What Jordan Love's debut tells us about quarterback development
The good, the bad and the ugly from Love's first start
I had not planned on writing about Jordan Love this week. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it served as a nice example of quarterback development – the difficulties of blending a young quarterback into a system; some of the stylistic and technical things that make shifting from college ball up to the pros so difficult.
The Love Experience, I think, tells us a lot – much more than anything specifically to do with the Packers and the Aaron Rodgers of it all. There are pieces to take away from his regular-season debut that fit with all young QBs trying to find their feet in the league.
Let’s start with this: Love was dealt a rough hand.
Not having David Bakhtiari is a tough deal. While most young rookies don’t have dominant, all-world left tackle, it’s nice when they do. The Packers’ play-calling wasa erratic. And, As I’ve detailed before, it’s really, really difficult for young quarterbacks to play against Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo.
Spags is an unusual DC. The Chiefs’ defense may stink, but the unit’s coordinator remains one of the league’s most creative minds. He knows how to impact the processing of the quarterback; how to make it look like one thing pre-snap and then change the picture post-snap. Or, at least, to plant the seed that it could change post-snap, making QBs antsy in the pocket when they needn’t be. Spags shows so many different pressure looks, bringing a raft of different blitzes and pressures from all kinds of funky depths and angles.
Spagnuolo did not respect Love – which tells us quite a lot. That is not a belief or an opinion but more a statement of fact. The Chiefs blitzed Love on 53.8 percent of his dropbacks, an almost unheard-of number at the pro level.
I cannot overstate this enough (though I feel as if I state it every week): DCs do not blitz good quarterbacks. If you send one, you’re down one somewhere else. And when you’re playing a side with Davante Adams, you cannot afford to be down one anywhere on the back-end.
Sending a steady stream of blitzes – say, double-digits over the course of the game, some 20-odd percent of a QBs dropback – is a standard practice against good quarterbacks. Against the best of the best, that figure usually drops a little, unless there’s something else going on (your pass rush is fractured; you have a talent issue – or surplus – somewhere on defense).
FIFTY. 5-0. Fifty percent. I mean, wow.
Spagnuolo brought a little of everything, which we will dig into more. And that was telling. Because, for the most part, Love performed excellently pre-snap. But that was tied with some iffy post-snap decision-making and even worse execution.
All in all, Love had an okay-ish game. He showed complete command of the Packers check-with-me system, which is a touch more complex than the traditional box-count RPOs. There was one issue all game in operating the system, as it were, which against that defense, on the road, with that crowd, in his debut, with that system, is impressive.
If anything, the design of the Matt LaFleur gameplan let Love down. The Packers coach coached scared on Sunday. He was worried about his own quarterback: It was evident in the play designs. Everything the Packers targeted was at the intermediate to deep levels outside the numbers. If not, it was cheap, easy stuff underneath… and outside. LaFleur didn’t trust Love to make throws into congested areas in the middle of the field. The quarterback completed just one throw over 10-yards targeted in the middle of the field, a putrid number by the standards of the pros.
Quick out-breakers paired with the fast motion (moving from trips to quads to one side of the field at the snap), a staple of LaFleur/Packers football, were all there, but they were not tagged with routes in the middle of the field. LaFleur consistently rolled and moved the pocket in order to hit quick, high-percentage throws outside, as opposed to allowing Love to sit and read it out.
And this is where I think it’s important to remind people: Jordan Love is not a first-year, deer-in-headlights player. Love has been in the league for a year and a half now. The whole point of having a quarterback sit and learn is so that they can figure out all of the complexities of the pre-snap game; so that they can run an expansive system, with full confidence, rather than a watered-down pseudo-college get-up to help their development. Love is not a quarterback at the start of his second year. We’re halfway through this thing already, people. He should be ready by now.
LaFleur refused to lean on the run game, even when it was rolling, which was a touch odd. But more confusing was his refusal to shift formations and personnel, to move Adams a little bit more, to use Adams in extremely condensed splits to open up the rest of the field, as the team is liable to do all the damn time when Aaron Rodgers is at the wheel.
LaFleur was trying to make things easier for his young quarterback. As always, there was consternation on the HASHTAG onlines about a young QB getting into empty formations.
First: The Packers do that all the time. It’s who they are. If they’re not in empty pre-snap, it’s often a fast-motion that functions as empty post-snap. Why switch that up for a second (and a half) year quarterback? If anything, it helps give better coverage IDs to a player who may struggle with that aspect of the game.
There are two options when your offensive line is overwhelmed and the defense is blitzing a ton: Bring extra guys in to block; send extra guys.
Coaches opt for the latter because it restricts how many defensive players can come and from where. If you bunch things up, getting into tight and condensed splits with multiple players, keeping extra tight ends, backs, or receivers into block or chip, it makes life a heck of a lot easier for smart DCs. It’s easier to mask blitzes and disguises. The angles get tougher on stunts and twists – does the wing know how to back up a back-again twist? Perhaps not. Oh, and when you’re right there on the line of scrimmage, with extra bodies in, the blitz hits quicker than if everyone is spread out and an extra man has to charge from depth.
Plus, LaFleur spent the bulk of the game trying to isolate Adams. His plan, as best as the film tells it, was to have Adams as a constant safety valve. Rather than move his receiver to create mismatches or to reveal coverages pre-snap, the coach, it appears, wanted his quarterback to feel comfortable going to Adams whenever post-snap. No matter what, young fella, Adams should be one-on-one. If you don’t like the look, sling it to him.
That often meant looking to Adams’ back-shoulder, which… did not go well (more on that in a bit). It’s a plan that made sense, in theory, but could have done with more on-the-fly tweaks once it became evident that Spagnuolo was bringing the heat no matter the down or distance or game state.
When Green Bay got a touch more desperate in the late third quarter and into the fourth quarter, LaFleur took Love out of the kiddies pool and chucked him into the deep end of the big boy pool. And that’s where Love responded and flashed. There were some tidy, in-rhythm, strikes launched from the pocket. Everything aligned. His decision making fast and correct.
This, below, was the throw of the evening. It’s a classic run by every team across the league: A dagger concept, someone clearing out the top of the coverage, a dig flying underneath at the intermediate level. LaFleur likes to tag a fast motion out of the backfield, sending one of the backs into the flat, in motion, at the snap, to change the assignments of the defense and to overload zones down the field. A 2x1 set with a split-back backfield quickly becomes a 3x1 set with a typical offset back — changing the rules and principles for the defense.
The clearout route took away the Chiefs frontside linebacker, leaving a void for the deep in-breaking route. The receiver flew into an open window and Love nailed him down the field.
That, right there, is how LaFleur should have coached all evening. Run his staples. Bet on his young quarterback. That he didn’t was a shame – it’s neither an indictment of the coach or quarterback (at this point) but just a misfire in the gameplan.
Love, as mentioned, did a nice job of commanding the offense pre-snap, for the most part. You could see the advancement from the turn-to-the-sideline-for-help college player into a professional quarterback running a full huddle and audible system.
He checked into the right stuff in terms of plays. Where he struggled — and it’s a big, concerning struggle — was with correctly ID’ing protections.
(A quick note: Understanding the individual protections for teams is tough. There are a whole bunch of general rules that almost all NFL teams adopt. It’s plausible that the Packers changed some things for this game (and with no Bakhtiari), though unlikely – but it’s worth leaving the possibility that they did get what they want on some things. Why they would want to block things up as they did, if that was the case, is a mystery.)
Of Love’s 39 total dropbacks, he was pressured 19 times. Almost all of that pressure came via the blitz. And on such dropbacks, he completed just seven passes all game for a measly 2.2 yards per attempt – 40 yards total.
It was rough. Love’s offensive line did not play well, as anyone with access to the internet can tell you. They whiffed on individual blocks and they blew assignments. But some of the protection issues were on Love. He missed on assignments himself; he missed on a chunk of hot throws.
The point of defending a blitz, as an offensive line, is not (always) to block everyone. If they’re bringing one more than you have – seven to six, for instance – there is nothing you can do. The point is to block as many as you can so that it’s clear who isn’t blocked so that the quarterback can get rid of the ball ASA-and-P. In essence, blocking the blitzer with his eyes and arm,
Hot throws, they’re known as. If you see the blitz, get the ball out hot. Now. Today. No delay. To a designated target built into the passing progression.
Love struggled because he was unsure where the pressure was coming from. And that was often because he had misplaced the blocking mechanism, either due to setting the wrong one pre-snap or because he didn’t follow the mechanism, he had set.
And this is where Aaron Rodgers makes a ginormous (ginormous!) difference. Yes, he can move and create. But so can Love. More importantly, Rodgers knows everything there is to know about protections. He knows what to set against what looks. He knows where he’s going with the ball if the guy he thinks is the free-rusher winds up being the free-rusher, and he has a punch of backup plans (often the same plan) if someone else happens to be the free-rusher.
Here’s an example of a Love whiff:
It’s a 3x1 set for the Packers. Once again, they’re trying to get Adams isolated to one side of the field to give Love an escape valve — typically to the frontside rather than the backside. And they got it!
At the top of the screen, you can see Tyrann Mathieu creeping ever closer to the line of scrimmage.
Draw a straight line from the center to the quarterback. What you have is the center, right guard, right tackle, and the running back all in the protection. That’s four.
What does KC have? They have a nose head-up over the center. They have a linebacker/safety creeping down to the line of scrimmage, they have an edge-rusher, and they have Mathieu – a player the quarterback must always – always – account for.
Love decides that Mathieu is not going to blitz.
On the other side of the formation, the Chiefs have a linebacker walked down next to the nose tackle, an interior defender, and another edge rusher, with a DB lined up outside that edge-defender’s shoulder matching the tight split of a receiver. That’s three — four if you include the DB, though he’s over a receiver man-to-man. The Packers have a tight end, the left tackle, and the left guard. That’s… three!
They should be able to block it up.
Love, the film suggests, thinks that DB on the perimeter is blitzing. So, he splits the slide. With a head-up nose, he keeps the center on the nose. The left guard is asked to leap across to the edge-rusher (#55 with the sleeves) rather than the linebacker that’s walked down across from him. The tackle is asked to kick out to the edge defender, stood up just about peaking into the snapshot above. While the tight end is there in case the DB blitzes from the perimeter.
On the right side, it’s easy. The center has the nose, as mentioned. The right guard tackles the linebacker lined up ahead of him. The right tackle takes the edge defender.
Then it’s over to the running back. The running back is taught to take the most dangerous defender not in the blocking scheme. Pre-snap, given the way Love has set it, that’s clearly #56, the linebacker next to the center. If that linebacker blitzes, the running back shuffles across to close him out. If the linebacker drops out, the running back resets his feet and scans for danger.
By sticking the back on the ‘backer, Love left himself four-vs-three on the weakside. He removed Mathieu from the equation. Rule number #1 of playing the Chiefs defense: You never, ever, ever, ever discount the idea that Mathieu is attacking the backfield, no matter where he is on the field.
It was a total whiff. The left tackle was left blocking no one while Mathieu screamed into the backfield, the right guard trying, in vain, to block two guys at once.
Then there’s the final point: This ball needs to be out hot. The protection is bleeped up. That’s an error. But Love can salvage it by *coach term klaxon* displacing the blitzer. When the blitzer blitzers, you chuck the ball behind him. Easy.
Remember Davante Adams? He’s isolated, right. So, if Mathieu does blitz from depth – as he did – then the ball has to be out the moment he sets off, on its way to Adams.