This is part of a seven-story package assessing the state of the young NFL quarterback. Look for more on Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and others in ESPN The Magazine's How to Raise a QB Issue, on newsstands Nov. 13. Subscribe today!
It was a deep dig route. A basic pattern that Jameis Winston has thrown since high school, maybe even peewees. With the Buccaneers protecting a 9-7 lead at Houston in Week 3, the rookie could extend an early third-quarter drive with a crucial third-and-7 strike. What Winston couldn't do -- with a safety trailing the route and a corner over the top -- is throw to receiver Mike Evans' back shoulder. But he tried anyway.
The window was extremely tight, and the throw, the placement, the timing, had to be perfect. It wasn't. Safety Quintin Demps intercepted the ball, and Tampa Bay never scored again in a 19-9 loss.
Winston wasn't the only one to blame. Given the pervasive philosophy of win now among front offices and fan bases, Winston and the Titans' Marcus Mariota are expected, unfairly, to arrive on the biggest stage already dropping dimes and leading comeback victories. Draft a QB in the top five? Put him on the field; careers and ticket sales are tied to that young arm.
But picks, poor decisions and missed opportunities -- they're all part of the standard résumé for rookie QBs who are thrown to the NFL's wolves. And ask any of the league's 32 coaches whether they truly believe a rookie can win right away and they'll tell you it's fairy-tale stuff in this grown man's league. While there is some credence to developing rookies with live-game reps -- compared to the laid-back, technique-deficient snaps on the scout team -- in the case of Winston and Mariota, there's little reason to expect them to deliver a major uptick on the stat sheet, much less in the win column, over the season's second half.
According to a veteran NFL defensive coach, the plan remains simple against these rooks: Pressure with complex blitzes, multiple looks and late safety rotations, especially against Winston. He struggles to read coverages but still wants to throw to the deep middle, so defensive coordinators are eliminating the seam and inside cuts while disguising man-under and pressure schemes -- leading him into traps that Tom Brady would never step into.
Meanwhile, Mariota, despite an MCL sprain that sidelined him for a few midseason games, is a bit more advanced than Winston due to the reps he saw all camp against Dick LeBeau's defense in Tennessee. Still, the run-pass option plays that he thrived in at Oregon and early this season have been sniffed out by NFL linebackers and defensive backs. They read an offense with much more eye discipline than college kids, and their closing speed eliminates the quick, inside pop passes that burned Pac-12 defenses. Mariota won't make a living in the pros on these packaged plays, so he'll have to become more comfortable in the pocket to develop in interim coach Mike Mularkey's pro-style system.
Ultimately, while film study shows that both quarterbacks are acclimating better each week, the NFL learning curve is much too steep and the talent around them severely lacking. Scroll down for insight into why there are no quick fixes for their rookie mistakes as we hit rewind and replay two costly errors from both Winston and Mariota.
Don't take the bait
Winston has executed this curl-flat route tree in Tampa's system since minicamp. But the rookie wasn't facing the pressures of live action-or a veteran cornerback such as Carolina's Josh Norman, who simply lies in the weeds, ready to strike.
Week 4: Panthers vs. Buccaneers / 3rd-and-8 / Bucs' 40-yard line / 1st quarter: 3-0 Panthers
With the Buccaneers in a 3-wide/1-tight set, Winston can target the wide receiver on the inside seam or work the two-level read on the outside. His first read is WR Vincent Jackson on the curl, and the second is TE Brandon Myers bursting to the flat from the slot. If Jackson is open, he makes the throw. If the nickelback sinks under the curl, he comes down a level to Myers in the flat. Simple.
But Norman, a fourth-year vet, is too sneaky for that. With the strong safety sitting over the top of the seam, the corner sinks at the snap and shows Winston he is gaining depth. That technique, paired with the nickelback dropping to cover the curl zone, signals Winston to come off Jackson's route and target Myers. Trap set.
Winston assumes that Norman will continue to gain depth with the curl. Instead, the corner keeps his eyes inside, opens his hips to Winston and breaks downhill with NFL-level speed to step in front of the flat route. Winston, who should've checked down to the running back underneath, never sees Norman coming -- 46-yard house call.
LESSON LEARNED: NFL speed kills. So quickly reading outside coverage -- and not taking a corner's bait -- is imperative for a rookie QB to survive.
Stay calm under pressure
On an obvious passing down, coach Ron Rivera's defense dials up a five-man, overload zone pressure. The goal: Speed up the decision process for Winston with the blitz -- and cash in when the rookie starts to rush his reads. And it works. Winston throws his third of four INTs on the day.
Week 4: Panthers vs. Buccaneers / 3rd-and-8 / Panthers' 49-yard line / 3rd quarter: 24-10 Panthers
Carolina shows pressure with two linebackers at the line of scrimmage. But it's a disguise to confuse the protection count. At the snap, both 'backers drop to match the wide receiver and tight end, and the Panthers blitz SS Roman Harper and the nickelback off the edge. Rivera's D is looking to take away the inside receiver's quick seam route.
Harper finds a clear path to the QB, but Winston still has time to identify open options underneath. To the strong side, he can hit the tight end running the jerk-whip route. Or he can find the running back on the weak side. See the blitz, get the ball out and move the sticks. That's how you counter pressure.
Instead of taking open underneath options, Winston panics, fails to step into his throw and targets WR Vincent Jackson on a strongside dig. Winston shows poor mechanics at the release point and throws behind Jackson at the top of the route and directly to CB Josh Norman -- again.
LESSON LEARNED: See pressure, be cool, scan field and go underneath.
Never lock in on the target
With a slim fourth-quarter lead on the Colts, Mariota tries to thread the inside seam to wideout Kendall Wright against a cover 3. But as the rookie learns, NFL DBs break and finish faster than anyone he saw at Oregon.
Week 3: Colts vs. Titans / 2nd-and-13 / Titans' 17-yard line / 4th quarter: 27-21 Titans
The Titans are running curl routes to both sides of the formation with a tight end on the quick outside cut. The running back gives Mariota a fourth underneath option. With the curl routes covered and the nickelback dropping to the tight end, Mariota homes in on Wright running the seam up the field.
The seam route is one of the top cover 3 beaters in the NFL, as it splits the outside corner and the safety in the deep middle of the field. But it's on the QB to look off the safety over the top. This is where Mariota struggles. Instead of using his eyes and shoulders to occupy Colts FS Dwight Lowery, he locks onto Wright once he has cleared the second level of the D. That's not going to cut it with just one vertical threat for Lowery to defend.
Given the game situation and the route combination, Mariota can't force this ball with Lowery in the perfect position to break on it. Just hit the safety valve underneath. But he doesn't, and Lowery picks it for prime field position in a game the Titans have literally thrown away.
LESSON LEARNED: To throw the inside seam, a QB must manipulate the safety with his eyes to create an open window to deliver the ball.
Don't let the DBs fool you
The packaged plays Mariota thrived on at Oregon have crept into the Titans' system. These run-pass options let Mariota make pre-snap reads based on numbers in the box. But NFL DBs are too quick and smart for a rookie's tricks.
Week 6: Dolphins vs. Titans / 2nd-and-9 / Titans' 27-yard line / 3rd quarter: 17-3 Dolphins
This is a standard packaged play: Mariota can hand the ball off to RB Antonio Andrews or throw the quick slant (or pop) to TE Delanie Walker. With the Dolphins showing a stacked seven-man box and playing what appears to be a conservative cover 1, Mariota rides Andrews through the mesh point, then targets Walker on the inside breaking route.
Off the run-action, Mariota gets the look he wants with the linebackers attacking downhill. That opens up what in Mariota's eyes is a clear throwing lane to Walker. But Miami SS Reshad Jones isn't buying the handoff.
The sixth-year safety never backpedals or allows Walker to gain inside leverage on the cut. Jones anticipates the route, drives on the throw and steps in front to make the pick. A classic case of a veteran milking a rookie miscue. Mariota has the look he wants, but NFL safeties eat up plays they recognize based on alignment, splits or backfield action. Mariota should've recognized he was caught and re-evaluated.
LESSON LEARNED: Never assume conservative man coverage in the NFL, especially when the secondary has just two simple reads to make.