There are certain skills that are harder to develop than others. That’s why people become specialists in a certain field. Not every medical student will end up skilled enough to become a surgeon. And not every quarterback will go on to play in college or the NFL. But if you are being trained and developed properly, your odds of living out your dreams are dramatically increased. Along the way I’ve discovered what separates most is not always talent or hard work, but working on the right stuff and being relentless in trying to master that skill. I feel training a quarterback on how to move in the pocket and when or how to escape it is near the top of the “right stuff” list. Training the Pocket Presence of a QB is crucial in the proper development at the position.
One drill that we coach at Elite 11 and The Opening Regionals for Pocket Presence is called “2nd REACTION”. It is a real-game reactionary drill of abandoning the pocket, avoiding a sack and extending the play. This is one of E11 HC Trent Dilfer’s drills and I absolutely love coaching it. I was fortunate enough to do just that this past weekend at Ohio St. University. This skill is one of the most critical attributes to a quarterback becoming #QB1. Coaches love having a quarterback that can smartly protect the ball and keep the play alive when needed. Trent Dilfer calls this P.A.C.E. – Plays After Critical Errors.
When it comes to escaping a collapsed pocket there are several methods and techniques you can use for doing so. For right-handed QBs, we normally work the left side of the field, so we are escaping the pocket to the left. Why? Simply because it’s harder to escape to your blind side. I can sort of categorize the three techniques I have been teaching for escaping the pocket as Abandon, Eject and Vacate.
“Abandon” is used when there is a wide edge rusher from the left, who is being blocked, but makes you climb up in the pocket. We simulate the right side of the pocket caving in after you shuffle up, forcing you to quickly escape out the left side to keep the play alive. “There’s a better option outside the pocket, so let’s just abandon the inside.”
“Eject” is typically used when there is a free-rusher off the edge that has more of an inside track to the quarterback. We teach the QBs to reverse out at the top of the drop by turning around their right shoulder and stay on the move; don’t pull up. Essentially they will “eject” out the back of the pocket with some depth while being pursued.
The final method is to quickly bolt, or “Vacate” the premises. “There’s an intruder in the house and we need to get out NOW!” Picture a linebacker blitzing right through the A gap that is about to beat you to the top of your drop. On the 5th step we plant our back foot in the ground and “throw” the ball with 2 hands to the left side of our body as we turn to sprint 90 degrees from the threat. It is a quick, “get-outta-Dodge” move that could be very valuable in your survival if done properly.
What is unique in our E11 teachings is the “2nd REACTION” part of the drill. This speaks to reacting to the receiver who just ran a route and recognized at the top that you’ve escaped the pocket. When they see you start to scramble, a well-coached team will have rules for how to get open again. These are called “scramble rules.” Simply put, coaches typically teach the route runner to work to get open for the quarterback by going the opposite direction of the original route. One of our key coaching points in this drill is stressing the importance of getting the ball to our receiver in a timely fashion. WHEN you deliver the ball is the second reaction. It’s that split second when our WR “sticks and moves” and creates some separation that we want to be able to deliver the ball. There is no set timing now. All bets are off. You must react to the situation and protect yourself and the ball. In this scenario of trying to stay alive, we are under duress and don’t have the luxury of making a nice beautiful arc, coming down hill towards our target and aligning our body perfectly like we would on a planned rollout pass. We are in hot pursuit and must make an awkward throw NOW.
The fancy term we use for the last crucial coaching point in this drill is “disassociation” of the upper and lower bodies. We want to see the QB make an accurate, timely throw running almost directly towards the sideline but throwing back inside to a tight end or receiver who just uncovered. There’s not a whole lot of time in this situation until the gap is closed and he’s covered again. This ability to make off-platform throws moving both ways doesn’t come easy. But then again, that’s why we teach this drill. We tell the QB to flash his front shoulder at the target while running towards the sideline. Why not come down hill you ask? This is because most defensive players understand your vulnerability when you are outside the pocket. When they see you running for your life they are going to probably drop coverage and try to take that free shot on the quarterback. If you’re running downhill towards your target, you’re also running right into on-coming traffic. It doesn’t matter a whole lot if you throw a pretty spiraling pass but get knocked out of the game due to an unnecessary shot to the chin! There’s an old saying in sports, “You’re greatest ability is availability.” Learn how to avoid the threat, move left but throw right, and do it all by taking the shot off yourself.
It definitely takes time reaching that comfort level within a system to master this skill of pocket presence. But you have to work on the right stuff. Train yourself in real-game situations that force you to react. This will help develop a keen sense of spatial awareness, which I believe was the key to my old teammate Brett Favre’s longevity. Yes, he was an exceptional athlete with a great sense of timing, but his awareness and anticipation was off the charts. Granted, he mastered this skill by starting for 19 consecutive years in the NFL. But for the not-quite-yet-pro QB reading this, #keepclimbing. With enough reps and emphasis on working this area of your game you will begin to instinctively “feel” the rush better and start to slide around in the pocket to find a way of accurately completing the pass. And when it’s appropriate, Abandon, Eject or Vacate the pocket to make something out of nothing.