Blaine Gabbert was sacked so often early in his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he became notorious for bracing for ghost pressure in the pocket – defensive ends and linebackers who simply weren’t there.
So far in 2016, during the preseason and Monday night’s regular-season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, Gabbert hasn’t been sacked. His 49ers teammates credit better protection, an offense that emphasizes getting rid of the ball quickly and a quarterback who no longer is a jittery youngster.
“I think he did a great job Monday night of running for first downs,” fellow quarterback Christian Ponder said. “I think he got two with his legs and ran a few other times. I mean, it’s just smart football. A lot of times, what separates good from great is knowing what to do when it’s not there. Throwing it away, cutting your losses or scrambling for it. And he’s done a really good job of that.”
Gabbert, Ponder and Colin Kaepernick entered the league in 2011. Ponder said there’s no comparison between the speed at which six-year veterans can move through their passing progressions vs. when they were rookies.
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“The game slows down so much,” Ponder said. “Your rookie year goes by so fast, and you’re not 100 percent confident what you’re doing. As the years go by, it definitely slows down. You’re more confident in what you’re doing. You’re able to get to (reads) three and four a lot quicker. It’s a huge difference.”
Last year, the 49ers allowed 53 sacks, the most in the NFC, including 25 in the last eight games when Gabbert started. The 49ers allowed only one sack in last year’s season-opening win over the Minnesota Vikings, a lesson that Week 1 doesn’t always signal what’s to come. Their upcoming opponent, the Carolina Panthers, led the NFC in 2015 with 44 sacks.
Still, Gabbert has the benefit of an improved offensive line this year – especially on the right side – and an offense that centers on rhythm, pace and hustle.
“We like to play fast, get the ball out of (the quarterback’s) hands, make quick decisions, force the defense to keep up with our tempo,” offensive tackle Joe Staley said. “That’s all part of it. There’s not a lot of, you know, ‘Snap the ball with one second left (on the play clock), double count, double cadence.’ It’s kind of get up and get going.”
The 49ers allowed four sacks in four preseason games. Three were on Ponder, who was signed midway through training camp. Only the Raiders allowed fewer – three.
The Rams’ defense, predicated on breaking down the pocket, had an NFC West-best 41 sacks last season.
“Sacks are such momentum plays for a defense like the Rams,” Gabbert said. “Anything that I can do to get the ball out of my hands, especially when they’re trying to heat you up with pressure, just to not give them that satisfaction of having a sack on third down, because that kind of builds momentum into the next drive.”
Gabbert was criticized last year for settling for short throws, ignoring his deep wideouts in favor of running backs, tight ends and slot receivers. Through Week 1, only one starting quarterback – Los Angeles’ Case Keenum – has a lower per-attempt average than Gabbert’s 4.86 yards.
Gabbert said one thing he’s learned over the years is that being too ambitious on passing downs can lead to mistakes, including sacks.
“I think at times young quarterbacks tend to try and do too much, especially on third down, trying to hold onto the ball, force it past the sticks,” he said. “But when you’re in max-drop zones, sometimes your best throw is underneath for a catch and carry, and (you) let the guys go to work underneath.”