Teaching Quarterbacks

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Established October 31, 1996
Front Page Columns and Features
Last updated: 03/06/2012 1:13 AM
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Understanding Urban: Teaching QBs Where to Throw the Ball
By Ken Pryor

The Monday Morning Quarterback Never Lost a Game – Frank Sinatra

Each and every year, entire football seasons hinge on the development and performance of the guy taking snaps from center. We have had some good ones come through Columbus and we have seen some very forgettable ones as well. 

All too often, we sit back cavalierly—and ever-so arrogantly—judging these players and their performances with the supreme comfort of sitting in the seat of the ‘Monday Morning Quarterback.’ 

You know this person. He’s the guy who can tell you what play the quarterback should have audibled to, or to whom he should have thrown the ball based on the coverage he could NOT see since TV doesn’t even show the entire field during a given play.

He can tell you everything the quarterback should have seen, heard and thought during those precious seconds afforded him before throwing the ball. This guy can even tell you the quarterback should have “felt” the pressure coming from the blind side. You know this guy as well as I do. He is annoying Mr. Know-It-All guy. If he is sitting right next to you as you read this, keep looking straight ahead.

For the sake of those who don’t quite understand what a quarterback should be seeing, thinking or doing before and during the snap, we have prepared a detailed checklist.

For starters, the ability to throw the ball to an open receiver is not always as natural as it often appears it should be. If the quarterback can’t deliver the ball to the open receiver, it really doesn’t matter how well designed, or well protected, the pass plays are.

There are two methods of teaching to which most coaches subscribe: the progression read and the coverage read. Let’s take a look at both.

Progression Reads

Progression reads are designed to have as many as five different choices of where to throw the football. The quarterback must learn to pre-read the defensive alignments as he approaches the line of scrimmage to get an indication of the coverage. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, progression reads require the quarterback to know where each of the receivers will be in a given pattern.

This kind of read calls for throwing the ball with rhythm drops — i.e. on a five-step drop, the ball is thrown to the first receiver when the fifth step hits. This is called the “rhythm throw.” The second receiver should be thrown to after a gather step (aka the “read” or “gather” throw), while connections with the third receiver are made after resetting the feet.

Limitations of Progression Reads

  • A tendency to stare at the receiver that is first in the progression, which attracts other defenders.
  • Coaches often become frustrated because they may see a wide open receiver who is later in the progression. The QB’s job is to throw it to the first open receiver in the progression, not necessarily the first receiver in the progression.
  • Quarterbacks tend to lose patience thinking that because the first receiver in the progression was thrown to the first time, he won’t be there when the play is called again. Progression reads require the quarterback not have his mind made up ahead of time.

Coverage reads

Coverage reads are just that: dictated by the coverage. The quarterback is instructed to “throw it to this guy if the defender does this” or “throw it to that guy if the defender does that.”  If this is to work, coaches and quarterbacks must understand the coverage’s they are up against. The play might call for five receivers deployed, but the defensive scheme will determine which receivers (could only be two or three) are “live” on a given play.

Reading the coverage is normally done in the NFL by looking at pictures taken upstairs during the series. We have all seen this scenario on the sidelines when the quarterbacks have black and white print-offs in their hands while talking on the phone with coordinators in the booth.
In high school and college, press box coaches do most of the work. The quarterback can look at these photos to gain a pre-snap read and get an idea of what might happen, but it remains difficult to say with certainty what the coverage was (even in the NFL).

Advantages of Coverage Reads

  • Eliminates the struggle of the progression read trying to determine who was more wide open.
  • Eliminates the QB from making up his mind before the snap. Read the defenders to get you to the right receiver in Coverage Reads.
  • Quarterbacks don’t need to stare at your receivers to determine who to throw to because they will be looking at defenders (giving more natural look-offs).

Coverage reads are great in theory, but they are not easy to teach. They are more advanced, and perhaps better suited for the NFL guys. While the quarterback may accurately predict that one defender might react as expected, he may not be able to predict where other defenders will be, thus causing problems.

An advanced quarterback might be instructed to make his progression reads based on the coverage. It is possible to have progression reads with all five receivers in the progression, but it’s unlikely the quarterback will have enough time to find  his fourth or fifth progression. The sensible thing would be to give him multiple 1-2-3 reads, keying off the movement of a particular defender or reading the general coverage structure.

The “all-curl” play provides a good example of a progression which keys off a particular defensive player. In this case, the “Mike” or middle linebacker (“M”) is the key defender. If he drops straight back, the quarterback has the numbers advantage to the play side (Y, Z and F) against the Sam linebacker (“S”) and the strong safety (“$”). But if he drops to the Y side, the better read is Y to X to H against the weak side or Will linebacker (“W”).

This play design shows No. 1 is the middle curl by the tight end or inside receiver; No. 2 is the curl receiver to the right; and No. 3 is the flat. The idea is to hit the No. 1 middle curl to the tight end early. The linebackers will eventually squeeze him, whereupon the quarterback should go to the No. 2 curl if the flat defender widens to take away the flat.
Key Dedender 
The other read that dictates the coverage is the general secondary structure, i.e. “1 safety high” (one deep middle safety, indicating either Cover 1 man or three-deep zone) or “2-high” (indicating Cover 2 man or zone or Cover 4/quarters).

In the play below against 1-high, the quarterback would read the middle dig by Y (1st read), then look to X for the curl (2nd read) and finally to R on the swing route (3rd read). Alternatively, against a “2-high” look, the quarterback will read the levels to the other side, with Y at 15-18 yards (1st read), then to A at 10 yards (2nd read) and finally to Z at 5 yards (3rd read).

This play is a tried and true NFL staple: facing “single-high” safety defenses, you get the same horizontal stretch shown on the “all-curl” play previously illustrated. When matched against “two-deep” safety defenses, you get the high-low read with the variation in routes, as well as the trail stretch by the two outside quick square-in routes (A and Z).
Two high, one high
The real key to all of this is being able discern exactly how to know whether to throw the ball to a specific receiver. One answer is simply repetitions: endless drills and 7-on-7 will help a quarterback learn when a guy is open and how to get him the ball.

Another approach is to focus on “passing lanes” or “windows.”

AirRaid coaches use the term “open grass.” The idea is that while the progressions technically tell the quarterback to look at each receiver, it is really telling him to look at the area where the route is being run to see if there is a passing lane or “open grass” into which he can throw the ball. 
The quarterback’s job becomes less about throwing to an open receiver and more about throwing to the open area. It’s the receiver’s job to be there.

When it’s all said and done, the passing game is built by first picking out a few passing concepts that work individually and in conjunction with one another. Each one leads the quarterback to go through his three step process: (1) count the safeties and determine the deep shell (is it one-high or two-high?); (2) this will tell him  what the progression should be; and (3) during the play, where is the “open grass” and is their a receiver in that spot?

It will be very intriguing to watch Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones, Kenny Guiton (and whomever else) develop under coach Tom Herman. The combination of running some simple passing schemes from the spread while learning how to read the defenses will help these guys tremendously.

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