The “smash” route against man coverage

I have previously discussed the smash concept, where an outside receiver runs a short flat or “hitch” route while an inside receiver breaks to the corner. The play works well against cover two zones in particular because it puts the cornerback in a bind: if he plays the man in front of him he opens up a big are for the quarterback to throw the corner route behind him.

smash

One reason this play is useful, however, is because it does more than attack this zone aspect. Again man-to-man coverage the corner route is a very good option — so long as the throw is precise and the route is good. One reason for this is because many defenses who play man coverage use inside leverage to take away the quick slant passes that can gash them for big plays and are easy throws.

Cover 1 RobberMoreover, many man defenses use a deep free-safety or an inside “floater” or “robber” player whose job is simply to read the quarterback’s eyes. The advantage of the corner route is that the throw is away from all these inside defenders who can gum up a normal “who has beaten his man” read.

Finally, the fact that it is the inside receiver rather than the outside one who runs the corner route can get the offense some favorable matchups: Most defenses put their cornerbacks in man coverage on the outside receivers; the inside receivers are thus often guarded by safeties or linebackers or substitute “nickel back” players.

All of these advantages were on display in Penn State’s game against Michigan, as the Nittany Lions scored on the same smash concept from the same formation against the same coverage (indeed, same receiver) twice. Below is a diagram of their play, followed by video, courtesy of mgoblog.

1SMASHGIF

Below is the video:

Improving a quarterback’s throwing motion

[The following is from noted quarterback guru Darin Slack. Check out his site and find out about his camps, materials, and the like.]

tombrady1There’s an old coaching adage that “you can’t change a throwing motion! A quarterback either can throw or he can’t. Period.”

You hear this all the time, this idea that a quarterback’s mechanics can’t be changed. Commentators, football dads, and coaches proclaim, “It’s impossible to change a quarterback’s throwing motion. Just coach his footwork.” Older quarterbacks in particular get subjected to this tunnel vision.

It says more about the coaches than it does the kid. The message it sends, however, is that, “We don’t have time to improve a kid’s throwing mechanics. Or we don’t know how — we don’t have the technical skills needed to coach them up. Why bother if we can just go find another kid who can already throw it better, without coaching”?

But what is passing talent? The mentality that some kids “have it” while others don’t shouldn’t apply to throwing in the same way it might to raw speed or quickness. Yet it comes up so often. There are many high-profile “athlete-quarterbacks” who are world-class athletes but aren’t very accurate. They can throw a spiral and an accurate pass or two, but because of their latent talent the theory is that the best thing to do is just to “let them play” and the last thing you should do is “overcoach” them. The old myth comes back: Just coach their feet; ignore the upper body.

But that’s only the most high-profile example. There are thousands of high school kids that receive almost no coaching of their passing mechanics. At best they get a few throwing drills. The result is thousands of young players who are given no the opportunity to develop. For the great-athlete quarterbacks, the lack of coaching puts a cap on their success and hurts their team’s passing games. For the less talented kids, they simply never see the field or get moved to new positions. If they ask for help, it’s that same refrain again: “Let’s work on your footwork.” Yet aren’t the feet are the farthest appendage from where you throw a ball from? Don’t you throw it with your arm?

Lack of coaching or not, the expectations remain: Perform at a high level or face criticism or the bench. The “can’t coach a throwing motion” myth prejudices the careers of many young men. Not all quarterbacks make it to the NFL but all want to succeed. Ignoring the upper body is like only coaching half the kid.

Ironically, the same coaches who preach a “footwork only” gospel also throw out plenty of meaningless buzz-phrases in lieu of actual coaching: “Follow through,” “Come over the top more,” “Raise your elbow,” “Turn your shoulders more.” This double standard of non-coaching and coaching-via-cliché is confusing — for both the coach and the kid.

If all you know are the same old cliches then you’re insulting your players’ intelligences, and if you’re insulting their intelligences then, over time, you will prove yourself to know very little. Because the stuff you’re saying won’t work. It might work a time or two, but you won’t have all the answers, as so much of it will be guessing on your part. And once that happens the players will start just fiddling with it themselves, drawing their own ad hoc conclusions about what works best. The result is typically not pretty.

Can you improve a quarterback’s throwing motion? Yes, but it’s important to use the right methods. As stated above, the old way is to focus on footwork only and then sprinkle in clichés throughout practice. Our way is different. We teach quarterbacks to “self-correct, not self-destruct,” through a central focus on the arm. We do this by teaching simple biomechanics concepts that are universal and non-negotiable, and yet provide powerful results that inform the footwork to support the entire process.

Here are two simple biomechanical examples to improve a throwing motion in the wrist and elbow. The wrist should be pronated, or turned over, on the release (see the images below), yet there are countless ways the wrist can move and only some are correct — the bad variations can create problems.

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You be the offensive coordinator/quarterback: Dealing with the blitz

In my most recent post for Dr Saturday I discussed some of Florida’s struggles on offense. The particular topic was some of Florida’s struggles in pass protection in all phases: accounting for potential rushers, sustaining the blocks, the receivers getting open on time, and the quarterback delivering the ball on time. In the post I showed what went wrong on the play, as the video below shows.

But it’s much easier to show what went wrong than it is to answer: What would you have done differently? Specifically, let’s say you are the OC who can signal a play in or you are the quarterback with a menu of checks and calls at the line. Your squad lines up in five wide, on third and goal (your team is leading), and the other team is showing a man blitz. Here’s what you see (the receivers are all covered down by guys showing man-to-man).

1_empty

You know they have at least a possible six guys to blitz against your five, if not more if they don’t cover down on one of the slots at the snap. Below is a diagram of the play Florida had called — a double smash concept. Note that the rule for the outside receiver’s in man is to convert the route to some kind of pivot route to the outside.

1_EMPTYSMASH

So what do you do here? Here is a non-exhaustive list of options. You make the call.

  1. Stick with the play as called. Although they have one more guy than you can block, your other guys should protect well, the QB should step up in the pocket, and throw the corner route (or another route) before the blitzer gets there. It was an execution problem.
  2. Call timeout. You can’t block all their guys, and have a bad playcall. Try again.
  3. Check to a short, three-step pass. Yes it is third and goal but better to throw a short completion with a chance to run it into the end zone.
  4. Check to a three step fade pass. You need to throw it into the end zone but don’t have time for any other play that gets it into the end zone.
  5. No need for a check, but the play should have a “sight-adjust” built in, where if the QB and receivers both read blitz they break off their route for a slant. Yes this read can get muddied against zone blitzes, but this is the right situation for it. Everyone should read this on the fly.
  6. Check the play to a receiver screen. Same philosophy as the short pass — get it to an athlete with some room to run, though this time with some blockers.
  7. Check to a quarterback trap or draw. You have an excellent runner at quarterback, why not use him? Yes it is third and long but you avoid the dangerous play, and if you block the trap or draw right and their defenders are too aggressive, you might score.
  8. Stay with the same playcall, but make a call to shift one of the split receivers in tight to be an extra blocker. Yes they can always blitz one more than you can block, but might as well put on a full six-man gap scheme and force the extra rusher to come from further away.
  9. Shift a receiver in to act as a runningback for a more advanced run play, like the speed option or a zone read. This is basically a full audible with a change of formation and playcall. Note that the defense could adjust too, given this opportunity.
  10. Some other option I haven’t listed.

Now, no team would give their quarterback this many options at the line, but most teams give their quarterback the ability to get into at least three of these. Some (like the sight-adjust) is either built into the offense or it isn’t.

So what is it? You make the call.

Understanding coverages and attacking them with passing game

There are many qualities that a quarterback must possess. However, the most obvious is the QB’s ability to throw the football. Throwing the football requires a tremendous amount of coordination and teamwork for proper execution. The QB can make up for some deficiencies with proper reads. Whether it is the Pre-Snap Read, Reading on the Move, or Adjustments in routes, the QB’s recognition, anticipation and reaction are based upon his knowledge of the offense as it relates to what he sees.

Pre-snap read
The QB must make a “Pre-Snap Read” confirming the defensive secondary’s alignment. The PSR provides the QB with help in making the proper throwing decision; i.e., allows the QB to establish his thought process prior to the snap. There will be many times when the QB can determine what the coverage is before the snap. About eighty percent (80%) of the time the coverage will be given away by someone’s alignment in the secondary, typically the second defender inside. Even when the total coverage is not given away, through observation of particular alignments, you will be able to eliminate some coverages or narrow to a “Hard Focus” area. The QB must approach the LOS the same way every play and get his hands under the center. The PSR process includes a “Soft Gaze” left, middle and right. The purpose is to identify (1) the depth of the corners, (2) number of safeties, (3) weakside flat defender, and (4) the number of run defenders (“front”):

  • Find the Free Safety (“FS”) and Strong Safety (“SS”) to determine the type of front – seven-man or eight-man. If the safeties adjust to motion, be aware of a possible blitz.
  • Find the weakside linebacker (Whip (“W”)). This is a crucial read to recognize an outside blitz. It is the QB’s responsibility to adjust the protection to handle the outside blitz or allow the receivers to read “HOT.”

The PSR is only the first step in the throwing decision. The QB must identify the primary defender (the “Key”) to read (“Hard Focus”) and determine where to throw the ball. The Key is determined by the pattern and the related PSR. The ball is thrown based upon what the Key does within the QB’s line of sight. For example, on a strong side route the PSR must identify the SS. Upon the snap the strong safety can either man-up, cover the flat, cover deep third (1/3) or cover deep quarter (¼), and it is the SS’s action that allows the QB to decide where to throw the ball. Depending upon the route, the SS’s action might change the key (Reading on the Move [“ROM”]) to the Corner (“C”) or FS. The QB will make their throwing decision based upon what happens in his Hard Focus area and the related routes within the “line of sight”; i.e., does the Key rotate, invert or play man. When the QB keys defenders, not receivers, there are fewer throws into coverage.

Basic Coverages

A brief summary of coverages, including strengths, weakness, and how to attack them follows. The summaries include a place (“Patterns”) for the coach and QB to write in their specific routes to attack the coverages. These are the basic coverages: Invert (“sky”); Rotate (“cloud”); Two Deep, Man Under Two; Man with a Free; Man – Zero; Quarter, Quarter, Half; Zone Blitz; Robber; and Prevent.

Three Deep – Invert (“Sky”)

cover3
The PSR is based on the alignment of SS and C on the strong side. Teams will typically define the TE as the strong side, however a scouting report will provide this information. If the SS is aligned with less depth than the C, the read is an invert by the SS; i.e., the SS is covering the flat, if a receiver is in the flat. Confirm 3D coverage by the alignment of the FS. If the FS is off the hash and favoring the middle, assume that it will be a 3D. Also the QB must be aware of the weak side, if the Weakside Linebacker (“W”) is in a stack (lined-up behind a defensive lineman or end) or walk (off the LOS outside the end) position, it denotes a soft corner, with W responsible for the weak flat. If the end (“E”) is up on the LOS or in a three (3) point stance, assume he will rush. If you are throwing to the strong side upon the snap you can determine whether E is coming or has curl or flat.

- Strengths

  1. Safe – always three deep
  2. strong side force against the run
  3. SS can get under an out and may be able to get under a stop or flat depending upon the wide receiver splits
  4. can cover eight zones with a three man rush
  5. can still bring four with strong side contain and have seven in coverage

- Weaknesses

  1. Versus eight in coverage the defense can only rush three with five or more to block them
  2. four defenders underneath to cover the six zones – large curl and horizontal seams
  3. no leverage on wide receivers; i.e., cannot bump or push inside
  4. possibly late to cover stop and flat, both weak and strong
  5. cannot cover a strong side flood route (three or four receivers in the pattern) without E, then it is a three man rush
  6. weak flat
  7. weakside force

- How to attack it:

  1. Stretch vertically and horizontally
  2. plenty of pass protection
  3. throw in the alley created by sending three on two in the perimeter (“flood type” routes)
  4. weakside curl & flat
  5. sprint away from SS

Three Deep – Rotate (“Cloud”)
The goal of this coverage is to take away the short passing game or protect against the wide side of the field when the offensive formation is strong into the boundary (short side). The PSR is based on the alignment of the SS and the C. The SS must be deeper than normal in order to cover the deep middle or deep outside (is aligned deeper than the adjacent C), the read is a rotate by SS; i.e., SS is covering the deep middle or outside. Also, in this coverage the C to the side of the rotation will be tight (up close) on the wide receiver as they have the flat. The secondary can disguise this by having both Cs up and on the snap the away (from the rotation) C back peddles to deep third [1/3] quickly (“bails”). However, we can determine the side of the rotation by the position of the Outside Linebacker (“OLB”). The OLB, whether W or S away from the rotation must be stacked or walked off as they have flat away from the rotation. You can confirm the 3D by the alignment of the FS. If the FS is off the hash and favoring the middle, assume 3D.

- Strengths

  1. Safe – always three deep
  2. force (to the rotation) against the run
  3. leverage by the C (shut down weak flat or out)
  4. can cover eight zones with a three man rush
  5. can still bring four with force and contain to the rotation, and have seven (7) in coverage
  6. easy to disguise (more…)

The Patriots’ comeback play and Belichick on passing

bradyLast night saw the return of Tom Brady, and, in a wild finish, he led the Pats to a waning-minutes 25-24 victory. There were several remarkable aspects of the game, but the most interesting to me was that Belichick obviously made a choice to put the game in the hands of his great — but returning — quarterback. I discussed the nuances of the Pats’ passing game last week, but Brady’s two touchdowns last night were remarkable in that it was the exact same play against the same defensive scheme and the ball was thrown to the same receiver.

The play was a variant of “smash” to one side, with the tight-end, Ben Watson, running a post route. I don’t have all the possible reads and route adjustments available, but the Pats ran the play the same way both times. To the two receiver side the Pats ran the smash concept, with the inside receiver on a corner and the outside on a quick hitch. To the other side the outside receiver, Randy Moss, ran a type of under route, presumably to settle in a hole against zone or run away from man coverage. The runningback just ran the flat — Brady always had this option against man coverage to hit Kevin Faulk if he could outrun the linebacker.

Patriots-gamewinner

The tight-end of course ran a post route. His job was to jab like he was going to the corner (and I believe the Pats have run a variant where he ran a corner route), and then break for the post inside the near safety. The corner route on the other side runs away from the safety to his side. Brady’s job is to read the safeties first and if the corner or post doesn’t come open, work to the underneath guys. Both times last night, he didn’t get that far into his progression. The first time Watson was simply wide-open. On the second touchdown, the linebacker did a better job getting down the deep middle in a “Tampa Two” defense (Tampa two is simply cover two where a linebacker tries to get deep down the middle). But the pass was good and the catch even better, and the rest is history.

Here is a link to video of the Pats’ final two minutes, though it is low quality. Here is a link to Brady’s passing highlights from NFL.com; if you watch this you can see how often the Patriots ran the above play, though they often hit other receivers besides Watson, before hitting the game winners.

Relatedly, one of the ongoing questions was how the Pats’ offense would be after Josh McDaniels left. Brady recently told ESPN.com, “As long as we have Belichick, I always think that we’re going to be just fine.” Coach Bill knows offense, and is heavily involves. This gets to the other point that I enjoyed about last night: with Brady back, Belichick did not pull any punches, as, partly because the Pats got behind in the game, Brady threw it 53 times and set his own career record for completions with 39. Indeed, Belichick knows for Brady it is about getting reps to get the rust off. A lot of coaches take their rookie quarterbacks or a guy returning from injury and want to “ease them in.” Besides ignoring the fact that it is repetitions that make you better — you learn and improve by doing — the conservative playcalling often forces the passer into a lot of third and longs anyway.

But Belichick, never afraid of set his own path, knows that his team will rise and fall with Brady and he was going to let his guy throw it. Early on Brady was rusty, but that rust clearly began to wear off. It reminded me of Joe Tiller’s famous quotation when he first got to the Big 10 and caused waves by throwing it around sixty, or even eighty (!) times (against Wisconsin): “We’re going to throw it ’til we got hot, and then we’re going to keep throwin’ it.” It’s how you get better.

Finally, I wanted to highlight a great quote from Belichick about the passing game, passed along by Coach Mountjoy.

What the passing comes down to is the timing and execution. That’s true of every team in this league. It doesn’t matter what level you throw the ball at. It’s a combination of the throwing and the catching of the skill players and the protection of the blockers, which includes backs and tight ends. If a team pressures, they are involved in the protection, too. What you want to do is protect the quarterback. Whether you’re throwing three-step drop or seven-step drop or whatever the pattern is, protect him long enough so he can drop back and get set and throw the ball on time. The receivers need to get open and come open on time when the quarterback is ready to throw. Not a second before he’s ready, not a second after he’s ready. That’s just not the way to do it. You might get away with one here or there, but that’s not the way to do it. So all of that needs to be synchronized and if it is, then you have a well executed passing game. If it isn’t, then something’s going to go wrong. We are all part of that. Sometimes the receiver is open and the quarterback can’t throw. Sometimes the quarterback can throw and the protection is good and the receiver is not able to get open on the route, or the distribution of the receivers is wrong and then the quarterback doesn’t have a clear throwing lane. Sometimes the guy drops the ball. Sometimes the quarterback makes a bad throw. Sometimes it gets tipped. There’s a lot of things that could happen in the passing game.

If you throw the ball well, you’re completing in the mid-60s, the high 60 percents. Not 90 percent, that’s a good passing game. You’re completing 68, 67 percent of your passes, that’s good. If you’re the best passing team in football, you’re probably going to miss one out of three. The difference between hitting one or two more per game is the difference between having an okay passing game and having a good passing game.

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.

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Colt McCoy’s Texas passing game

Colt McCoy, University of Texas’s record-setting triggerman (and Heisman hopeful), is known for one thing above all else: his astounding accuracy. Indeed, he set the FBS single-season record for completion percentage last season, having completed 76.7 percent of his passing. For his career, McCoy has thrown for 9,732 yards and 85 touchdowns to only 33 interceptions, and has led the Longhorns to a 32-7 record as a starter.

11coltLast season, of course, was his best yet, as he averaged an impressive 8.9 yards per pass attempt and UT went 12-1. Yet the stats don’t necessarily sum up his accuracy: his coaches freely profess that he is the most accurate passer they have ever seen; it’s not just a matter of throwing a lot of checkdowns. He makes decisions quickly, sizes up the defense, and puts the ball right on his receivers’ numbers. So what concepts do Texas’s coaches, head coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis, use with McCoy?

In exploring that question, this is one of those great examples where understanding the Xs and Os doesn’t supplant appreciating the skills and talent of the player, but instead enhance it. McCoy is a triggerman in every sense of the word: he calls the checks, he is given a plethora of options on most plays, and Texas’s gameplan week-to-week is to basically hand him the ball and tell him to make it work. That’s not to say they don’t give him the tools — I like Texas’s schemes quite a bit — but it’s a system that takes advantage of McCoy’s special skills.

Texas’s favorite route concept, by far, is something known as the “two-man” game, known in some coaching circles as the “stick concept.” Texas runs their a little difference, but they also use it a great deal; it’s their number one concept by far. After that I’ll briefly overview Texas’s quick game or three-step drop passes, followed by some highlights of what Texas’s coaches dial-up when they want to get a little more vertical.

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My breakdown of USC’s offense through Chow, Kiffin, Sarkisian, etc

My weekly bit is now up at Dr Saturday. Check it out there. And, after the jump, is a video clip I made of some quick game concepts USC used under Chow that got cut from the main article for space reasons.

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