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Deciphering if Paxton Lynch is a viable back up option for the Steelers

Looking at Paxton Lynch’s last start in December of 2017.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Since we aren’t going to get a quarterback battle played out in preseason games, and are unlikely to get very much drama from the few reporters allowed into Steelers camp, I thought it would be fun to look at Paxton Lynch’s last NFL start, from week 17 of the 2017 season, the end of Lynch’s second season in the NFL, and the last of his 4 starts.

First let’s set the scene. The Denver Broncos were a mess, they had Demaryius Thomas, but not much else on offense. Their defense was only really good at stopping the run. The Broncos did not have a good quarterback situation, with Lynch, Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler all starting multiple games in 2017. Week 17 was Paxton Lynch’s second start of the season, his previous effort cut short as he was benched in the third quarter with the Broncos stuck on zero points.

Lynch’s week 17 opponent was the Kansas City Chiefs, a team Alex Smith led to a 9-6 record, locking them into a Wild Card game. With the Broncos game unable to affect their playoff fate, the Chiefs rested just about everyone, giving Patrick Mahomes his first NFL start, while also resting the vast majority of their defense.

The Chiefs played 16 players on defense that week, and only two, CB Terrance Mitchell and DE Chris Jones, played 50% of the Chiefs defensive snaps that season. Mitchell, due to injuries in the secondary played the whole game, while Chris Jones (before he was a regular starter) played 27 snaps. Seven Chiefs started on defense for the only time that season in week 17, and three defenders recorded at least 45 snaps in that game without recording a single defensive snap the entire rest of the season.

For the 2019 Steelers that would be like Robert Spillane, Justin Layne and Marcus Allen starting on defense, supported by Jordan Dangerfield, Tyler Matakevich, Daniel McCullers, Artie Burns, Isaiah Buggs, Olasunkanmi Adeniyi, Tuzar Skipper, with Mike Hilton playing outside and Tyson Alualu rotating in.

This is important, because the Broncos offense was not good, but the defense they were facing was made up of special teams players and rotational pieces.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the film.


Short passes

1st quarter, 7:39. Demaryius Thomas is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Chiefs ran really vanilla defense most of the game, and early on these slants were wide open, and Paxton Lynch made good passes on these routes.

1st quarter, 1:26. Demaryius Thomas is the receiver to the left side of the screen.

Drag routes were a different story. Here Thomas makes the catch, but the ball is thrown late and behind him, forcing him to slow down and turn to make the catch, and he has no chance to gain yards afterwards.

2nd quarter, 6:27.

Wide open receiver 7 yards downfield, and while this one is complete, the ball is low and away from the receiver, giving him no chance to do anything after the catch.

2nd quarter, 5:06.

Paxton Lynch’s first touchdown pass of the game, a screen pass broken for a big play.

4th quarter, 4:19.

This big play in the 4th quarter put the Broncos in position to tie the game. It isn’t a tough throw, but Lynch hits the running back in stride and the Broncos have a first down in the red zone.

4th quarter, 2:58. A few plays later.

Paxton Lynch throws his second touchdown, an 8 yard pass to Demaryius Thomas. I don’t like Lynch’s side of this play. He drifts to the outside of his pocket, then lobs a jump pass when he had plenty of time to set his feet and make a good throw. There’s no need for the little steps he is taking that wreck his footwork and lead to this lob of a pass.

Fortunately for the Broncos, the Chiefs defensive back falls down.

If the defender doesn’t fall down that’s a contested ball, as Thomas has to slow to almost a stop to catch it. But an ugly touchdown pass is worth the same number of points, and the Broncos tied the game on this play, with less than 3 minutes left.


Deep passes

Paxton Lynch has a strong arm, something that gets brought up quite a bit during discussions about who will be the Steelers backup quarterbacks in 2020. But how does it show on film?

1st quarter, 12:53. Demaryius Thomas is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This is the first Paxton Lynch pass attempt of the game. It’s not catchable.

1st quarter, 6:57.

Lynch places this ball to the inside of his receiver, when there is plenty of space to the sideline, and he’s lucky this ball isn’t picked off. Look at Lynch’s throw, he sees the rush coming, and while he has time to get the throw off, he leans back as he throws and the ball is underthrown.

2nd quarter, 0:41.

This is a better placed ball, not great placement, but good enough and his receiver is able to win the contested throw. This time Paxton Lynch has no one around him and the pass is a decent one.

2nd quarter, 0:26.

This is a bad decision. The throw is late and into the teeth of the defense. But more than that, this is a 24 yard throw, straight down the middle of the field, released at the 38 yard line, the receiver was at the 14 yard line. The linebacker who tipped the ball had time to take 4 steps from when he saw Lynch throwing until he tipped the ball.

Watch #53 as Lynch starts to throw.

These are the kinds of throws a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger can make, because he can get the ball there before the defense can converge on the receiver. This isn’t a 45 yard throw, Paxton Lynch’s arm strength is overrated.

4th quarter, 5:16.

This is good use of the space to the sideline on this play, again the pocket is secure and Lynch has no one around him. This is his best deep throw of the game, and is as good as deep throws we’ve seen Mason Rudolph make.

4th quarter, 7:12.

This is a bad throw. It is thrown too late and again, too close to the defense. It is important to note that this is Lynch’s 4th start in the NFL, and he’s had time between starts to learn and improve, and he threw two gift balls to the Chiefs backups.


Pocket presence

Lastly we will focus a bit on Paxton Lynch’s lack of chill in the pocket. As plays above showed, Lynch frequently lets even the illusion of pressure mess with his mechanics.

3rd quarter, 2:04.

Paxton Lynch has options on this play, the receiver just off the line (third from the top) has good position on the defender, the slant behind him is not wide open, but it’s there, and yet Paxton Lynch takes off. There wasn’t any real risk here, the only defender getting close to him is already behind him, once Lynch takes a step to his right he has even more time, but he runs. The underneath receiver in the middle of the field reacts with a short angry hop when he sees Lynch start to run.

3rd quarter, 1:18.

On the other side of the coin is this play, where Lynch seems determined not to run too soon, and instead stays in the pocket for over 3 seconds before taking a sack.

4th quarter, 8:35.

This is terrible. There is no pressure to the middle, and the right guard switches to push the blitz outside, but Paxton Lynch turns and runs directly into the rush, giving up 5 yards before they make contact.

4th quarter, 7:51. Watch the receiver to the front of the trio to the bottom of the screen.

Lynch has his guy open in the middle of the field, but takes off running. There is pressure here, because Lynch sets so deep in the pocket that the left tackle can’t seal the edge. Lynch drops ten yards behind the line of scrimmage, and doesn’t throw the ball. He has options here, but he runs. And he runs for the sideline when there is grass in front of him and plenty of time on the clock.

This was a third down play, the next play was the interception (4th quarter, 7:12) I showed above. He doesn’t pull the trigger here, but pulled the trigger on that play.


Conclusion

In all fairness I need to state that I went into this film room expecting to find that Paxton Lynch was pretty bad, because I had seen him play before. So if you want to say I found evidence to support my own opinion, then you wouldn’t be wrong. The film still shows what the film showed a year ago when the Steelers put Lynch on the roster and I went and watched his games.

This film is worse than Mason Rudolph’s early starts that I knocked. This film is as bad as Devlin Hodges against the Buffalo Bills. But while Devlin Hodges was facing one of the best defenses in the NFL with only one of the starters from week one playing at skill positions, Paxton Lynch was facing a preseason caliber defense running largely vanilla schemes.

Paxton Lynch has a strong arm, but it doesn’t show up as a trait he uses well on film. What does show up is poor mechanics exacerbated by a lack of poise in the pocket, mixed with poor timing, accuracy and awareness.

Paxton Lynch had played 209 snaps at quarterback before this game, and had been in the NFL for two seasons, with plenty of time between his starts. He had more on-field snaps than Mason Rudolph did heading into the Colts game, the start of a stretch where Mason Rudolph showed real growth in his timing and pocket presence, before the nightmare that was the second half of the Cleveland game. Devlin Hodges reached that snap count in the Arizona game, and he did not have 2 seasons of NFL coaching invested in him.

I’m certain Paxton Lynch has improved since December of 2017, but Lynch shows so many flaws, and a good number of them are ones that don’t get worked out with time very often. So while I won’t rule out Paxton Lynch being better than he was in December 2017, I will continue to state that I think it is more likely that Devlin Hodges pushes Mason Rudolph for the #2 quarterback spot than Paxton Lynch takes the #3 spot from Hodges. And that isn’t a big endorsement of Devlin Hodges.