A rookie quarterback and a gutsy decision to go for the win in the waning seconds of a divisional game sure has a way of changing the buzz around Broncos’ Country. Even after accounting for all of the hate over the “conservative” play calling, the air seems to be blowing the wafting stench of the Joe Flacco era out the door.
So how good was Drew Lock’s first start really? Before he played a down on Sunday, I saw people saying he’s far better than Jay Cutler. Since then, I’ve already seen people comparing him to John Elway and Peyton Manning.
Let’s start by taking stab at is answering the three questions I had last week.
1. How does Rich Scangarello build a game plan around him?
One of the big complaints that has cropped up on and off throughout the season is how Scangarello doesn’t build a game plan around his quarterback. This was most prevalent during Joe Flacco’s last games for the Broncos (in the NFL?). It wasn’t true then, but left the question hanging in the air as the Lock era began.
Over the course of Brandon Allen’s three starts, hints had begun to emerge that the offense was moving to accommodate Lock’s skill set. Most notably, play action rollouts were being added back into the game plan in a big way. This was on full display against the Chargers, where I counted five, or a little over 15% of the rookie’s passing attempts.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need to establish the run for play action to be an effective concept. What’s most important is selling the run action to the defense through personnel and design on a down and distance where the second level are looking to stop the back first and foremost. Such is the case on the above first and ten, with the Broncos coming out in a 12 (two TE) personnel set.
One of the reasons rollouts are such a great way to help a young passer is how it effectively cuts the field in half. The lion’s share of quarterbacks in the league aren’t going to be coached to throw across their bodies to the far side of the field, so the reads on the play are the side they’re rolling to. Additionally, with a defense biting on the run fake the pass rush tends to be less of a factor, and someone like Allen or Lock can put additional stress on defenders with their legs.
The Rookie Scouting Portfolio’s Matt Waldman broke down Lock’s mistake on this play, but the opportunity was there for a big shot down the field.
Here’s a deeper throw that could have flipped the field but Lock’s feet are not in a position on this designed rollout to deliver an accurate pass pic.twitter.com/MHhgZqyY3N— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 2, 2019
Another area where Scangarello set his rookie passer up for success is the liberal use of empty shotgun sets, including two straight calls on his first drive. It was something I noticed studying Lock’s preseason tape as well, and it makes sense after he spent so much time in the shotgun during his collegiate career.
One of the reasons Empty makes so much sense for a rookie quarterback who’s comfortable in spread sets is how hard it makes it to hide a blitz. Because there are five receivers on the line of scrimmage, the coverage is immediately under stress. The likelihood of quick passes such as tunnel screens and slants/flats mean those players will need to have defenders on their assignments, which makes it harder for a defensive coordinator to disguise any sort of pressure package.
Such is the case on the play above. Lock can clearly see the rusher set up to attack the left side of his line and throws into the void. His ball placement isn’t perfect, but it’s the right decision by the rookie with quick pressure in his face.
The Broncos have been mixing in doses of Pistol plays since Joe Flacco was under center, but the sets have become more noticeable in recent weeks. These sets give the quarterback some of the benefits of shotgun where they have a little more space to make their reads without having to drop back, while also threatening the defense with a downhill running game that could attack either side of the defense.
2. How do his mechanics and decision-making look?
Beyond formations, the Broncos’ game plan also called for plenty of simplified reads for the quarterback. This is pretty typical for a young quarterback, but it’s encouraging that the coaching staff is easing Lock into the action rather than just throwing him into the deep end of the pool without water wings.
A dominant player like Courtland Sutton makes this even easier because he’s shown an a gift for making spectacular catches and offers the size, athleticism, and ball skills to be open when most receivers aren’t.
So I know #Broncos Country has loved up on Sutton's catch and the route, but look at how Freeman holds up in pass pro. Or heck, look at how Drew Lock handles an overload blitz. Stands tall in the face of pressure and maintains his form. Beautiful. pic.twitter.com/NyNuw3WGgZ— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 3, 2019
There are two areas of concern with this aspect of Lock’s game, and it’s something I expect the Houston Texans to try to take advantage of. The first and most concerning issue is how Lock showed signs that he’ll throw the ball up for grabs when he’s under duress. This occurred early in the game.
Off-platform shenanigans that some will draw the (false) equivalency to Patrick Mahomes pic.twitter.com/giT7M4xP7t— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) December 2, 2019
This same mindset carried over into the biggest blemish on Lock’s first start: his interception. The Broncos are facing a 2nd and 9 and Lock needs to check it down to the open throw. Instead, he presses and tries to rip a ball through a defender to his receiver breaking over the middle.
It’s a rookie decision by a quarterback who came into the league with a gunslinger mentality. Broncos Country is probably going to have to simply live with some of these. On the bright side, Lock doesn’t show poor mechanics on the play.
By and large, I found Lock’s mechanics more consistent than I dared hope for coming into the contest. One of the biggest issues Lock had coming out is how disjointed his upper and lower body can get. There are times on his college tape where his feet and shoulders are facing in two different directions. This wasn’t nearly as glaring in his first start as I expected.
It probably isn’t fair to expect him to ever completely abandon his affinity for throwing off his back foot away from a rush, but it cropped up so much less than it did during his senior year at Missouri. On most plays, his mechanics looked like they did on his first touchdown to Sutton.
Really encouraging growth so far.
3. How does Lock’s arm change the offense?
One of the big reasons for optimism when Joe Flacco was brought on is how his arm strength was supposed to provide more opportunities for deep shots to Sutton, Emmanuel Sanders, and Noah Fant than Case Keenum’s would. Of course, the trade off turned out to be that he would also read the field so slowly and handle the pass rush so poorly that the Broncos’ offense would have a few exciting plays mixed with a ton of highlights for opposing defenses.
It isn’t as exciting as the touchdowns or the DPI that effectively won the game, but Lock’s willingness to check down in order to manage the down and distance will probably have a big role in how he looks two years from now. In his first start, he showed encouraging plays here.
The 12-year veteran’s issues also effectively neutered the Broncos’ red zone offense because he did so poorly in condensed areas. He’d struggle to read the field and get flustered at the slightest hint of pressure.
It’s just one game, but Lock’s performance in this area Sunday should offer reason for optimism.
As exciting as Lock’s first start was after years of Paxton Lynch, Trevor Siemian, etc, it’s probably wise to maintain a healthy perspective. Kyle Allen was 5-0 over the first five starts of his NFL career, after all. Closer to home, Brandon Allen’s performance against Cleveland created a notable buzz in Broncos’ Country.
It’s reasonable to be excited about the rookie passer, but it’s foolish to draw significant conclusions off just one game. I know that isn’t what most want to hear as they go out to buy Lock jerseys, but there remains significant tests he’ll have to pass and progress he’ll have to make in order to live up to the standard Denver’s had at the position in the recent past.
Drew Lock will have growing pains as he and the offense finish out the 2019 season, but for the first time all year, there is evidence to support the hope that the future at quarterback is on the Broncos’ roster.