Fat Camp: QB drops and passing game coordination

Happy Friday, friends.  It’s that busy time of the month for me again, so my goal is to provide maximum value over minimum length today.  Whenever I’m faced with that challenge, I tend to fall back to technical football, because there’s not really anything for me to research, nor is there a particularly exhaustive case to be laid out, since it’s not an opinion.  Thus shall it be today.

One of Doug’s friends, a youth football coach in NJ named Rob Arciero, asked if we could write about the technical aspects of QB drops at some point.  I decided to make “some point” today.  We’re a customer-focused website, after all.

When I was married, I went through this period of teaching my ex-wife about football, and she taught me about her favorite thing, cosmetics.  The end result is that I now know 10 times more about cosmetics than your typical heterosexual man, but I don’t know how well the football instruction took with her.  I bring this up not to brag on my vast knowledge of the product lines at MAC, but because I vividly remember her asking me once how come TV guys always say that QBs always take pass drops that are an odd number of steps.  That was a very good observation by her, and it lent itself to a good teaching point, which I’ll now share with you.

Picture a right-handed QB (yes, even you Tebow-as-the-second-coming-of-Christ nutjobs).  When our righty throws the ball, his front (left) shoulder needs to be pointed at the line of scrimmage in such a way that if he dropped straight back, at the top of his drop you could draw a straight line on the screen from his left shoulder to where the center’s rear end was at the snap of the ball, and you’d run right into it.

In order to get the QB to that spot from under center where he starts out with his feet even, he needs to make his first step with his right foot.  There’s a pivoting action that ideally happens with the left foot, where it stays in place with the toes planted into the ground where that foot started. Then, as the right foot comes backwards and turns toward the right sideline (from the QB's point of view, of course), the left foot pivots on the toes to also point to the right sideline.

Let’s start this again, so we can visualize it.  At the snap, both feet are even and facing the end zone.  On the first step, the QB drops his right foot back and faces it toward the right sideline, while leaving his left foot in place but pivoting toward the sideline in unison with the right foot.  That’s but one step, yet it’s the most important of all - because if it’s done sloppily, it can mess up the QB’s balance and timing for the whole rest of the drop.  The QB pivots the exact same way for handoffs to his right, and he uses the same pivoting technique for handoffs to his left, as well.  It’s something that must be practiced a lot and repeated so that it becomes second nature.

After the first step, the QB’s right foot is behind him.  We can call that the back foot, which is used in the context of "You should never throw off of your back foot."  (That’s nonsense, by the way; sometimes, you have to throw off of your back foot.)  On any throw, the right foot has to be the back foot, so if it’s the back foot after the first step, it necessarily must take an odd number of steps to position it as the back foot at the top of the drop.

There’s a huge premium on foot quickness with a QB, because he needs to be able to get to the top of his drop quickly and keep the play on time.  Tom Brady came into the NFL as a guy with terrible feet, and through hard work and excellent coaching, he’s become outstanding with his feet.  He’s about as technically perfect as you can be at getting away from the Center efficiently and then moving slightly in the pocket, while maintaining the correct posture and alignment to be able to throw at any time.  A guy like Byron Leftwich never had adequate foot quickness, and it’s a big reason that he never made it as an NFL starter.  (Our own Kyle Orton is decidedly below-average in this area, but he gets by.)

In the passing game, there’s a coordination that’s taking place between multiple players, and when I say that the QB has to be quick enough to keep a play on time, that’s what I mean.  Let’s refer to a West Coast Offense route tree, which I’ve referenced before.

Recall that the shorter routes are lower numbers, and the odd numbers work outside toward the sideline, and the even numbers work toward the middle of the field.  If a QB is going to take a three-step drop, the receivers are going to run shorter, quicker routes.  The offensive linemen are going to set narrower and shallower in pass protection.  (Think of this in terms of distance from the Center, both vertically and horizontally.)  On deeper drops, the routes and sets will be adjusted accordingly.

My play diagramming software that is consistent with what TJ uses hasn’t been working lately, so forgive me for using PowerPoint-generated diagrams, but I want to show you the geometry of what I’m getting at.  You may want to refer to my piece from April so that you can refresh on what I mean with the play nomenclature.  Or, you can ignore the name, and just follow the descriptions.

The first play features a three-step drop with minimum protection, and five short routes that are designed to stretch the field horizontally.  Notice how shallow and narrow the offensive line sets here.  The Tackles will often cut their men on a play like this to open up quick outside passing lanes.  This is a really common play design in a West Coast Offense, and it’s the QB’s responsibility to get the ball out at the top of his third step.  Expect to see Colt McCoy do this a ton in Cleveland this season, as they're probably the purest practitioners of the Bill Walsh scheme at this point.

The next play features a five-step drop with six-man protection, and the FB is responsible for the first free runner to the right (“King” protection).  Here, the routes are longer, with two Digs and a Skinny Post.  As the QB hits the top of his drop, the receivers are making their cuts, and the QB can lead them to the end spot of their route.  The linemen know exactly where the QB is going to be, and in their footwork they’re working to push the rushers deeper and further outside of that spot.  They’re setting wider and deeper here, in other words.

On the final diagram, you have a deep passing concept, on which the QB is going to take a seven-step drop, and the offensive linemen are going to set at maximum width and depth.  The Tackles are really going to ride their men deep, so that the QB can step up after hitting the top of the drop.  The routes are deep, with the exception of the TE, whose out-breaking Comeback route is designed to make somebody/somebodies within the SS/CB/OLB triangle hesitate if the defense is Cover-2 .

So, you can see that this is all very coordinated, like synchronized swimming.  Unlike synchronized swimming, though, football defenses try all manner of tactics to disrupt the timing of offenses, such as overload blitzing and press coverage.  I hope that this has been a value-adding read for you.  If not, here's a picture of a classic mullet, which I figure is the least I can give you.

See you on Tuesday, friends.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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