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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.