Matt Cassel surveyed the Philadelphia Eagles defense, recognized their coverage and knew exactly where he wanted to go with the ball.
Facing a third-and-14 early in the fourth quarter Sunday, Cassel lined up in the shotgun. The Eagles finally had exhibited some life in trimming the Vikings’ lead to 27-22. On the snap, they brought an extra rusher on a blitz.
Cassel dropped back, hit his spot and rifled a pass to tight end Chase Ford over the middle for a 37-yard completion. That play set up Matt Asiata’s 1-yard touchdown run and proved to be the most important play of the game as the Vikings regained control.
“Well, it was just dictated by coverage,” Cassel said. “They were in split safety coverage with a one-on-one with a linebacker on Chase.”
Two things stood out about Cassel on that play: He immediately recognized the coverage because of his preparation, and he showed no hesitation in the face of the blitz.
That, as much as anything, highlights a key distinction between the Vikings offense with Cassel at quarterback vs. Christian Ponder.
Cassel shows more poise and patience when defenses bring some heat, while Ponder often looks jumpy and is prone to take off running when the pocket starts to collapse.
The numbers reflect that difference, too. Cassel ranks second among all NFL quarterbacks in passer rating (114.9) when defenses send five or more rushers, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Ponder is ranked 30th with a 78.6 rating.
Cassel has completed 45 of 71 passes (63.4 percent) for 723 yards and five touchdowns with one interception against the blitz.
Ponder has completed 53 of 87 passes (60.9) for 698 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions against the blitz.
In terms of the eyeball test, Cassel simply looks more comfortable when facing a heavy pass rush. On Sunday, he completed 10 of 13 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns with an interception against the blitz, according to ESPN.
Coach Leslie Frazier credits Cassel’s handling of blitz situations to his preparation and film study and then his ability to apply that information in games.
“He knows where to go with the football in pre-snap and gets it out of his hands because of that,” Frazier said. “He doesn’t hesitate. He knows exactly where it has to go, and that’s his veteran experience and the confidence he has that he can make those plays.”
Cassel’s 57-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in the first quarter also came against a five-man rush. The Eagles created pressure on the edge, but rather than take off running, Cassel bought himself another second or two by stepping up in the pocket.
Running back Joe Banyard blocked defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, who got a hand up and caused Cassel to bring the ball down and reload. His patience gave Jennings enough time to create separation from the defensive backs down the field.
That play was similar to the poise Cassel displayed on a 20-yard completion to Jerome Simpson on fourth-and-11 late in regulation against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago. Cassel stood in the pocket in the end zone as an unblocked Bears rusher came up the middle. Cassel gave Simpson enough time to run his route before taking the hit as he released the ball.
“[Pressure] doesn’t faze him,” left guard Charlie Johnson said.
“He puts a lot of work in during the week of watching tape and trying to figure out when they’re going to bring it. So when he goes into the game, he’s prepared. When he sees that look, he knows where he has to go with the ball. He knows he’s going to have to get it out fairly quickly.”
Frazier believes Cassel’s experience contributes to his poise as much as his pregame preparation.
“I think if you were to ask him when he was a second- or third-year quarterback how he would have handled those situations it might be a little bit different,” Frazier said. “But he’s been in those situations a number of times and he knows if he can just buy another second when you’ve got a guy like a Greg Jennings or a Cordarrelle Patterson, those guys are going to get open if they’re playing single-high safety, and he has enough poise to maintain his composure and make some plays.”