After Jameis Winston's second 4th quarter comeback in as many games and 3rd for his career, many opposing defensive coordinators have to be wondering "how do we stop someone like this?"
At the college level, it's more rare to see a player of this quality. Winston has full command of the Seminole offense and has won consecutive games playing behind a poor OL that cannot consistently pick up blitzes, stop the pass rush, or relieve pressure from the passing game by running the football. At least not until giving Dalvin Cook the football in the 4th quarter.
In the NFL it's more common for a QB to get red hot and seem completely unstoppable down the stretch of a game, but college football does have it's share of signal callers each year that can become utterly terrifying late in a game.
For someone to beat Winston or a similar player in the playoff is going to require having a plan for that moment in the 4th quarter when the defense has to stop them or the title will be lost. How does a defense prepare to handle that moment?
The challenges in stopping a great QB in the 4th quarter
There's a several factors that help a great quarterback get red hot late in a game that are very difficult for a defense to handle. To mitigate these problems we have to first identify them.
1. The Quarterback becomes comfortable with what he's seeing
The best defenses will carry a few disguises into a football game to prevent the QB from knowing what he's throwing the ball into before he gets the snap. After the snap? If he can piece it all together quickly there's not a ton a defense can do.
The problem for defenses is that later in games, savvy experienced QBs start to figure out the disguises and coverages and know where the soft spots will be. Those two or three seconds they have after the snap become all they need to find the soft spots in a defense as their eyes can start to simply confirm what they already expected rather than trying to figure it out in the moment.
2. The Quarterback and his pass protectors become aware of the blitzes the defense brought into the game
It gets harder and harder for a defense to surprise the OL with a timely blitz as the game wears on. Notre Dame's favorite tactic is to show a linebacker blitz to one side of the formation only to have him bail out while two other linebackers fly in from the opposite side after the snap.
Eventually, Winston figured out the Irish pressures and was able to fire the ball in to the soft spots left by Notre Dame bringing extra pass-rushers and trying to drop people into coverage late and expect to fill in all the passing windows.
Against the Louisville Cardinals defense, Winston's running backs made a few key blitz pick-ups in the 4th quarter to stop inside pressures that could have killed the 'Nole drives.
3. The pass-rushers run out of steam
As defensive coordinators love to stress every spring and fall during practice "we have to get more depth on the defensive line, those 300 pound guys can't run all day."
When you are dealing with a hot quarterback who's worked out where the soft spots in your base coverage are and knows how to identify your blitzes and get the ball out, you really need your pass rush to come through in the worst way. If your defensive tackles are gassed and unable to squeeze the pocket? When your ends don't have the fuel left to turn the corner? You're in big trouble. You're cooked.
4. When the QB has elite physical traits
Talent affords "lucky" opportunities.
That was undoubtedly an ill-advised throw from Winston, but his arm strength made it work.
Notice on this play that Louisville drops the boundary safety down late, which suggests a cover 3 scheme, but he doesn't stop in the box but keeps coming and blitzes the edge. The Cardinals are successful here in keeping Winston in the box and even are able to keep him from fully stepping up in the pocket thanks to push up front.
There's disguise, good drops, and the coverage defenders converge on the ball really well. Doesn't matter, Winston beats them with his arm strength and then his WR shakes off a tackler and pulls away.
Another example is the QB who can buy time before throwing the ball:
Or just take off running if there aren't openings downfield. It becomes very difficult for the defense to maintain sound coverage in a big moment in the 4th quarter when they know the QB can just take off and slowly take them apart with his feet.
When dealing with a player that has elite physical traits the margin of error obviously decreases. There aren't any answers here save for "deal with issues 1-3 well and also have great athletes on defense."
If a defense has a player that can spy the QB who is a much superior athlete, there can be a multiplier effect if the QB is simply totally unused to being outmatched on the football field.
A big part of the Texas offense in 2009 was Colt McCoy using his athleticism to buy time, break down coverages, and allow his receivers to find open grass where he would find them. Then Ndamukong Suh happened and suddenly Colt wasn't able to find any time in the pocket anymore because an enormous lion was running him down within seconds of every snap.
The easiest way to play great defense is having great athletes.
So how do you solve a problem like Jame-is?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
A defensive coach and his players have to prepare differently when they take on an athlete of this caliber. There has to be an NFL-level of intensity and film prep done that college players usually only undertake as seniors when facing big time rivals or playing in a championship game.
They also need to have a plan that ensures they still have bullets in the gun and gas in the tank when the 4th quarter arrives.
1. You can't allow a QB to become "unconscious"
The moment a QB reaches a zone where he's barely having to think, he's in great rhythm, and he feels untouchable is the moment past when a defensive coordinator needs to have acted decisively. Ideally, in the 4th quarter the QB is constantly thinking about where the next hit is coming from, how bad it will hurt, and worrying about the players in coverage he can't see showing up in his line of sight after he's already delivered the football.
There's a lot of risk in bringing heavy blitzing early in a game since you are giving the QB and his teammates a good look at what they'll have to deal with in the 4th quarter, but it's useful to set a tone and keep the QB from ever finding that rhythm.
Similarly, I'm as big a fan of up-tempo football as anyone but if you can't trust your defense to hold down the opposing QB in big moments you have to think about exercising some ball control strategies as an offense to prevent your foe from getting extra looks at your disguises and game plan and figuring it out before the game is over.
The easiest way to stop a 4th quarter surge from a great player at QB is to have him beat before that moment arrives. Not just on the scoreboard but psychologically and physically.
2. Save some bullets for late game scenarios
Offensive coaches do this with play calls all the time. They are thinking "we know that we can call this trick play or screen action once and it will really put their outside linebacker in a bind but once we call it they'll adjust so we'd better save it."
It's difficult to accomplish this on defense without coaches on the field in the form of veteran leadership, but defenses need to save extra blitzes or disguises for late game scenarios to bring them out when the QB thinks he has it all figured out.
That's a lot to prepare and save for a precise moment, but if you're playing someone like Jameis Winston that's the level of sophistication in tactics that's necessary to produce a win.
The most cunning DC's set traps and when the QB thinks he knows how to answer a specific disguise or blitz, they show it to him and then pull the rug out with a totally different call that's designed to answer the QB's counter punch.
3. Rotate pass-rushers throughout the game
Even if the offense isn't holding the ball much, it's important for a defense to rotate players because if the offense is running multiple hurry-up drives late in the game than the DL will get gassed whether they've been working hard all game or not.
If you have to blitz to have any chance of getting a hit on the QB, confusing him, or rushing his reads then you are probably already beat.
Obviously it takes a degree of experience, depth, and athleticism on a roster to beat a top flight QB. Dem's the breaks, there are no magic bullets out there.
4. Drop eight, rush three
Quarterbacks become used to dealing with the blitz and learning how to rifle the ball out to a weakened spot in the defense and land a kill shot that seals the game. Or if they can use the scramble, perhaps they escape and then find themselves confronted with wide open grass and very few defenders in position to reach them.
What college quarterbacks often aren't practiced at handling is a max coverage call that sits defenders in all of their favorite places to throw the football. Perhaps the best existing one for a dual threat QB is a Tampa-2 scheme with a shallow spy rather than a fourth pass-rusher:
That's simply a tough coverage to beat as it allows three defenders to sit on all the deep routes without having to turn and run backwards, it takes away the comeback options to the flats due to the corners sitting on those options, and it keeps a few linebackers in the middle of the field to abuse crossers and triangulate the QB if he takes off:
There's a reason this has become a very popular 3rd down package but it can also be a great 4th quarter option if there's enough built in to provide adequate run defense or blitzes attached to it.
If a QB is used to seeing pressure throughout a game and then a defense brings out it's max coverage calls there's a good chance of getting an INT or break-up when the QB throws the ball to a part of the field that's no longer undefended, or of getting a sack as the QB has to take time to process the coverage and the three-man rush can get home.
The goal is to force a great QB to have to think on his feet and execute difficult concepts that aren't in his muscle memory. Even players like Johnny Manziel, who seem to thrive in such settings, will just as often make crucial errors in those circumstances.
So, has the QB been picking apart blitzes with pinpoint throws? A good DC will keep his pass-rushers fresh and try throwing some base coverage or three-man rush max coverage options at him to keep him on his toes.
Has he found all the weak spots in the secondary and is comfortably making throws into all the right windows? Time to show him some things he hasn't seen yet.
He's unconscious and is alternating between drilling balls into tight windows downfield or evading the rush to pick up key first downs with his legs? You're out of calls and your DL are looking to the sideline while taking gasping breaths? You're playing roulette now, best of luck.