Over the last several weeks of analyzing Tim Tebow's throws, I've come to believe he is already making great strides in his pre-snap reads.
This shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. After all, Urban's Meyer's offense at Florida was, in part, predicated by reading both safeties and their position relative to the line of scrimmage. When Josh McDaniels (hiss!) said that Tebow and he were at the whiteboard for hours upon meeting, he wasn't lying (no one knows if Brian Xanders was informed of the whiteboard incident). Tebow wasn't completely green at reading defenses pre-snap like many college quarterbacks are.
But unfortunately for quarterbacks, the defense rarely stands still after the snap of the ball. What first appears like an outside linebacker blitz is actually a zone coverage to the flat. What appears like middle-zone coverage is actually a delayed linebacker blitz.
Last week the Chargers did some interesting things post-snap to confuse our hero. We'll take a look at one such play today in The Playbook Abides. This will help us gauge Tebow's continued growth and development.
Tebow's 1st-Quarter Interception
When: 7:28 of the 1st Quarter
Where: Denver's 32-yard line
Down & Distance: 1st and 10
The Dope: The clear primary receiver on this play was Brandon Lloyd (84). But as you look at this formation and personnel package, notice first what the Broncos were trying to show the Chargers here. Prior to the snap, Jabar Gaffney (10) motioned towards the formation and then back out to the position that you see on the diagram.
More importantly, however, the Broncos came out with two tight ends and only two wide receivers. Although the Broncos could have easily passed out of a formation like this, what this personnel package did was whisper "run," and further, likely ensured that San Diego would stay in its base 3-4 defense. When you're planning on going deep to Brandon Lloyd, you want as few defensive backs on the field as possible.
The second quirk about this formation that might have piqued your interest is that the Broncos lined up both tight ends on the right side of the formation. One reason for this, of course, is the ability to power run to the right side of the field. However, there's also another, more subtle reason to do this. The Broncos wanted to force the strong safety into play, both in run support and in pass support on the tight end. The play fake to Lance Ball (35) was supposed to suck the safety in even further.
Gaffney's route had one purpose and one purpose alone: try and pull the free safety into his business over the top of the formation. Meanwhile, Richard Quinn's (81) route was concerned with occupying the strong safety. Overall, the hope was that Lloyd would have room to operate one on one.
What Tebow Saw: I have no doubt that when Tebow (15) saw this formation, he was convinced it was going to go for a big play. I've highlighted his three key pre-snap reads. He noticed the strong safety shaded over the top to the left side of the formation (remember he knew Lloyd's route was going to the deep right). He saw the strong safety down in the box to help support the run and (he thought) pick up the tight end in man coverage. Lastly, the right outside linebacker was feigning the blitz. Tebow knew that this would probably force the defensive end or the inside linebacker (shaded to the tight end side) into flat/curl responsibility. This would help create even more space for Lloyd over the top of the formation.
There are two other points worth mentioning. First, Tebow also saw two linebackers on the left side of the formation ready to blitz. He knew (because of the line call) these guys weren't threats. The line would slide its protection to the left side. Second, when Gaffney had motioned to the formation, the cornerback went with him, so Tebow surmised that Gaffney's defender was playing man coverage. But because the left cornerback was showing zone coverage and the free safety was shaded left, Gaffney wasn't going to be an option (the potential of three defenders covering the left third of the field). Tebow knew he was going to Lloyd.
The Happening: As we have learned from previous weeks, a defense is never what it seems at the snap of the ball. On this play, the Chargers (and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera) were exceedingly clever. The right outside linebacker did not blitz; rather, he dropped into his zone responsibility. The middle linebacker dropped into his zone coverage. And the strong safety almost took off on a full sprint to his deep half of the field.
Tebow dropped back, play faked to Lance Ball, and took a seven-step drop. The defense really didn't buy the fake. But Tebow had already made up his mind - he locked onto Lloyd and threw the ball up. To his surprise, he found both safeties blanketing Lloyd, and the ball was picked off.
The Bottom Line: As it turns out, the Chargers were really playing three-deep coverage, but they were disguising it as two deep. Ron Rivera had been planning this specific coverage all week; he had expected the Broncos to run Lloyd on this very route on the first play from scrimmage. Rivera was simply trying to bait Tebow into thinking that the Broncos had a perfect call. Meanwhile, the two safeties just read the quarterback's eyes.
Tebow's fault here wasn't his pre-snap read. His indicators told him Lloyd would be open. The issue with Tebow on this play was his post-snap read. After the ball fake, at the very least, he should have noticed the free safety moving to the middle of the field and the strong safety sprinting to his deep zone responsibility. Tebow simply needed to check down to his running back Lance Ball, who was wide open for a 5-yard gain. It wasn't a sexy checkdown, but it would have set up a benign 2nd-and-5 situation.
Grade: C. As Tebow gets more live game experience, he'll begin beating these types of coverages. But it's going to take some time. Even guys like Brett Favre routinely make bad decisions like this. However, it's these kinds of post-snap reads that will make Tebow not only a good football player, but a great quarterback.