Quarterback’s checklist on pass plays

QB Thought process for analyzing a pass play

The QB must understand both the offense and defense

The QB must understand both the offense and defense

I. What is the defensive personnel in the game?

– A. What are the protection capabilities?

– B. What does it take to “go hot” — i.e. a sight adjust or automatic route (if applicable to the protection call); in other words, who must blitz to trigger this?

– C. What does it take for a route adjustment from the receivers?

II. What is my pre-snap read?

– A. Is the theory of the play acceptable when compared to the anticipated defense? (Is the defense still shifting?)

  1. If not acceptable, what is the best available audible?
  2. If acceptable (pre-snap, at least), are there route adjustments based on the pre-snap alignment of the secondary? Does the drop need to change?

III. Post-snap

– A. What is my read (be alert for secondary rotation)?

– B. What is my progression?

  1. If man?
  2. If zone?
  3. Who do I “see” (if zone)?

– C. What is my drop?

IV. Game situation in decision making process

– A. Down and distance (time)

– B. Match-ups by personnel (where are our studs?)

– C. Best route runner for specific situations

Hat tip to Bill Mountjoy for the above.

Update: A few extra notes on the above.

One, one question was about why the QB has “what drop is it” under post-snap rather than pre-snap. The basic answer is that he doesn’t actually do it until after the snap, but that gets to the larger point that the quarterback’s concerns are driven by the playcall.

It seems like a lot, but practicing this stuff over and over again makes it manageable. It counsels for not giving a guy so many concepts he can’t master them all. Mike Leach throws the ball more than anyone in the country but maybe has the fewest pass plays. He has like 10-12, and his quarterback can check to any one he wants at any time. There’s wisdom in that.

Some of the things on the list are play-specific, while others are done on every play. When a QB gets to the line he scans the defense, but doesn’t just look at it randomly.

One team I know coaches it this way: QB begins by looking at the corner to his left (defense’s right corner). What is the corner doing? Press man (looking at the QB?), or zone (looking at you)? The QB then scans his eyes across to the safeties (how deep are they? where are they on the field? in the middle, or on the hashes (cover 2)?), then to the cornerback on his right right (defense’s left cornerback). The QB then brings his eyes across at the linebackers’ level, asking himself, Where are they? Where is the run strength? Are they sitting back for zone? Are they up on their toes to blitz? He also looks to the defensive line in their peripheral vision as he goes. (On run plays, can look at them a little closer.) Then he scans back to the cornerback on his left again, and repeats the whole process.

Some teams too, to further emphasize the quarterback’s reading (and interpreting) the defense, put the number of safeties in the cadence. (“Go! 2! 2! Set, Hut!”) If ask some QBs how many safeties there were, he may shrug, but if you put it in the cadence he is sure to know.

Finally, again, the playcall dictates what the QB looks at. If it is a play-action pass he’s thinking about whether he needs to check out of it because the protection won’t hold. If it is a run — particularly a trap play or an option — he’s thinking about whether to check the play to the opposite side because of defensive numbers, or the alignment of the defensive line. On passes the QB wants to know if the cornerbacks are playing soft or up. If soft, and if the linebackers are tight to the formation, maybe a run will get stuffed so he wants to check to a quick outside pass (this can also be done just by a “look” between QB and receiver).

  • stan

    The ability to handle this is more important than the QB’s “fastball” or his ability to run, especially in the pros.

  • brandon

    chris, could you explain why “what is my drop?” is post snap rather than pre snap?

  • …..OR this can all be consolidated with Darin Slack’s R4 methodology

  • James

    Putting the number of safeties in the cadence is something I’ve never heard of before. That’s a really ingenious way to get the quarterback to remember to look before he begins routine.

  • Well written, the sad part is the ‘perception’ of 95% of the general population that the game of football is a mindless game for goons – and this is just one positions thought processes on one component of the game at 100 miles an hour!

  • MTK

    I have been reading Homer Smith’s work and he puts real meat on the bones by clarifying what it means for a play to be “acceptable” or not. Is the defense balanced on my offenders? Is there one safety, two safeties, or none? Where exactly is the defender who is unblocked…he reminds us that there always is one, and we hope he is as far away from the point of attack as possible.

    I also appreciate the notion of having a limited number of passing plays that players (and coaches) can master. Many regard Paul Johnson’s greatest strength to be his ability to make mid-game adjustments, and he said in a clinic last year that what makes meaningful adjustments possible is a mastery of a scheme that fits together thematically…rather than lengthy, incoherent play book.

    Keep ’em coming, Chris.

  • Nick Restifo

    Not only do I use the secondary in the cadence, I use the front as well. For example if it is a 4-3 cover 2 defense, our cadence is Shift 4-32, 4-32 Set Hut.

  • John

    As always, good stuff. Thanks.

  • Bill Mountjoy

    This may also be of interest:


    I. PROGRESSION READS: A progression read is designed to have two or three choices of where to go with the ball. It is important to pre-read the coverage to give you an indication of the coverage, but more importantly, it’s knowing where the receivers are going to be with a progression read pattern called. This kind of read calls for throwing the ball with rhythm drops. You might get to the third receiver in the progression as soon as you hit your fifth step on the drop. So when you are stepping forward to throw, you can hit the third receiver in the progression on the same rhythm you would have if you were throwing to the first.

    The limitations of progression reads are:
    A) There is a tendency to stare at the receiver that is first in the progression attracting other defenders ;
    B) It is frustrating for coaches to watch because they could see the receiver you didn’t throw to was wide open (Coaches need to know the progression of the play as well as the QB);
    C) You will lose patience or think that because you hit the first receiver in the progression he won’t be there when the play is called again. You must have patience and not make up your mind before the ball is snapped.

    1. Have a plan when you get to the LOS.
    2. Stay with the progression.
    3. Don’t stare.
    4. Progression reads are thrown with rhythm drops.

    II. COVERAGE READS: Reading the coverage is normally done in the NFL looking at the pictures that are taken upstairs during the series (when the QB is on the sidelines). In High School & College – the Press Box Coaches do most of the work here. The QB can pre-snap read and get an idea of what might happen. He can see rotations and drops of defenders at the snap of the ball, but may not know what the coverage was. Reading the coverage is really looking at a defender or defenders. Based on what they do you will get to the correct receiver.

    1. It eliminates the struggle of the progression read trying to determine who was more wide open.
    2. It eliminates the QB from making up his mind before the snap Read the defenders to get you to the right receiver in Coverage Reads.
    3. It keeps the QB on the same page as the Coach because they both know the read and the goal of the play called.
    4. It doesn’t matter what the coverage is because when you are reading properly you will be hitting the correct receiver.
    5. You will not have to stare at your receivers (it will give you natural look offs).
    6. You don’t have to know what the entire coverage is (you don’t have to see the whole field). NOTE: In our reads – “Progression” AND “Coverage” – we only read ½ the field Horizontally, or 1/3 of the field Vertically.

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