To get away from 2014, I wanted to finish my QB Corner series from 2013. It takes me on average 2 weeks to cut, edit, and write about a QB's games, which is why I don't have anything from 2014 yet. The lucky subject this time is the Tennessee Titan's Jake Locker. I originally planned to look at films of all young QBs, including Mike Glennon, EJ Manuel, and other rookies, but decided not to since rookies are generally very raw in their first year and their performances may not be representative of the QBs they'll become. It's also hard to compare those guys to the more advanced QBs and frankly, it was a lot more work and I needed the hard drive space.
Locker, though, has been in the league a few years now and by the end of last year had started 18 games and had dropped back 610 times. I think that's a decent sample size and also a period over which he should have grown into an adequate NFL starter. Let's run the numbers and see how he stacks:
Stats from Pro-Football Reference.com
After a redshirt year Locker was named Titans starter in 2012, acquitting himself well for 3 weeks despite dislocating his left, non-throwing shoulder in the first game. Another dislocation in the 1st quarter of a Week 4 game against Houston knocked Locker out until Week 10. Last year, he missed two games in the middle of the season with an injured hip. This St. Louis game was the last he would finish, as a lisfranc (plantar fasciitis) would end his season the very next year. So injury is a very valid concern with Locker
But back to the numbers. We have a very mediocre QB who doesn't make a ton of mistakes with the ball, possibly by holding on to it and eating sacks instead. His numbers are most similar to Newton's, except Cam is allowed to use his athleticism and rush about 7 times per game. I haven't done the research, but out of those 7 rushes, I wouldn't be surprised if Newton gained 4-5 first downs a game, which is huge. Locker's yards/rushing attempt figure leads the pack by a mile, but it looks like Tennessee are wanting to protect their fragile QB.
I'll be interested in how Locker uses his athleticism in the film, which pits Tennessee against a potent St. Louis Rams defense anchored by Robert Quinn. I will also focus on QB pressures and try to figure out if it's the line, the QB, the scheme, or any combination of those. A high sack figure may be an indicator of a vertical passing offense, but his yards/attempt figure is low - this is a mystery I'll try to figure out. Of course I'll check for accuracy, mechanics and read progression as is usual.
1. UC5 (under center, 5 step drop). After two big Chris Johnson runs get the Titans into Rams' territory, Locker tries to throw a slant to the outside receiver. He throws without hesitation but I don't like how he telegraphs the pass by staring down the receiver. You can tell in frame 2 that the LB is reading his eyes and shading that way. Despite having his feet pointed down the right has (where the receiver should be going), the ball is thrown behind his man. I'm not sure if this was just an inaccurate throw or if Locker recognized the LB getting a bead on the route and tried to adjust his throw. Either way, QB and receiver need to be on the same page for easy throws into space like this.
2. S1 (shotgun). Again, Locker stares down the receiver. He does throw in good rhythm, getting into his trophy stance before the receiver makes his break on a dig. Ball is complete for a 1st down.
3. UC5. Designed flare to the TE in the flat, the throw is off despite adequate mechanics. This type of throw needs to be ahead of the receiver so he can catch and turn upfield in one motion. Instead, the receiver has to turn around for it, spin upfield, and try to break tackle (unsuccessfully).
4. P/A (play/action) UC 5. After a TD run by Locker (see Athleticism section at the end of the post), the Titans fall on a Ben Cunningham fumble. There wasn't much play action here and the defense was not fooled. Locker ends a 5 yard drop really far back - typically these go 7 - 8 yards, but Locker is a full 9 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He again telegraphs the pass to the right, the same side where Chris Long is eating his guard alive. In frame 2 you see him try to pump, but is unable to make a decision and tucks the ball right into a sack.
5. S5. Reads right the whole time, good mechanics on a quick hitch to the outside. 3 YAC on a well-thrown ball.
6. S5, eyes locked to the left. The Titans have a levels concept with a receiver in the flat and a deeper receiver running a corner. Locker opens his hips a bit, but this is fine as he wants the pass to drift to the sideline, away from the defender. The ball is well thrown but his receiver can't hang on. Locker is doing a good job of keeping his shoulders aligned with his feet.
7. UC5. This time the 5 step drop is only 7 yards deep - consistency on little things is important. First read is right and has the slot out open - did he incorrectly assume the LB was in man coverage? He turns left and correctly sees a RB shading CJ2K. He has time to dump it to the button hook in the middle close to a 1st down.
8. UC5. Fakes downfield, it's a screen to the RB on the right. Despite no pressure, the ball comes out high - see how Johnson has to jump for it in frame 2. Good blocking downfield leads to a 28 YAC.
9. UC5. Locker is reading left, right where the Rams are zone blitzing from. Chris Johnson should pick up one of the rushers on the interior but you can see in frame 2 that he's outclassed (the Rams line is good). The tight end is open and should be the hot receiver, but instead of hitting him, Locker spins to the right and is sacked. This is horrible blitz recognition by the offense - you always try to pass in the direction of the blitz because that's where an opening should be in the secondary.
10. S1. WR screen to the slot on the left. I'm a fan of trying screens and such after a sack to force the defense back and cover. Unfortunately, the receiver on the outside completely missed his block and this play is stopped easily.
11. P/A roll right. His fake is adequate but nobody is fooled. Good QBs use their entire bodies and a duck of the head to sell the fake. The play-side DE forces a quick, low throw that's incomplete.
12. S3, Rams show blitz but only send four, with the right end and tackle running a pretty routine twist on that side. Somehow the left guard and tackle double the defensive tackle, leaving the center one-on-one with the defensive end (who I assume is Robert Quinn). This ends about as well as you'd expect, sack.
13. S3. Backed up, the Titans call a safe screen pass that is well blocked and results in a 1st down.
14. UC5. Another stunt on the left side of the offensive line is mishandled. this time the defensive tackle ends up on the outside with a clear shot at Locker as left tackle is sucked inside. Locker is reading left the whole time and misses how a go route cleared everyone from right flat where CJ2K is all by his lonesome. This ball should have been thrown by frame 2 or 3 at the latest, but Locker brings the ball down and hesitates for reasons unknown. He ultimately uncorks a pass with a defender draped all over him and by that time, a defender has arrived on-scene causing Johnson to look upfield and drop the pass. Protection mistakes happen but when they do, the ball has to come out faster.
15. S3. Again, Locker completely telegraphs the read on the left to linebackers sitting in zone coverage. The route is a simple hitch and he opens his hips for no reason and doesn't step into the throw (frame 3 shows him leaning away from the target after release). The pass is read and easily intercepted by former Titan Cortland Finnegan. Bad read, bad throw.
16. S5. 3 straight St. Louis passes and a missed field goal later, the Titans actually have better field position. The Titans run a screen on the left to Chris Johnson. The defensive line does a poor job recognizing screen, and with 24 seconds left in the half, there is nobody in the intermediate area beyond the line of scrimmage. There are two blockers in front of Johnson, so of course one of them (bottom of the screen) runs right by a defender while the other doesn't block him at all and Johnson is stopped for no gain. The Titans offensive line are not playing well at all.
17. S3. The Titans are still passing with 18 seconds left, which shows good confidence in Locker, I suppose. He telegraphs the read to his left, and tries to step in but a strong bull rush forces him to rush the throw and prevents him from ending with his weight on his front foot (frame 3). Otherwise, mechanics are good but because of the rushed throw, the ball gets to the sideline right before the receiver.
18. S5. An unexpected Chris Johnson 1st down on a halftime draw gives the Titans one more shot at a field goal. The rush from his right side forces Locker to the left, and he never gets his eyes downfield (frame 3), and misses Johnson in the middle (frame 2). I understand the Titans don't want a mistake here, but Locker needs to have better situation awareness - he is not going to rush for a TD or even get the Titans in FG range, and the only option is to keep looking at receivers.
19. S5. Amazingly after a series of poor passes, the Titans try again with 1 second left before half. Both right tackle and right guard completely miss the speed rush on the right side and Locker is easily sacked at the top of his drop. This is extremely poor game planning and play calling with so little time, a bad line, and an injury-prone QB (remember he had only returned to the lineup a week prior). This would have been a pass to the end zone given no possibility of a field goal - what's the point?
20. S1 PA. Good job identifying a blitz pre-snap. Good footwork, shoulder alignment, and throw. His front shoulder pointing down in frame 2 is a tell that it will be short pass. This was a great play call against a Rams blitz and caught St. Louis with nobody in the middle of the field. The pass was low, but soft coverage results in 8 YAC.
21. UC5. Rams blitz two from the left and the Titans smartly pass in the direction of the blitz this time. The screen pass is low and almost incomplete, but CJ hauls it in for 22 YAC.
22. S3. After some QB pressures, Locker is getting gun-shy in the pocket. Things start well with his feet and shoulders pointed at the eventual target, but Locker twists his shoulders right of his feet (frame 2). This makes it so he has to torque his upper body around to point in the direction of the pass, putting unnecessary side motion on the ball. Frame 3 shows a looping delivery, bringing the ball low-to-high in a Tebowish motion. Locker has reason to be spooked as frame 4 shows a lineman on his butt, but elite QBs trust their protection and ability to manipulate the pocket. Locker has lifted his right foot before delivery, which affects accuracy and arm strength. After the pass (frame 6), Locker is leaning to the far sideline, away from his target, and seems to be expecting a hit. The ball is thrown horribly high and behind his receiver and actually hits the safety in frame 8. It's these type of dangerous throws that lead to receivers getting laid out (frame 9).
23. UC PA7. Good fake and very good protection and plenty of time. He works right to left, but then panics and dumps it to Chris Johnson in the right flat. Elite QBs find time in situations like this and wait for the coverage to break down - given time, it always does. The Titans have 3 on 6 in the secondary which is favorable for the defense, but I still think he's getting spooked. CJ is rocked after 5 YAC, which is technically successful since he gets 3rd and 1, but this could have been much more. Moving towards Johnson where Locker has a blocker would have preserved the checkdown option while giving Locker more time to look downfield.
24. S1, read option fake followed by a pass to a 4 yard curl for a 1st down. Feet and shoulders are pointed in the right direction, but Locker takes much too big a stried in frame 2. It's amazing Locker ends on his front foot with such a long stride but he does get a completion.
This is a safe, quick pass and a pretty good route concept with a man clearing the flat, a man sitting on the marker, and a man going vertical. But with 5 rushers and five men in intermediate zone coverage, Locker has two targets streaking downfield against only one deep safety. This should have been a HUGE completion to either.
25. PA Roll Right. The Titans keep trying this hoping it will work. Idea was to fool the linebackers and get the FB in the flat but Locker doesn't commit to the fake and it doesn't work at all. Locker recognizes that he has one-on-one on the outside and tight coverage on the FB, so correctly takes a shot deep. The throw is rushed by the DE but it is a fine back-shoulder throw that the receiver can't haul in.
26. S3. Reading left the whole way Locker's mechanics are rough at the top with his shoulder giving away the direction of the throw - why the defense isn't keying on his tells is beyond me. He does get lined up by frame 2 but once again, I don't like how he ends facing the sideline. The receiver is wide open and gets 5 YAC.
27. S3. After a couple big Johnson rushes, Locker has 3rd and goal from the 5. Reading left the whole time, he wants to go to his tight end against the LB, which is a tough throw but one that great QBs make. He doesn't like the coverage and rushes forward for the TD. Great athleticism by Locker aided to find the endzone.
27-B. This is a different angle on the previous play. Again, good instincts to find space. The run is aided by what seems to be a hold by the left tackle - not often do you see a rusher smothered like that without a call.
28. UC PA5. Titans trusting their QB despite starting deep in their own territory. This was probably his best throw of the night. The play fake fools the corner into taking a step toward the flat while the receiver runs a post behind him. Mechanics are sound and the throw is on-point, leading to 31 YAC. A huge play given the situation.
29. UC7. Locker follows a fantastic throw with his worst of the day. Things start off okay but Locker is telegraphing a pass to his left. With a rusher coming up the middle (frame 2), Locker opens his hips and fails to step into the throw (frame 3), causing the ball to sail. There's only one high safety, and Locker throws right to him despite having a man going the other way to his right. The poorly thrown ball goes right to the safety for a pick. Bad read, bad mechanics, bad throw. After this, the Titans took the ball away from him for the duration of the play, scoring a TD on a diet of Johnson runs to win it.
Offensive line: I'm pretty sure offensive is the right word here. I know that the Rams combo of Robert Quinn and Chris Long is basically impossible to guard. But the Titans were inconsistent calling protections on blitzes, twists, and other actions along with letting guys fly of the edges in obvious passing situations. Chris Johnson was somewhat overmatched in pass protection as well. I'm not sure how much of this is on Locker, but I give him a pass as a guy with so little experience generally isn't called on to manage his own protections.
Chris Johnson: The record shows that CJ2K had a huge day with 150 yards rushing. However, the majority of his rushing yards were on big plyas early and late. For the majority of the game, Johnson struggled to make consistent 5-6 yard runs on first down or convert on 2nd and 3rd. This is significant because consistent running is what puts a defense on its heels, makes play action work, and causes the safeties to inch forward. This partially explains why Locker struggled to fool the defense on run fakes.
However, the runs that CJ did break were fantastic. After the Titans took the ball out of Locker's hands following his second pick, this is what Johnson did:
CJ2K 1: The Titans have numbers right and so do the Rams, but a couple Titans get good seals and Johnson somehow squeezes through a tiny gap for the go-ahead touchdown.
CJ2K 2: The Titans pull a guard and have a FB lead Johnson off tackle to the left. Oh, and one of the Rams' linebackers completely overruns the play trying to prevent Johnson from bouncing outside, but ends up leaving the entire center of the field between the hashes open.
Play Calling. The Rams played single-high most of the night, and the Titans were unable to design vertical routes to take advantage. Myabe it's a lack of trust, but if you don't trust your QB, why have him aggressively throw before the half? They also failed to make use of the middle of the field, though again, that may reflect a limitation of Locker's game. They did make adjustments to run up the middle to counter St. Louis pressure on the edges and they did call for some nifty screens and quick throws when reading blitz. But overall, I felt like it was a conservative offense with some stale concepts and little big-play potential. Where are the wheel routes, pick plays, and option concepts that other conservative offenses feature?
1. Athleticism: On the opening series of the game, Chris Johnson drew a ton of attention by breaking some big gains. That allowed the Titans to do stuff like this:
Locker pulls the ball correctly after the DE stunts toward the back.
And this, where the Rams have the end sit on the QB fake, giving up numbers on the inside.
2. Read Progressions: For a QB that has barely started a full-season's worth of games, Locker did flash ability to progress beyond his first read. Despite his tendency to lock-in on receivers and questionable diagnosis of the Rams' defense, when the first read was clearly covered, he did find some secondary options.
3. Mechanics: I heard scouting reports on Locker before he was drafted that he looked mechanical dropping back, but when given a clean pocket, this usually wasn't an issue. He also showed an above-average ability to get his feet and shoulders aligned to the direction and depth of the throw. Again, this all worked with a clean pocket, but when the pocket breaks down...
1. Pocket Presence: this is one of the toughest things for young QBs to learn. Locker didn't show good feel for the pocket including which direction he could go to escape pressure, and spun into some sacks. After St. Louis got him a few times, Locker started getting spooked, rushing throws and messing with his mechanics in terms of dropping back and throwing the ball.
2. Telegraphing Passes: Locker frequently locked on to his receiver upon receiving the snap and seemed to get telescopic in his vision at times. Good QBs know how to look at different sides of the field to manipulate safeties and coverages on the side of the actual read. Great QBs read the whole field while keeping their feet neutral and adjust at the last minute to the throw. I'm a little surprised the Rams secondary didn't play even better given Locker told them with his eyes where almost every pass was going.
3. Accuracy: There were just too many mis-thrown balls. Some were due to pressure, but he also threw low and high when that wasn't an issue. The type of offense the Titans runs requires a high completion % and well-thrown balls to produce YAC. Locker didn't show a consistent ability to deliver.
4. Indecision: Kind of the opposite of getting spooked and rushing throws, Locker seemed frozen at certain times when the pass rush was closing and he had to make a quick decision or throwaway. Throwing the ball away is not necessarily a good thing, but it shows maturity and an ability to avoid sacks and make the least worst decision. Every starting QB can make good decisions - the ability to avoid negative plays is what makes the great ones, great.
5. Coverage and rush identification: Locker showed some hesitancy diagnosing zone or man coverage, which side the safety was playing etc. Neither of his picks should have been thrown. He seemed to be surprised by certain blitz packages, not knowing who was hot and where the ball should go. Some of this is on the coaches, some on the line, but some also on Locker
6. Keeping Eyes Downfield: As a QB with good athleticism and adequate running instincts, Locker found himself out of the pocket on a few occasions but failed to keep his eyes downfield for a bigger play. With the Rams in single-high most of the day, there are plays to be made downfield, but even when he had favorable matchups, he failed to take advantage of the deep ball. Maybe it's personnel, but the offense threw precious few deep passes in this game.
7. Health: It's a skill.
This was a tough post. I really am rooting for these young guys, all of them, and hope that they do well. Unfortunately, I think there are just too many things to fix when it comes to Jake Locker. Almost all of his strengths are matched by a weakness. His mechanics are fine until the pocket breaks down. His athleticism is enticing but he can't stay on the field - and they're not all injuries suffered in the pocket, some of them occur when he's valliantly sacrificing his body for his team. He does get to the second and third read, but like Colin Kaepernick just doesn't get there fast enough. Unlike Kaepernick, he wasn't able to look downfield when moving the pocket and the Titans offense simply didn't throw deep at all despite extremely favorable numbers. In a league where 4 verts and wheel routes and tight end seams are staples of good offenses, you just can't produce by constantly throwing to the sideline. Even then, his completion % isn't good enough to suggest that's a viable strategy. With his injury history, I can't justify the Titans investing further in their young QB. I really, really hope he comes out gangbusters after an inconsistent few weeks and proves me wrong.
You make the call.