Teaching a quarterback where to throw the football

If your quarterback can’t deliver the ball to the open receiver, it doesn’t matter how well designed, well protected, or otherwise well executed your pass plays are. Surprisingly, however, this supposedly natural skill — the ability to locate and throw the ball to an open receiver — is taught in a variety of ways, some more effective than others. To my mind, there are really essentially two legitimate methods: the progression read and the coverage read. (The illegitimate way is to simply “scan” across — the most common tactic when a quarterback who gets in trouble — but this should never be taught to a young quarterback as an every down technique.)

Progression Reads: A progression read is designed to have two, three, four, or five sequential choices of where to throw the ball. It is important for the quarterback to pre-read the coverage to get an indication of the coverage, but, more importantly, a progression read requires the quarterback to know where each of the receivers will be given the pattern called. This kind of read calls for throwing the ball with rhythm drops — i.e. on a five-step drop, the ball is thrown to the first receiver when the fifth step hits (the “rhythm” throw), the second receiver after a hitch-up or gather step (the “read” or “gather” throw), and the third receiver after resetting the feet.

Limitations of progression reads:

  • A tendency to stare at the receiver that is first in the progression, which attracts other defenders.
  • It is frustrating for coaches to watch because they can see that a receiver who is later in the progression is wide open. Thus coaches need to know the progression as well as the quarterback — the QB’s job is to throw it to the first open receiver in the progression.
  • Quarterbacks will lose patience or think that because the first receiver in the progression was thrown to the first time that he won’t be there when the play is called again. Progression reads require the coach/quarterback not have their mind made up ahead of time.

Coverage reads: The simple form of this requires that a pass concept be called and the quarterback is told to “throw it to this guy if the defender does this; throw it to that guy if the defender does that.” To make this work, the coaches and quarterback must understand the exact coverage called; there might be five receivers deployed but the coverage determines which two or three are “live” for the quarterback. In essence, the quarterback reads defenders, who dictate where the ball will go.

Reading the coverage is normally done in the NFL by looking at the pictures that are taken upstairs during the series (when the quarterback is on the sidelines). In high School and college, press box coaches do most of the work. The quarterback can pre-snap read and get an idea of what might happen. He can see the rotations of the defensive secondary and defender drops at the snap of the ball, but it’s difficult to say with certainty what the coverage was (including in the NFL). Reading the coverage is really looking at a defender or defenders. Based on what they do you get to the correct receiver.

Advantages of coverage reads:

  • Eliminates the struggle of the progression read trying to determine who was more wide open.
  • Eliminates the QB from making up his mind before the snap (we shouldn’t do this regardless of if we Progression Read OR Read the Coverage). Read the defenders to get you to the right receiver in Coverage Reads.
  • Keeps quarterback on the same page as the Coach because they both know the read and the goal of the play called.
  • Quarterbacks don’t need to to stare at your receivers to determine who to throw to because they will be looking at defenders (giving more natural look offs).

Despite listing limitations of progressions and advantages of coverage reads, I much prefer progression reads to coverage reads. Coverage reads are great in theory (and maybe are great for long-term, established NFL quarterbacks) but they are not easy to teach and — because while one defender might react as expected you might not be able to predict where the others are, thus causing problems — they can even be misleading.

Of course, what I really recommend are progression reads where the coverage keys what progression is used. It’s possible to have progressions with all five receivers in the progression, but it’s not likely or common for the quarterback to hit number four or five in the progression. Instead it makes more sense to give him multiple 1-2-3 reads, either keying off the movement of a particular defender or reading the general coverage structure.

The all-curl play provides a good example of a progression keyed off a specific defender. The base idea of the read is that #1 is the middle curl or sit route by the tight-end or inside receiver; #2 is the curl receiver; and #3 is the flat. The idea is to hit the tight-end early until the linebackers squeeze him, then to throw the curl if the flat defender widens to take away the flat.

The Mike or middle linebacker (“M”) is the key defender. If he drops straight back or weak, the quarterback should have sufficient numbers to the playside (Y, Z and F against the Sam linebacker (“S”) and the strong safety (“$”)). But if he drops to the Y side, the better read is Y to X to H against the weakside or Will linebacker (“W”). You can apply this same principal to reading the weakside safety, depending on the pass concept.

The other read that dictates the coverage is the general secondary structure, i.e. whether “1-high” (one deep middle safety, which indicates either Cover 1 man or three-deep zone) or “2-high” (indicating Cover 2 man or zone or Cover 4/quarters). (For a refresher on coverages, check out this.) For example, in the play below against 1-high the quarterback would read the middle dig by Y to X and to R on the curl and swing route, respectively. Alternatively against 2-high the quarterback will read the levels concept to the other side, with Y to A to Z. This is a popular play in the NFL: against single safety defenses you get the same horizontal stretch shown on all-curl above; against two-deep safety defenses you get the high-low read with the various in routes, as well as the trail stretch by the two outside quick square-in routes. For more on this concept, see here and here.

Then again, simply saying “progression” or “read from Y to X to R” is still not to say exactly how to know whether to throw the ball to a receiver. One answer is simply repetitions: endless drills and seven-on-seven will help a quarterback learn when a guy is open and how to get him the ball. Another is to focus on the “accelerators” Darin Slack discusses.

The approach I encourage is to focus on “passing lanes” or “passing windows,” or what the Airraid guys call “open grass.” The idea is that while the “progression” or sequence of receivers superficially tells the quarterback to look at each receiver — Y to X to R — in fact it tells the quarterback to look at the area that their route is running into. From there the quarterback looks to see if there is a passing lane or “open grass” into which he can throw the ball. Looked at this way, his job is less to throw the ball to the open receiver than it is the “throw the receiver” open by throwing it to the open area, and it is the receiver’s job to be there. This excellent video effectively explains the idea (h/t CoachHuey):

Putting all of this together, you build your passing game by first picking out a handful of passing concepts that work independently and together, and in each one telling the quarterback to go through a three step process: (1) determine the deep shell — is it one-high or two-high?; (2) based on that, what is my progression; and (3) during the play, where is the open grass and is the receiver in that spot?  Now, just keep this as consistent as possible for the quarterback and rep it every day, and you’ll see how those Airraid guys keep turning out such prolific passers. And, more importantly, you can use this approach with any offense. As the OBC says, just pitchin’ and catchin’.

  • That is a great powerpoint video created by James Thurman (who has a ton of those instructional aides for his players)…..

    Doesn’t the Darin Slack/Dub Maddox R4 concept factor in all these methods into one template applicable to all pass concepts?

    Great post and insightful sharing

  • Jon E.

    I tend to think that a passing phase of an offense that goes solely by progression generally lacks as a genuine threat. The best offenses and the best quarterbacks do all of the above things you mention.

    For example, a solid offensive scheme is going to have a stick concept, which is a defender progression- if the flat defender widens, throw the stick, if not, throw the flat.

    As well, an offense should have a verticals concept with a middle of the field attack, something like 3 vertical versus 2-deep, or even a deep cross. The right throw is to a spot over the shoulder of the hole defender, just as the WR is about to break past him, no later. You throw the WR into the hole.

    There are times to throw into a hole, and then there are times to put the ball on numbers, in the eyes, on the sideline, etc. It depends on concept and situation.

    Also, West Coast plays are generally drawn out as progressions, and can be flipped: normally reads go from long routes to short, but can be adjusted to short-to-long if needed. The progression then depends on how zones are covered (defender reads).

    So I think what approach is used depends on the concept partially, and I think that progression and defender reads are complimentary, not a dichotomy. I don’t think one can consistently be effective without using another unless you have an excellent running game.

  • Brophy, I linked to the R4 stuff throughout the post…. I didn’t want to give away their methods without permission. I do look at progressions/grass as complementary to the R4/accelerators rather than exclusive of each other. Also I think many coaches will take pieces of R4 without feeling the need to fit that framework for everything — there are good concepts and hot/blitz concepts that don’t perfectly fit.

  • pigskin11

    What program is Coach Thurman using for his playbook?
    I would like something like that to use in HUDL along with the actual game film….
    Any info on what it is or a way to contact the coach would be awesome…

  • DrB

    Love the powerpoint thing, I’m saving that.

  • BlazerQB#4

    I’m a high school quarterback and this site really gives me more skills I can learn to help my team more than I already can. The video really gives you a great and very easy way to learn what many people would call a complex concept. No doubt I will recommend this site to other friends but also to my coaches so they can learn these other techniques just as I am.

  • its powerpoint, with animations…..recorded with Camtasia

    Thurman coaches in the Shreveport, LA area and just got a new HC gig

  • Dub Maddox

    The struggle I have with the Open Grass concept is the interpretation of the term “open grass”. How do I get my quarterback to understand how much open grass is needed in order to be considered “open”? When he comes back to the sideline after missing an open receiver on 3rd down and tells me there wasn’t “open grass” how do I relate to him that there actually was. How do we get on the same page with a sweeping statement that could be interpreted in different ways?

    It has been documented and studied in warfare that a common language is one of the most important aspects in decision making in high stress/pressure situations. And to work effectively under pressure the common language must speak clearly to the actions the coach and the quarterback are seeing take place. To put it simply, you cannot allow yourself as a coach and a quarterback to leave things up for interpretation. When you do so in war people die. When you do so in football the play is not executed and the coach or player may get fired. (maybe a little drastic but you get the idea)

    You probably have heard it said by quarterbacks that have gone through the process from high school up to the NFL…that in high school everybody is open, in college somebody is open, and in the NFL nobody is open. If this is the case then the better defense I face or the higher level I coach will require a system that speaks clearly to the difference of what is “open” and what is “not open”.

    I am not saying that the Air Raid guys way of teaching is wrong. Those guys have a great system and are racking up the yards. My concern is am I giving my quarterback the best tools for the highest probability of completion under pressure with a language (open grass) that doesn’t speak specifically to what the defense is using to cover a receiver. Is there a better way?

    I believe the best way to do this is to find out what the defense is using against the offense to cover a receiver and use those terms to determine if a defender is in a position to cover a receiver (thus open). Nick Saban is the master at this and that is where I would start.

    By developing a language based on defensive tactics that speak specifically to what “open” actually means, the coach can now clearly correct the quarterback on a missed 3rd down throw or better yet allows the quarterback to “self correct”.

  • Chris


    You know I’ll happily publish some stuff on your accelerators if you would like. I’m a big fan.

    One thing I will say is — and maybe this is just me — I found the accelerators more useful for routes with vertical stems, while the Airraid guys use so many flats and shallows the concept has to be tweaked, even if slightly. But I free the accelerator stuff is extremely useful.

  • tomtom

    i didnt like the spread shallow backer whatever on the open grass video. i dont think the Z receiver would have enough time to be open under the safety across the field.

  • James Thurman

    Coach Maddox, I completely agree with your thoughts on the matter. There is always a better way. I try to teach my QB’s that open grass does not mean open receiver, it just means area void of defenders. It is that receivers job to get into that space and settle the route. Its more about safe throwing and our QB’s and WR’s being on the same page as to where the ball will be placed.

    To TomTom, could you please explain your concerns a little more? I think you wre stating that you do not believe that the dig/hunt route will arrive to that voided area in time. I can assure you, we have completed it several times over the last couple of years. Its a great play.

  • Mr.Murder

    “Advantages of coverage reads:
    …Eliminates the QB from making up his mind before the snap (we shouldn’t do this regardless of if we Progression Read OR Read the Coverage). Read the defenders to get you to the right receiver in Coverage Reads.”
    Quicks are always determined presnap. That is an automatic coverage read, or call based on that. Eventually you need each of the reads placed into an order to follow on a play. Quicks or taking what is given(most of your systems stress taking what a defense gives). Then progressions that do the same off the structure of route combinations. The entire thing is done within context of what a defense shows as coverage.

    There has to be a balance. You must attack as much field possible given the initial premise of the concept and formation. You take what you can get in a way that maintains tempo and stretches the defense out. Sometimes a throw under is a quick, sometimes it checks down after you stretch the top of coverage off to give space for a run after catch.

    Then the idea of adding extra options to the end of a play come in. If all you do is go by what they show, teams will begin to show things to dictate who and where you throw to. So the progression read is important but at some point you decide what we do, instead of them.

    That is where you discussion with coach Gonzales at the front page of smartfootball at this time comes into focus. He maintains structure(front side concepts) and progressions to go with those coming off the defensive reaction, when backside tags develop new possiblilites.

    So you go presnap and quicks(inherent coverage call) to progression, a series of routes that attack the coverage and matchups in it.

    There should be a conversion item to each. If things change you evolve the route as plays continue. The easiest way to do that is with choice routes to a solo reciever(isolation) side. Room is there to work from defensive leverage.

  • Tjmartin10

    Coach I love your concept. Curious to how your teaching progression is during practice time towards gettifing your QBs and WRs on the same page.

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