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Archive for November, 2008

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the most innovative defensive minds in the National Football League. He is credited with the invention of the zone blitz, a concept that has become common place in today’s NFL and upper tier of college programs. He is consistently able to confuse quarterbacks and offensive lines, resulting in the Steelers having the best defense in the league this year. His defense will constantly crowd the line of scrimmage making the offense guess as to who will be rushing the passer and who will be dropping into pass coverage. The defense is also in constant movement before the ball is snapped. Linebackers walk to the line, back up, jump over two gaps, anything to keep the offense on their toes. They don’t stand still until right before the ball is snapped making it very difficult for an offensive line to adjust their blocking schemes to account for all the potential rushers. Here is a modified example of a zone blitz the Steelers used against Cincinnati last week. Here the cornerback will blitz from the outside through a designed gap in the offensive line:

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The idea behind this play is to confuse the offensive line, and overload one side. Since the offensive left tackle has a defensive end outside of him, he has to be ready to drop back in his pass blocking steps. The left guard sees the linebacker up on the line, ready to blitz, and has to be ready to pick him up. The center is responsible for blocking the nose guard. The defense will show blitz with the inside linebacker over the right guard. This means the guard has to pick up the blitzing linebacker and the right tackle is responsible for the defensive end over his face. Here, the nose guard is going to go to the A gap on the center’s left side, and the linebacker will blitz the A gap on the center’s right. The offensive line believes that there will be a five man rush, which they should be able to handle with five offensive linemen. The running backs can chip block rushers on the ends and get into the flats.

The defensive end on the offense’s right side is going to make sure he comes with a speed rush up field, getting on the outside shoulder of the tackle; this will do two things. First, it will cause the tackle to go up field with him and start to clear a lane for the blitzing cornerback. Second, if he does the speed rush effectively, the running back will feel he has to help block the defensive end slowing down the running back’s route and leaving a great lane for the corner to make the sack, untouched.

Since the corner back is going to be blitzing, the safety will take a few steps closer to the line and take the wide receiver in man coverage. The defensive end on the offensive left side is going to drop back into pass coverage and will have the hook-to-curl zone along with the middle linebacker that stayed back in pass coverage. Since the left tackle was accounting for the defensive end in front of him to rush the passer, the tackle has dropped back in pass blocking steps but has found himself standing alone. For a defense, an offensive lineman that is not blocking anyone is a great scenario because he is effectively occupied by no one. This play practically gives the defense six pass rushers (since the left tackle is standing alone and occupied by a phantom defender) and six men in pass coverage, twelve on eleven is a great matchup anytime you can get it.

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This is the play as it develops. It shows the lane that is created for the cornerback to fly untouched at the quarterback. The linebacker and defensive end are sitting in pass coverage, and once they see their corner come through this lane, their attention is going to focus on the running backs coming out of the backfield because the running backs are the quarterback’s check down options for when he gets in trouble. The defensive end that dropped back will be a little more hesitant to abandon his zone because he has a slot receiver coming though, but once he sees the quarterback panic he will come up to take away the check down. On this play, Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t even able to get the ball up ready to throw before he was taken down by the cornerback.

The Steelers do not always have to bring five rushers to get pressure on the quarterback. Here they will bring four pass rushers and still get a quick sack. They will do this by creating favorable match-ups. On this play the Steelers have a nickel package in the game (5 defensive backs). The defense will be playing a Nickel Cover 2 Man Under OLB Blitz with a Spy.

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The nickel back on this play is going to start in the inside linebacker position lined up over the right guard. But, he is going to switch places with the actual inside linebacker just before the play starts. A defensive back on the slot receiver is a much more effective matchup for the defense than a linebacker on the slot receiver. The Steelers are, instead, going to put a linebacker man-to-man on a tight end, this is still an advantage for the offense but it is less of an advantage. At first glance, the offensive line should be able to handle this blitz. Ideally, the center would account for the nose guard, even though he is not going to rush, the left guard will block the defensive end and the left tackle will take the blitzing outside linebacker. However, the inside linebacker over the guard is going to show blitz, this means that the guard has to account for him. When he drops back to cover the tight end the guard will be left blocking air, once again an advantage for the defense. This means that the running back will be responsible for picking up the blitzing outside linebacker, a huge advantage for the defense. There are only a few running backs in the league that can handle a blitzing linebacker on their own. It is even more difficult when the linebacker comes off the edge and is untouched before he gets to the running back.

On the other side the defense is going to create a favorable matchup by putting their best rush linebacker up against the offensive right tackle. For a right-handed quarterback, the best offensive lineman is put at left tackle to protect the quarterbacks blind side. This means the defense has their best rush linebacker against, at best, the offense’s second best lineman. Since the running back is occupied on the other side and the inside linebacker is blitzing over the guard, the tackle has the blitzing linebacker man-on-man with no help. Because this play is designed to get a quick up field rush, the nose guard is going to sit back and spy the backfield watching for a screen pass (since that is typically how you beat blitz happy defenses).

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Here is the situation as the play develops. The offense is running a post, vertical combination on the right side. They want the safety on their right(in cover 2) to pick a receiver to help on and leave the other receiver in man coverage. The problem is it takes a few seconds to develop, that gives the Steelers enough time to get to the quarterback. The quarterback’s pre-snap reads should have told him to make the tight end a priority since he is man-to-man with a linebacker (green circle). The problem is the quarterback doesn’t know until the snap if the outside linebacker or middle linebacker will be covering the tight end. If he tries to guess and guesses wrong, an interception is very likely. The match-ups the defense has created are circled in red. These represent the running back trying to handle an untouched outside linebacker and the right tackle trying to handle the linebacker’s speed rush on the other side. In this play, against the Ravens, the two linebackers easily blew past their blockers and hit the quarterback from either side at the same time.


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Cornerbacks are at a natural disadvantage when in man-to-man coverage. They must react to the wide receivers, and try to predict which route they will run. In order to compensate for that, corners will often sit back, anywhere from 7-12 yards off the line of scrimmage. When that cushion starts to reach the 10 yard mark, coaches try to throw quick hitter passes with the idea that their receiver can catch the ball, make the defender miss an open field tackle, and get down the field for a good gain. The problem is that many coaches, especially at lower levels, will try to throw a short hitch route (2-3 yards down field). However, rarely do high school and small college teams have quarterbacks with the arm strength to be able to get the ball to the receiver in time for him to make a move before the corner can close the gap.

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If you really want to run a hitch route effectively you have to get the cornerback to turn his back to the line of scrimmage. The only way to do this with a big cushion like this is for the receiver to drive past the corner, selling a deeper route, then plant a foot in the ground and come back. The ball needs to hit the receiver right after makes his change of direction. This is the only way to get the corner turned around and out of position. If you throw a hitch in front of a corner like this the corner has the receiver in front of him the whole time and can read the play easily.

Instead of trying to throw the ball to a receiver while a corner closes from the other side, the wide receiver screen allows the receiver to back track and create more space, and it makes the throw a shorter, easier throw for the quarterback. Here is a sample wide receiver screen pass from a single back doubles left formation against a 3-5-3 defense with the outside linebackers up on the line (really it looks more like a 5-3 because the outside linebackers have containment responsibilities, this is a popular defense among high school and small college teams). A team may also bring the defensive tackle further inside and put the outside linebacker up on the ball, a step outside the tackle, this should not change any assignments.

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In this example, the quarterback will drop back to try and draw the outside linebacker and defensive tackle up field, then throw the ball where they were. The slot receiver will start out on the ball to give him a shorter route to the cornerback, and the outside receiver will start off the ball to make sure that the pass is easily caught behind the line of scrimmage (so the linemen can get down field legally). The tackle will get down field after showing pass to block to draw the outside linebacker up field on a pass rush. The tackle will block the defender that had the slot receiver in man coverage. This block should be made easier by the fact that the defender on the slot has his eyes glued to the slot receiver; as soon as he sees pass he will take a few steps in coverage toward the sideline. The guard will have the toughest block on this play because he is trying to seal off the linebacker who is lined up over his face. Hopefully, the linebacker will take a few steps back into pass coverage and the guard can at least get in front of the defender if he can’t manage to turn his butt to the sideline. The tight end running a vertical route will hopefully make the safety take a few steps to his left (offenses right) and should give the wide receiver a better gap to get through (the red lines). Then the receiver can make a catch running towards the quarterback, behind the line of scrimmage, and have a full head of steam to turn up field and start reading blocks. This gives the receiver an advantage over the hitch where he has to make the catch, turn, and make a move from a dead stop on a corner that has a full head of steam.

An interesting variation on this play would be to swing the running back out to the side of the screen pass. This would give you an effective option read on the outside linebacker who has contain responsibilities and is probably in charge of covering anyone who crosses his face into the flats. If the outside linebacker started to figure this play out and sit on the screen route then the swing pass would be open and the running back would be able to read the same blocks, simply catching the ball headed toward the sideline. Arm strength is not a factor because the quarterback is simply floating the pass out about 10-12 yards to his left.

The quick slant is another great way to take advantage of the big corner cushion, and give the quarterback an easy read and throw. This play is a single back trips left formation to help clear out the middle of the field for the receiver on the right side. This should help move the linebackers out of the way, keeping this a simple read for the quarterback. The defense here is the same 5-3 look from the play above (although, as stated above, the defense may bring the defensive tackle down to a 3 technique and put the outside linebacker/defensive end outside the tackle in a 5 technique, it just depends on the defense).
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This play is going to be designed as a quick 1-step or at most 3-step drop for the quarterback. The right guard and tackle will cut their defenders to keep their hands down and help create a passing lane for the quarterback.  Because the cut blocks are quick blocks, the quarterback will have to deliver the ball on the slant, maybe check to the back on the left, or throw the ball into the third row on the left side (the deep verticals will give him a receiver in the area to avoid intentional grounding). The two verticals on the left are used to draw the safety away from the slant.  The big cushion the corner is giving the receiver allows for the receiver to get a free release. Here, the receiver is on the ball so he will take one step down field, with his eyes down field to freeze the corner, then, as soon as he breaks inside the ball should be on its way. The pass should not be completed more than 4-5 yards down field, or else the cornerback will have a chance to get back in and become a factor.

There are some easy variations on this play as well. Once again, if the outside linebacker starts to read the cut block and begins to interrupt the slant lanes, swing the running back out to the other side to give the quarterback an easy check down and only requires him to read one side of the field. I started this play sending the running back away from the slant to keep the middle linebacker from moving with the back and getting in the way of the passing lane. Also, the inside vertical can be changed to a post, and the cut blocks can be turned into regular pass blocks if the quarterback wants to stretch the field to the left side. This will allow the quarterback to read the safety, if he picks to help on the post; the quarterback has a 1-on-1 on the outside, and vice versa. If both deep routes are covered, the quarterback can check down to the mid-range out, then check down to the running back in the flats, probably covered by an outside linebacker.

These are a few of the offensive concepts that can be used to counter moves made by an opposing defense. After the big cushion is beaten a few times with these easy throws, the defense may decide to play bump and run coverage, or switch to a zone defense, there are plenty of ways to counter these moves as well. Football is often described as a violent chess match; this is an example of some of the strategy involved.

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Adrian Peterson made one of the smoothest transitions to the NFL of any running back in recent memory. He immediately stepped into the league, and rushed for 1,341 yards. He also set the single game rushing record (296 yards) against one of the leagues best defenses, the San Diego Chargers with Shawn Merriman. He was able to do this so easily because he had already learned the skill that keeps most rookie running backs from thriving immediately, patience. Patience is not standing in the backfield until the play develops, it is the ability to figure out, before the play, how the play may develop and then, go through a block reading progression to decide which hole to cut through. Here is a play the Vikings used in 2007 against San Diego, it resulted in a big gain for Peterson (but on that day, most of his runs were big gains):

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This is a common NFL play. It is an all reach stretch read play from a single back formation. Basically, the entire line is going to try and reach the man to their left. The key to run blocking is giving the line easy angles on the defenders, hard angles need to have options to make them easier for the linemen. The hardest reach blocks will be the tight end trying to reach the outside linebacker, and the left tackle trying to get turned on the defensive end. Therefore, these lineman are given a decision to make. They will take their two steps outside and if they are still inside their man and cannot get the reach block, they simply turn their butts inside and drive their men to the sideline. This gives them a great advantage, they simply take the defender wherever the defender wants to go. As soon as the butts turn Peterson can go through his block read progression.

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Here is the play when Peterson makes his cut. The blocks in the blue circles are his first priority reads. If the tight end and tackle can reach the defenders then Peterson will stretch to the sideline, but if the defenders are aggressively pursuing up field, as in this play, Peterson will cut inside his blocks, which are now effectively kick out blocks. As soon as Peterson makes this decision his eyes go inside to the blocks in the green circles. These reach blocks are easier because they have more effective angles (down field, not just straight down the line). The left guard is going to make sure that the defensive tackle lined up over him does not cross his face, then the guard will try to get to the linebacker. By making sure the defensive tackle doesn’t cross his face (forcing the tackle to go behind him) the defensive tackle has run himself out of the play, the Vikings bet that Peterson can outrun a defensive tackle when given a head start. The center is going to get to the second level and decide which linebacker is the biggest threat. Here the backside linebacker came up field first and then started to pursue, allowing the right tackle to tie him up. So, the center will read this and help with a double team on the play side linebacker. Once Peterson cuts through the hole he is in a foot race with the safety, make the safety miss and it is a touchdown (the safety ended up catching him 20+ yards down the field).

Peterson perfected this ability to read blocks by running a similar offense at Oklahoma. Here is a closely related play that Peterson scored on while at Oklahoma:

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This is an I formation with two tight ends left (after the motion) off tackle lead. This play has a couple of combination blocks that Peterson will have to read. The key block here is both of the tight ends on the defensive end. The end does not have contain responsibilities, the outside linebacker will have that responsibility, so the end is a little more unpredictable. If the offense is lucky enough for the defensive end to stunt inside this will be a touchdown. The tight end off the ball will hit the defensive end until the tight end on the ball can turn his butt to the sideline, once this block is locked the outside tight end will come off the block and look for the inside linebacker on the play side.  The tackle and guard will be playing the same game, they are responsible for the defensive tackle and weak side inside linebacker. The center and weak side guard will be doing a cross block, once again because the guard will have a flatter angle and a better chance at cutting off the weak side linebacker. He does this because if the strong side linebacker hesitates and the left tackle thinks he can make it, the left tackle will go after the strong side linebacker since he is a bigger threat to the play. This gives the offense a double team on the biggest obstacle to this play. Finally, the fun block here is the fullback kicking out the outside linebacker. This will be an easy, fun block because the outside linebacker has contain responsibilities so he is going to move up field unblocked. As soon as he crosses the line he will get met by the fullback going full speed, this is an easy angle for the fullback.

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Here is the read progression once again for Peterson. Here he only going to have one initial block to read The fullback will have the outer most defender. Once the fullback hits the defender and makes it obvious that he will kick out the defender Peterson cuts up and starts reading his secondary progression. When Peterson sees that both of these blocks have successfully sealed their defenders to the inside he makes a break through the hole and to the sideline, once again in a foot race with the safety (since it is college, Peterson easily outruns the safety).

Peterson’s  above average acceleration ability gave him a tool to be more successful, sooner, than most backs. However, backs come into the league every year with great acceleration. Peterson’s ability to go through block read progressions made his transition to the NFL much smoother than most back’s.

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Tim Tebow has had outstanding success (including a Heisman trophy) during his career at Florida under Urban Meyer, both through the air and on the ground. The key is the advanced reads he is able to make within the spread option offense. The wide spread formations clear out the middle of the field for Tebow’s middle options and when defenses load the box, Tebow is able to read a run option and pull the ball back to make a throw down the field.

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This play gives Tebow the option to read the outside linebacker on his left. If the outside linebacker comes up field, Tebow pulls the ball down and rolls out to the left. The outside linebacker will have to stop, make sure Tebow still has the ball, then change direction and give chase to Tebow, this gives him plenty of time to read down field and make a throw.

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Here Tebow sees the cornerback on the left follow his receiver in motion to the slot position and knows that he has full man coverage, no safety help anywhere, and both outside linebackers will be blitzing the from the edges. As soon as Tebow receives the snap his eyes will focus on the outside linebacker, he will put the ball in the running back’s gut, then once the linebacker commits to the run option, Tebow yanks the ball back and sprints to the sideline. Once Tebow is outside the linebacker he is looking down field to see which receiver has beaten their man. Since there is no safety help, as soon as a receiver gets a step Tebow is going to fire. He also knows that because there is no safety help his first read is the deepest route and he will check down from deep to middle to shallow. This read is made easy because the receivers are running parallel at varying depths.

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Here is the play as it develops, the outside linebacker is not a concern as a pass rusher despite being left unblocked because he committed inside to the run option, causing Tebow to pull the ball and roll out. In this situation the running back and tight end have both beat their men and are open, but Tebow’s first look is to his wide receiver running a deep out. As soon as Tebow sees the corner playing the receivers inside shoulder, he knows that he will throw deep when the receiver comes out of his break.

Tebow is not just a threat throwing the ball in this spread option offense; he also makes a living as a running threat in the ground option game. Here is a unique double option that Florida runs:
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This play is very unique; the running back to Tebow’s right will take off immediately after the snap and run to the sideline before cutting up field. Meanwhile, the slot receiver that has motioned to just behind Tebow will run even with Tebow right from the snap. Here Tebow will initially read the outside linebacker on the right and decide to pitch to the slot or keep the ball. If the linebacker runs to cover the pitch man Tebow will cut up field, this is basic option football. But, Florida runs a unique variation where once Tebow passes the initial read he immediately focuses on the corner moving up field. If this corner sprints at Tebow, he can pitch to the running back who, because of his wide angle is now even with Tebow after the initial read. In most cases, the cornerback will either be lost if he started chasing the receiver in man coverage, or will react too slowly to force Tebow to pitch the ball.

Florida does an outstanding job of using the option to put the defense in no win situations. They have many plays where Tebow can handoff for a run or pull back for a pass, giving him the ability to take advantage of any look the defense gives him. These multiple threats in this offense are what have lead to Tebow’s outstanding numbers over the past two seasons.

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Peyton Manning is arguably the best quarterback in the NFL today. When the offense is clicking on all cylinders Manning is able to put up great numbers and seemingly put together scoring drives at will. Manning’s ability to read defenses pre-snap and change the play accordingly is a big part of his success and the part that usually gets him the most attention. However he does two other things that are fairly simple fundamentals, but he uses them very effectively.

Hard Count

A quarterback’s hard count can be a great weapon at any level of play. The quarterback can use the hard count in two ways. The first and most common use of the hard count is to try and either draw the defensive line offside or to help negate a pass rush by keeping the defensive line guessing as to when the ball will be snapped. The second way that Peyton Manning uses the hard count is to reveal defensive assignments. If you watch Manning on any Sunday you will see him give a hard, convincing “hutt hutt,” watch his eyes as he does this. He keeps his eyes glued to the linebackers and defensive line. Many times his hard count will cause a linebacker to fall a few steps forward revealing his intentions to blitz. Manning then steps back and makes adjustments to his offensive line’s blocking scheme or he makes a hot route call to a tight end or receiver to fill the open area. Manning knows that the linebacker that has just revealed his assignment has to decide to either continue with the blitz, despite the offensive adjustment, or he can call off his own blitz. The fact is if the linebacker decides at the last moment not to blitz the rest of the defense has to adjust their assignments to account for this change, this will typically cause a bit of confusion in the defensive backfield and Manning is usually able to take advantage.

Play Action

Play action passes are a staple of the Colt’s offense, but every team in the league uses play action, why are Manning’s play fakes so much more effective? Two reasons, the first is, unlike many quarterbacks, Manning puts the ball out on the play fake, not just an empty hand. This keeps a linebacker from seeing an empty fake hand and dropping into coverage. But more importantly, as soon as Manning pulls the ball back from the play fake he snaps his head around and immediately sets his eyes on the linebackers to see which players fell for the fake and find the open spot. Then he uses a hop step to get his feet set, thus allowing him to throw an accurate and effective ball.

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Graham Harrell outplayed Colt McCoy, plain and simple. Sure, it helps that Harrell had the best receiver in college football to throw to, but even outside of that last play from scrimmage Harrell was showing that he, at least on that night, was far more accurate with his passes than McCoy. Both quarterbacks received pressure, both were sacked, other times, both got great time to deliver a ball; Harrell’s passes, in all situations were better. Harrell showed he had superior accuracy, and arm strength.

Arm Strength

Arm strength for a quarterback is not just the ability to throw a deep ball. Both Harrell and McCoy showed the ability to stretch the defense by throwing the ball downfield, but Harrell showed superior arm strength on what many scouts deem the best test for true game style arm strength, the deep out. This route requires the quarterback to throw the ball only about 12-15 yards down the field in most cases, however throwing the ball to a receiver moving away from the quarterback makes this throw farther, and more challenging. Increasing the significance of this throw is that if the route is undercut and the ball doesn’t get there fast enough, an interception is likely a touchdown going the wrong way for the quarterback. Here is an example of a play from last night where Harrell showed his arm strength:

This is a basic example of Mike Leach wanting to stretch the field with a middle cross and deep routes to the outside. Micheal Crabtree was the receiver lined up wide to the right, he will garner special attention from the defense. The defense is in a cover 3 over the top, and 5 players in zone coverage (really 4 in zones with the cornerback’s eyes glued to Crabtree). This means that the cornerback on the left knows he has the deep 1/3 of the field on his side, meaning no safety is helping him over the top, he is the last line of defense. Harrell knows that this will leave the the deep portion of the field on that side susceptible to the out. The corner will honor the vertical passing game and stay in his backpedal until he is convinced that the route is not an out and up (the route Crabtree is running on the other side). Here is the play a few seconds later:

Here you can see that because the out route is at about 14 yards, the linebackers, playing the hook-to-curl zones, have dismissed Eric Morris (the receiver running the deep out) to the safeties. The outer most linebacker moves inside to pick up the underneath route of the crossing pattern, this helps to clear out Harrell’s passing lane. As soon as Morris comes out of his break, and Harrell sees the safety sitting back 3 yards behind Morris, he lets loose a pass that goes only 14 yards down the field but about 31 yards horizontally toward the sideline. He not only get the ball there, he gets the ball there in a hurry and on a rope. The ball gets very little elevation off the ground (minimal arcing motion) and gets to Morris before the safety has a chance to undercut the route. The safety tries to jump in front of Morris but the ball gets there faster than he anticipated causing the safety to not only miss the breakup, but he puts himself out of position to make the tackle after the catch leading to a second quarter touchdown.

Accuracy

My favorite play to point to from last night, from all season actually, for Graham Harrell’s Heisman campaign came late in the third quarter.

Here the outside receiver is running a simple fade route and the defense is in a cover 2. Harrell is going to time his throw to hit this receiver during the transition period from the cornerback to the safety. The corner will follow the receiver for about 6 yards then leave him for the safety as the corner moves back toward the line to refill his zone. The safety will start with a backpedal because he has deep responsibilities but when he sees the corner abandon the receiver he knows that receiver is now his to cover. The safety comes running up field in unison with the corner leaving him and Harrell hits the receiver moments before the safety can get there to break up the pass. Not only was it great timing, without pinpoint accuracy, the throw would have been picked off. Harrell saw the defense pre-snap and knew he would have this tiny seem in the zones. When he saw the safety fly towards the receiver Harrell threw the ball right above the receivers inside shoulder. Generally, the rule for a fade is to throw over the receivers outside shoulder, but Harrell’s throw to the inside shoulder gave the receiver, and only the receiver, a chance to catch the ball.

Here you can see that if Harrell leads the receiver (the blue target) as you would generally do on a fade route the safety would come up field and either intercept or break up the pass. If Harrell were to throw the ball behind the receiver and low (the red target) it would put the ball in an area that would give the cornerback a chance to make a diving deflection and even if the receiver makes the spinning catch the safety coming up field would deliver a big blow to the receivers back probably breaking up the pass. Instead, Harrell throws just above the back shoulder (the green target). This is a place that gives the receiver a chance to jump and protect himself from a big hit, it puts the ball in a place where the safety cannot get it, and makes the recovering cornerback a non-factor.

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