Breaking Down Teddy Bridgewater’s Game-Winning Touchdown Drive and Dispelling the ‘It Factor’ Idea
It’s a term that is used to describe the indescribable. Something that supposedly every quarterback in the NFL needs to be a strong leader and effective player. It’s also a term that
doesn’t need to can’t be explained. That’s the beauty of using the term ‘It factor’, you don’t need to do any work and you don’t need to hold any accountability when confronted with specifics.
The reality with ‘It factor’ is that it’s a term that doesn’t exist. It’s a term that tells everyone who reads/hears it that you have developed an irrational affinity for a player that is not based on his on-field skill set.
It’s not a coincidence that ‘It factor’ is typically given to reputable players who play unconventionally and have off-field characters that stand out.
During the 2014 NFL draft process, this term became a point of frustration for anyone who understood how worthless it is. Two quarterbacks were widely perceived as being on the opposite end of the spectrum.
The biggest ‘It factor’ quarterback in this year’s class was undoubtedly Johnny Manziel. The former Texas A&M product became the focus of the national media because of big plays against Alabama and (big) incidents off the field in college. Selling Manziel on the idea of an ‘It factor’ was much easier than convincingly describing how his play on the field translated to productive play in the NFL.
When you break down the quarterback position, most of the players who sustain success in the league do so by being disciplined and mentally smart rather than physically gifted and big play reliant.
If you were to apply the ‘It factor’ label to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, you’d be describing two players who rely on their mental cognition rather than their physical talent. The same applies for Drew Brees and Phillip Rivers. What these quarterbacks do is essentially boring and the opposite of what the ‘It factor’ is supposed to represent.
This is where the other end of the spectrum for the 2014 NFL draft class comes into play.
Teddy Bridgewater tumbled down the draft board after the 2013 college season concluded. He became a pariah during the draft process and most of the criticisms directed his way were based on things that couldn’t be evidenced by what he did on the field. In short, Bridgewater was criticized for not having the ‘It factor’.
With this in the back of my mind, I found it fascinating to watch the performances of Manziel and Bridgewater in Week 2 of this year’s preseason.
Bridgewater excited everyone with a thrilling final drive in the fourth quarter that culminated in a game-winning touchdown pass. The Arizona Cardinals defense that Bridgewater was facing did what any defense would do in this situation, they repeatedly blitzed the rookie in attempts to rush his process and force a mistake. A mistake that would be born out of panic.
That panic never came though. Bridgewater managed the pressure and found open receivers consistently. He played a near-perfect role as a pocket passer to decide the game despite the defense’s best efforts to disrupt his process.
Meanwhile, on Monday night of Week 2, Manziel was being given his opportunity to win the Cleveland Browns starting spot against a Washington defense. Washington weren’t fighting to prevent a last-gasp game-winning touchdown, but their gameplan to stop Manziel was full of blitzes and disguised pass rushes.
Like so many big-play reliant quarterbacks had done before him, Manziel responded to pressure very poorly. He consistently threw the ball while fading backwards and he couldn’t read the defense while managing the pocket at the same time.
During this week of football, only one player had what could be described as the ‘It factor’ and nothing he did fit the mold of what that term generally refers to. Only one player made plays worthy of being labelled a playmaker and he made those plays by being a ‘boring’ pocket passer.
On the first play of the final drive, the Cardinals threaten to blitz before the snap with six defenders actively pushing against the line of scrimmage. Importantly, the defense is playing off coverage outside with one defender five yards off the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
When the ball is snapped, two of the linebackers who were initially part of the six threatening to blitz drop into coverage. Both initially appear to be in man coverage, as the linebacker to the left of the defense runs with the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen while the other linebacker turns to face the slot receiver on the other side of the offense.
At the same time, the Cardinals send the cornerback who initially lined up over the receiver to the top of the screen towards the quarterback. Despite the movement upfront, Bridgewater doesn’t panic and he sustains eye level to read the coverage in front of him.
When the linebacker over the middle of the field drops backwards instead of going towards the slot receiver running the shallow crossing route, Bridgewater knows that he is not in man coverage.
It’s important to remember that the defense was initially in off coverage outside and has dropped since then. This means that Bridgewater understands that he can throw the ball to his receiver running underneath without worrying about him getting tackled in bounds. Getting out of bounds is important because the offense needs to save time with just a minute left in the game.
Bridgewater throws the ball from a clean pocket, but part of that is due to his willingness to get rid of the ball quickly and the speed of his release. He throws an accurate pass that allows his receiver to continue in stride and eventually run out of bounds for a first down.
By all means, this is a boring play, but it’s also a very impressive one to start a pressure drive.
On the next play, the Cardinals come out with a similar look. This time the slot receiver to the top of the screen is tighter to the formation, so the defensive back in press coverage against him is also a threat to blitz the quarterback.
From the same look, the Cardinals call the same play…
…at least, that’s what Bridgewater is supposed to think.
This time the Cardinals linebackers are in man coverage underneath. Both players immediately run with the receivers that they are covering. While this play call was supposed to take advantage of the young quarterback’s lack of poise, Bridgewater is comfortable holding the ball in the pocket.
On the first play, Bridgewater’s blocking accounted for every rusher. On this play, his running back failed to find the edge rusher, giving the Cardinals a free rusher. At this point in the play, Bridgewater is planting his backfoot to climb the pocket because he feels the edge rush coming.
The benefit of the Cardinals trying to confuse Bridgewater is that when he figures it out, he has a matchup advantage with his receiver running across the field away from a linebacker. After taking a short step forward, Bridgewater understands he needs to get rid of the ball quickly to avoid throwing while being hit.
His quick release is put on show as he completes a simple pass underneath.
This kind of play was a staple of Bridgewater’s time in college. He consistently threw simple passes because of what he was able to do before beginning his throwing motion. Intelligence, pocket presence and a quick release allows a quarterback to make more simple throws. Offenses are typically designed to work on simple throws.
Difficult throws come when the defense is exceptionally effective or when the quarterback doesn’t run the offense as best as it can be run.
After using similar plays to try and confuse Bridgewater, the Cardinals coaching staff decide to completely change their blitz on the third play of the drive. This time, the blitz isn’t shown until the last second before the snap and it comes with press coverage on the outside. Despite the new approach, the effect on the quarterback is the same.
Bridgewater very quickly diagnoses the coverage and finds his receiver past the first down marker in a position to run out of bounds. That receiver fails to get out of bounds, but that was a reflection of his ability against the defender rather than Bridgewater’s throw.
With this kind of speed getting rid of the football, the pass protection upfront becomes less stressed and less important.
The following play brings another different look from the Cardinals defense. With press coverage outside, the Cardinals have four down linemen and one defender approaching the line of scrimmage to the left side of the offensive line. After the Vikings completed two consecutive passes underneath, the Cardinals are clearly trying to force Bridgewater to throw the ball further down the field as they come out with all 11 defenders within seven yards of the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, the Cardinals front four rushes the pocket and they are joined by a defender blitzing off each edge. One of the defense’s safeties drops into the middle of the field, while the rest are in man coverage across the board. This is a Cover-1 look, one safety in deep zone coverage with man coverage on everyone underneath.
Bridgewater needs to manipulate the safety on this play before finding the one-on-one matchup that works for his defense. The design of this defense isn’t supposed to afford him enough time to do that, because they are rushing six defenders against six blockers. That should favor the defense.
At the top of a deep drop, Bridgewater still appears to have his eyes on the deep safety, keeping him in the middle of the field.
With no time left in the pocket, Bridgewater takes his eyes away from the safety and turns to the left sideline. He squares his shoulders and feet to throw the ball down the field to his receiver who is running down the sideline. In this coverage, the defender covering that receiver is trailing behind so he is not in a position to locate the football.
Bridgewater’s throw is affected by the pressure in front of him. It flutters short of where it should have landed and forces the receiver to adjust to it.
However, while this play wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t far off for the quarterback because of how he manipulated the deep safety and understood the coverage in a hurry. By finding the right receiver, he could afford to be slightly off target with his throw. As he gains more experience, he should be even quicker in the pocket and follow up the coverage read with a more comfortable throw.
By continually picking apart the Cardinals’ pressure packages, Bridgewater set the offense up in scoring position with plenty of time left. At this point, the Cardinals turned up the heat again.
In an attempt to finally rattle Bridgewater, the Cardinals sent seven defenders in his direction at the snap. Bridgewater initially looks to his left, but immediately turns away from his receiver to that side. He understands that the pocket is closing on him, so he angles backwards rather than trying to manage the pocket within its limits.
Bridgewater didn’t unecessarily turn away from the pressure here, he did so to create an angle and space to throw the ball to the sideline. His shoulders and feet remain square to his receiver and he shows impressive arm talent to throw a perfect pass to his receiver falling out of bounds.
This pass was thrown under pressure, after making a coverage read, with anticipation and before taking an illegal hit that was penalized. It was a very impressive play both mentally and physically.
On the following play, the Cardinals sent seven defenders after Bridgewater again. He was forced to buy time by backing up before throwing the ball away. Bridgewater avoided making any mistake under pressure, but he was unable to find an open receiver. Once the play finished, it became clear why. A Cardinals defender was penalized for holding in the secondary and the referee noted that it occurred before the ball was thrown.
Now at the goalline, the Cardinals defense blitzed six defenders on the next snap. The Vikings rolled the pocket so Bridgewater didn’t need to manage it. He threw a seemingly accurate pass on the move, but his receiver fell down before we could really judge.
That led up to the game-winning touchdown throw.
Staying true to form, the Cardinals sent seven defenders after the quarterback at the snap. By the alignment of the defense before the snap, Bridgewater will have understood immediately that he was going to throw the fade route to his receiver at the bottom of the screen. His throwing motion and quick decision once he gets the ball isn’t perturbed by the commotion closing around him, while his accuracy to put the ball in a position where only his receiver can catch it is perfect.
If we can determine that Bridgewater doesn’t have the “It factor” based on his play to this point in college and in the preseason, then we can also determine that it is an irrelevant term.