Yesterday we examined Xavier Lee's potential impact on the FSU running game, concluding that his mobility will itself positively affect even our conventional running game. Today, we'll look at what changes we can expect from our passing game with Lee at the controls.
The first and most obvious observation will be that we will likely throw downfield a bit more. Lee's arm strength has had legendary status on FSU message boards (complete with Chuck Norris-esque stories of his throwing oranges to Jupiter) for several years now, an attribute that he has flashed several times in his game action to this point. (I should add before we continue that I think Drew Weatherford's arm strength has been unfairly criticized. Drew's arm is plenty strong enough; it doesn't have the pop that Lee's displays, but neither does Drew Brees' arm.) The stats from the last two years bear this out, with Xavier averaging around a yard more per attempt last year than Weatherford despite having a 5% lower completion percentage. Against Alabama, Lee averaged an eye-popping eleven yards-per-attempt. It would be unreasonable to expect that kind of production every game, but defenses will most certainly have to respect Lee's ability to throw downfield and to the sidelines, effectively stretching the field.
Lee's impact will be bigger in other areas, however. In yesterday's article, we discussed how Xavier's presence will make teams much less likely to run blitz on first and second down due to the possibility of getting burned by a quarterback run. His mobility will have a similar effect on the passing game. Not only will we expect fewer blitzes, but the variety and complexity of blitzes will be substantially reduced as a direct result of Lee's running ability.
Zone-blitzes and blitzes from multiple angles have been en vogue over the last decade or so as a way to pressure and confuse quarterbacks. (For those who are unaware, a zone blitz involves bringing pressure from a linebacker or defensive back while playing zone coverage behind it, generally dropping a defensive lineman into a short coverage zone typically covered by one of the blitzers.) The idea is to create pressure from multiple angles out of several different fronts and with a variety of coverage options. This makes the decision making much more complicated for the quarterback, since he simply cannot assume that if this player is blitzing it is a certain coverage with a particular player or zone open.
This approach works particularly well if the defensive coordinator always knows where the quarterback will be—that is, if the QB has little mobility and is always throwing from the pocket. Any number of combo blitzes and angles can be taken to that one spot. However, a mobile quarterback presents problems for this sort of approach simply because the angles could be completely wrong at any given point (due to a moving pocket, a scramble, etc.), causing big plays as a result of fewer players in coverage (because of the blitz) with no corresponding pressure.
Consequently, the blitz packages defensive coordinators are generally willing to throw at mobile quarterbacks are substantially reduced. This not only makes it easier for the OL to pass block, but it also simplifies the quarterback's decision making process as a result of more predictable coverages. The exception to this is when the defense does not respect the quarterback's arm, in which case they will doubly stack the box in the attempt to force the ball out of his hands quickly. This, however, has the effect of producing predictable single coverage on the outside, something that I'm sure FSU would welcome given that Lee is really a passer first and a runner second. (This, by the way, is what happened against Alabama—they ultimately committed to bringing pressure and taking away Xavier's legs while leaving the WR's on an island. De'Cody's long TD was the direct result of that kind of simplified coverage and Xavier's ability to get the ball out quickly enough to allow Fagg the ability to make a play one-on-one.) The other alternative that teams facing a mobile quarterback often choose is to designate a player (usually a linebacker) a "spy," with the responsibility of shadowing the quarterback on every play. Again, FSU would welcome just such a change as it effectively eliminates a coverage player or pass rusher and creates one-on-one matchups in the passing game.
Essentially, having a passing quarterback with solid running skills allows the offense to dictate to the defense rather than responding to defensive pressure. Obviously, that fact is the reason so many teams are looking for dual-threat quarterbacks—their presence simplifies what defenses are able to throw at offenses. Simply because of Lee's mobility, FSU should see fewer zone blitzes, a smaller variety of blitzes in general, simplified coverage schemes, and more one-on-one coverage. This will have a major impact on the passing game even without regard for Lee's ability to throw downfield.
At this point, I'm sure a number of readers are asking the question of why, if Lee's mobility and ability to throw downfield will make such a difference, he has not been the starter all along. While this is a valid question, I completely agree with the decision to sit Lee to this point in the season. In watching spring practice and hearing reports from the early fall practices, Lee was simply not consistent enough in his short-to-intermediate throws, something absolutely essential if these advantages are to be seen. If he is not able to hit those throws consistently (and make the proper decisions to go with them), defenses will be able to load the box to stop his running without concern for his burning them by getting rid of the ball quickly. Because of his recent improvement in this department, as well as his finally completely committing to Jimbo Fisher's system and demonstrating a full grasp of what FSU is trying to do on offense, Xavier's impact on our passing game should be substantial. Had he played before this improvement, however, I'm afraid these differences would have been non-existent as teams would have continued to load up against the run without concern for getting burned by quick throws against single-coverage. It is precisely this balance that I think makes FSU a scary team to play against in the second half of the season.