Feeling pretty good about Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker’s development? You should. Among the quarterbacks drafted to pilot franchises in the last three years, Locker and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill—drafted eighth in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, respectively—have been the most improved in the first month of the season.
But, and there’s a big “but,’’ it’s the next month that will tell us everything about where Locker stands as a quarterback. Check out the tests Locker and the Titans face over the next four Sundays, beginning in Nashville against the Jets:
“Every good defense we can play early in the season we’re playing,’’ offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said after practice Thursday. Add the teams they’ve played so far, Houston (second overall) and Pittsburgh (fifth) to that list, but not last week’s opponent, San Diego (31st). “And this week is the best one we’ve seen so far. The Jets are really doing a great job of rotating a lot of good players and they’re all making plays.”
It’s been a struggle every week so far for the 2-1 Titans, but as Loggains said, “We could be 3-0. We could be 0-3.” In Week 1, they ran the ball 67 percent of the snaps to beat Pittsburgh. In Week 3, that number was down to 42 percent because San Diego stacked the front with so many varying run packages. So Loggains gave the ball to Locker. He’s glad he did.
I watched the gametape this week. I don’t want to be too quick to say Locker’s accuracy issues are done—he completed 53.9 percent in four years at Washington, and he’s only up to 56.1 for his career in the NFL. He also airmailed a key throw or two against San Diego, particularly one to an open Damian Williams in the end zone on the game-winning drive. But Locker is maturing. You can see his confidence in the pocket. He’s a better decision-maker. He scans the field when he has to. His footwork looks professional, and though his speed is a tremendous weapon outside the pocket, he’s looking to throw first, not escape.
Down 17-13 Sunday against the Chargers, Locker got the ball back with no timeouts at the Tennessee 6-yard line with 2:05 left in the fourth quarter. He went 7 of 10 on the drive; one of the incompletions was a spike, another a perfectly thrown ball that was dropped by Delanie Walker, the third the overthrow to Williams. Six of the seven throws were right on the money, in position for the receiver to catch in stride. That’s the kind of quarterback you win with.
The touchdown pass, a 34-yarder to second-round rookie wideout Justin Hunter, was a good example of a growing player. Tennessee lined up two wideouts, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright, to the left, with tight end Walker in the left slot. Hunter was the only receiver to the right. The three-by-one formation made the single high safety, undrafted rookie Jahleel Addae from Central Michigan, creep to his right, thinking—obviously—that Locker would try to find a hole for one of the three receivers on the left side.
“San Diego was playing a little soft,’’ said Locker, “and I saw the single-high safety. I just figured it was a great chance to throw it up to a guy with great hands, with a great catching radius.’’
Here’s the point you noticed watching the tape. Locker kept his gaze to the left for the first second or second-and-a-half after the snap. That meant the safety, Addae, had to think Locker would throw to the strong side, the three-receiver side. “His eye placement on that play was just right,’’ said Loggains. By the time he let loose for Hunter, Addae tried to sprint over in time—but he was too late. Hunter, with a 4.5-inch height edge over cornerback Crezdon Butler, won the one-on-one battle.
That’s the kind of play good quarterbacks make, from using the eyes to understanding the matchup to making the throw on target.
“With Jake,’’ said Loggains, “the process is still ongoing. But he’s trending in the right directions.’’
About Last Night …
The Rams offense is in big trouble. Robert Klemko detailed what ails the St. Louis D after last night’s 35-11 debacle of a home loss to San Francisco (what, was 2012 a mirage for the Rams?). But Sam Bradford deserves more than his share of the blame. And offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The Rams’ two big additions to the passing game in the offseason—speedy wideout Tavon Austin and athletic tight end Jared Cook—were targeted 17 times Thursday night, with zero impact. Their six combined catches produced 51 yards, and they never sniffed the end zone. “Tomorrow’s going to be a pretty tough day in the film room,’’ Bradford said post-game, and it should be. I realize the pressure Bradford was under; the Rams may have to max-protect more while they get their offensive line blocking better. And the running game is so ineffective—it’s tough to ask the quarterback to play winning football against a pressure defense when it’s always 2nd-and-11. But they have to find a way to get the ball to Austin in space. Period. That’s why they moved up to pick him in the first round of last April’s draft.
(On Page 2: The player you need to know this weekend, and 10 things I’ll be watching for).