Separating The Dark From The Dark: QB Tyler Wilson, Victim or Perpetrator?

Prologue: M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School by Phillip Levine

Even 2.9 seconds of football can generate an hour of analysis. Photo by Erik Daniel Drost.

I love the phrase “separating the dark from the dark.” It signifies that we never have certainty about anything despite the fact that we often want to manufacture a world filled with absolutes. Life is rarely black and white. Pulitzer Prize winning writer Phillip Levine, a former factory worker who often writes about work-class life in Detroit, draws a great portrait of this phrase in his work, M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School. I see this phenomenon when I’m studying football. Especially the analysis in this post.

He made the line on the blackboard,

one bold stroke from right to left

diagonally downward and stood back

to ask, looking as always at no one

in particular, “What have I done?”

From the back of the room Freddie

shouted, “You’ve broken a piece

of chalk.” M. Degas did not smile.

“What have I done?” he repeated.

The most intellectual students

looked down to study their desks

except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised

her hand before she spoke. “M. Degas,

you have created the hypotenuse

of an isosceles triangle.” M. Degas mused.

Everyone knew that Gertrude could not

be incorrect. “it is possible.”

Louis Warshowsky added precisely,

“that you have begun to represent

the roof of a barn.” i remember

that it was exactly twenty minutes

past eleven, and I thought at worst

this would go on another forty

minutes. It was early April,

the snow had all but melted on

the playgrounds, the elms and maples

bordering the cracked walks shivered

in the new winds, and I believed

that before I knew it I’d be

swaggering to the candy store

for a Milky Way. M. Degas

pursed his lips, and the room

stilled until the long hand

of the clock moved to twenty one

as though in complicity with Gertrude

who added confidently, “You’ve begun

to separate the dark from the dark.”

I looked back for help, but now

the trees bucked and quaked, and I

knew this could go on forever.

The general consensus among bloggers and Internet football analysts is that All-22 Film is going to enlighten the average fan in ways rarely seen with the conventional camera angles of television broadcasts. I agree that in some instances this will eventually be the case. However, what I think most people will eventually realize is that, without asking a coach or player involved with the play in question, all we’re doing is separating the dark from the dark.

A first-quarter Vanderbilt sack of Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson exemplifies what I’m talking about. Although I don’t have a definitive answer for what went wrong, sometimes it’s more valuable to learn the questions than the final answer.

Tyler Wilson: Victim or Perpetrator of a Play Gone Wrong

One of my favorite poets is Phillip Levine, who often writes about his experiences in working-class Detroit. One of his pieces serves as a great prologue for the value of studying inconclusive outcomes of football plays. Photo by T. Carrigan.

There are a lot of magic numbers in football. One of them is 2.9 – the number of seconds a quarterback has to deliver the football after the snap. It’s enough time for the offense’s fastest players to cover 20-25 yards in a straight line. But it’s not enough time for a quarterback to see the entire field. This is why the pre-snap phase of football is the most important facet of quarterbacking. However, recognition is only part of the equation. Execution and recognition by a quarterback’s teammates is equally vital.

Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson is on most 2013 pre-NFL Draft lists as one of the better pro prospects at his position. Today, I’m going to use Wilson as an unfortunate example why quarterbacking is difficult – and not just because of the opposition. I’d like to say I’m doing this because my colleague Clayton Gray is an Arkansas fan and I enjoy picking on him. However, Eric Stoner’s analysis of Aaron Rodgers making an incorrect read of a Quarters coverage scheme disguised to look like a Cover 2 defense in last year’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs illustrates that my choice of Wilson is nothing personal.Simply put, learning to read the field is an ongoing craft.

Without knowing exactly the kind of freedom former Razorbacks head coach Bobby Petrino gives his quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage, there’s a play on the opening series of the 2011 Arkansas-Vanderbilt game where Wilson and/or the Arkansas offense demonstrates how pre-snap decisions dictate so much of what happens once the play begins. I use the phrase “and/or” because there is evidence that can support Wilson being guilty or innocent of bad decision-making on this play.

However, this play-gone-wrong has fascinating layers of evidence that could be used either way. In fact, the evidence could point to a combination of both factors. Regardless what the correct answer is, there’s a lot to learn through the exploration of this play.

The Evidence For Wilson as The Perp

The phrase “game manager” is considered a pejorative term for a quarterback because it implies that a player has limited talent. This is true, but let’s remember that the reason there are “game managers” in the NFL is that there are boatloads of quarterbacks with elite physical skills who can’t make good decisions to use their talents to make an offense productive or efficient.

The best quarterbacks possess enough of both skills and on this 3rd and 8 situation with 13:43 in the first quarter, Wilson and the Arkansas offense demonstrates how a pre-snap read gone wrong can dramatically alter the outcome of play. Arkansas begins the play with receivers aligned 2×1 in an 11 personnel shotgun set. The tight end and running back are aligned to the single receiver side of the formation.

Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson reads the free safety and middle linebacker threatening blitz to the weak side and he alerts his teammates to what he reads.

Vanderbilt’s defense is in a 4-3 look and the first thing Wilson notices is that the Commodores defense has its weak side linebacker over the slot receiver and shaded to the inside. Meanwhile the free safety and middle linebacker are threatening a blitz. Wilson immediately approaches the offensive line to address the issue. One can argue that the quarterback, based on what happens after the snap, makes a call to adjust to the threat of a linebacker or linebacker and safety blitz from this side.

The first adjustment is the blocking scheme. To account for the threat of the middle linebacker and safety, the left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle are told to slant to the left in order to account for the left defensive tackle, the middle linebacker, and possibly the safety. This leaves the right tackle on the right defensive tackle  and the right defensive end unblocked. Here’s how the play unfolds for the offense after the adjustment.

The running back and tight end on the right side of the field both run routes that occupy the flat defender as the single receiver runs a shallow cross underneath. The question is whether both players were supposed to run routes or was one supposed to account for the right defensive end after quarterback Tyler Wilson pointed out the blitz and the offensive line slanted one gap to the left to account for it.

It’s important to note that the Arkansas quarterback or line could have called a protection that asked the running back or tight end to stay in and account for the right defensive end and one or both of these players made a mental mistake. However, based on the fact that after the snap Wilson is looking to the left side of the field the entire time, there’s a chance that the design of the play was to leave the right defensive end open because Arkansas expected to throw into a blitz off the left side for a quick completion.

At the snap, Wilson’s initial read supports this assertion. He’s looking the entire time to his left while expecting he’ll have time to throw a quick-breaking route after a three-step drop. But after his initial step, he’s watching the linebacker and safety drop into coverage. This means three lineman – the left guard, the center, and the right guard – are all sliding over to block and there’s only one defender in the area. This has left the right defensive end unblocked.

No, this is not a Titans logo, but the three offensive linemen left on one defender due to an unnecessary blitz adjustment on a middle linebacker and safety that dropped into coverage instead of bringing the heat. This leaves the right defensive end unblocked.

If you believe the theory I have explained above, Wilson adjusts to this coverage during his drop by finishing his third step with a transition into a hitch step to give his receivers more time to find an opening in a more crowded zone than he initially expected.

Neither receiver on the left side comes open for Wilson before the right defensive end reaches the pocket and punches the ball from the quarterback’s grasp.

The Arkansas quarterback has no other choice but to pounce on the football and take a loss.

The Evidence for Wilson as a Victim

However, the hitches at the end of Wilson’s three step drop could indicate an entirely different premise: the Arkansas quarterback expected to have more time to deliver the football. If that’s the case, Wilson could be the victim. The guilty party could be the tight end and/or running back failing to adjust to the quarterback’s call at the line of scrimmage.

Both the tight end and running back released into pass routes on that side despite the fact that the offensive line made a wholesale slant to the left to account for this potential middle linebacker-free safety blitz. The fact that Wilson executed a three-step drop and two consecutive hitch steps without stopping while looking only to the left side of the field could indicate that the Arkansas quarterback expected his receivers to run these deeper routes. If that’s the case, then it’s difficult to believe that the Arkansas protection scheme adjustment for his play was designed to send two receivers immediately to the opposite side of the field and not account for the defensive end.

The running back runs a route to the flat but as we see the routes develop to the right side of the field, it doesn’t appear that the runner fits into this route combination, especially when the right defensive end is left free.

At best, one of these two receivers would release to the flat as an outlet receiver after Wilson looked left. Since neither player accounted for the defensive end, Wilson didn’t have time for his wide receiver split wide left to finish his square-in, which is where the quarterback was looking while taking his hitches. Yet, there is another possibility to account for what went wrong on this play that needs some explanation: the receivers on the left side.

Evidence of Receiver Wrongdoing

Wilson’s initial read as he began his drop was the slot receiver near the left hash. Before the snap, the receiver had the weak side linebacker shaded to the inside with the safety over top.

The weak side linebacker’s alignment inside the slot receiver disguises the coverage from Tyler Wilson. If the linebacker were outside the receiver or over top directly, the quarterback and receiver likely read this as a zone funneling the receiver inside to the free safety.

Wilson and his receiver could have read this alignment and believe one of the following:

  • The safety blitzes and the weak side linebacker has either man or inside zone responsibility. I think this was the least likely scenario because this leaves the middle of the field open for the slot receiver up the seam and that’s a risky play call this early in a game.
  • The middle linebacker and the weak side linebacker blitz and the slot receiver has single coverage against the safety. This is more likely than the first option, but still a highly aggressive play that is unlikely to happen.
  • The middle linebacker blitzes, the free safety accounts for the middle of the field as the weak side linebacker accounts for the flat. This is probably what Wilson expected.

With the exception of the middle linebacker dropping into coverage, Wilson is correct. The weak side linebacker slides a step to the outside to funnel the receiver to the middle due to the fact that he has inside help from the safety. However, Wilson and perhaps the receiver make the wrong call with the middle linebacker and the route is run into the thick of the Vanderbilt zone. It’s possible the slot receiver should have read the position of the linebacker and run a flat route as the outside receiver ran the deep in.

My Verdict: Multiple Guilty Parties

The receiver on the shallow cross and the tight end up the seam provide enough of a route combination to create openings in this zone. The running back to the flat isn’t necessary and the result is a sack-fumble.

The evidence that Wilson expected a middle linebacker blitz is too compelling to ignore. He’s looking solely to the left side with his initial drop after communicating to his line for a pass protection adjustment that shifts his linemen to account for an extra pass rusher to that side. It’s clear that Wilson thought his slot receiver would come open on a cross behind the middle linebacker blitz and when this didn’t happen, it also mean that the free safety was deep enough to account for the dig route behind it.

However, Wilson isn’t the only perpetrator of wrong decision. The tight end and/or running back did not account for the right defensive end and there’s little evidence to suggest that both players needed to be on routes while leaving an edge rusher free to collapse the pocket. An extra half-second that one of these players could create with a block on the edge rusher gives Wilson the time to release the ball even with the misread of the middle linebacker.

I believe the tight end was supposed to release up field to stretch the zone so the single receiver on the right side could get free release underneath on the cross. In my eyes, this leaves the running back as the player responsible for at least chipping the defensive end on his way to the flat.

Although my verdict isn’t definitive, there are some worthwhile takeaways to consider from this analysis. The first is that the quarterback can guess wrong about the defense’s intentions but still make a positive play if the pass protectors and receivers execute the adjustment correctly. In this case the pass protection prevented Wilson from having the time to check down to his shallow cross.

The second is the quarterback’s drop. The number of steps and hitches a quarterback takes can help you discern the length and variety of routes that his receivers are running. Wilson’s hitches came after a three-step drop. What we don’t know for certain is whether he expected to take three steps and throw to the slot receiver and he transitioned to his hitch on the fly, or he was expecting the safety to have a shallower position with this potential middle linebacker blitz and the hitches will built into the play to target the dig route. I expect the hitches were built into the play, but the safety wasn’t in position for Wilson to make the throw.

The third takeaway is that there are some plays that are not always fair to judge a player on the outcome. Learning when these plays are inconclusive can be just as valuable as having a definitive answer. Otherwise, you could miss something worthwhile about a player trying to squeeze a situation into a definition that doesn’t fit. That’s not evaluation as much as grading. There’s a difference.

For more analysis of skill players like the post below, 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. Here’s an update on my pledge.

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