The Complex Quarterback-Pressure Relationship
It became almost as if it was part of the designed play.
The ball was snapped, the quarterback would drop back from center, go through his progression, try to diagnose the coverage, and then Marc Bulger would try to avoid the 300 pounds of muscle heading in his direction with bad intentions at a rapid rate of knots.
Watching 2007 games again has me feeling sorry for the former St. Louis Ram all over again. We’re talking about a quarterback who at 36 is just a year older than Tom Brady and a year younger than Peyton Manning, but has been out of the league since 2010 and hasn’t thrown a pass in anger since 2009. In fact, he was actually outlasted by the quarterback whose job he took in St Louis, Kurt Warner, if you discount the 2010 season in which he spent his time holding a clipboard for Joe Flacco.
The PFF era remembers Bulger sadly as a rather forlorn figure. A man who was broken in the same way David Carr was, from an overwhelming onslaught of defensive pressure, a barrage that became ingrained in his muscle memory. He faced pressure so often that the feeling became part of his routine, so eventually when the pressure dried up, he still felt it coming and behaved like a quarterback running for his life.
But Marc Bulger was once an excellent player. He played well enough in 2003 stepping in for an injured Warner that the Rams felt comfortable moving on from their star quarterback who had come late to NFL stardom and was already 32 years old. He repaid them with three consecutive fine seasons, even if one was cut short by his own injuries. After that, though, the weight of pressure began to get to him. The Rams had a disaster of an offensive line, and the rush was relentless. Bulger quickly wilted, ending his career a shadow of the player that was once seen as a better option than Kurt Warner.
Pressure can destroy a quarterback. The league sees players enter every season that could be All-Pro passers if they never felt the rush, but as soon as the heat is applied, they lose all poise, reason and ability to function. They stop seeing things in three dimensions and fling ill-advised passes in the direction of defenders simply to stave off the chasing pack.
Then there are the other guys. The select few for whom pressure doesn’t erode at their abilities but rather focuses them.
While it can easily destroy, pressure can also forge, and in rare cases you will find quarterbacks that have a different relationship with it than Bulger did. One of them is Peyton Manning. No passer is immune to the negative effects of pressure, but there is nobody in the game with a finer ability to manage that pressure than Manning. He is able to sense when pressure is about to become a factor and use his quick release to get rid of the ball before it becomes an issue.
Players like Michael Vick and Russell Wilson last year felt pressure on around 40% of their dropbacks. Some of that is brought on themselves by holding onto the ball longer than is reasonable for the offensive line to hold up, but the bottom line is they were affected by the rush on around 40% of their drops. Manning is at the other end of the scale. He felt legitimate pressure on just 19.9% of his drops, half as often. That is more than 5% better than any other quarterback, including the players that had a lower average time to throw figure than he did.
The Denver offensive line was a pretty good unit last year, but Manning makes life easier for a line like no other quarterback. Not only do they not have to worry about him breaking the pocket or winding up in strange places so that they need to change their angles of blocking, but they know he will bail them out most of the time when they do eventually get beaten. It’s no coincidence that Manning also has the lowest average time to sack figure in the league, by almost a quarter of a second to the next guy. When he does get sacked, it is when the protection is destroyed immediately and even he has no chance to react to it.
Instead of being defined by the pressure he faces, Manning is defining it, and he is not alone.
Quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson will hold the ball longer than Manning to try and make a play. Instead of helping their protection by getting rid of the ball quickly, they help them out by being able to extend plays and balance the negatives of pressure and sacks with plays other players can’t make. These guys are also defining the pressure they face, with the opposite effect Peyton Manning has, but they are also redefining the effect that pressure can have with their ability to extend plays and succeed in spite of that heat.
The league is still full of players that are defined by the pressure they face, and are limited by that pressure, but there are also more quarterbacks now than ever before who have a different relationship with the pass rush. Football has a time-honored adage that in any contest you are either the hammer or the nail, and historically speaking quarterbacks have always been on the receiving end of the battle. The league now has players who can fight back, who have become the hammer, either by dictating how much pressure they ever face, or by changing the rules on what happens once they do face it.
Now more than ever, in a league dominated by passing, the quarterback position has become all about how players handle pressure. Do they wilt, or do they thrive in spite of it?
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