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Thursday, September 5, 2013
The Big Board: Winston vs. the blitz

By David M. Hale

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The conventional wisdom before Jameis Winston took the field Monday was both simple and self-evident.

This was a redshirt freshman, taking the field for the first time in his college career. Those first snaps would come in an NFL stadium, jam-packed with hostile fans and on national television as the lone game on a Monday night. The conventional wisdom said Winston should be rattled, and the smart play for Pittsburgh would be to rattle him a little more.

The conventional wisdom after Monday's game looks much different. Yes, it's just one game, but it certainly appears that Florida State's freshman quarterback doesn't get rattled easily.

For the game Winston was an astounding 25-of-27 passing for 356 yards and four TDs (adding a fifth on the ground), but what's really astounding is the more pressure Winston faced in the game, the better he was.

Pitt brought an extra pass rusher on seven of Winston's 29 pass plays Monday, according to ESPN Stats & Information. And Winston thrived.




There are plenty of other numbers to underscore Winston's impressive performance. He was 6-of-7 with a touchdown on third-down passes, converting five of those plays for first downs. He was an impressive 16-of-17 for 307 yards and three touchdowns on passes of six yards or farther. His Total QBR was markedly better than any other freshman vs. a BCS-automatic qualifier team in the past decade.

But why compare a performance like that to other freshmen? What's perhaps most interesting about how Winston handled the pressure is to compare his game to his predecessor, EJ Manuel -- a fifth-year senior who went on to become the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft -- managed to do against the blitz.





(*Note: Against four pass-rushers, Manuel completed 71 percent of his throws and had a 14-to-6 TD:INT ratio, averaging 9.2 YPA.)

Yes, it's one game. But in that one game, Winston has already thrown one-third of the total touchdowns Manuel threw against the blitz in all of 2012.

After Monday's game, Winston was pushed to find flaws in his performance. There weren't many, but he noted that he was sacked twice. He doesn't like to be sacked, he said.

But both of those sacks came when Pitt rushed just four defenders, and neither were instances in which Winston obviously missed a chance to turn nothing into something. Instead, there was one play after another in which a Winston's pocket presence proved to be the difference in keeping a play alive and turning it into yards downfield.

When Winston was being recruited, numerous coaches and scouts wanted to peg him as an "athletic quarterback" -- insofar as he had the ability to run so they assumed he'd rely heavily on that option. Winston bristled at the notion. He was just a quarterback, as good a pocket passer as anyone else, in spite of his ability to pull the ball down and run.

So he worked on his pocket presence, again and again, refusing to run until he absolutely had to.

"He really wanted to be known as a pocket passer," said Mark Stephens, the defensive coordinator at Hueytown High during Winston's tenure. "A lot of kids that have that ability to run, that's first instinct is to take off and go, but Jameis made you play defense, and he's not a quarterback you can just pin your ears back and go at. He knew where his hots were. He knew where the secondary was positioned. If you're rolling your secondary, he could see that stuff. He kept you really honest. He's not a guy you can go out and go after down in and down out. He's going to burn you. He knew enough football ... he knew where people were going to be once the ball was snapped. That was the thing about defending him. He really made you play honest on defense and made you defend all 11 players, defend the entire field."

It's a lesson Pittsburgh learned on Monday, and it's likely a lesson that will be noticed by every defense that Florida State sees going forward.