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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Rise of Quarterback Mobility in the Modern NFL

As the Buccaneers’ defense faces dual-threat quarterbacks Justin Fields and Jalen Hurts in back-to-back weeks, let’s take a look at the meteoric rise of mobile quarterbacks in the modern NFL

AP Hurts story

The quarterback position has evolved. The National Football league is now a purveyor of quarterback mobility, as the recent meteoric influx has made the stationary archetype nearly obsolete. Each year, the quarterback scramble rate goes up and pocket passers are going extinct. 

Since 2018, four percent of quarterback dropbacks have been scrambles. In 2022, the top 10 scoring quarterbacks averaged 89.5 rushing attempts, a substantial increase from the 52.3 attempts that the top 10 quarterbacks averaged just 10 seasons prior (2012). The recent phenomenon can be attributed to both an ascension in quarterback athleticism, as well as schematic changes. With an uptick in match concepts where defenders turn their back from the pocket or a two-high shell creates a clear path to exploit over the middle of the field, the skill shift has taken shape. 

Quarterbacks who tote the rock generates an additional gap that defenses have to account for. As of December 2022, four quarterbacks ranked inside the top 10 in missed tackles forced per attempt, including Justin Fields (30.3%), Josh Allen (24.7%), Lamar Jackson (23.6%) and Jalen Hurts (20.6%). Defenses cannot sit back in coverage without a plan to counter a scrambling quarterback. 

"The number one thing is that it adds another player to the run game," said Buccaneers' Director of Pro Scouting, Shane Scannell. "So, instead of 10 on 11, it is now 11 on 11 because you have to account for that quarterback being a part of every run play, so it adds another person that you have to defend. I would also say that has led to the run-pass option (RPO) coming in. That is such a big aspect on every single play with the run and pass option. Also, the ability to create an easy offense. It gives you a get-out-of-jail free card as an offense when you have a mobile quarterback because everyone can be covered and when you don't have a mobile quarterback, they get sacked. But a mobile quarterback can take off and extend the play. Then, someone can potentially get open, and they can make a late, on-the-down throw. Or they can take off and run for 20 yards as opposed to taking a sack, so that has been a big part of it."

Michael Vick was the innovator but now, there are many iterations across the NFL with Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Kyler Murray. Instead of the Cam Newton-anomaly era, the league has now followed suit with a myriad of mobile quarterbacks and as a result, defensive coordinators have to defend the option game. Much like nickel packages have become a staple to counteract the effects of 11 personnel, an infusion of speed is necessary to combat dual-threat quarterbacks.  

"I think it has led to trying to get more athletes on the field at every position," described Shane Scannell. "You could even use Calijah Kancey as an example for us. Ok, we draft a guy who ran a 4.6 40-yard dash, even the defensive tackles now have to be able to get those guys on the ground. You are getting more speed at all levels of the defense, including the defensive line. It has led to an emphasis on athletic pass rushers who are able to tackle these guys and get them down. I would also say at the linebacker level that it is the same thing. Having guys like Devin [White] and Lavonte [David] who can run – you can use a guy like Devin as a spy because he is fast enough to run with Justin Fields. I think Devin was a 4.42 40-yard dash and Fields was a 4.44, or something like that. So, you cannot be as reckless with your pass rush, and you have to be more disciplined in your run lanes. You cannot fly up the field because then the mobile quarterback can take off.

"The big thing with Josh Allen when he came in during his first couple of years, the blueprint became 'Let's rush from his right,' because he is deadly if he rolls right and he can throw, but he is not as good when he has to go left, and it is harder to throw. That is a big part of it. Guys have to be disciplined in run fits and it also limits some coverages that you can play. It is harder to play two-man against a mobile quarterback because you could just run four verticals and the quarterback can take off and everyone is going to be with him. If you are playing man, you designate someone to spy or things like that but if you are playing zone, in their respective zones, no matter what the routes are, it is easier to defend if a quarterback breaks contain to scramble." 

Quarterback mobility has become part of the foundational base in offensive systems, which has led to RPOs, play-action concepts and bootleg designs. When quarterbacks have the ability to evade pressure, extend, work the edge and possess the vision to create outside of structure as a runner, it elevates the offense. 

Early in the 2023 slate, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face two of the NFL's most lethal on the ground in Justin Fields (Week 2) and Jalen Hurts (Week 3). Hurts led all quarterbacks last season with 99 designed rushes. Justin Fields clocked in with 77 designed rushes, followed by Lamar Jackson (73), Josh Allen (54) and Daniel Jones (51). In addition, Fields led the league in scramble yards (640) in 2022, with Allen, Jones, Hurts, Patrick Mahomes, Trevor Lawrence and Joe Burrow all finishing in the top 10.

The Bucs were able to put the clamps on Fields in Week Two, holding him to just four carries for three yards. Todd Bowles' unit was relentless in pursuit, collapsing the pocket to the tune of six sacks. Fields faced constant pressure from every angle and the Buccaneers effectively set the edge to not allow a free lane for the opposing signal-caller. Speedy practice squad receiver Cephus Johnson II served as the scout team version of Fields during practice last week, providing simulated looks to cultivate growth within Tampa Bay's defense. 

"He's played quarterback, so it really helped us," noted Head Coach Todd Bowles. "He got us in a lot of situations and got us ready and got a realistic look at it. Obviously, he can't be Justin, but he was close to it. He got everybody on alert as far as taking the ball and running and scrambling with it and making sure our rush lanes were fine."

On Monday night in prime-time, the Bucs face the defending NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles with Hurts at the helm. Offensively, Philadelphia built a spread-option-based scheme around star quarterback Jalen Hurts, with Air Raid principles added into the mix. Philly's offensive line, like their defensive front, is one of the best in football, setting the tone up front with Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce. Last season, Hurts led the league by a wide margin with 148 run-pass option plays, gaining 7.8 yards per play on RPO concepts in 2022. The key for the Bucs' defense will be to disrupt the Eagles' early-down option package to force Philadelphia into a dropback-passing mode and third-and-long situations. The Bucs' defense put up an impressive performance last week and they need another against Hurts. 

The former Oklahoma product is a dynamic threat who is able to drive the ball down the field with velocity and can elude pressure by breaking contain, utilizing his legs on the move. For Tampa Bay, staying disciplined in run fits will be pivotal, once again. Decision-making and accuracy continues to be a developmental threshold for Hurts and as he grows as a passer, his stock has risen. Hurts jumped from a 52.0 completion percentage as a rookie passer to 61.3 in Year Two and he will be a primary focus for Tampa Bay come Monday night.

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