How to (and how not to) Throw the Bomb


A bomb is a bomb is a bomb? It all depends on your point of view. Photo by Delta Mike

This is one of my favorite posts in a while, because it is two very different angles of one play. The first angle will leave you shaking your head at the wide receiver. The second angle will provide a more sympathetic feeling towards him and less so for the quarterback. 

The bomb is one of the most awesome plays in football. A strong arm and a fast receiver capable of getting separation are the primary factors that the uninitiated considers most important. These physical skills work well in high school football, and often the college game.

Sometimes it even works in the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger scrambling past a road gang of pass rushers and finding the speedy Mike Wallace streaking behind the secondary is a good example. But even the casual fan realizes most teams don’t have a duo with the physical skills of Roethlisberger and Wallace to incorporate these chuck and duck plays into its offense. Moreover, new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley is trying to wean Roethlisberger from his flights from the pocket.

The reason is that the most efficient and successful deep throws come from the safety of the pocket or a moving pocket that’s created by a designed roll. These plays place as much or more emphasis on the skill of anticipation. I’ll always take a quarterback with strong anticipation but average to slightly below-average arm strength over a rifle-armed passer with below-average timing.

While studying Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones last week, I found a play that provides a illustration filled with visual cues of where proper anticipation should take place on a deep throw and at the same time, what happens when that anticipation doesn’t exist. The play is Jones’ first target of the second half, a 1st and 10 with 14:52 in the third quarter from a 12 personnel pistol set. The line is unbalanced to the narrow side of the field with twin receivers stacked to the wide side.

The unbalanced line paired with the Pistol formation makes this both a run- and pass-friendly formation.

The play begins with a brief play fake to the running back, which Jones does a good job of extending the ball to towards the back and then executing a quick pivot to face the line of scrimmage and track his receiver Kenny Stills running the deep post tot he wide side.

Selling the play fake helps the receiver get a jump on the cornerback and the safety.

Jones bounces on his toes a couple of times and then delivers a high-arching, pass that covers about 53-55 yards from its release point to the receiver into the end zone.

This frame captures the point where Jones just finishes his drop before he bounces on his toes couple of times. In many cases, the television broadcast doesn’t show what he’s watching. However, the replay gives a great angle.

What will be revealed shortly is that Jones should have taken one hitch and delivered the ball. Instead, he takes one hop . . .

We’ll see soon that the ball should be leaving Jones’ arm right now.

And then a second hop (and a quick third hop) . . .

Here’s where Jones begins his release for what should have been a 48-yard touchdown pass.

Jones’ seemingly accurate pass bounces off the shoulder of the receiver Kenny Stills, who is clearly a step behind the defensive back. However, the three times I showed Jones bouncing on his toes before delivering the ball and the high-arching pass that I didn’t show were clues that there was more to this play than meets the eye. While there’s no question that Stills should have caught the ball and that Jones’ throw was good enough for this play, the replay angle reveals that Jones’ lack of anticipation made this throw a more difficult target than necessary.

This camera angle gives us both the view of the receiver’s route and the quarterback watching its progress.

After the snap, we see Jones turning his back to the defensive line, which freezes the safety. The cornerback is dropping with eyes both on the quarterback and his assignment Stills, who is taking an initial release to the outside. This release is designed to help him widen the cornerback and find room to break inside for maximum separation.

Whenever a quarterback turns his back to the defense it’s a necessary cue for defenders to monitor.

What we need to remember is that the quarterback should have a clear idea of when the receiver is supposed to make his break in Sooners’ version of its route tree. Possessing this understanding helps the quarterback throw the ball with anticipation. One of the key aspects of throwing the ball with anticipation includes beginning the throw just before the receiver makes his break.

Just a step prior to the frame below, the receiver was at the top of his initial release and that is where Jones should have started his release. However what the picture shows is that Jones still has the ball in both hands and he’s hesitating with a hop as Stills begins his break across the face of the defender.

Jones is already late if he was hoping to make the perfect throw. However, he should see the cornerback’s inside shoulder and hips turned to the sideline as a second cue to release the ball.

When a receiver has a cornerback turned around like what’s seen in the photo above, the quarterback should get rid of the ball. One worst-case scenario is that the defender makes a desperate attempt to interfere with receiver because the quarterback’s aggressive throw forces the defender to react and admit defeat. The best-case scenario is that Jones’ release allows the receiver to continue running at top speed after his break to extend his initial separation that we’re about to see below.

Stills’ break forces the cornerback to stumble as he has to turn and adjust on the move. Yet, Jones is still watching with the ball in both hands. The ball should be out of his hands two frames ago.

The one factor that I haven’t mentioned above is the safety. However, there’s little reason Jones should even be considering the safety based on his alignment pre snap and his position just as the QB turns back to the line of scrimmage to look down field. In fact, if the quarterback throws the ball with good anticipation the placement will be in a location where the safety has no chance to make a play on the ball. This is because with good anticipation, Jones could have placed the ball just inside the hash and too far outside the safety, or early enough towards the middle of the field that the safety won’t have the time to catch up.

Unfortunately, Jones is hesitant about releasing the ball and wastes the receiver’s break that makes the cornerback lose his balance. When a quarterback waits too long he is forced to deliver the ball with more physical effort. One of the downsides of a harder throw is the increased possibility that he doesn’t maintain good form and the ball sails on him.

If the quarterback doesn’t compensate with a higher-velocity throw, which sometimes might be physically impossible due to the distance of the pass, the result will likely be a late pass that forces the receiver to slow down and give the defensive back time to recover. Top-flight defensive backs in college football have good recovering speed and most NFL defensive backs have it.

Finally, 10 yards after the last picture frame, Jones releases the ball. Ideally, the ball should be at least half way to the receiver by now, who has two steps on the cornerback a great opportunity to sustain, if not build, on his lead.

The frame above is the most telling indictment that Jones lacks anticipation here. He was looking for his wide receiver to get wide open. This won’t fly in the NFL. He has to look at the cues mentioned earlier because the only way a pro quarterback will succeed more often than he fails with the “wait until the receiver is wide open” cue is if there is no safety in the middle of the field. As most fans know, that doesn’t happen much.

With the ball now in the air, receiver Kenny Stills tracks the ball and it becomes apparent that he has to slow down or overrun the pass – a by-product of a late throw that can ruin a golden opportunity.

With Still’s body language leaning back to the ball and not driving forward, he’s clearly slowing down to adjust to the trajectory of the throw.

The combination of the high-arcing, late pass and Stills slowing down to get it, the cornerback begins to make up ground on the receiver. A few steps later, Stills is leaning back so much that his gait is dramatically slower and the cornerback has now cut his distance in half.

Uh-oh…

As the ball is just a split-second from coming over top the receiver and defensive back, the corner makes a play on the ball by making his leap within a dangerously close range of the receiver.

The corner actually mistimes his leap and comes dangerously close to an interference call. However, this late throw gives the defender time to force Stills to lose track of the ball and the result is a pass bouncing off the receiver’s body.

As the corner flies past Stills and the ball arrives, the receiver as a clear opening to make an uncontested catch. However, that brief flash of Iowa defender forces the receiver lose the ball in the air. I’d also argue the receiver still overran the late ball, which is a too QB-friendly way of saying Jones’ pass is massively under thrown.

This is not a case where “better late than never,” applies.

The two angles of this play show very different things. The first looks like a mistake by the receiver. The second is clearly a mistake by the quarterback. Keep that in mind when forming a conclusion about a passing play when the visual evidence is limited to one angle. This is what makes evaluation a difficult craft, because no one always has all of the angles.

For analysis of skill players entering the NFL, download the 2012 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse.

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5 comments

  1. When we’re talking about anticipation and deep throws, one guy comes to mind: Drew Brees. Compared to other quality QBs, Brees’ arm strength is only adequate; it’s his ability to recognize when a defender takes a false step and pull the trigger that makes the “bomb” aspect of the Saints offense work.

    Even when an offense isn’t working off play action and the throws are in the 18-25yd range, anticipation is essential. On plays like four verticals, QBs are coached to release the ball when the defender flips his hips (putting his back to the QB), and aim for open grass. The receiver’s job is to run to that open spot. When executed with accuracy and anticipation those throws are incredibly tough to stop.

  2. His form/mechanics don’t hurt either. Not to go down a rabbit hole that isn’t directly about anticipation, perse, buuuut…..

    I’m sure you’ve probably seen the episode of Sports Science with Brees on it. If you haven’t, YouTube that sumbitch. It does a lot to illustrate another reason why Brees is able to overcome his limited arm strength and, to a lesser degree, his limited stature: The guy is practically a robot when it comes to making throws. Almost every pass he throws is from the same slot, has the same velocity, has the same amount of spin, etc. (or as close to “the same” as can be feasibly expected for something like a throwing motion) It all seems to stem from having a “common setup” for his throws and then actually paying attention to how his kinetic chain functions(or at least that’s how I interpreted him explaining it in an interview once upon a time). I’m sure by now it’s second nature to him…or at least I’d guess it is…but then, maybe it isn’t. Maybe he is thinking about each part of the chain, as his motion moves down it, every time he makes a throw. Maybe that’s why he’s so accurate in general, and particularly on deep balls. Who knows?

    In a sense, that all does circle back to what Wildman is saying about Jones here. Jones adds in the crow hops, the toe taps, etc., and that throws off his anticipation, which throws off his timing, which throws off his accuracy on the deep ball in the example. In comparison, Brees would never add in the toe taps, crow hops, etc. because that isn’t what he has ingrained into his muscle memory as how his kinetic chain works. So, as a result, his anticipation isn’t compromised, which in turn doesn’t effect his timing, which ultimately leaves his accuracy unhindered most of the time.

    Brees certainly isn’t an elite athlete, but he has elite understanding of not only how to read/react to formations, but also of how his body actually works. I think it’s easy for an athlete to fall into the trap of just getting by on physicality alone, which at least in part, is probably what’s happening in the case of Jones here. If elite athletes were more willing to pair that athleticism with the understanding guys like Brees have….

    • You got it. Great comment 5-ish – when technique is refined so it is second nature, precision follows. It’s difficult to play the game at the highest level if the technique isn’t consistent and you highlight that difference well. Look at Kerry Collins. He was considered a top prospect when he entered the league. Immaturity off the field aside, the reason he’s never been more than a solid starting quarterback is that he never displayed the consistency of technique to elevate his game beyond a big guy with a big arm and some basic accuracy.

  3. Yeah, Collins is an excellent example of the other side of this. He had all the measurables in the world(size, big arm, etc.), but his flawed technique/mechanics(he threw a football almost like he was throwing a baseball) undermined them.

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