One of the things I love most about football is the strategy. I get immense joy from the moments that show me that the players aren't just crash test dummies, but thinking, intelligent people who have to make many complex decisions for even a single play to go right. Not everyone takes the time to see the game that way, but when you do it adds a new level to the way you watch the game.
Ever since last week's preseason game, one play has stuck out to me as a perfect example of how smart these playcallers and players are. I'm talking about the zone-busting play that led to Blaine Gabbert's second touchdown pass to Colin Cloherty. The video and my breakdown of the play are below the jump. The play begins at 7:38. Thanks to Dan073eb 's for cutting up all of the Jaguars' first half offensive plays.
So, here we are, a 2nd and 15 from just past the 15 yards. The Jaguars haven't exactly had a run-first offense so far this game, but they've certainly been balanced. Why is that important? Well, the play is from a three tight end set, with Laurent Robinson wide right. #89 Marcedes Lewis is lined up on the left side of the line and #88 Zach Potter and #46 Colin Cloherty on the right side of the line.
Final Copy of 1st Half.avi (via dan073ebschannel)
Here's the design: Wide right, Robinson runs a 15-yard post route, Cloherty runs a ten yard out and Potter chips the defensive end then slips out into the flat. On the back side, Marcedes also chips the DE on his side, then runs a seam route. The running back slips out into the hole that Marcedes just left as the very last option on the play.
In any coverage, the reads go 1) Robinson 2) Cloherty 3) Potter, from high to low down the right side of the field. Which guy to throw to, however, depends on the coverage. Here's how the QB's reads should go in each case:
Cover 2 zone: In a cover 2 zone, the simple answer is to watch the cornerback to decide between Cloherty and Potter. Robinson's post would be running right into the heart of the Safety's zone, which is the area further than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage (LOS) and on the offense's right. It's not a safe throw not just because of the safety, but also because the linebackers are dropping back into coverage and it's difficult to slip a ball over the LB and under the safety. Robinson is also the receiver the QB should be looking at as the play develops to draw the defense's attention.
From there, the cornerback on the right can only be covering one area of the field, either the flats close to the LOS, or in a drop zone, about 10 yards off. If he's in a drop zone, Potter is open for six yards or so underneath. If the corner is in the flats, you have a window to throw to Cloherty running the out 10 yards downfield. Throw it where he ain't.
Man Coverage: In man coverage, the reads remain the same. 1) Robinson 2) Cloherty 3) Potter. The QB reads high-to-low down the right side. If all that is covered, Gabbert is supposed to come back across the field for a quick dump off over the middle of the field to RB Montell Owens. Since Robinson and Cloherty cross on their routes, defenses could have trouble staying with their guy on the switch. Often one of those two will be targeted in man coverage on this play.
Cover 3 zone: In a cover 3 zone, both cornerbacks drop into deep zones on the outsides, one safety takes the drop zone in the middle of the field and the other takes the deep area in the middle of the field. This means that both the flat and drop zones are covered by a single linebacker. The middle linebacker is responsible for the middle of the field at 10 yards deep.
There's always a little bit of chaos on an NFL field, but this scenario is the closest to what actually happened on the play. The Saints' cornerback drops 15 yards off the ball with Robinson and the outside linebacker follows Potter out into the flats. Now the safety and CB either have to see the crossing pattern coming and make a quick switch, or the middle linebacker has to take his drop wide enough to be in the way of Gabbert's throwing lane. Neither of those things happened. That leaves some confusion in the secondary and a wide open Colin Cloherty.
What I really like about the play is that it's a fairly simple concept with pretty simplified reads. All the QB has to do is be patient and watch the defense. There are 3 offensive players running routes on the right side in areas that are usually covered by 2 defensive players. Odds are that someone will be open. If there are three defensive players over there and everyone is covered, than that's another player that's not in a position to tackle the running back should the QB have to check down to his left.
As it turned out, the play worked perfectly and the Jaguars wind up with 6 points on the board and a very positive play for the coaches to highlight in film study.