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 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.
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.
What will be revealed shortly is that Jones should have taken one hitch and delivered the ball. Instead, he takes one hop . . .
And then a second hop (and a quick third hop) . . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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