The QB's best friend. Where his home should be. Comfort and relaxation are afforded here. This is the pocket. Matt Cassel hates the pocket. He would rather live on the streets. Apprehension and anxiousness is all he finds here. One has to wonder why. What has him so scared that he chooses to abandon his home rather than fight for it? What can he do to protect himself when his home begins to crumble around him?
What I've seen from Matt so far this year isn't something that can be chalked up to "just preseason" or "he's not trying his hardest when the games don't matter"; what I've seen from Matt is his continued inability to move around in the pocket, slide and step around to avoid pressure while keeping his eyes up field and his body in a position to make a good throw. I've written a couple of comments talking about this recently, and I believe it is a legitimate issue that cannot be ignored if we Chiefs fans ever expect our offense, and ultimately our team, to be taken seriously and contend with playoff opponents.
The statistics of Matt's career sacks has been discussed extensively here on AP, and numerous reasons have been given why, including his pocket presence. This is not a new discovery as to what has plagued our QB, but it is an extensive look at why it has plagued him. Watching the St. Louis preseason game, I see this fault in full effect for Matt as it has reared it's ugly head time and time again in 2011. I will put this to you as simple as possible: Matt fears the pressure. Taking sacks as often as he has in his first 3 seasons as a starter in the NFL has created a mentality that may prohibit remedy. We have seen it a lot from various quaterbacks in the history of the game. I'm not talking about taking big hits from pass rushers that has him literally fearing for his health and well-being, I'm talking about the instinct to try not to take a sack superceding the instinct to try to complete a pass. What causes this instinct to overtake a QB? Here's some visual ideas about that:
Ok, so yeah, if anything happens to you repeatedly, it will create a second nature, instinctual reaction when put in similar situations. Pavlov's Theory tends to prove why it might need to be called a law. However, since Cassel didn't have a lot of experience playing in college or the pros before 2008, I think the chicken came before the egg in this little conundrum. Cassel's natural playing characteristic has never been condusive to being a solid pocket passer. He sees pressure, he ducks, he jives, he tucks the ball, he puts his hand out to avoid being touched by an O-linemen being pushed towards him, he does pretty much everything except what you should be doing to keep the pass play alive. This is something that I believe is pretty natural for any football player in their first experiences as a QB.
Let me try to relate this mentality a little bit. This is most definitely a lower end spectrum example of this situation, but I'll share that I'm an avid flag football player. Love the game, love the competition, and love the fact that I can play the "skill" side of football in my spare time in organized leagues and facilities, and not have to worry about going to work the next day with a concussion from being destroyed by a 250 lbs. linebacker while running a crossing route. Anyone that plays flag football regularly will tell you that to have a successful flag football team, you need to have a quality quaterback, one that can make the throws and move around to avoid having his flag pulled without running the ball himself every play. I've tried my hand in quarterbacking a few times, and I can tell you first hand that while I have a decent arm and accuracy when throwing in the backyard, when someone is bearing down to "tackle" you, it's a whole different ball game. All I see is the rusher when I should be looking downfield, and I immediately want to try to avoid the flag pull before I even have a chance to diagnose a play. So, all-in-all, I'm awful at quarterbacking.
This mentality would have been very natural for Cassel in 2008, his first year as a starter stepping into the role in New England when Brady went down, hence the 40+ sacks behind an O-line that allowed at least half that number the year before and after. Cassel needed to work that problem out, and might have been able to with quality QB coaching in 2009. We didn't have that for him here in KC at that time and he took another 40+ sacks that might have been substantially less if he had that pocket presence coaching he so desperately needed. 2010 brought us Weis and Cassel showed some improvement but not as much as you would think by just looking at his basic QB stat line. Look closer.
Stats from profootballfocus.com show a breakdown of QBs vs. the blitz in 2010 (seen here) that explains different QB aspects when they are blitzed. Getting specific with Cassel, he was blitzed 33.91% of the time he dropped back to pass, the 5th lowest total in the league for each team's respective QBs that took the most snaps in 2010. Cassel had a 58.23 completion percentage vs. the blitz, 15th in the league. He threw 9 TD passes and 5 INTs, good for 14th in the league, tied with Kyle Orton. Lastly, the stats had a "QB Grade" breakdown, similar to ESPN's Total QB Rating, which they applied it in terms of against the blitz, and Cassel finished in 28th place. In accordance with that, the fact that Cassel was blitzed as little as he was and how bad he was against it is disheartening.
What I find extremely interesting is that Cassel's completion percentage against regular pass rushing situations and against the blitz were exactly the same (58.2%). This stat supports my thoughts on Cassel and dealing with pressure. It doesn't necessarily have to be a blitz that gets him rattled, just simply having what he perceives as one rusher getting into his "comfort zone" prompts his natural instinct to kick in. Just like me trying to quarterback my flag football team, Cassel seems to react the worse when he can see the rush coming. There was one specific play that I've mentioned in some of my recent comments against St. Louis in the late 1st quarter, early 2nd (I was unable to come up with any footage of this specific play, but if anyone knows a website that has quality playback of the game, let me know in the comments, and I can add this specific play footage into the post). There was a rusher that came relatively unblocked up the middle, as it looked like the LG Asamoah (who I believe was playing LG in place of Lilja, correct me if I'm wrong), got tied up with a stunt from said rusher and was beat on the inside. Cassel saw this rusher and ducked, tucked the ball, and ran out of the pocket, allowing the edge rusher that was well-blocked by Albert to come free, give chase, and force Cassel to throw it away to avoid being caught from behind. On the local broadcast, Trent Green himself commented that Cassel needed to slide in the pocket there; Cassel didn't need to duck and run, he just needed to take a step to the side and up to avoid the rusher and his momentum alone would have taken him right by Cassel and given him at least 2 more seconds to make a throw. You can see this from many NFL QBs, not just the elite ones either, these simple actions of avoiding rushers while keeping their bodies in the correct positions to make a throw. Cassel has not mastered this art yet, and tends to falter on it more often when he sees the pressure coming and doesn't feel like he has his bubble as big as he wants it, then the tucking of the ball, head darting around frantically looking for an opening to escape the pocket, sticking his hand out to the back of one of his O-linemen, and running like he's in an action movie and he's escaping from an area that is about to explode! And like the movies, it's in slow motion, as fast as he runs. (Just kidding, Matt has some decent scrambling ability, I just wish he didn't choose to use it so often).
So where does Cassel go from here? I'm not saying Cassel can't do this. There has been plenty of instances where Cassel drops back, steps up in the pocket, and hangs in there to make a throw, he just doesn't do it consistently and tends to get rattled from pressure up the middle. Zorn appears to be working with him on this specific problem (the big silver ball drill) and like the rest of you Chiefs fans, I hope he does improve this problem, because it's a big one, in my long-winded post of an opinion. Unfortunately for Cassel and the team, I fear it may be too late. I believe that we have seen so much blitzing from the opposing defenses thus far in the preseason because of our games against Oakland and Baltimore at the end of last season. I'm betting teams watched these games and saw what getting even a bit of pressure or perceived pressure on Cassel does to him and the offense. There are ways to counter heavy blitzing, such as screens and quick throws, so we only hope that the play-calling accounts for this when necessary, but will this plan of action give Cassel more opportunity to ward off this bad instinct of his? Only if Dex/JC/McClain can turn those screens into something big, and our WRs can get open off the line for those quick throws. If the opponents send lots of middle blitzes for Cassel to view from a front-row seat with the outside backers and safeties keying on players waiting for screens and tight man-to-man coverage that none of our receivers can consistently beat off the line of scrimmage, Cassel's pocket problem may just be his downfall.