Schofield: Philip Rivers’ play-action precision, calm under pressure key factors in one of his best seasons
While the future of the quarterback position in the National Football League seems bright, with young passers such as Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz and Mitchell Trubisky finding success early in their careers, along with a talented class of rookies from the 2018 draft, one should not sleep on some of the wily veterans still playing the position. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots look poised to make another deep playoff run, and Drew Brees is playing at an MVP level.
Then there’s Philip Rivers, who might be playing his best football as well, on the cusp of his 37th birthday.
Entering Week 13, Rivers has completed 69.5% percent of his passes for 3,119 yards and 26 touchdowns, against just six interceptions. His Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt of 8.96 is fourth-best in the league, behind the aforementioned Brees, Mahomes and Goff. Perhaps best of all, the Chargers are firmly in the playoff mix sitting at 8-3, just one game behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West.
They say that numbers never lie, and perhaps two numbers that tell the story of Rivers’ success this season come to us from the great NFL Matchup on ESPN, likely the best show on television that you are not watching. Those numbers? 133.4 and 93.8. Those are Rivers’ quarterback ratings this season on play-action (which is third-best behind Russell Wilson and Brees) and when pressured (tops in the league), respectively. Rivers’ ability to execute on play-action designs, as well as in the face of the blitz, are huge reasons why he is playing at such a high level.
Working Off Play-Action
We can start with some of the Chargers’ play-action success in 2018. A stout rushing attack is not a prerequisite for a successful play-action passing attack, but it certainly does not hurt. The Chargers are one of the better running teams in the NFL this season, averaging 5.0 yards per rushing attempt, third in the league. While yards per game is not the best indicator of the strength of a rushing attack, given how it can be influenced by success or failure, the Chargers are averaging 128.8 yards per game on the ground, 8th best in the NFL. Pairing these numbers with the presence of Melvin Gordon in the backfield makes some defenders more likely to cheat down a few steps against run looks, which might be all the offense and Rivers need for a big play downfield.
Back in Week 10 against the Oakland Raiders, the Chargers face a second-and-5 on their own 14-yard line. They break the huddle with “21” offensive personnel and line up with Rivers (#17) under center, Gordon (#28) the deep back and FB Derek Watt (#34) in an offset I-formation, shaded to the right. The Raiders, expecting a running play, put seven defenders in the box:
However, Rivers is going to throw, and the Chargers run a three-receiver flood concept to the right:
Rivers has three receivers to choose from: Watt in the flat, TE Virgil Green (#88) on an out pattern, and WR Tyrell Williams (#16) on the deep corner route. All three receivers are open (Green because his defender falls down) but Rivers takes a deep shot here:
Williams hauls in this perfect throw along the boundary, giving the Chargers a 31-yard gain. They would go on to score a touchdown on the possession.
Here is another example of the Chargers’ prowess on play-action designs this season. Last week, Los Angeles squared off with the Arizona Cardinals, a struggling team with a fairly decent pass defense. Late in the first quarter, the Chargers begin a possession with good field position, on their own 42-yard line thanks to a good return from Desmond King on the kickoff. They line up using “21” personnel yet again, with Rivers under center, the backs in an I-formation, and a slot alignment to the right side of the field. Arizona puts seven defenders in the box and shows a single-high coverage in the secondary:
However, the Chargers again are using play-action, with a slant/wheel combination from the slot receivers:
Keenan Allen (#13) is the outside receiver, and he runs the slant route. From the slot, Travis Benjamin (#12) runs the wheel route, and watch how he sets this route up, using some hesitation before breaking vertically to help sell the play-action and give him a chance to get separation down the field:
Benjamin sells this route perfectly, and gets free down the sideline. Rivers drops in another perfect throw, and the Chargers are already in Cardinals’ territory.
As these two plays show, Rivers and the Los Angeles offense are using play-action to scheme some vertical shots down the field in the passing game. Plays like this are a huge reason why Rivers’ numbers on play-action plays are so gaudy and play a big role in the Chargers’ offensive success.
Now we can look at Rivers making plays out of some very crowded pockets. As the numbers indicate, the veteran QB has been very good against pressure and the blitz this season, and his willingness to hang in the pocket in the face of rushers is a big part of the equation. For example, although the Chargers lost their Week 11 meeting against the Denver Broncos, that game is a very good place to start this line of analysis. Facing Von Miller and a defense that was willing to bring the heat, Rivers showed the ability to stand in the pocket and make plays in the face of that storm.
Early in that contest, the Chargers face a third-and-6 in their own territory, and the Broncos show pressure:
Denver sends five after Rivers, dropping into a Cover 2 Man Underneath coverage in the secondary. A rusher comes free after the QB, but Rivers stands in the pocket and delivers on this crosser to Allen to beat the pressure and move the chains:
Watching this play from the end zone camera, you can see Bradley Chubb (#55) work free late in the play and have a straight shot at the QB, but Rivers absorbs the blow and drills in a strike to Allen for the first down:
Later in the game, the Chargers would face another third down, this time a third-and-8 in their own territory. They line up with Rivers in the shotgun and another wily veteran, Antonio Gates (#85), alone on the left, in a Y-Iso formation:
The Broncos are showing pressure, and here is the blitz package they use on this play:
Denver crosses both linebackers inside, bringing S Justin Simmons (#31) on a late blitz as well. Yet again, Rivers hangs in the pocket and throws a backside in-breaking curl route to Gates with good anticipation, allowing his receiver to rumble downfield with additional yardage after the reception:
Rivers’ ability to hang in the pocket and let this play develop is critical to its success. Once more, as we saw on the previous example, the end zone camera angle shows how the QB hangs tough in the pocket as the cauldron begins to boil around him, and delivers on the throw:
Sometimes a QB needs to stay in the pocket in the face of overwhelming pressure, to give the play a chance to succeed. As Rivers has demonstrated this season, and throughout his career, his willingness to make those types of plays puts his offense in a good position to succeed against blitzes.
Last week against the Cardinals, Arizona tried to bring some pressure on a third down in the second half. Here, Rivers shows the ability to slide in the pocket in the face of a blitz, and he delivers on a dig route to Allen to pick up another first down:
On this play, the Chargers pair some jet motion with a Mills concept, using a post route from the tight end and a dig route from Allen. The Cardinals show blitz and do indeed come, bringing an extra pass rusher off the right edge. The pocket, however, starts to break on the left side of the offense, and Rivers is forced to slide forward a bit to create just enough space to get off this throw:
Finally, like any other crafty veteran, Rivers also has a few tricks up his sleeve. In their Week 10 game against the Raiders, the Chargers faced a first-and-10 in the second quarter, just before the two-minute warning. This is the very next play after the play-action throw to Williams that we broke down to begin this article. Rivers aligns under center and the Chargers have “12” offensive personnel on the field. They are going to run a variation of the Yankee Concept, incorporating jet motion into the mix:
However, the Raiders are going to bring pressure off the left side of the offense here, sending a linebacker on a looping blitz:
Rivers comes out of the play-action fake to Gordon and instantly sees the blitz to his left. The veteran QB then bails the pocket a bit, sliding to his left, before finding Gates on the deep crosser:
Now it’s time for a third number: 104.5. That is Rivers’ quarterback rating on throws from outside the pocket this season, fourth-best in the league.
This play brings it all full circle. A play-action passing design, pressure from the defense, a quarterback in Rivers beating the blitz and the offense racking up another big gain. Those have been some of the ingredients to Los Angeles’ offensive success this season, and they are elements to how Rivers is putting together one of the best seasons of his career.