Throwing them off their games
Breaking down the strengths of the title-game QBs -- and how to attack them
The four quarterbacks leading their respective teams into the conference championship games Sunday are very different. Each poses a unique challenge for the opposing defensive coordinator. Let's examine each player's strengths and then look at how the opponent should attack the QB to throw him off his game.
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Plan of attack: Roethlisberger is greatly improved in the pre-snap phases, but he still can be had mentally. There always will be a playground aspect to the way he plays the position, which can be a positive and a negative. The Steelers' pass-protection blitz pickup is a problem area. That is exactly what Jets coach Rex Ryan wants to hear; few teams can disguise and alter their pressures as well as the Jets. The more pass-rushers you bring, the more Roethlisberger's stats decline -- but not by leaps and bounds. And of course, he always can shrug off a would-be tackler and expose lesser coverage deep downfield, as his receivers are excellent after the initial play breaks down. Roethlisberger does take a lot of hits, maybe more than any other quarterback in the league, and will hold the ball with defenders draped all over him in order to try to make a play. He doesn't like to throw the ball away or give up on a play. This can kill a defense at times, but it also can result in a turnover.
Strengths: Two seasons in the league and two AFC championship games. I am not the biggest Sanchez fan, but there is one thing I always have given him credit for: He is fearless in the clutch and often plays his best football when it matters most. His mental makeup is impressive, especially considering his age (24). Sanchez also has confidence in his talented receiving corps and isn't bashful about putting the ball up for the receivers to make a play. He is a pretty decent deep passer. But Sanchez runs hot and cold. The Jets' coaching staff does a good job of giving him easy throws and using the running game to build his confidence. Once he has his footing in a game, he is usually a pretty solid passer. But against the Patriots, it was clear that the coaching staff put more on Sanchez's plate from a mental perspective -- and he thrived. Maybe he is ready to take another step forward mentally. He also was great on third downs in that game, once again showing his "clutch factor." Sanchez has light feet and can make plays as a runner or out of the pocket on designed quarterback movement plays.
Plan of attack: Sanchez cut his interceptions in his second season, but he also had an inordinate number of near interceptions. Ball security is still a problem. As is the case with many young quarterbacks, Sanchez doesn't see the field all that well and is best when limited to a few quick reads. His accuracy is a major problem, and he is the least physically impressive QB of these four by a large margin. To make life toughest on Sanchez and the Jets, eliminating the running game has to be the top priority. Pittsburgh is the best team in the league against the run. Second, you want Sanchez to throw outside the numbers and really test his arm strength. He isn't the type of passer who can consistently drive the ball into tight areas, especially in poor weather. Next, there are two theories on how to best contain Sanchez. First, you can make him complete a lot of short passes to move the ball with the presumption that his accuracy or decision-making will let him down over the course of the drive. Or, you can bang his wideouts around at the line and take away the easy throws, but getting beat deep is the obvious concern. Pittsburgh's corners are much better playing off coverage than press, but I think you need to see how the inconsistent Sanchez is throwing the ball that particular day before you decide which of these two tactics to employ.
Strengths: When writing a scouting report on Rodgers right now, the column labeled "Positives" would be extensive. But I really can't come up with anything major to put in the "Negatives" column. He is doing it all, and his playoff numbers are simply off the charts. His mental makeup and ability to recognize the defense and change the play at the line of scrimmage are now among the best at the position. His decision-making is tremendous. And much like Roethlisberger, his physical gifts and natural playmaking ability are unreal. But Rodgers' game isn't as up-and-down as Roethlisberger's. That isn't to say he is the better player, but there is an impressive sustaining element to Rodgers' excellence. His release might be the best and crispest in football. His accuracy is flat-out elite, as are his arm strength and his ability to make any throw. Rodgers' elusiveness, ability to throw on the move and ability to run with the football also are among the best in the game.
Plan of attack: Figuring out how to attack Rodgers is extremely difficult. He has proved all season that even without a running game, he can lead his team to victory and put up a lot of points. Still, the first thing to do is make the Packers' offense one-dimensional. Chicago shouldn't have a lot of difficultly getting this accomplished. But then the Bears will have to deal with Rodgers in the shotgun, surveying the entire field and throwing to a great stable of wide receivers with as many as five wideouts on the field. The only thing I can dwell on is that Rodgers doesn't have the "been there, done that" factor going for him yet. This will be the biggest game so far of his career. The Packers have lost an awful lot of close games with Rodgers behind center. But I can't say I'm expecting him to be overwhelmed on such a stage. From a pure X's and O's standpoint, I don't see a great way to attack him. He kills the blitz, but Chicago also can't get predictable with its pressures. Also, Green Bay has converted a lot of big plays through the air. But the Bears are great at eliminating the long ball. At a minimum, Chicago should at least make Rodgers work for everything he gets.
Strengths: Everyone sees Cutler's immense physical ability. He has a well-built body, vastly underrated movement skills and a rocket launcher for a right arm. Along with Roethlisberger, Rodgers and Michael Vick, Cutler is in the elite class of quarterbacks who can make the "wow throw" from a compromising position or on the move. And Cutler has taken his game up a notch or two under offensive coordinator Mike Martz from a preparation and mental perspective. A gunslinger at heart, Cutler now is playing within himself and doing a much better job of taking what a defense gives him than he did earlier in this career. His command of the Bears' complex offense is impressive.
Plan of attack: Cutler still is an inherent risk-taker. He has thrown a lot of interceptions in his career, and many of those have occurred in the red zone. The Packers must force his hand in the red zone, where the field is compressed and everything happens much faster, which is why Cutler sometimes resorts back to his gunslinger ways. Although Cutler is great at making big plays from compromising positions, he isn't very sound mechanically. He too often throws off his back foot, and his accuracy suffers. When things go bad for Cutler, they can go very bad. He will press and try to do way too much when the offense isn't working or the Bears get down on the scoreboard. The coaching staff has done a superb job of using a balanced offense with a sustaining running game and more short drops to get the ball out of Cutler's hands without taxing a suspect offensive line. But staying balanced against Green Bay's exceptional defense will be very challenging, and the temptation to try to keep up with Rodgers will be hard for Cutler to ignore. Playing from behind could be a problem for Cutler. Interceptions could ensue.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
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