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Film room: How quarterbacks create pressure and sacks with poor pocket movement and bad blitz recognition

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers offense committed several turnovers over the course of their week 15 game in Dallas, enough that a lackluster Cowboys squad was able to take advantage of them and score 24 points off of turnovers. Richie James fumbled an early punt return in the first quarter that led to a Cowboys touchdown, while quarterback Nick Mullens committed three turnovers in the form of one lost fumble and two interceptions that led to 17 points. Unfortunately, the two interceptions occurred in the fourth quarter at the wrong times, and there was little chance by then making a quarterback change.

With the recent lack of offensive success, questions have started swirling around the offensive line. It’s apparent inability to keep the quarterback upright and free from harm for the majority of the game. I covered this briefly, but this week is as good as any to expound on the theory.

That is that the offensive line overall is not playing poorly. To the extent that it is, it is not because of everyone’s favorite scapegoat Mike McGlinchey (though he’s had his share of bad reps at inopportune times, he’s been historically average in pass protection anyways, even before this year).

Quarterbacks are responsible for pressure too

An underrated aspect of pressure stats is they very rarely get scored to the quarterback. They are usually scored to a blocker who’s defender ends up with the pressure even if you can point to the quarterback creating his own pressure by not throwing the ball away or moving into the sack. Sometimes the sack gets credited to the quarterback but not always.

Yet in week 14 against the Washington Football Team, Nick Mullens was responsible for six of the 17 pressures the offense gave up. Six! I covered some of that in my game review last week too.

This isn’t to pile on Nick Mullens either. We know who he is as a quarterback, and we know the team cannot rely on him to be more than a spot starter here and there. But he happens to be the quarterback right and has some good examples he’s put on tape of what not to do (so does Garoppolo).

In this clip from early in the first quarter against the Washington Football Team, Mullens is in a shotgun position. Generally, a quarterback in the shotgun is expected to drop to around a depth of eight yards behind the center post-snap, enabling him to see the field a bit better than if he were executing a straight drop back from under center. This changes the offensive line's blocking angles, too, as they can’t see him and are expecting him to hit that landmark and navigate around it before throwing.

What happens here is at the top of his drop. He should stay there or move to the open grass to his left. Instead, he moves directly into the rushing lane of the interior defensive line. As he climbs the pocket, he allows the defensive tackle to disengage right guard Colton McKivitz and hit Mullens as he throws.

Good result, bad process. It goes down as a hit and a pressure, but it didn’t need to happen. He should slide to the open space in an otherwise clean pocket and let the linemen ride their block around him while hitting a throw on time in stride.

On another example from this game, Mullens left another clean pocket when there was really no need to.

This time from under center, they’re running a play-action pass designed to buy the quarterback time in the pocket to hit a downfield throw. Play action slows down the rush because defenders have to read their run cues first to react to a run. The play-action draws the linebackers up here, too, so that there is a wide-open throwing lane if he sits and waits for Bourne to come open on the dagger route.

From the end zone view, you can see how much space he has to work with and how his movements influence the running back’s block. If he slides to his left or makes a subtle move inside, there’s a very good chance Mostert can ride that block across the pocket and keep the quarterback clean.

But Mullens anticipates an inside move by the defender and breaks the pocket, causing his blocker to lose contain on the edge. Mostert’s defender sheds the block and chases Mullens to the sideline. Leaving the pocket limited his options. Instead of a big gain across midfield, they're forced to take an incompletion.

But who is responsible for the sacks?

In week 14, Mullens was responsible for all of his sacks but one. In week 15, he was mostly responsible for the strip-sack he took as well.

In obvious passing situations, it’s third-and-8 above. Teams prefer to send six rushers against the 49ers quarterbacks, forcing them to make quicker decisions and open them up to more mistakes because they don’t handle pressure well. Sending six against the 49ers pass protection can be extremely difficult to block, even with six in pass protection.

McKinnon picks up the blitz through the B-gap on linebacker Jaylon Smith. Brunskill gets shoved so far back into the pocket by Randy Gregory that he eventually ends up on the ground at the quarterback spot, but after the ball is out. McGlinchey is one-on-one with Demarcus Lawrence on the edge and is engaged with Lawrence as Mullens drops back. This is where the quarterback needs to make one subtle move up as he throws to avoid Lawrence's rush. If he steps up to the open spot, McGlinchey likely rides Lawrence past the pocket.

Even on the majority of Garoppolo’s sacks, the quarterback is still mainly responsible.

In these cut-ups, Garoppolo needs to throw the ball away or find a way to get the pass, especially if he has a free runner down the sideline. When he comes off his first read and can’t find a receiver and constant effort to avoid the rush, the happy feet end up making matters worse. His internal clock is too slow.

Poor blitz recognition

In the Saints game in week 10, Mullens missed misidentified or never identified blitzing defender Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who came on a blitz five separate times. Each time Gardner-Johnson was “capped” by a defender, he was sent on a blitz, a tell-tale sign that the blitz is coming.

The Saints rotated late from two high safety coverage to a cover-1 with a five-man rush. The offense is running double in-breaking routes from the left and a flat-7 combo to the right behind five-man protection. The late rotation occurs pre-snap, but Mullens never sees the safety rotate down behind the nickel before the blitz by Garder-Jones. At the very least, Mullens should’ve slid the protection to the left with a last-minute check. Instead, as he drops back, Gardner-Johnson gets a free rush to hit him.

Mullens took a sack in week 15 against Dallas on the same type of late rotation by the Cowboys.

The only difference this time is the Cowboys played a fire zone 3-deep 3-under coverage and sent pressure off the backside of the formation against the 49ers' play action. In Shanahan’s scheme, the running back is responsible for the backside blitz and automatically picks it up and disregards the play fake. The quarterback’s job is to identify the blitz and alert the running back to the impending blitz.

Another example in week eight at Seattle, this time with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, gives us another look into how the quarterback must be keenly aware of what he sees with the defense. The play is the concept of a level on the left called “follow” with and under route by Aiyuk and a “basic” route in the slot by Bourne. The Seahawks are showing pressure again, and Bourne sees it coming off the edge plus, he does not have a defender covering him in the slot. Garoppolo’s eyes should automatically go to Bourne in this case.

However, Garoppolo does make the right read and hits Aiyuk on the shallow under route, which is the designated hot route on this particular play. Sometimes, the result isn’t as important as the process, especially if it doesn’t get the intended result of converting on third down.

The Seahawks are in a zero pressure look with a six-man rush in front of them with four to rush against three to the left of the center in the 49ers scat pass protection. D.J. Reed and Bobby Wagner are right there to disrupt the timing of the throw, and Garoppolo can get it away for a completion, but Aiyuk is tackled short of the line.

The Seahawks gambled, leaving Bourne open with no safety help because they likely knew Garoppolo would rush the throw anyway, and he hasn’t shown he can hit the right guy to make a defense pay.

The 49ers called the same play later in the game, with Mullens hitting the right read based on the sight adjustment.

The Seahawks sent the same pressure, and this time the quarterback and receiver were on the same page.

Outlook

The 49ers are starting their third quarterback of the season on Saturday versus Arizona when C.J. Beathard will get the start in place of Nick Mullens, who will have season-ending Tommy John surgery. The 49ers also signed quarterback Josh Rosen off the Buccaneers practice squad to be the back-up. It’s an intriguing move for a team that will likely be in the market for a new quarterback this offseason too.

But I don’t expect we’ll learn much about Rosen other than what’s already on tape from his short NFL career. He entered the league as a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals, was promptly cut in favor of Kyler Murray in 2019, spent the 2019 season with the Dolphins, and then this season with Tom Brady and Bruce Arians as the Buccaneers practice squad quarterback behind another former 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Rosen was a prospect I liked initially, but this move shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than short-term insurance for the next two weeks.