As quarterback Blaine Gabbert shot up draft boards in 2011 after an impressive showing at the NFL Combine, many wondered if his transition from Missouri’s spread offense would go cleanly.
His game tape was more good than bad, but his lack of down-field throws belied his impressive arm strength.
With his lack of experience playing under center, many wondered how Gabbert would react to processing defenses while dropping back, or how well he could process defenses in a pre-snap reads.
When running a play-action pass, a quarterback has his back to the defense and must anticipate coverage in order to know where he is going with the ball after the fake without seeing the coverage develop.
Behind a porous offensive line, Gabbert often felt pressure that was not there, failing to keep his eyes down field and bailing out of the pocket before routes could fully develop.
Widely written off by many as a bust, Gabbert comes into tonight’s “dress rehearsal” game against the Ravens with two much-improved showings thus far in the preseason.
Granted, this will be the first week that teams scout the competition and game-plan specifically to combat opposing units. How Gabbert performs tonight will show whether his progress under new head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski is a mirage or a true coming of age.
Gabbert has been aided by Mularkey’s young quarterback-friendly offense that Matt Ryan ran in Atlanta during his first four years to great success. With many plays combining both zone and man-beater routes, there is less pressure on Gabbert to make pre-snap audibles as there should be something to beat every coverage in the play.
By using slants and defense-spacing curls, Gabbert has more high-percentage throws and shorter-developing routes.
With a generous helping of pre-snap motion and formation shifts, Gabbert can decipher defenses easily and more confidently determine the coverage that will determine where he needs to throw the ball.
During the first game against the Giants, Gabbert finished 5/10 for 62 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. Although his sub-par group of receivers struggled to create separation against the Giants' secondary, Gabbert did use his high-velocity arm to squeeze the ball through tight windows he anticipated well.
The vaunted Giants' pass rush got to him a few times, causing him to eventually start to revert to bailing on plays and failing to keep his eyes down field.
The Giants' defense, after hitting Gabbert a few times, built on his jumpiness by firing off the ball early. This generated penalties, but put some fear in the back of Gabbert’s mind. It caused Jeff Langeman, a former defensive end and current Jacksonville-based broadcaster, to relate the following tale to Michael Silver.
"I was with the Jets, and we played the Cowboys in 1990, which was Troy Aikman's second year," Lageman recalled. "We'd watched him look jittery on film and concluded he was scared, and on their first play all four of us [defensive linemen] intentionally jumped offsides and blasted him. He fumbled the next snap, and we kicked his butt all day."
"At that moment, if you'd have told me he was going to be a Hall of Famer, I'd have said you were completely insane."
Of course, many quarterbacks are rattled by the Giants' pass rush, and Gabbert was at the disadvantage of not having a receiver in which he could put his full confidence. The following week against the Saints, first-round pick Justin Blackmon made his debut.
Gabbert responded by putting up an outstanding line of 13/16 for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Showing an immediate rapport with Blackmon, they combined for four catches for 48 yards and a touchdown.
He was more confident in the pocket, keeping his vision in the secondary he stood tall and allowed plays to develop. Again, he hit many tight windows and showed off his arm strength.
After hitting Blackmon on a few underneath passes, the safeties began to play up closer to the line in reaction to that and a surprisingly effective MJD-less running game.
With the safeties playing shallow, Gabbert threw to Laurent Robinson on a go-route with a well-placed ball that would have likely gone for a touchdown if not for pass interference that impeded Robinson from running underneath the throw.
Another two plays that may have appeared to be Gabbert reverting to his old inaccurate throws and poor pocket presence were actually very well played by Gabbert.
What looked like Gabbert running backwards past his spot in the pocket so that his tackles could not run their defensive ends past him, was actually a screen that was covered due to a missed blocking assignment.
Later in the game, Gabbert missed Cecil Shorts on what looked to be an errant throw. Upon reviewing the play, Shorts was going against a cornerback playing inside leverage, giving Shorts five yards between his route and the sidelines open.
A safety was bracketing Shorts over the top, so he should have read the coverage and ran an out into the empty field. Indeed, that is where Gabbert put the ball, trying to throw his receiver open for a likely touchdown.
Of course, tonight’s match-up will be the most telling of Gabbert’s progress, but so far the simplified playbook and high-percentage pass-route combinations have given Gabbert’s game a shot in the arm.
Although the Ravens’ pass rush has experienced a drop-off, how Gabbert throws against one of the best secondaries in the game will go a long way in showing if he is ready to redeem GM Gene Smith in drafting Gabbert with last season’s 10th overall pick.