If you didn’t see yesterday’s post, there’s more analysis of Kendall Wright’s routes here.
I love the intellectual component of football. There’s rich material to explore with every position, unit and team from the perspective of technique and strategy. It’s what I do here almost daily.
But to say football is essentially an intellectual game is horseshit. It’s far and away an emotional game. Hitting might require a technical component to doing it the right way, but it also requires violence to do it properly and violence is an emotional act.
Think I’m wrong? Take up boxing or a martial art and spar with an opponent. There’s a big difference between knowing how to move, hit, or block a hit and putting it all together while you’re getting hit by someone. That difference is confidence and toughness and both require the ability to channel emotion in a positive direction.
It’s why some professional fighters have limited technique but they still become champions over opponents with a fantastic assortment of knowledge. It’s why some athletes and even performing artists nail it in practice, but can’t do it half as well in front of an audience. And it’s the reason why football techniques and strategy have to be ingrained like it’s second nature.
There’s little time to think when 200-300 pounds of grown man is flying at you like he’s shot out of a cannon. This is intense emotional stimuli that can send the best laid strategy to the crapper. This opportunity to experience the high that comes from physically dominating another human being is one of the things that most football players miss long after they retire.
Physical contact stimulates intense emotions. Most people think of sex, but its just as true with violence. This is why my friend Tres, a little league football coach who runs a basic offense with few thrills and fewer plays, seeks first and foremost from a young football player is the comfort level with hitting and taking a hit.
We like to think that all players that ascent to the collegiate ranks are comfortable with hitting, but we all have a different thresholds of violence that we can take or dish out. Most of us never have the chance to experience the outer reaches of our limits. Football players might bump against it several times a season.
I’m sharing this because today I’m profiling three plays from two players – one from Baylor receiver Kendall Wright and two from Eagles (and I bet soon-to-be reunited Giants) receiver Steve Smith when he was at USC – and I want you to understand that I respect the risks wide receivers take going across the middle of the field even when they display a reticence to take a hit. Every player has a limit to what kind of punishment he’s willing to take on a given play. There are some that reach that limit too frequently to perform at the highest level of football. And there are some that incredibly enough, we rarely ever see them encounter that situation in live action.
I think Kendall Wright falls in between these two extremes and likely more in the range that will make him a quality professional. However today, I’m showing a play where Wright blinks in the face of violence because I think there are some things he can do from an intellectual-technical standpoint that in the future can help him stare down the violence without blinking. These are plays that earn players that second contract in the NFL. For a wide receiver, these receptions are “money catches.”
Wright’s opportunity at a money catch against Oklahoma State comes on a 1st and 10 with 9:10 in the half from an 11-personnel, 2×1 receiver pistol. You could technically say the tight end over right guard is a fullback, but I’m not.
Wright is the single receiver on the near side of the field with a CB 10 yards off the line and both safeties in, or approaching, the box. This indicates the possibility of single coverage for Wright and the chance to get open down the seam or the middle of the field if at least one of the safeties stays true to his pre-snap position. In this case, the strong safety blitzes off the edge and the free safety drops to the middle of the field.
After the play fake, the quarterback delivers a slant that is a little high and wide of target. However this is still a pass that Wright should have corralled. The Baylor receiver finds the open zone right away and doesn’t require any trickery to get to the spot.
The ball arrives high with a safety looming four yards over top from the spot Wright leaps to catch the ball. Ultimately Wright drops the ball before the safety even is within range to make contact with the receiver. However, look at the angle Wright has taken to break on the ball. His head, shoulders, and chest are all directly facing the oncoming safety. While he will still be expected to catch the ball in this position, the veteran play is to take an angle where the body can be used as a shield between the defender and the ball.
This isn’t always possible, but in this case the ball arrives at Wright’s inside hand as he’s leaping for the pass. Wright could have turned inside towards the ball, catch it at this early window of arrival away from his body, and use his back to shield the impact of a potential blow from the free safety. The easiest way to do this would have been to make the break on his slant a little flatter. The harder way would have been to make the turning adjustment I just suggested.
This is one of the most difficult plays in football because the outcome as the receiver’s feet hit the ground is contact from a defender with a running start.
It’s easy to assume that the QB hung out Wright to dry on this play, but there’s a lot about how a receiver executes his break that could have changed this perception.
Steve Smith makes the money catches. If he finished the 2010 season healthy in New York, there’s little chance he’s not with the team in 2011 because he makes the kinds of catches that pro quarterbacks prize. It was a skill Smith displayed at the college level.
Here’s a 1st and 10 skinny post from USC’s 21-personnel, offset I formation with receivers 1×1 versus the Washington State Cougars 4-3 with 6:54 in the first quarter from this game in 2006.Smith is the near side receiver at the bottom of the screen circled in yellow. Smith is going to motion towards the formation and released up the seam before breaking late on the ball to the middle of the field.
The next two frames you’re going to see how Smith deals with imminent contact on a play where he’s facing down the prospect of a violent hit.
What Smith does in the next frame is turn up field as he makes the reception and he hopes this change of angle either forces the the safety misses his angle so Smith can continue down field for the score or it eliminates a direct shot and only offers a glancing blow with a hit that doesn’t involve contact with the ball.
Now look at the hit below and you’ll see this is exactly how the contact plays out.
When the hit comes, it’s a far less violent collision and a far more productive result than what we saw from Kendall Wright’s target. However there was a greater chance for Smith to get hit in the chest on this play where he had been running down field for a longer period of time and there was more momentum from both the receiver and the defender as well.
This play jumps off the film because it demonstrates strong technique, hand-eye coordination, intelligence, and toughness. There’s also an intuitive understanding of angles that comes with a lot of work. It’s why I’m a big fan of Steve Smith’s game.
Smith gets a chance to earn his future NFL contract once again with 12:52 in the game from a 10-personnel, 1×3 receiver set as the outside man in a trips set bunched tight to the line.
This time he is unable to make the turn because he juggles the ball before he takes the hit and that takes away the split second of time to turn his body away from the contact.
One thing Smith does as the ball arrives is get his head around early in the break and look the ball into his hands. This not only keeps him focused on the ball and away from the oncoming defender, but it helps him make a play on the pass at the earliest opportunity. And this this case the face that his hands are away from his body and in front of his left shoulder makes a big different in the outcome of the play, because he initially juggles the pass.
Note the angle of Smith’s head focused on looking the ball into his hands hands rather than looking at the oncoming safety. Even the body position says “concentration.” These small behaviors tell a significant story about a receiver’s ability.
Although the contact lifts Smith off his feet and onto his back within a split second, he maintains possession of the ball.
Kendall Wright is a better deep threat than Steve Smith, but if he can learn to run routes like the NFL veteran, he could become one of the better receivers in the league.
For more analysis like this at every skill position, purchase the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Pre-order the 2012 RSP and buy past RSPs (2006-2011) here.