How NFL defenses are making life even harder for opposing quarterbacks

2.8 seconds is not a lot of time at all.

In fact, according to my trusty iPhone stopwatch, that is roughly what it took you to read that first sentence.

Now imagine trying to make a difficult decision in that short timeframe.

From the controlled chaos of an NFL pocket.

Because through six weeks of the NFL season, 2.8 seconds is the average time-to-throw from quarterbacks this year. Well, 2.77 seconds to be exact. In that short period of time, a quarterback has to get the snap, read the defense, make the right decision, and then make an accurate throw. All while the defense is trying to confuse him, and cause him physical harm.

That small window of time is why offensive coordinators and play designers do everything they can to give the quarterback information before the snap. Through motion, formation, and personnel, offensive coordinators try and provide the QB with information on defensive coverages, potential blitzes, and more.

They try to expand the decision-making window.

Unfortunately, defenses do not always play along. They are getting better and better at disguising their true intentions, using pre-snap indicators against the offenses to again shrink that decision-making window for the quarterback.

Let’s dive into a few ways defenses are shrinking that window this season.

Motion does not always tell the story

One of the many ways that offenses try and get a defense to tip its hand before the snap is through motion. Teams use motion for a variety of reasons, but as former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky termed it a few seasons ago, teams can use motion for “information,” and they can use it for “impact.”

With respect to using motion for impact, that comes via motion right at the snap, with an eye towards causing confusion on the defensive side of the football. Perhaps a late jet motion across the formation, or a running back racing to the flat right as the play begins. Those movements force a defense to react right as the play unfolds, which can create confusion and even a missed assignment.

Our focus here is one the first category, motion for information. There was a time when an offense could send a player in motion well before the snap, and how the defense responded would tell the quarterback all they needed to know about the coverage.

Why was this important? Because it helps to give the quarterback information before the snap, putting them in position to make a better-informed decision after the snap. Consider the various types of progression reads a quarterback can make. There are “pure progression” reads, where you work through the options regardless of the coverage. There are also what some call “shell” reads, where your reads depend on whether there is a safety in the middle of the field.

Then there are man or zone reads, where your decisions are dependent upon whether the defense is in man coverage, or zone coverage. These types of plays have half-field concepts — concepts run to one side of the field — based on how that question is answered, and where the quarterback looks is depending on whether the defense is in man or zone. The beauty of these concepts is that the quarterback just has to determine man or zone, and then reads just one half of the field to get to his best option.

On one side of the field the offense as a concept designed to beat zone coverage, and against zone coverage the quarterback works that half-field concept. Then to the other side of the field, there is a combination designed to attack man coverage.

If the defense is in man, the quarterback will look to the concept on one side of the field designed to attack man. If the defense is in zone, the QB will look to the zone-beater side.

So there was a time where as a quarterback, if you saw a defender racing across the formation to trail your teammate in motion, you would be right in believing the defense was in man coverage. Conversely, if the defense did not respond like that to motion, then you would assume zone coverage.

Defenses, as stated above, have stopped playing along.

On this play from Week 5, Matthew Stafford stands in the shotgun as the Los Angeles Rams face a 2nd and 10. Tight end Kendall Blanton comes in motion across the formation, and he is trailed by safety Donovan Wilson. With that response, and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch walked down in blitz posture, Stafford might believe the Dallas Cowboys are in man coverage.

But they drop into zone:

Stafford throws a quick screen to Cooper Kupp, but the play is snuffed out, and the Rams now face a 3rd and long.

Here is another example from Week 5, courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals. Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia Eagles face a 1st and 10 early in the second quarter. Prior to the snap, wide receiver DeVonta Smith comes in motion across the formation, trailed by Isaiah Simmons. While the response might make one think the Cardinals are in man, they drop into Cover 3, buzzing a safety down at the snap.

That safety almost makes an interception as Hurts tries to throw a crossing route:

Hurts might have pieced this one together anyway, because while Simmons is an incredible athlete, putting him in man coverage against Smith might not be the best use of his skill-set, but this play is a good example of a defense showing what one might perceive to be a man response to motion, but then dropping into zone coverage.

There is of course the flipside to this situation, where a defense looks to be ignoring motion — what the quarterback might read to be a zone response to motion — but then they drop into man coverage. Again, the idea is to force the quarterback to expect one thing before the snap, but then need to take that extra second to recalibrate those expectations post-snap, impacting that decision-making window.

On this play from Week 5, the Carolina Panthers face a 1st and 10 in San Francisco 49ers’ territory. Baker Mayfield lines up under center, and the Panthers have a pair of tight ends in the game, both aligned on the left side of the formation. Tommy Tremble, one of those tight ends, comes in motion across the formation.

No one trails him.

That response, coupled with the alignments of the cornerbacks, might lead Mayfield to believe the 49ers are in zone coverage. But at the snap, they run man coverage:

Here is another example, from this past week and that Thursday night tilt between the Washington Commanders and the Chicago Bears that we tried to warn you about. Facing a 3rd and 4, Carson Wentz stands in the shotgun, and Washington motions running back Antonio Gibson outside. Instead of a linebacker trailing him, the cornerback to that side simply bumps over. That response, coupled with the alignments in the secondary, might lend Wentz to believe the Bears are in zone.

They are not, as they spin to a man pressure look right at the snap. Wentz makes a quick throw with a free runner in his face, and the pass falls incomplete:

These are just a few examples, but they highlight how defenses have eliminated, or at least pushed back, on the idea of motion for “information.” How a defense responds to motion does not tell the full story anymore, and quarterbacks are being forced to reset their expectations more and more as defenses do more to confuse them at the snap.

Flipping the formation script

Another means of giving the quarterback information before the snap came through the use of personnel, and formation.

When you see an offense align a running back to the outside, or put a tight end alone in a Y-Iso formation, it can offer the quarterback a similar pre-snap indicator regarding man coverage, or zone coverage. Broadly speaking, if as a quarterback you see a cornerback aligned out wide over your running back, you probably expect some kind of zone coverage. But if you see a linebacker out there, you probably expect man coverage.

Again, defenses are using those expectations to their advantage.

Take this play from the Week 5 meeting between the Rams and the Cowboys.

Sean McVay dials up a Y-Iso formation on this snap, putting tight end Tyler Higbee as the single receiver on the left. Across from him? Vander Esch, a linebacker. That is one pre-snap cue to Stafford that the Cowboys are in man coverage. Another? Kupp is in the backfield next to Stafford, and across the line of scrimmage mirroring Kupp? Cornerback Trevon Diggs.

However, the Cowboys drop into Tampa 2 at the snap, with Vander Esch serving as the curl/flat defender on the outside and Diggs as a hook defender underneath, all while Micah Parsons runs the middle of the field between the safeties:

Stafford reads this well, throwing the stick route to Higbee which is a good read against zone coverage, but the pass falls incomplete as Diggs breaks on the throw and Higbee fails to bring in the throw.

Perhaps my favorite example of a defense showing a man look against a formation and then dropping into zone comes from Week 5, in the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Las Vegas Raiders. Defenses obviously need to try different things against Patrick Mahomes, and as the Chiefs break the huddle and put Travis Kelce in a Y-Iso formation to the left, a safety aligns across from him.

Kansas City has three receivers to the right in a trips formation, and all three have a cornerback aligned across from them.

Then, the Chiefs bump running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire into a slot alignment on the left, inside of Kelce. A safety trails him.

Put yourself in Mahomes’ cleats for a second. You see a pair of safeties on the left across from your tight end and running back. Three cornerbacks lurk across from the three wide receivers on the right. Add to that the fact that these defenders have their hips to the line of scrimmage and their eyes on the offensive player across from them, and you are convinced it is man coverage before the play.

So of course, they drop into zone:

Mahomes, perhaps expecting man coverage, throws a slant route to Marquez Valdes-Scantling as part of a shield/slant concept. The inside receiver releases vertically to create a “shield” for Valdes-Scantling, who comes underneath on a slant. Combinations like this work well against man coverage, as the inside receiver occupies the inside defender off the line, as well as the outside defender trying to stick on the slant route due to the traffic that is created.

But with those defenders dropping into zone, it is a different story. Valdes-Scantling drops the slant route, but if he caught it, the slot defender was in position to make an immediate tackle.

Pressure and pop

Before we wrap, there is one more way that defenses are impacting that decision-making window, and that is through showing pressure before the snap with mug looks, and then dropping into softer zone coverages right at the snap.

Take this example from the New York Jets’ win over the Green Bay Packers. Before the play, the Packers show pressure up front. But right at the snap they drop into zone coverage. Zach Wilson, perhaps anticipating a pressure look with man coverage in the secondary, wants to throw a slant route on the left — as part of a shield/slant combination — but one of the dropping defenders is lurking, and the quarterback is forced into survival mode after pulling the football down:

Here is another example of this in action, from this past weekend’s game between the Rams and the Panthers. Carolina shows pressure before the snap with defenders mugged up in the A-Gaps. In response, Stafford adjusts the running back into an upback alignment, looking to solidify the protection against those threats in the interior.

As the ball is snapped, the defense drops into Tampa 2, sending just four after Stafford. The pass is slightly off-target, and the Panthers capitalize with the Pick-Six:

One last example comes from Week 5, in the Sunday night tile between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens. With the Ravens facing a 2nd and 8 in their own territory before halftime, Lamar Jackson aligns in the shotgun as the Bengals show a Cover 0 pressure look. Seven defenders are on the line of scrimmage, and the four players in the secondary show man coverage.

Baltimore sends running back Kenyan Drake in motion to the left side right before the snap, towards a trips formation. There is no immediate response from the defense — linking us back to where we began this journey — but right at the snap the Bengals spin into zone coverage, sending just four after the quarterback.

Jackson opens to Drake on the right side of the field, and with receivers releasing vertically, it looks like the Ravens are trying to get Cincinnati to bite on a potential screen to the running back, before hitting a deep shot downfield. But with the secondary dropping into zone coverage, Jackson is forced to improvise:

Jackson eventually runs out of options, and is dragged down for the sack.

The push-and-pull between offenses and defenses plays out in a number of ways. Schematic elements that offenses once used to give the quarterback information, and expand that decision-making window, are being used against them by defenses. Over the past few seasons, and this year as well, defenses are using those pre-snap cues against quarterbacks, showing them a man response to a motion or a formation, and then spinning into zone coverage, or something else, as the play begins.

Yet one more thing for quarterbacks to think about in that 2.8-second window.

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