Pocket in Football refers to the U-shaped area created by the offensive linemen to allow for the quarterback to find enough time to complete the passing plays. 

The offensive linemen will drop back slightly following the snap to create a protective area in the backfield which is usually U-shaped. This allows for the Quarterback(QB) to find enough time to find an open receiver and pass the ball.

A QB usually has only seconds to pass the ball and if there are no open receivers they can run the ball themselves or throw the ball out of bounds to prevent a sack and/or a turnover. However the pass must have a realistic chance of being completed or an intentional grounding is called.

The Intentional grounding rule states that the Quarterback cannot throw the ball out of bounds in an attempt to avoid a sack or loss of yardage inside the pocket but can do so outside of it.    

It isn't a set space on the field and has a large impact on how the game is played as successful passing plays are the cornerstone of a good scoring strategy.

Offensive linemen are taught how to create a pocket around the QB and for the QB pocket awareness and footwork when in it are some of the most important qualities to have. Tom Brady is one example of a QB with excellent pocket awareness and footwork.

Pocket in Football

Pocket in Football is the protective area formed around the QB by offensive linemen's fallback to allow him to find an open receiver and complete the pass.

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It is not strategically effective to hold the pocket in a straight line so, the offensive linemen will form a U-shape. The offensive linemen will based on their play and style usually fall back about four to seven yards creating the outside of the pocket. The offensive guards will drop back about half the distance of the tackles and are most of the time also responsible for handling any additional rushers that try to force their way through. 

Longer Passing plays often require a deeper pocket and will need the quarterback to drop back further. Pocket is an imaginary area which is not marked down on the field but it has a huge effect on how the game is played and even rules are created around it. One such rule is the intentional grounding rule.

Intentional grounding rule

The intentional grounding rule is called when the QB under pressure from defenders attempts to throw the ball out of bounds from inside the pocket to avoid a sack.

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The official NFL rules define intentional grounding as "It is a foul for intentional grounding if a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. A realistic chance of completion is defined as a pass that is thrown in the direction of and lands in the vicinity of an originally eligible offensive receiver."

The QB even if under defensive pressure is not allowed to throw the ball on the ground after delaying his pass action. Some additional rules related to players in the pocket are:

  • Illegal Contact
  • Illegal Cut Block
  • Blindside Block
  • Roughing the passer
  • Horse-Collar Tackle

Intentional grounding Penalties 

If intentional grounding is called then it will result in the following penalties

  1. the loss of a down and 10 yards from the previous spot; or
  2. the loss of a down at the spot of the pass; or
  3. if the passer is in his end zone when the ball is thrown. 

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There are some exceptions to this rule however which are:

  • Passer is outside the pocket: If the passer is out of the pocket then even if the ball thrown has no realistic chance of being caught by the receiver intentional grounding will not be called. The pass however must land at or beyond the line of scrimmage.
  • Stopping the clock: A player is allowed to stop the clock immediately following the snap if the player throws the ball on the ground in a continuous throwing motion.
  • Physical Contact: Intentional grounding will not be called
    • if the physical contact made by the defensive player causes the pass to land off course from the receiver; or 
    • when the passer is out of the pocket and the passing motion is significantly affected by the physical contact from a defensive player causing the ball to land short of the line of scrimmage  

Pocket related Football terms

Some commonly used Pocket related Football terms are:

  • Pocket Presence : It refers to the situational awareness and instinct a quarterback must have when they are in the pocket. A good QB can usually sense when a defender is closing in on him without seeing it make adjustments to complete the pass on the fly. 
  • Stepping up in the pocket: It refers to when the QB steps forward in the pocket to avoid blitzing defenders and make more room for the throw. This usually happens when the pocket is narrowed by defenders rushing in. 

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  • Pocket Collapse: It is the term used when the offensive linemen fail to holdup the defenders and they make their way inside the pocket. 
  • Outside the Pocket: A QB is said to be 'outside the pocket' when they leave the pocket moving out of the tackle zone where they don't have to worry about the intentional grounding rule. The QB's will usually move outside the pocket to avoid sack or loss of yardage.

Pocket Protection Process

The pocket Protection process begins with the offensive linemen's ability to block oncoming pass-rushers and create space for the quarterback.

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Pocket management is the backbone of a successful offense and the offensive linemen are considered one of the most important elements of it. An essential skill for any offensive lineman is the ability to execute a pass block.

The offensive line must be able to read and prevent the strategies often used by the defense like blitzes, stunts and special formations to confuse them.

Pass protection hinges on excellent coordination among all the players, the offensive linemen's ability to create space for the QB by blocking oncoming pass-rushers and the quarterback's quick thinking and split-second decision-making.

Pass protection packages

A pass protection package most commonly consists of a combination of five linemen, two tight ends and two running backs. 

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There are several different personnel available to protect the Quarterback. Two running backs can also be used in the formation and sometimes teams also use one or two running backs along with one or two tight ends.

The running back will sometimes partially block an oncoming defense to run the receiving route referred to as a "chip block".

Move the Pocket

Move the pocket is an offensive strategy where the offensive team changes the position of the Quarterback at the start of a passing play.

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The success of this strategy depends on various factors like the QB's mobility, the offensive linemen's blocking ability and the effectiveness of the play designed.

The QB will move to the left/right or take a few steps forward / backward following the snap. They will do this instead of the traditional positioning of the QB directly behind the offensive line.

This strategy is used to give the QB more time to make a play and create multiple throwing angles for them. It can also help the QB extend the play and avoid pressure. 

It can allow the receivers more time to move downfield and get open disrupt the defense's pass rushing and force them to make adjustments. 

Coordination between the offensive line the quarterback and the skill position players like the tight ends or wide receivers.

 It also requires the offensive linemen to successfully block the defenders and the skill position players to adjust their routes to get open in new areas in the field created by the moved pocket.

How much time does a Quarterback have in the pocket?

On average a quarterback only has seconds in the pocket to scan the field and complete the pass. The median time an average NFL QB spends in the pocket is 4.29 seconds.

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A quick pass is defined as one thrown in 2.50 seconds or less. Rhythm passes are thrown between 2.5 to 4 seconds and extended passes take more than 4 seconds to be released. 

A crucial skill for any QB is to be able to make split-second decisions as there isn't much time they can spend on the pocket. The QB is required to make fast decisions and get the ball out in under 3 seconds.

The top 10 ranked players on Fantasypros have taken less than 3 seconds to release the ball. Justin Fields ranked at 6 had an average pocket time of 2.7 seconds which is the longest time taken among the top 10. Patrick Mahomes was ranked at no. 1 with an average pocket time of 2.6s and a pass completion rate of 70 % 

The defenders will come rushing in to sack the QB and the more time they spend in the pocket the more pressured they feel leading to mistakes like a loose ball or a fumble. And despite the pressure, Tom Brady is an excellent example of a player most comfortable in the pocket.

Pocket passers vs Mobile quarterbacks

Pocket passers and mobile quarterbacks are the two common types of Quarterback playstyles. 

Pocket passers are players that most comfortable staying in the pocket and making plays with their passing arm rather than scrambling. Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, Eli Manning are some of the best pocket passer throughout the NFL history. Out of the 22 super bowl played this millineium 19 have been won by traditional pocket passers.

These type of players with their excellent vision and accuracy are most comfortable in the pocket but are becoming more rare with many teams preferring balanced QB's. A Balanced QB is one that possess a good scrambling ability as well as a good passing Arm.

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Touted as one of the most accurate passers in the NFL Brady is also a player who is most comfortable in the pocket and one of the best pocket passers in the league. Tom Brady released 20 quick passes in under 2 seconds when he was the QB for the Buccaneers in 2021. He also had an average pocket time of 2.2 seconds with a pass completion rate of 67% in the 2022 season. 

Mobile quarterbacks are those who will if the need arises will take the ball and run it to the receivers themselves. This type of QB's will not hesitate to Scramble i.e taking the ball and gaining the yards themselves.

Mobile Quarterbacks are also referred as dual threat quarterbacks because of their playstyles. Patrick Mahomes is a dual threat quarterbacks who has won the super bowl times for the Kansas City Chiefs.

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Hall of fame member Fran Tarkenton  was one of the first QB's to make play with his legs forging a path for mobile quarterbacks. Donovon McNabb, Doug Flutie, Jim Zorn, Dan Morino are some of the best mobile quarterbacks throughout history.