Tomorrow's game features two young quarterbacks who still have a lot to prove.
For Matt Stafford, it's if he can stay healthy. For Tim Tebow, it's if he can play quarterback at all. A lot has been said about Tebow's mechanics, decision-making abilities, and abilities in the pocket. Most of it comes in the form of generalities. This includes heaping portions of the words "intangibles" and "pocket awareness."
The two quarterbacks are separated by about 600 throws in the NFL. That's the rough equivalent a full season. As I scouted the Lions for tomorrow, what kept coming up over and over again was just how Matthew Stafford had improved in his presnap reads, getting the ball out on his drops quickly, and trusting his instincts.
If Stafford is what Tebow want to aspire to, then what exactly does he need to do to improve?
Let's remove the hype and the emotion; let's remove the stats; let's simply see.
Perhaps then we can find agreement.
Tim Tebow only has four games under his belt as a starter. His recognition skills, while they exist, are not nearly as refined as Stafford's. You're about to see why.
Let's take a look at a play from last week's game against Miami. With 7:03 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Broncos faced a 1st and 10 from their own 36-yard line. Here's what Tebow saw:
I don't think Tebow is dense. Like every quarterback who steps to the line of scrimmage, he's looking for a few things here on his presnap read (unless he's received absolutely horrendous coaching, which he hasn't):
- The safeties
- The depth and leverage of the cornerbacks
- The location of the Will and Sam Linebackers
In this case, I have no doubt Tebow knew was he was looking at. One safety is shifted to the middle of the field, while both cornerbacks are playing way off and showing leverage to the outside of the receivers. This is a classic Cover 3 indicator. The other safety has moved into the box; given his depth in relation to the cornerback, it's obvious he's responsible for the flat. The Sam linebacker must also have flat responsibility on the strong side--there is no other way for the Dolphins to play it. The cornerback is already committed to his deep third.
The Dolphins are giving away their coverage.
So let's assume Tebow knows and see this (he's seen this sort of coverage many times in college, after all). He also knows (or should know) the routes of all of his receivers and that two of the weaknesses of the Cover 3 are flood routes and dig routes. In fact, as we'll see, the Broncos have the perfect call in place. They're doing both on this play. This brings us to our second slide:
Eddie Royal is at the bottom of the picture and simply running a fly route to clear out the cornerback. Eric Decker (1) is running a dig route, which at this point in the play looks to be open. Tebow could have hit Decker right now on the play for a quick four-yard gain. He also could have taken his chances with Demaryius Thomas (3) up top because the strong-side safety is cheating towards Royal.
The play is more complex than this, however, and Tebow's real read here is the strong-side linebacker, who I've highlighted with a red arrow. Notice that Daniel Fells (2) is running a flood to the strong side. If the strong-side linebacker were to stay with Fells, clearly Tebow would need to go in a different direction. However, as we've noted, this linebacker is responsible for the flat. It was evident in the presnap read. Once he sees Eric Decker run a dig, the linebacker has to cover the route.
This is where Tebow needs to trust his presnap read. Fells will be open, as we see in the next slide:
This was a perfect call by Mike McCoy. I ripped McCoy in my Gut Reaction last Sunday, but I really should have toned down my rhetoric substantially. This play was ideal against Miami's Cover 3. Notice that the linebacker is indeed responsible for Decker's dig route and Fells has cleared. He's about as wide open as you'll ever see anyone in an NFL game.
This is where things fall on Tebow. The ball has to come out now. The slide shows Tebow about to throw, but in reality, it's already too late. In the game, Tebow actually double clutches on this play and hesitates. He's not sure if Fells has cleared or not. He wants to throw to him, but he's also afraid to trust his read. The double clutch causes a slight case of happy feet, which in turn causes his mechanics to falter, which in turn causes a bit of panic.
The result of the play is an overthrow out of bounds of epic proportions, so much so, that the announcers (and yours truly) have a hard time determining if Tebow actually throws the ball away or not. Either way it's bad. If he's throwing the ball out of bounds, he's missing an easy read (which I refuse to believe he can't see because it is clear). If he's not, the overthrow is a result of not trusting his initial read, bad timing, and not getting the ball out as Fells is breaking on his route.
The good news? All of this can get better, as we are about to see.
Now let's look at Stafford, who has the equivalent of another season under his belt.
Here's a play from Stafford in Week 5 against the 49ers. Here's what he was looking at (you can see the score and situation in the frame):
Stafford would be going through the same process as Tebow presnap--where are the safeties, how deep and where are the cornerbacks, and what are the linebackers doing? Let's walk through each one by one:
- The safeties are two deep outside the hash, a clear sign of Cover 2
- The cornerbacks are soft and playing outside leverage, a clear sign of zone
- The strong-side (here, the tight end side) linebacker is leveraged inside the tight end and close to the line of scrimmage, which is a sign he's man up on the tight end.
I've taken the liberty of drawing the routes of the receivers. Stafford knows right now, before the snap of the ball, where he's going to throw. Now that you know the coverage of the defense and the routes, do you? Let's take a look at the next portion of the play and see if you were right.
If your guess was to the running back or to the tight end, you'd be spot on.
In this frame, the running back actually appears to be the best option. Yet, Stafford wants the big play. Remember, he knows the two safeties are each playing the deep half of the field. He also knows the linebacker is responsible for the tight end. That's a matchup favoring Detroit. If the tight end can get a step on the linebacker, there's a window. It's small, but it's there.
In the frame, Stafford has just planted his back foot. The football is about to come out--before the receiver breaks the route. In short, he's trusted his presnap read. And here's the result:
The safety couldn't get there in time, and the linebacker, who happens to be Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, couldn't play perfect coverage. Against the Cover 2, the middle of the field is always a weakness, if even for a moment. Stafford, through a proper presnap read, getting the ball out on time, and trusting his arm, made a great play.
The point of all of this is not to continue to demonstrate Tebow's inconsistency. To the contrary, I think he can probably read coverages as well as any other young quarterback at this stage of their career. It's to contrast what he'll need to improve on tomorrow and in the next 10 games if he wants to be included in the same category of quarterbacks like Stafford, who appear to have made the jump.
If we ignore the issue of mechanics for a game or two, Tebow has to trust his reads and get the ball out. Half the battle in any sport is confidence. When Tebow hesitates, it only magnifies the chances he'll be inacurrate with the football.
Tomorrow, on offense, the Broncos should consider running some easy throws early in the game. This will build Tebow's confidence so he eliminates hesitation later in the game. Hopefully, it will give Tebow the ability to make plays like the one we've featured. Otherwise, it could be a long day.
On defense, you've got to treat Stafford as more than just a young quarterback. As we've seen, he trusts his reads and his arm. Dennis Allen can't sit back and let Stafford chew them up in a Cover 2.
Other than that, it's all blocking and tackling.