Devin Gardner, with some improvement, is potentially a first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Where can he improve? Well, Gardner himself identified an area a week ago in a radio interview:
“Before Coach Nuss got here, I never had to identify a MIKE … now I know where pressure’s coming from.”
The MIKE that Devin Gardner is referencing is the middle linebacker. The MIKE is often the “captain” of the defense. He puts everyone in the right place. He’s defending the heart of the defense– the middle. Reading where he is and what he’s doing will often tell you where pressure is coming from, if at all, and what type of coverage the defense is playing. In 2013, Devin Gardner had a lot of issues with making poor decisions when teams got pressure on him in passing situations. Does making a pre-snap read on the MIKE linebacker matter that much? Could it make those post-snap decisions easier? Let’s take a look at a couple plays from the Michigan-Notre Dame game in 2013.
Play 1– the infamous Pick 6 in the endzone:
Here’s what Devin is looking at pre-snap:
The MIKE linebacker is starting only a yard behind the NT. It’s 3rd and 11, Notre Dame is down 14 in the 4th quarter, and Michigan is backed up in its own territory. You can bet good money that ND is bringing the pressure here. When Devin reads the MIKE linebacker here, his next thought should be who would take his place covering the middle of the field. There’s no one else in the middle of the field so you look to the other two linebackers. They’re both playing right up near the LOS as well. So you’re looking at potentially 6 pass rushers. If those three linebackers blitz, you have 3 ND defenders in the box defend the 2 receivers at the top of the screen and Funchess lined up at TE. I’m not sure where the safety is, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.
This comes shortly after the snap. Devin has taken a step and a half back at this point. There’s no immediate pass rushing threat, but you can see all 3 linebackers blitzing. This leaves you with man to man coverage on all 3 receivers in the box, man to man coverage on the receiver at the bottom of the screen and a safety lingering somewhere. The most important part though– because you made a pre-snap read on the MIKE and you know the linebackers are blitzing, you don’t have anyone in zone coverage in the short-middle of the field.
This comes right about when Devin has completed his drop. As you can see, there’s a perfect pocket to step up and throw the ball. There’s only one free man in the middle but the RB will be able to block him long enough to get a throw off without any real pressure. Funchess and Dileo are running curl routes. At this point, Devin has 4 good options. He could complete a safe pass to either Funchess or Dileo without worrying about zone coverage. Or, depending on where the safety is, he could go deep to either of the receivers running streak routes toward the sideline. Regardless of what he does, in this situation, he needs to get rid of the ball and, at worst, punt the ball to ND up 2 touchdowns in the fourth quarter. The one concern at this point is the free linebacker blitzing who is at about the LOS in this screenshot.
But he doesn’t get rid of the ball. Instead, he tries to do too much. The free linebacker has him contained on one side, Tulloch has contain on the other side and #11 is running free after the RB did his job stopping the immediate blitz concern. From there, disaster ensues. If Devin is making the correct read pre-snap, he knows ND has 6 pass rushers soon after the snap and this ends in, at worst, an incomplete pass and a punt.
Gif of play: http://zippy.gfycat.com/PoliteUglyCowrie.webm
Here’s what Devin is looking at pre-snap:
Again, the MIKE linebacker is very close to the LOS. The other linebackers are both close to the LOS in position to blitz as well. It’s 3rd and 9 and you’re at the point of the field where a sack makes a field goal much more difficult. Funchess is the only eligible receiver and pre-snap, it looks like he’s going to be defended by the safety in the box.
This is just after the snap. As you could guess pre-snap, all three linebackers are blitzing. This leaves Funchess on a safety with no one in the middle of the field. This would be a perfect time to hit a quick slant to Funchess and let him try to beat the safety. At worst, you have an incompletion or a slightly shorter field goal.
This is basically where Devin has completed his drop. Again, he has a nice pocket to step into and make a throw. But, this time, he has a linebacker blitzing free who is going to get to him much quicker. This is the point where he needs to get rid of the ball. There’s a safe throw to Funchess short of the first down or a deep ball to whichever side of the field isn’t getting safety help.
But, again, Devin holds onto the ball and tries to run out of pressure that didn’t need to happen. From here, he spins backwards and runs into the contain man before barely throwing the ball away. There was no grounding penalty, but there could have been one which would have functionally taken Michigan out of field goal range.
Your reads pre-snap aren’t always going to be definitive. ND could have dropped a linebacker or two. But, at that point, they’re so close to the LOS that Devin would have been able to complete a pass over their heads. Plus, he would know that he had more time to make a pass because there were only 4 or 5 pass rushers against 7 Michigan blockers.
The point of pre-snap reads is not to lock you into what you are going to do on a given play. The point is to make your post-snap reads easy. The thought process is simplified. If you know where blitzers and zone coverage can come from before you even snap the ball, you know how to react once those linebackers either blitz or drop into coverage. You know how much pressure is coming and where it’s coming from. You know which receivers are going to have man to man coverage based on post-snap movement. You know which receivers are going to be running into zone defenders and when to avoid throwing into traffic.
And, for Devin Gardner, you know when you need to get rid of the ball quickly and when you can wait. With a potentially weak offensive line, the pre-snap reads are critical. If he can make those critical pre-snap reads in 2014, his decision making should improve and teams may seriously consider taking him as one of the top QBs in the 2015 NFL Draft.