How do you replace the greatest of all time?
That is the question facing Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. With Tom Brady moving on to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots face their first decision at the quarterback position since the week before Super Bowl XXXVI.
Given the moves made to date, and their salary cap position, it seems that the answer comes from within: Second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Recently, former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky outlined three traits that make the Patriots excited about Stidham. As outlined in this piece, his pocket movement, his arm and his understanding of the game. I want to highlight two of those, specifically his arm and his mental approach, using two plays from last pre-season.
Let’s start with the mind. A critical part to playing the position at a very high level. Now, it is important to remember that schemes in the game are constantly evolving in an attempt to counter what opponents are doing on the other side of the ball. If offenses are coming up with something new schematically, defenses find a way to adjust. Think of the Tampa 2 coverage. When teams turned to more athletic tight ends, or even slot receivers, to attack your basic Cover 2 shells, the Tampa 2 was born. A way to neutralize those receivers trying to attack the middle of the field.
Keep that in the back of your mind as we break down this, seemingly forgettable, play from Stidham (#4) last pre-season:
At first blush this looks like a throwaway play. Something that never gets discussed the second the whistle blows. But it shows an impressive, deeper understanding of routes and coverages than you might expect from an incoming rookie.
Let’s first look at the route design of the play. Stidham will open to the right side of the formation and work the two-receiver concept that the Patriots are running, known as “Rope.” In New England’s playbook, this is a combination of a “return” route from the slot receiver:
A return route — sometimes termed a whip or a pivot route — begins as a slant but then breaks to the outside and then a route on the outside that changes based on the coverage. In this concept the return route from the inside receiver is “locked,” meaning that he runs it no matter what. The outside route, which is dependent on the coverage, is usually a hitch route—even against press coverage — but will convert to a fade against “rolled” coverage, i.e., Cover 2.
This coverage is what it appears the Lions are running, judging by their pre-snap alignment:
Everything here to Stidham screams Cover 2 Man Underneath given the alignment of the corners. Meaning, that before the play Stidham expects that the outside receiver will run the fade against this rolled coverage. Provided the cornerback drops with the vertical release, it should open up the right flat for the return route from his slot receiver.
Also, look at the alignment of the cornerback to the outside. He is using inside leverage, another indication that he is in man coverage as he will force the release to the outside, and try and make this a tougher throw for the QB.
Now the fun begins.
When working this kind of concept, a quarterback needs to be aware of what is often termed “2 Trap.” That is a coverage design where the defense shows Cover 2, the cornerback sinks for a moment with the outside vertical route, and if he sees the inside receiver run this route to the flat, he peels off the outside receiver and crashes—or “traps”—the out route.
It is a coverage call designed to take away this play, because after all this kind of route concept is designed to attack Cover 2. The circle of schematic life…just like we were talking about with the birth of Tampa 2.
So Stidham needs to be wary of that coverage, and usually what you look for is the cornerback backpedaling a bit with his eyes on you and/or the inside receiver, and not really looking at the outside WR.
Here’s what Stidham sees as the play begins:
All good, right? The cornerback executes a man coverage turn, putting his back to the quarterback and running with the vertical release of the outside receiver. Stidham is free to throw the return route to the flat. But… he does not. Why?
As it turns out, the Lions were running a variation of Cover 2 Man Underneath called “5 Cougar.”
In this variation, the outside cornerback executes a man coverage turn — like the Lions’ CB does here — but is still reading the slot receiver. Yes, with his back to him. That helps sell the quarterback that the CB is bailing, but it is really just a wrinkle looking to bait the quarterback into throwing the flat route, and potentially an interception.
Stidham, somehow, sees it late, pulls it down, and scrambles for two yards.
That is pretty impressive recognition from a rookie quarterback, against a coverage concept that is difficult for many quarterbacks to diagnose.
One of the other traits that Orlovsky mentioned? The arm talent. Well, Stidham can sling it too, as he displayed later in that game:
The throw from Stidham is in a perfect spot, upfield and over the defender in a spot where Izzo can make a play on the football. The TE cannot reel in the throw and the pass falls harmlessly to the turf, but this is a perfect read and throw from the young QB.
Here’s another look at the placement:
Now I know. As a former lawyer, I know that making an argument with just two examples often fails to carry the day in trial. Even tougher to carry the day when the jury is comprised of jurors who have spent twenty years watching the greatest of all time sling the rock.
However, there is reason for hope. Stidham was a difficult evaluation coming out of college due to two offensive systems (Baylor and Auburn) that minimized what he was asked to do from a mental perspective. But from his work at the Senior Bowl, to what we could gleam from him in film while in college, to what he has showed in limited action, the tools are present. There are reasons for hope.
Right now, hope is what we’ve got. It can be a powerful thing.