Happy On The Road Friday, friends. If you’re reading this in the morning or early afternoon, I’m on my way back to the Motherland for the weekend. I haven’t been there since Thanksgiving of 2009, so I’m overdue for a visit during which I’ll surely remember why I skipped town 17 years ago - just in time to head back west.
Today, I’m going to talk about some defensive back alignment concepts and how they relate to the pre-snap reads that QBs and WRs have to make on offense. I’ve been planning to write about this for a while - and it’s pretty straightforward, but after Tuesday’s July 5th fireworks I almost wish I had something good and non-football related on my mind with which to tweak my critics. I don’t at the moment, but we’ll see how it plays.
I could care less about the Casey Anthony trial, and I constantly lamented the lack of a Does Ted Give A Crap? Predictor in the MSNBC iPhone App, as I was repeatedly hit with breaking news alerts about the trial. I guess that’s the main news of the last couple days, right? I could go down the path of why the media should be much more measured about these kinds of things, and that Nancy Grace should be selling ugly knitted mittens at a flea market somewhere that has a high population of crazy people, but I’ll skip it for today.
Anyway, I’m planning on covering three concepts today: Landmarks, Leverage, and Posture. Couldn’t you just see a Ted Bartlett CBA article about a Landmark court decision giving one side Leverage, and forcing the other to Posture? I sure could, but this isn’t it.
Landmarking is done throughout football formations, starting with the Center. He lines up where the ball is, either on a hashmark or between them. The offensive line and QB form on him, depending on the prescribed line splits (meaning distance between the players), and whether the QB is under Center or in the shotgun. The defensive linemen and linebackers mostly align on the offensive linemen.
Receivers will typically align relative to the sideline, numbers, hashmarks, or distance from the most outboard offensive lineman closest to them. For example, let’s say the slot guy is supposed to align three yards outside the RT and off the line of scrimmage, while the Z receiver is supposed to be on the numbers and on the line of scrimmage. Offenses vary this stuff up from play to play, and it does interesting things like allowing the slot guy to quickly crack back on a Sam LB for a running play, or giving the Z enough space to judge if he’s got single coverage outside and still give him a 2-way go against a CB.
Landmarking is really important with safeties, because it provides the best clue for the offense of what the defense is planning to do. I would bet that every QB in the NFL looks at where the Safeties are, first thing, when they get to the line of scrimmage.
For purposes of this discussion, I’m assuming that the ball is directly centered on the field. If it were on a hashmark, you could picture the shift that would take place. If the two Safeties are at roughly even depth and even width, between the hashmarks and numbers, that’s a strong indicator of 2-deep coverage on the back end.
If one safety is closer to the line of scrimmage and the other is in the middle of the field deep, what we’d call a single-high look, that tells us that we’re probably going to see just the one safety in the deep middle, in either a Cover-1 or Cover-3 look. It also tells us there are eight men in the box, and that checking to a pass from a called run would be a good idea.
Leverage refers to the initial positioning of a player, usually a defender, vis-à-vis another player (usually an offensive player), and it uses directional terms (inside, outside, etc) like a medical doctor would use anterior, or posterior, or proximal, or distal to talk about a body part in relation to another body part. If a DT is aligned in a 3-technique, for example, that means that he simultaneously has outside leverage on the Guard, and inside leverage on the Tackle.
The term isn’t usually used for defensive linemen, because the various line-technique designations tell the whole story of up-front leverage. The term is mostly used to describe the positioning of CBs and, to a lesser extent, LBs.
If the QB looked at the Safeties first, he’s looking at the CBs second, and the LBs third. From the positioning of those back-7 players, he’ll make a pre-snap diagnosis of the coverage. The first thing the QB is going to consider with CBs is the distance between the CB and the WR. That indicates whether there will be a bump by the CB, which has implications on pass-play timing. We’ll call this dimension pre-snap depth, and we’ll define it as either press-depth, off-depth, or even-depth. The QB and WR are going to approach the play differently against off coverage than they are when it looks like there will be a bump.
The second dimension is whether the CB is inside, outside, or head-up on the CB. Inside leverage, especially at press-depth, strongly indicates man-to-man coverage. In man, the goal is to force the receiver outside and use the sideline as an extra defender. If there’s outside leverage, that tends to indicate zone, because in zone, the idea is to force the receiver inside to where there are other defenders in nearby zones.
With even (head-up) leverage, nothing is being given away pre-snap, because the CB can presumably still take an initial step, either inside or outside, and still force the WR to release to where he wants him to go within the concept of the defensive play-call. The trouble is that if a CB is less skilled, he may not be able to keep up or get an effective directional jam, if he starts out with even leverage. I’ve never coached DBs, but if I did, I’d coach consistent even leverage. If your guys can’t hack it, though, you’re pretty much stuck with the other way.
For LBs, this works the same way, and it also partially tells the story of run defense gap responsibilities, or blitz packages. If a Sam LB has outside leverage on a TE, chances are that he’s going to jam the guy and try to force an inside release before dropping into zone. If he's inside, it's more likely that he'll be in trail technique or not covering the TE at all.
The big defensive clue that the great QBs recognize and turn into actionable information - and that the average ones don’t - is body posture. Smart QB coaches drill the bejesus out of recognizing this, and good advance scouts make posture tendencies a large part of their reports. The ability to recognize posture and predict impending action is an enormous differentiator.
Quite simply, you look at body posture to determine if there are any clues as to the direction of the first step that the defender is planning on taking. If a nickel CB has inside leverage on a Slot WR at press-depth, is he looking at the WR? Is his body leaning toward the bump that he needs to make at the snap? Are his feet pointed in such a way that he appears that he’ll be stepping quickly outside toward a bump?
Maybe the QB sees that nickel CB pointing his feet slightly inside, and watching the outside shoulder of the OT instead of the inside shoulder of the WR across from him. Maybe, simultaneously, he sees the SS cheating over to cover the WR over the top. The FS starts to look like he’s going to be in single-high, because his feet are cheating inside. The outside CBs have inside leverage at press-depth.
Putting It All Together
What does all that mean? The nickel is blitzing, the SS has the slot WR in man-to-man, the outside CBs are in single coverage, and there’s one deep safety. Tom Brady would see that, audible to slide his protection to block the nickel CB, initially (at the snap of the ball) read the release of the slot WR against the SS, who probably can’t cover him, and therefore eye-influence the FS to jump over the top of that matchup. Then finally, Brady can come back to the backside of the play and hit a guy in single coverage for a big gain.
The same keys can be read, with body posture, throughout a football team. There are 10 men at the line of scrimmage, showing as possible blitzers. Which ones are on their toes? They’re probably coming. Which ones are on their heels? Those players are probably bailing. Defensive linemen can do this against a Guard, if he’s representing a pull to the opposite side, with the way his feet are positioned. Body posture is enormously important stuff to everybody on the field’s ability to read a play.
Between landmarking, leverage, and body posture, a great QB has a really good idea where the defense is typically going with a play. As much as anything, the ability to recognize these subtle nuances (which, for those who have proven not to know, are minor distinctions or subleties), are what separates a great player from a good player at the QB position. About 40 guys in the NFL can make the throws you need to make to be a winning QB. The Broncos happen to have three of them on their roster. Only about six or eight of the 40 can consistently diagnose the best way to attack a coverage scheme, though, and consistently act on that diagnosis effectively. It’s highly correlative to winning in the NFL, so we can only hope that somebody emerges for the Broncos that shows promise in this area.