Rusty Smith: How to Win with a Rookie Quarterback

NASHVILLE TN - NOVEMBER 21: Quarterback Rusty Smith #11 of the Tennessee Titans drops back to pass against the Washington Redskins at LP Field on November 21 2010 in Nashville Tennessee. The Redskins won 19-16 in overtime. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The past few days have been a low point for Titans fans.  Like it or not, we've still got a game on Sunday, though.  So, for the time being, let's put aside all the hyperbole, vitriol, and mudslinging for a little while, and take a look at the task at hand; winning with a "green" rookie quarterback.  Follow me through the jump as we take a look at what we've got in Rusty Smith, and some simple ideas the Titans should consider implementing.

First with the good news (we need some of that right now, right?).  Rusty played in a similar offensive system in college:

Smith also noted that the offensive system that the Titans run is very similar to the one of the Owls.

"Their system is similar to ours because they run a lot of two tight end sets with a fullback and it feels like a good fit," said Smith.

So, while the playbook is obviously going to be different, Rusty will be more comfortable with the drops, timing, and formations than other rookie quarterbacks getting thrown into his situation.

More good news.  The common cliche is that TE's are a quarterbacks best friend.  Pro Football Reference puts that myth to bed:

So, dubious of such claims about tight end and rookie quarterback glory, I decided to take a look at the data. I pulled every season where a rookie quarterback at age 24 or under threw 300+ passes in a season since the merger, and then looked at the reception distribution on those teams. 26 seasons made the list. I divided the receptions on those teams into WR1, WR2, WR3, RB1, and TE1. Here are the percentage of team receptions that went to each:

WR1: 23.8%
WR2: 16.1%
RB1: 15.4%
TE1: 10.4%
WR3: 8.1%
Others: 26.4%

We saw this last Sunday as Rusty started targeting Randy Moss early and often.  Expect more of the same in Houston on Sunday.

Now on to the bad news.  The big one for me is that Rusty Smith has struggled with accuracy not only in the preseason and against Washington, but throughout his college career.  Apologists will likely attribute that to the inferior talent around him.  Well, that door swings both ways.  The fact that his completion percentage never eclipsed 60% in his entire 4 years college career is a huge red flag for me.  Case in point:


Yikes.  I hope he can get that under control.  The bright side of this play is that it isn't a terrible read.  Nate has one on one coverage on the outside against a very mediocre corner in Philip Buchanon.

The rest of the bad news is the stuff that's obvious to everyone.  He's a rookie, and with that comes growing pains.  That means adjusting to the speed of the game, diagnosing more complex coverages, etc.

On to the meat and potatoes of the post.    Aside from scoring points, I think there need to be two main goals in mind:

1.  Mitigate risk.

2.  Stretch the field enough that we keep that extra guy out of the box.

With that in mind, how do we effectively use Rusty on Sunday?

Attempts need to be limited to 20 or less.

This one's simple and obvious.  The most important thing with a rookie's first start is to limit mistakes.  And, the best way to do that is keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible.  CJ and Ringer should see 30+ total carries this game.

Keep the reads simple

The play here is great, and it's something I expect we'll see a few times on Sunday.  It's just a simple streaks play. 

The receivers on the outside keep the safeties and corners honest, while the receivers in the middle of the formation attack the seams.  If none of the deep receivers are open, CJ can either run a short hitch (like he does here) or a flat route.  It's a good staple for a rookie quarterback because a) the read is simple and b) you can disguise this play with all sorts of different formations and personnel packages.

Other plays and route combinations I expect we'll see:

Simple high-low combinations on the outside, allowing Rusty to make one simple read on the corner.

Playaction rollouts with crossing and flat routes.

Short slant plays on the outside.

Screen passes to CJ, Hall, and Scaife.

Avoid timing routes and short/intermediate throws over the middle

This can often be a killer for rookies, especially QBs who are in their first few starts.  Not only will Rusty not be completely in sync with his own receivers, but he also will be adjusting to the speed and reaction of NFL corners and linebackers.  While he does have an NFL arm, routes like deep outs and digs are more about timing and being on the same page as the receiver than anything else.  The difference between a completion and an interception can often times only be one second or less.

Similarly, it would be wise to avoid passes across the middle of the field.  This is a danger area for young QBs who either miss the linebacker altogether because of disguised covereage or underestimate how quickly they can get into their drops.

This first game is a perfect matchup for a young, rookie quarterback.  Houston has struggled with pass defense all year giving up an average of nearly 300 yards through the air.  In fact, pass defense for the remainder of the schedule looks fairly favorable with only Indy ranking in the top 10 in passing DVOA.

Going on a stretch run to close out the season is possible.  Dinger needs to understand what Rusty is and isn't capable of, though.  For the time being, that means keeping the passing game threatening enough to get guys out of the box for CJ, but avoiding route combinations that create an unnecessary amount of risk.  I think managing interceptions will be more important than anything.  If we can do that effectively, we've got a shot to win some of these upcoming games.

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