1. Protecting himself
From my chair, Falk took way too many hits the past two seasons. Specifically, he took too many shots to the helmet (although it should be noted the doom and gloom 2016 concussion scenarios never materialized after the 2015 campaign saw Falk miss time).
Now, you can point to missed blocks and some breakdowns in protection, there's no doubt about it and o-line coach Clay McGuire pointed to the o-line giving up too much push late last season. But with the amount of hits that Coug fans watched Falk endure, there were other times it could have been avoided and by Falk himself. From my view, some key points need to be addressed this spring if Falk wants to lessen the contact.
First, Falk has to learn how to better take a sack, or take any sort of hit for that matter. As much as fans love to see Falk hang in there and complete a throw as he’s going down, it really doesn’t happen that often and the reward is not worth the risk. Indeed, that approach is never a winning formula in terms of longevity and overall health game-to-game. Standing in the pocket until the very last second before being slammed to the ground is ultimately a sure-fire way to get the No. 2 guy game reps.
Here's a good example of where Falk refused to go to the ground. He tried to stay on his feet through the initial sack and in doing so, gave a second defender a clean shot straight to the head.
When Falk feels pressure like this and doesn’t have an open target, he simply has to tuck the ball and buckle at the knees. You never want your quarterback to take easy sacks, but by standing straight up and fighting it as he so often does, he puts himself at extreme risk of taking big hits and potentially having his helmet slammed into the turf.
Second, Falk’s slide has to improve. Two seasons ago against UCLA and last season against Stanford were clear indicators that Falk needs to gauge the distance between himself and defenders with more caution. It’s not often that Falk gets outside the pocket, but when he does he must understand that the guys coming at him are trying to hit him as hard as they can.
I respect Falk's courageousness and effort to fight for the extra yardage. But it can’t come at the cost of coming out of the game. Falk’s continued good health is far more important than a first down. Falk's inspiration is Tom Brady and Falk needs to do what Brady does - slide early, take the sack and live to fight another day.
One problem with changing these two habits this spring: Falk is not allowed to be touched at practice -- ever, a pretty standard football procedure for a QB. So how do you practice “taking sacks” or sliding before getting blasted when the hit will never come?
The immediate answer to me on the sacks would be for Falk and Mike Leach to formally address the issue this spring, whether new drills get introduced or whether it is handled through a heightened sense of awareness. When it comes to sliding, I think a simple rule implementation at practice could fix it up in no time.
From my personal experience of watching and playing against Falk, there is a level of comfort that he carries at practice because he can’t be touched, it's simply human nature for any QB to feel that way. Anytime Falk takes off and runs during a team period in practice, he runs all the way for the end zone with defenders easing up and slowing down as they approach him. End that. Indeed, a simple fix to me would be to force Falk to slide every single time he tucks and runs and is approached by a defender.
2. Finding pre-snap mismatches
When Falk drops back to go through his reads, he knows exactly where to look and where his receivers are going to end up. But one thing that I think Falk can improve on this spring is better using pre-snap reads to find mismatches before the play starts.
Finding mismatches are not only about studying the opponent and each player’s tendencies, but also from picking up on basic clues given by a defender (or two) before the snap. A slight lean from a safety, corner, nickel or linebacker can be an instant giveaway to what coverage the defense is playing. That’s why almost every team uses disguises, but it only takes one or two defenders to give their assignment away before a quarterback knows exactly where to go with the football.
Film study can always help in identifying tendencies, but awareness and repetition in looking for the pre-snap clues throughout the spring can easily help Falk improve his game for next year and beyond.
An example of where Falk could have found a pre-snap mismatch was on the Cougs' first touchdown of the 2016 season. It was a 52-yard pass on a slant route to Marks in the home opener against Eastern Washington. Yes, the play was successful and it went for a score, but to prove my point I will explain where Falk could have made his life a bit easier.
You can’t see every defender from this angle but I’ll explain what’s happening. If you watch closely, the weak side linebacker starts to lean forward, tipping off is blitz just before the snap. At the same time, the free safety at the top of the screen starts to lean towards the middle of the field while the strong safety is rolled down in the slot against Robert Lewis. Meanwhile, the boundary corner to Falk’s right side is pressed against Marks with no help inside or over the top. Thus, the mismatch.
All of these pre-snap reads point to cover one, which means that they are playing man-to-man coverage with one safety high in the middle of the field. And even though Falk eventually finds Marks open on the play, it’s not until after the blitz is picked up by Jamal Morrow, and after Falk goes through his reads, looking left to right.
Don’t get me wrong, this was an outstanding play by both Falk and Marks, but picking up on small pre-snap reads like this can give Falk a huge advantage moving forward and help elevate his game throughout this offseason.
3. Taking deep shots at defenders in single coverage.
Leach’s Air Raid offense is famously known for running "6" -- a very simple play where each receiver runs vertically down the field to find a hole deep in the defense, with one potential receiver being “tagged” to a short route. With this play, it doesn’t matter what the defensive coverage is, someone is either going to be wide open or in a one-on-one situation – it’s just a matter of finding who that someone is and taking a shot.
It’s a play that Falk and the Cougars run quite a bit, but what you don’t see much of is Falk attempting to throw at receivers in those one-on-one situations running 40-50 yards downfield. This is another area where I think Falk can really improve this spring.
Falk's comfort level and understanding of Leach's offense is at an all-time high, and he has the experience to expand his throwing capacity. But if he can work on finding those one-on-one matchups, and trust that he can complete the throw, I think he will start to take more and more calculated risks that payoff in big yardage.
If Falk, by constantly challenging them deep, can build a strong chemistry with 2-3 receivers this spring, I have no doubt that WSU’s offense can open up opposing defenses with multiple vertical threats. At the same time, more connections on deep throws can potentially make the difference in a ball game.
Remember those deep shots Jared Goff, Sean Mannion and Cody Kessler used to take at WSU’s defense? Maybe it’s about time Falk returned the favor.
3 things Luke Falk can improve this spring
1. Protecting himself