Kirk Cousins had just planted his right foot at the top of his 5-step drop when he felt a thump against his helmet Saturday night.
“Oh boy,” Cousins recalled thinking at that moment. “He was closer than I thought he was.”
Cousins was unfazed, though, his composure belying his inexperience as a fourth-round rookie quarterback in only his second preseason game. He stepped forward in the pocket and zipped a short throw to his outlet, tight end Logan Paulsen, crossing the middle.
A play that could have ended in panic and disarray resulted in a 7-yard gain because of Cousins‘ poise.
It was an encouraging sign because as the Redskins continue to develop Cousins and first-round rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III this season and beyond, their pocket presence will be a determining factor in their of success.
“The challenge of playing quarterback in NFL is keeping your eyes downfield,” Cousins said. “Feeling the rush but not seeing the rush. And I think the great ones are the ones who can do that at a very high level.”
One of coach Mike Shanahan’s top requirements for a quarterback is an ability to keep scanning the field for open receivers inside the chaos of an NFL backfield.
If a quarterback looks at pass rushers when the pocket breaks down, he won’t be able to locate a receiver. The play would be doomed.
The talent is not easily taught, so it’s at a premium during the quarterback selection process.
“For most people, it’s pretty instinctive,” Shanahan said. “You can’t look at the rush. You feel the rush. The guys that usually look at the rush have a hard time reading coverages.”
Cousins was virtually unflappable in that regard against Chicago on Saturday night. It was a major reason why he was 18 of 23 for 264 yards and three touchdowns, all in the second half.
“Both of them are natural, coming out of college and not looking at the rush and looking downfield,” Shanahan said.
Griffin stood tall against pressure on a third-down pass in the first quarter and completed a 16-yard pass to receiver Santana Moss down the middle. As defensive end Israel Idonije surged through rookie right guard Adam Gettis’ block, Griffin didn’t flinch and stepped into his throw.
“It’s a tough thing to explain,” Griffin said. “You’re never totally watching the rush. You’re always keeping your eyes downfield, but you do have to feel things in the pocket.”
An explanation of how a quarterback feels the rush without seeing it is just as elusive as Griffin was at Baylor.
“I wish I knew a formula that enabled you to stand in there,” Cousins said. “I think as a quarterback that’s your job, and that’s what you have to do.”
Part of it involves a quarterback trusting his offensive linemen to protect him. The protection doesn’t always hold up, though, so a quarterback also has to be willing to sacrifice his body for a completion.
Griffin’s running ability adds another element to his decision-making. When the pocket breaks down and he feels pressured, he can be an effective runner.
He ran 14 yards for a first down in the second quarter after he exhausted his reads and saw an opening around the right side. But he also took two sacks on busted screen plays instead of throwing the ball away.
Griffin considered it invaluable experience.
“You can scare coaches a couple times whenever you do take a hit that you shouldn’t necessarily take because you’re trying to make a play,” Griffin said. “But for the most part, you just got to make sure you weigh the pros and the cons, and in the heat of battle you’ll figure it out as you go along.”
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