On five occasions in this past Sunday’s Washington Redskins game, Rex Grossman dropped back and spotted his receiver. The ball’s trek was interrupted mid-flight, though, batted down by defensive linemen and never coming close to the intended target.
“Nothing I can do about that,” Grossman said this week.
But coaches know that five batted balls is an abnormally high number, and the Arizona Cardinals seemed to know they could disrupt the Redskins’ passing game by simply sticking their hands in the air. Entering Monday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, Grossman has enjoyed a good couple of weeks to open the season. Though the Cowboys have a strong defense, coaches don’t expect batted balls to be a recurring issue this season for Grossman.
Through the season’s first two weeks, 39 quarterbacks have played in the NFL. Of those, just two are listed at shorter heights than Grossman, who stands 6 feet 1. Michael Vick and Drew Brees are both listed at 6 feet. The average height of the group is 6-3, and several — including Houston’s Matt Schaub, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco, San Diego’s Philip Rivers and Carolina’s Cam Newton — are 6-5 or taller.
“The first thing when things get tipped, people talk height a lot,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said before adding, “I personally don’t believe that tipped balls have much to do with height.”
Grossman agrees. In his ninth NFL season, he says batted balls have never been a problem for him, and he doesn’t think a taller quarterback would’ve fared any better against the Cardinals.
“In my opinion, I think you’d have to be 7-foot to throw over that,” he said.
Coaches expected the Cardinals to come with heavy blitzes. Instead, the linemen would often stay back, waiting for Grossman to cock his arm.
“I’ve never seen guys jumping for balls like that,” Washington quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said. “They would quit rushing at times and get their hands up together.”
Said Grossman: “It’s almost like they were dropping eight into coverage sometimes. When they would try to rush, they wouldn’t. . . . Then they’d back up and try to time it up. When you have 6-8 D-tackles with long arms right in front of a checkdown, what are you going to do?”
Logic might suggest that a taller quarterback would have an easier time throwing over the outstretched arms of a defensive tackle. But Shanahan explained that even a 6-5 quarterback isn’t necessarily aiming over linemen; he’s often trying to throw in between them. “You throw through windows,” he said.
That means the offensive linemen need to open holes for the quarterback, just like they might for a running back, and the quarterback needs to be aware of when that window opens.
“You want to keep the push in the pocket,” Shanahan said. “It’s better when the quarterback can stay a little deeper. But you can’t always do that the way these guys rush up the field. You got to step up in there. Some weeks it’s good. Some weeks it’s not. Last week was a tough week, but we got to do a better job at that.”
With new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan on the sideline, the Cowboys’ front has been especially aggressive this season. Dallas leads the league with 10 sacks and has allowed 282 yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL.
The bigger issue with a shorter quarterbacks is seeing over the linemen, not throwing over them. LaFleur, who was an undersize quarterback in college at 5-10, doesn’t think the 6-1 Grossman has trouble seeing the field.
“Generally speaking, there’s going to be times when it’s going to be a little more challenging, depending on how the rush goes,” he said. “But there are passing lanes that open up within the pocket. I think each play is kind of its own thing. They all play out different.”
Last Sunday, the Cardinals batted a pass Grossman intended for tight end Chris Cooley on the fifth play of the game and never let up. In the game’s final minute, the Cardinals were able to disrupt a checkdown pass intended for running back Roy Helu.
“You could see the D-tackle just quit rushing and was just watching Rex,” LaFleur said. “As soon as Rex went to throw, he jumped. Sometimes there’s not a lot you can do about it. The biggest thing is getting on those guys, the linemen getting into those guys so they can’t get their eyes up.”