Winning the Film Room: An In-Depth Guide to Quarterback Film Study

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By Landry Klann, QB Country Dallas

We recently received a question from one of our quarterbacks on how to become better at watching personal film and film of top QBs – and using it to improve on the field. I think it’s an interesting topic and one that can help separate you as a quarterback if you know how to do it well.

Whether you’re reviewing film of yourself or watching a QB that you admire and want to learn from, I think it’s important to first identify what specific qualities you’re trying to study. There are many different skills that make up playing quarterback, some of which cannot be captured or studied on film, but for the ones that can, they generally fall within two categories:

  1. Processing Skills
  2. Physical Skills

The Processing Skills reflect a quarterback’s ability to take in information, filter that information, and decide what to do with the ball before the pass rush gets to him.

The Physical Skills determine a QB’s ability to consistently execute on the decisions that he’s made during the play.

We’ll look at some of the more important skills within these two categories, as these are what I believe QBs should prioritize studying in order to develop as players. We’ll start with the Processing Skills.

Processing Skills

1. Playing on Time

Having a deep understanding and keen awareness of the “time limits” that exist within a play are critical to playing QB at a high level. The main time limits that a QB needs to know are:

  • How much time he can expect to have overall before the protection breaks down
  • Within that overarching time limit of protection, at what times do the different routes on the play develop 

Knowing when and where routes break open allows the QB to build a “progression.” A quarterback’s progression is what guides him on where his eyes should be, and when he should be deciding to throw each route within that progression. Knowing how long he can expect to be protected, allows the QB to have an idea of how many routes he should be able to look at. The goal of his progression is to work through those routes in the most efficient way possible before his protection is compromised.

Some general guidelines to look for when studying this:

First, you must identify whether the “Pass Concept” being run is Quick, Intermediate, or Deep. This will give you an idea of the total amount of time the protection is designed to provide for the routes being run. Use the descriptions below to help you determine which family the concept belongs to.

  • Quick Passing Game Concepts 
    • All routes break under 10 yards
    • The ball is out of the QB’s hands in under 2 seconds (normally around 1.2-1.6 seconds)
    • These are normally thrown on the last step of the Quarterback’s drop
  • Intermediate Passing Game Concepts 
    • Routes that break under 15 yards
    • The ball is out in under 3 seconds (normally 1.8-2.7 seconds), unless the QB has used some variation of pocket movement/escape to extend that time limit
      • QBs should be able to consistently work through three progressions within that time – if they’re not, then they are usually staying locked on a route for too long
  • Deep Passing Game Concepts 
    • Includes routes that break beyond 15 yards
    • Commonly tied to max protection schemes that should allow for a little more time
    • The ball is out of the QB’s hands in under 3.5 seconds (normally 2.2-3.2 seconds)

Once you’ve determined what family the concept belongs to, then look at each individual route, and time when that route gets to the break point. After you’ve timed the routes, think through how you’d want to read that concept based on the order in which the routes will come open. Are there multiple ways you can progress through the routes? If so, in what situations would you use the different progressions? What drop/footwork did the QB use for that specific concept? Did the footwork he used allow him to be on time? Did it cause him to be late? If late, how could the QB clean-up his footwork to better time up with the routes? These are the questions you should be asking yourself when studying how to become better at playing on time.

Pro Tip: Use an actual STOPWATCH when watching film. Using your phone or apple watch is significantly less efficient. Having a button that you can feel while your eyes are on the screen is important for accuracy and acquiring useful data.

2. Situational Awareness

The overall situation of the game, or even a specific scenario of an individual play directly influences the decisions a quarterback makes or should make. The main factors that dictate the situation of the game are:

  • Score
  • Time/Timeouts
  • Field Position
  • Down and Distance

The combinations that are created by these individual factors are what dictate the “Game Situation” and how a QB should go about managing that specific scenario. Sometimes the game situation is so extreme that it can make what would normally be considered a TERRIBLE decision by a quarterback, into a good one, and vice versa. I’ll give you an example…

Most of us would agree that it would be a poor decision by a quarterback to receive the snap, lose ground by running around behind the line of scrimmage, just to finally heave the ball up to a receiver that’s being covered by multiple defenders. In most cases just throwing the ball away or even taking a sack while trying to get back to the line of scrimmage would be a better decision than chucking it up for grabs like that. But what if the situation was as follows…

  • Score: 21-27 (your team is down 6 points)
  • Time/Timeouts: 4th Qtr, 3 seconds left in the game, 0 timeouts remaining
  • Field Position: Ball is on the +48 yard line
  • Down and Distance: 3rd and 2

In this case, your team is down by six points so you need a touchdown in order to tie the game and have a chance to win. There are only three seconds left in the game giving you just enough time to run one final play. The ball is barely past midfield, so it’s going to take some time for your receivers to get in the end zone. It’s 3rd and 2, but that’s irrelevant in this case since there are only three seconds remaining.

In this scenario, it now makes sense for the QB to get the snap and buy time behind the line of scrimmage while his receivers get down the field. Because this is the last play of the game and they have to score, the QB has to give one of his receivers an opportunity to make a play on the ball, even if that means throwing it into coverage. In this situation, throwing an interception on a shot to the end zone is a better decision than throwing it away where you don’t even give your team a chance.

You can study and simulate different game scenarios when you’re watching football on tv or by playing the video game, Madden. Both of these are fun and easy ways to examine game situations and work through what a QB should be thinking in order to handle that situation appropriately. The first time you think about managing common game situations (Red Zone, 3rd Down, 2-minute, End of Half, End of Game, etc.) should not be in the heat of the moment while you’re playing in an actual game. Do the work beforehand to have a plan on what you should be thinking based on these varying circumstances.

3. Anticipating “Open”

We looked at some of the factors of “playing on time” and how that relates to going through progressions. What we didn’t mention yet is what goes into deciding whether a receiver is open or not. To put it as simply as possible, the factors that help a quarterback determine if a receiver is going to break open are Space and Leverage

Space refers to the area of the field that the route is designed to run to. Leverage is referring to the positioning of a defender relative to the receiver, and the space that the route is attacking. Whoever has the best leverage at the break point of the route, is most likely going to get to that space first. Defender positioning relative to the receiver is the first thing to notice when determining leverage, but a defender’s hip angle and where his eyes are at are also critical factors to recognize.

The skill is ANTICIPATING the receiver is about to come open. When you can see it before it happens, you can begin your throwing motion early. This allows the ball to arrive the moment the receiver creates separation out of his break and not after. If you wait until the receiver is in the open space before you begin to throw, you’re too late and the defender will have most likely closed that gap.

Just as important, is the ability to anticipate when a route is NOT going to break open. Recognizing this quickly allows you to move on to the next receiver, getting through the progression in a timely manner.

Watch some of the great passers and study their ability to anticipate a receiver coming open. Then notice when they begin their throwing motion compared to where the receiver is in his route. You will find the best passers are consistently letting go of the ball well before the receiver is out of their break or entering an open window between two defenders.

Physical Skills

1. Stance/Drops/Footwork

While QBs typically don’t have much issue finding a functional stance, it’s worth mentioning what the three variations are. Regardless of whether the QB is right or left handed, they can use a stance with both feet even, or they can use a staggered stance where one foot is forward and the other is back (right forward/left back, or left forward/right back). Your coach may have a preference of what he wants you to use. If so, do that. If not, you can experiment in the off season and decide what stance you like best. The only reason this is important is that it can influence the footwork/drop you choose after you’ve received the snap. Make a note of some of the QBs you like and the stance that they utilize. Then you can begin to notice if there are any recurring patterns that exist relative to those three stance variations.

Once the QB has received the snap, every play (run or pass) requires some variation of footwork or “drop” that puts you where you need to be to best execute your job. We previously discussed the importance of playing on time. Well, the footwork you use is directly related to your ability to do that. Footwork and drops are typically divided into two main categories: “Under Center” and “Shotgun.” You can run the vast majority of plays from either, but the steps you take will be drastically different depending on which one you receive the snap from.

When looking at footwork in regards to the passing game, the drop you choose needs to time up with the type of pass concept being run. Above, we established some general time and route depth parameters for Quick, Intermediate, and Deep Passing concepts. You need to know which drops can be used for each type of concept. Drops are usually defined by the number of steps and depth that make up the drop, i.e. 3-Step, 5-Step, 7-Step, etc. The quicker the route concept develops, the less steps/depth are needed for the drop. The longer the route concept takes to develop, the more steps/depth are required. Generally, the last step of the drop should time up with when you should be throwing the first route in your progression. Study how QBs will adjust and vary the tempo of their drops to make it time up for that particular play.

Another important detail to pay attention to, is how QBs use the last couple of steps in the drop to precisely align their back foot and body to throw the first read. Aligning your back foot at the top of the drop is such a basic fundamental that it often goes overlooked, yet it is directly related to your consistency as a passer. The best quarterbacks have developed this habit to the point that it is almost automatic.

Last detail to note, is that drops can also incorporate “play fakes” that sell the run in an attempt to get defenders to step downhill towards the line of scrimmage. This causes them to be late to their coverage responsibilities, which can help a receiver to get open. These fakes vary from quick and subtle flash fakes that hold a defender in place, to long drawn out fakes that cause a defender to move several steps in the wrong direction. Study how high level QBs execute play action drops and notice their ability to influence defenders. Understand how this can potentially benefit your offense and begin taking pride in how you sell your fakes.

2. Pocket Movement/Escapes

If the quarterback takes his drop and does NOT throw on the last step, he will begin to use different variations of pocket movement based on how his protection is holding up. If the pocket is clean, his movement will be short subtle “resets” or “hitches” that simply adjust his alignment to the next route in the progression. For most Intermediate/Deep concepts, a QB can typically accomplish 2 resets and get the ball out of his hand before the 3 second “time limit”. If after the second reset a QB still hasn’t found someone open, he’s probably going to have to start moving to buy some more time. We can only expect the protection to hold up for so long before the ball either needs to be out of our hand, or we’ll need to leave the pocket entirely.

If the pocket has a minor breakdown within the time limits of your progression, a QB’s pocket movement may consist of a fluid slide or short burst of movement that repositions the blocker back between him and the defender. This is typically the case when a pass rusher has gotten a slight edge to one side of a lineman. A QB with good pocket awareness, is able to effectively use quick movements that allow the blocker to run the defender past him. He does this while continuing to keep his eyes downfield and stay with his initial progression. Some of the best “Pocket Movers” in the history of the game were not necessarily the most athletic QB’s. They just had the ability to keep their composure and feel where they needed to move to buy extra time. Look for examples of this when watching film.

While moving within the pocket should be your initial goal, sometimes leaving the pocket all together becomes necessary. This happens when there is a complete breakdown somewhere in the pocket or if a QB sees a lane and decides to extend the play. If it’s because the pocket has collapsed, then this means at least one of your linemen has gotten beat to the point that a subtle movement will no longer work to buy enough time. If this is the case, you’ll often have to make a defender miss before you can successfully “escape” the pocket.

Be intentional about studying when QB’s decide to bail. Make a note of whether it was the right decision or if they should’ve hung in there and simply moved within the protection. Also look at how QBs exit the pocket based on which blocker gets beat and from where. Study the specific moves you see quarterbacks use to beat free rushers and begin practicing them to make it a part of your game.

3. Throwing Mechanics/Platforms/Ball Placement

A quarterback’s job on a pass play isn’t complete until he delivers an accurate pass. He can take a clean drop, manipulate the pocket with smooth footwork, even make a tremendous play to avoid a sack, but if he ultimately misses the throw, then it was all for nothing. Studying the mechanics of high-level quarterbacks helps you recognize what the main habits are that allow them to be so consistent. It’s not that every great thrower looks identical, but there are certainly some key mechanical principles that they all share. Look for their similarities and differences and use that knowledge as you fine tune your own mechanics.

Another critical area to focus on when you’re studying QB mechanics, is to look at throwing on and off-platform. “On-platform” is when the QB is throwing from a stationary position with both feet in the ground. “Off-platform” is when the QB is throwing while on the move. Generally speaking, QBs initially become less accurate when throwing off-platform. But if studied and developed, it can become a great asset and one of a QB’s best weapons. The game will inevitably force you into awkward throwing positions at times. Your ability to consistently make these plays can be a game changer for yourself and the team.  Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes are two of the best all time when it comes to throwing off-platform. I would start with them when studying the ability to smoothly transition between on and off platform throws.

Finally, the last suggestion I have for you to make an intentional study of, is ball placement. As the level of football gets higher, the need for precise ball placement only becomes more important. As the coverage gets tighter, the price you pay for poor ball placement becomes significantly greater. Misses that may have just ended as an incompletion at one level can become almost guaranteed interceptions at the next. Masters of ball placement not only help eliminate turnovers, they can also protect their receivers from big hits and even throw receivers open when the coverage is especially tight. This could be a body shot to a receiver that helps protect him from an approaching linebacker, or a back shoulder throw on a fade when the corner plays the route well. The ability to protect your receivers and communicate with them where the open space goes a long way when building trust with your receivers. When studying film, look for examples of both poor and precise ball placement and the results of each.

Studying great quarterbacks and using those observations when reviewing your own film, is an easy way to advance your game. Knowing what it looks like at the highest level allows you to recognize areas that you can improve. Whether it’s from learning to process the game more efficiently, or gaining insights on how to become consistently more accurate, hopefully this guide helps you recognize the key habits to look for when you’re watching tape. Remember, your journey as a quarterback is a marathon and not a sprint, so enjoy the process of chipping away at your craft over time. Pick a few of these habits to really focus on, and as you make progress in one area, you can shift your attention to the next. The synergistic effect you’ll experience when you make even small improvements in these different skills, have the potential to truly transform you as a player. Next step is to turn on some tape and begin taking your game to a new level. 

Landry Klann is the head coach of QB Country Dallas and the leading quarterback development coach in the state of Texas. Trainees include Cooper Rush (Dallas Cowboys), Bailey Zappe (New England Patriots), Ben DiNucci (Denver Broncos), Stetson Bennett (LA Rams), Tyler Shough (Texas Tech) and many of the top college and high school quarterbacks in Texas. He is widely-recognized for his success in training quarterback mechanics and football IQ.