, and it points to a larger trend with Hackenberg — basic inaccuracy. Over this game he threw 14 incomplete passes. Three were dropped (21 percent), one was batted at the line (seven percent), but nine of them (64 percent) were just inaccurate — either underthrown, overthrown, or thrown in front/behind his intended target. Only two of those misses came on plays in which he was directly pressured. The vast majority of these misses came from clean pockets. One of these misses would have been a touchdown had he hit his receiver streaking down the left sideline.

In the end Hackenberg displayed a lot of basic inaccuracy. Talent evaluators never seem too concerned by that compared with arm strength, seeming to believe that one is an easier fix than the other, but he completed just 55.4 percent of his passes last season. Adjusting for drops, spikes etc. he was accurate on only 65.6 percent of the time — a good 5 percent worse than Jameis Winston, who also played in a relatively pro-style offense that does ask more of its quarterbacks than the spread systems that are so widespread elsewhere. That inaccuracy is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The Nittany Lions were actually 10-0 in front to begin the game. Hackenberg hadn’t been perfect, but he was doing well. The problem is what happened when things started to turn against them.

This is when the pressure started to become a factor, but as we mentioned earlier, it wasn’t simply a four-man rush beating the offensive line. More often than not Temple were coming with heavy six-man pressure and Penn State either didn’t have the blockers to pick it up, or did and there was still nowhere to go with the ball. Hackenberg and the Temple defense were engaged in a chess battle at the line of scrimmage, with hard counts and changes to try and identify what was being run and account for it. But with every move he made, Hackenberg kept finding himself in check, usually with a defender sacking him.

Strangely the offense seemed to be almost entirely devoid of hot routes. Maybe they aren’t in the system, which would seem unlikely, or maybe Hackenberg wasn’t able to match them to the overload pressure he was facing. All too often Temple would show six rushers pre-snap, only to come with those six and somehow surprise Hackenberg with the free-rusher.

Free Rusher Middle

Take this play for example. Temple showed six rushers, and with the back chipping on the left side, the extra man coming up the middle would always be free. Hackenberg’s first read was to the wide receiver in single coverage off-screen, and when he came back across to his second read — the TE trying to cross the middle of the field — he has no more time left to work with.

To his defense, the TE is being held by the defender, which went uncalled, but Hackenberg knows he has no time and has to put that ball in the air out in front of his man where only he can catch it. It’s a tough play and a low-percentage pass, but the pass landing safely incomplete is still a better play than just panicking and eating the sack from a guy you knew was coming all along.

Play1

What didn’t help was the team’s strange play selection in certain instances. On 3rd and 4 they lined up with a bunch formation tight to the right and a lone receiver split wide to the left. This was a formation Penn State was keen on all game, but seemed unable to actually exploit for positive gains. Hackenberg wanted to hit the slant across the middle, which gets freed up by the other two parts of the bunch.

It’s always going to be a tougher throw than it seems pre-snap because a linebacker dropped out from the line after showing blitz. It’s going to take a good throw and some work from the receiver after the catch to beat him and pick up the necessary yardage, but when the receiver trips and falls to the ground the play is dead in an instant. Hackenberg ends up needing to check it down to the running back who gets flattened instantly.

Play 2

My question though is why not exploit the space on the other side? The bunch lines up so tight it is always going to be a chaotic space, but the other receiver is isolated with half a field to work with. A slant there runs him into open space and picks up four yards easily. Instead, they send him deep down the sideline. He isn’t even a read on the play.

This game had the feeling of a performance in which the wheels fell off for Hackenberg. Things were going OK, but once they turned he found himself in quicksand, and the more he fought it the deeper he sank, until at the end he was in over his head and just waiting for the clock to run out. His interception was his first real bad read of the game – just not seeing a dropping lineman and tossing the ball right to him, but this wasn’t a game in which he was making a series of bad decisions with the ball in the air.

Hackenberg needs to show he can be a more accurate passer, but the bigger concern is that he needs to show he can control the protection scheme and understand where to go with the football when the heat comes.

When pressure came in this game, he was lost — and it was just as much his fault as the offensive line’s for the development of that pressure. When you turn up the heat you can forge impressive tools, or you can flame out. Hackenberg has been flaming out.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Raymond Cotto

    “He was sacked 10 times but we only charged six of those to linemen…” Well I guess that isn’t so bad then. His offensive line is only on pace to give up 72 sacks, of their own fault, on the year after playing an AAC team. Recipe of success for any quarterback!

    • PFFSamMonson

      The point is more that 40% of the sacks were NOT on the OL at all. Almost 60% of the pressure wasn’t. Yes they still allowed some, but that doesn’t factor how long they took to give up that pressure, how long QB held the ball etc. Point is 10 sacks = OL sucks is flawed narrative.

      • Raymond Cotto

        It’s definitely not a flawed narrative. It’s a big trend, though I would agree it’s a multi-faceted problem. It also needs to be considered that the pounding being taken when the OL has gotten beat, which is way too often, takes it’s toll and has an effect on the QB even when the line doesn’t get whipped. David Carr syndrome, which would be the most unfortunate thing to happen to Hackenberg. Point is – we’ve seen Hackenberg be extremely productive as a true frosh with 5 weeks of practice under his belt in a competent offensive system, behind an OL that gave him time. None of those three is the case now, but only two variables changed. The root cause is a bad system and poor OL in ’14 and ’15, and the effect may be a Christian “David Carr” Hackenberg.

        • PFFSamMonson

          I really don’t think the OL is that bad. Watching the relationship between the QB and the OL I think the system/Hack is a bigger part of the pressure they’re surrendering than the OL is. Last season 3 of them earned positive pass-protection grades. None of them were disastrous marks. In that Temple game only Palmer had a ‘bad’ grade in pass protection. They’re really not doing a bad job.

          At this point Hackenberg is causing much of the pressure he’s facing.

          • Raymond Cotto

            I actually agree the right 4 improved. But the OL was a big weakness apparent from the very first snap of the 2014 season. PSU just got out schemed and outplayed. I guess my issue is the headline. Don’t blame them for “all” of his struggles but it started last year as a unit and the OL certainly wasn’t a positive this week, whether the majority of them graded well or not. I don’t think a one game, or even game-by-game breakdowns tell the whole story.
            Appreciate the insight.

          • PFFSamMonson

            I agree the OL isn’t good. He’s not working behind the Dallas Cowboys line or anything, but it’s not BAD either. He’s got an average, maybe slightly below average OL in front of him and he’s allowing it to turn him into David Carr/Marc Bulger at the end. That’s an issue between him and the offense.

          • Joe Fileppi

            How did he grade out in the bowl game last year? How did he grade out in 2013? I am not being sarcastic, I just was curious.

          • PFFSamMonson

            Don’t have 2013 grades. Last year first year we graded college. Bowl game -1.4, one of his better games. Almost 200 of the 370-odd yards was YAC work by WRs.

    • wildsach

      I’ll never forget the sack where only two Temple rushers were able to break thru at least 5 PSU lineman and sacked Christian Hackenburg. Unbelievable & pathetic. And now the spin is to blame most of it on the QB. Come-on man, when are these linemen gonna man-up ?

  • Tom B

    Lots of good observations. Lack of hot routes was strange. No dumpoffs to backs, no screens. Just Hack dropping back and holding the ball. Lots of teams have trouble picking up blitzes, so they don’t keep doing the same thing over and over again. They adjust and have plays to counter. PSU had no plays to counter at all. They just kept running the same things.

  • Tito171

    What happened to Jim Haslett????

  • James Hackenberg

    I think Franklin should have prepared better. He is the one calling the plays not Christian Hackenberg. He should also scramble and run if he gets in trouble. The kid has good speed. The difference from his freshman year and last year was the former quarterback coach from New England, Bill O’Brien and The present coach James Franklin. Now Hackenberg would be the first to say it’s not Franklin fault. Would Franklin accept some responsibility? We’ll see?

    • Jaguars28

      Is… that actually your last name?

  • Phil Smith

    I strongly disagree with this whole narrative about Hackenberg. It totally ignores Penn State’s terrible and erratic play calling and scheme. You’re ignoring the fact that Franklin consistently has Hackenberg in 5-step drops and have the WR’s run combination routes when the OL can’t consistently block and when they do block, nobody is open. Instead of a vertical passing game, Franklin has him attacking horizontally with those awful bubble screens and no running game.

    So maybe Penn State’s OL isn’t to blame entirely, some of it is certainly on Hackenberg but the Penn State coaching staff should be shoulder more blame than anyone else. This kid’s tape was incredible his freshman year, his surrounding have certainly changed….

  • Hard Row

    I’d say 8 of the 10 sacks were on the OL. Temple didn’t have to blitz so they were dropping 7 or 8 in coverage on every play.

    Article contradicts itself. It talks about Hackenberg being inaccurate, then later it blasts him for getting sacked on a play where nobody was open and the author suggests he should have just threw an incompletion over the WRs head because it’s better than a sack.

    How do you know that’s not what he is doing on some of his “bad” throws?

    This is a new offense with freshmen and sophomore receivers who make lots of mistakes and he is under constant pressure.

    This kid looked plenty good in Bill O’Brien’s offense when he has a good OL and a good WR, Allen Robinson to throw to.

    Your breakdown seems to have more of an issue with the gameplan and the playcalling. Hackenberg had no options on most plays other than take a sack or throw the ball away.