Mailbag: What’s a rub?

Happy Sunday, friends. I'm into crunch time on studying for the tax section of the CPA exam, and I have some other stuff going on too, so I apologize for my recent scarceness. Since it's football Sunday, and since my brain needs a break from thinking about the calculation of taxable basis, I decided to answer a recent question from a reader. From Bryan:

Can Ted please do a write up about this "pick and rub" route thing? What the heck are pick and rub routes? Why are the chef fans all up in arms about them being illegal, and are they? Pleez to be 'splainin dis

Sure thing, Bryan. The first thing I'd say is that we need to level-set the vocabulary words, because the mainstream explainers of football tend to confuse the issues by using the wrong words:

Route:  A route is a vector (meaning that it has a specific direction and speed) movement taken by a specific receiver. When Eric Decker runs a slant, that's a route.

Pattern: A pattern is the total collection of routes run by all eligible receivers.

Concept:  A concept is a pre-packaged pattern of routes which is often practiced, and which seeks to use the combination of routes (generally against a specific coverage) to stress the defense.

Rub:  What an offense-lover calls it when two receivers run their defenders into combined traffic, creating separation for one or both receivers.

Pick:  What a defense-lover calls the same play.

Actually, there's a real distinction between rubs and picks, but it's a little bit subtle, and it's probably too much for the average Chiefs fan to grasp. A legal rub occurs when neither receiver in the concept hits a defender. An illegal pick occurs when an offensive guy does directly hit a defender; on that type of play, offensive pass interference should be called.

There's a notion making the rounds that defenses have figured out how to beat the Broncos, and that's to play tight man coverage on the WRs. It's true that a couple of teams have had partial success in games doing so, but using rub concepts is a great way to beat that man coverage. When you combine that with the Chiefs' skill at playing man coverage, I would consider their fans to be trying to "work the refs" as they say in the NBA, in advance of the games coming up in two out of the next three weeks:

What the hell? Why should the Broncos get to do things schematically that defeats our narrow area of advantage?

The reality is that the Broncos are really proficient at running legal rubs, and that the only times they seem to commit OPI is when something gets a bit mistimed. They create traffic with their formations and initial actions, and defenders have a hard time not running into each other. It also helps that Peyton Manning is so good at throwing guys open in the short passing game; it only takes a partial step for a guy to be open.

Here's an example of what a rub concept looks like:

The offense is 3-by-1 to the left, and the outside receiver (maybe Demaryius Thomas) is going to run a wheel route to get his cornerback and the free safety to follow him. The X receiver (let's say Eric Decker) is going to run a stick route to the inside. The Z (Wes Welker in this case) starts off to the inside, and then runs his route as close as possible to where Decker is posting up.

It's difficult enough to cover Welker on those quick in-and-out breaking routes, but when two corners are running into each other, it gets even more difficult.

Here's another one that the Broncos have been using a good deal:

Here, the Broncos are 2-by-2, with the RB (let's say Knowshon Moreno) aligned slightly wider than usual - on the inside shoulder of the RT. That causes the MLB to align offset to the offense's right, and it indicates that he has man responsibility on Moreno. On the offense's left, the outside receiver (let's say Decker) is going to run a vertical route, to take up the free safety.

The TE is going to run the stick route to the outside, and it's going to be the rub for Demaryius Thomas (Z) as he starts to the outside, and then turns it into a shallow crosser. Moreno is releasing vertically at the snap, clearing the MLB out of that crosser area. The key guy is the X (Welker), who's sitting down, waiting to block the first tackler who's coming at Thomas. The Broncos have been able to time this up extremely well this season, with a backside receiver (it can be any of them) in good blocking posiiton to help spring the crosser.

One complaint I've had of the Broncos offense the last two games is that it's taken too long for them to go to the rub action stuff against the man coverage they've been seeing. We should plan to see a lot of this as the season goes on, and especially against the Chiefs.

Their fans can work the refs all they want, but if the Broncos' rubs are legal, there's nothing they can say.

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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