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The Big Board: Enjoying the rush

9/20/2012
Clemson QB Tajh Boyd would be better off in the pocket, but FSU will try to make him uncomfortable. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Bjoern Werner won't admit that his first three games of the year have been easy. Sure, he's racked up 6.5 sacks already, the best tally in the nation. And sure, his defense has dominated, with the pass rushers leading the way. But every game is tough, Werner insists.

Whether it's lip service or an honest assessment, one thing is certain: This week's opponent will be a legitimate challenge, and Werner knows Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd won't be quite as easy to bring down in the backfield as the three passers he has tormented to open the season.

For one, Boyd has two big-play wide receivers who will be inviting targets. Secondly, there's the running game, led by Andre Ellington, who racked up 228 yards in the opener against Auburn.

But perhaps most importantly, there's Boyd's legs -- and the big plays he's capable of making once he's flushed out of the pocket.

"He has two weapons -- his arm and his legs -- and that makes him more dangerous," Werner said. "When you have an aggressive defensive line, you have to be smarter."

This is something of a unique challenge of late for the Florida State defense.

Since the start of the 2011 season, Boyd is the only quarterback with double-digit rushing attempts against the Seminoles. Louisiana-Monroe's Kolton Browning is the only other QB with more than five.

Mobile quarterbacks simply haven't been a large part of the FSU lexicon, which means there needs to be a slightly adjusted mind-set amongst the defensive linemen.

"Everybody on the D-line has to play smart," Werner said. "We have to hunt together."

But here's the question: Is keeping the QB in the pocket a strength for Florida State, or is the Seminoles defense so good against QBs once they're out of the pocket that there's little reason for them to run?

Since the start of the 2011 season, just four quarterbacks have tallied better than 25 yards rushing against FSU. In those games, Florida State is 4-0, allowing an average of 10 points per game and 2.86 yards per rush. In other words, those runs were likely an option of last resort.

Boyd, on the other hand, was a bit more open-minded when it came to leaving the pocket, but the results weren't overly encouraging. He was credited with 16 rushes against FSU last year, but two were sacks. He gained 46 yards in the game, but he also lost another 27 yards -- netting just 19. Meanwhile, when Boyd was forced to throw on the run, he was just 1-of-4 for 12 yards.

Simply put, there was little net benefit for Boyd when he ran. He beat FSU with his arm, and he did that by having effective protection for much of the game.

That's not unique.

ESPN Stats and Info only tracks defensive splits for a handful of teams -- generally the top 25 -- but the numbers suggest the Seminoles benefit greatly as soon as a quarterback moves outside the pocket.

There were five FSU games tracked by ESPN from last season (Oklahoma, Clemson, Miami, Florida and Notre Dame) and the numbers suggest the Seminoles defense fared much better when a QB was on the run. In those five games, passers were 9-of-26 (34.6%) for 77 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions when outside the pocket. They averaged just three yards per attempt.

Compare that to the rest of the ACC in similar games, and there's a clear advantage for the Seminoles.

Again, these stats don't include every opponent, but they do include each team's top opponents and generally are comparing like opponents between teams.

By these numbers, Florida State isn't just effective once a QB leaves the pocket -- the Seminoles are roughly twice as good as the next-best ACC team.

And considering EJ Manuel is one of the most efficient passers in the country when on the run, combined with Clemson's woeful performance against scrambling QBs, the bigger concern should probably lie with the Tigers' pass rush.

Of course, there's also that one touchdown FSU allowed to a QB on the move. That one belonged to Boyd, a 12-yard toss that put Clemson up 21-10.

"It's not always that they run it a lot but they make those key scrambles or buy time," Fisher said. "It's when they run."

Which is to say, there's little margin for error against a great quarterback -- whether he's in the pocket or on the run.

"This is a big challenge because we didn't have that so far," Werner said. "We just have to play together as a D-line."