The Spotter’s View: Anticipation

Anticipating the blitz and adjusting his protection

Anticipating the blitz and adjusting his protection

We’re less than five hours away from the biggest Monday Night Football game of the season and the anticipation for this heavyweight matchup between the Texans and Patriots  could not be more exciting. The buzz in New England is electric. I expect this raucous and proud New England fan base to provide some terrific scenery as two of the league’s best quarterbacks trade hey-makers under the bright lights of primetime.

That’s where the anticipation angle of this post starts. But where it ends is on the chalkboard. In the meeting rooms. In the preparation by QBs Tom Brady and Matt Schaub – two of the very best signal-callers in the league when it comes to anticipation. That word: 12 letters, 5 syllables – is the most important trait a successful QB can have. THE. MOST. IMPORTANT.

But how does one attain the ability to anticipate? How does Brady know what’s going to happen before the snap? Or Schaub? Or anybody for that matter? They don’t have a sixth sense – that’s for sure. But what they do have is a commitment to their craft. A desire to be great. And a work-ethic that allows them to achieve what others can not. Here’s The Spotter’s View on Anticipation.

Let me start with this.

In the advanced world of NFL football, there exists a few precious seconds after the huddle breaks and before the ball is snapped when a QB can look over the defense. This is usually limited to about :15 seconds. In this short timeframe, the QB must decipher what front the defense is playing, what coverage the secondary is likely to run, identify any potential blitzers, center his protection scheme based on the number of defenders coming from either his right or left and at times – change routes, alter blocking assignments and/or audible out of the play altogether into a better suited play for the situation. I can’t even type that in :15 seconds – let alone execute it.

But that’s what we expect of our signal callers in today’s NFL. If they are unable to do these things, there are consequences. The most common being a limited offensive scheme that takes these variables out of the equation. This protects the QB who can’t make the necessary adjustments at the line of scrimmage but also leads to a predictable, vanilla play-calling sheet. Sooner or later, that limited offensive scheme will become a liability  which is why successful teams have QBs that can master the pre-snap phase of the game.

The other teams – the ones without a great pre-snap QB – are left in no man’s land. They can go vanilla, as mentioned above….or they can put this workload on their QB and hope for the best. A great example of these two scenarios would be the Washington Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles. Washington uses a vanilla scheme to protect their QB Robert Griffin III. Yes…it’s a creative vanilla scheme that utilizes the pistol formation and read-options. But it’s still vanilla – particularly in the passing game. RGIII operates mostly out of a one and done system. Meaning he is asked to read his primary target and throw the ball to that target. If the primary is covered, he’s done with the read and drops it off to his checkdown or takes off running. One target, one read – if covered….done. That’s a one and done system. Eventually, as defenses catchup to the uniqueness of the read-option, RGIII will need to develop his pre-snap abilities. He’ll need to become more like Brady and Schaub. Not less like them.

The Eagles are one of the teams that understand the need of having a QB who is great pre-snap. Their problem is that despite giving Michael Vick the freedom to adjust at the line, he simply is not able to anticipate accurately what is going to happen post-snap. Yes – the Eagles offensive line is bad. Yes – they throw the football downfield far too often. Yes – this is not the Eagles ONLY issue. I know these things. But it is a HUGE issue nonetheless. Take a look at this play…

http://www.azcardinals.com/videos-photos/videos/Cardinals-93-yard-fumble-return/9a6c70e6-fae1-4c34-91c1-17cced1f4d5b

 

Vick never sees S Kerry Rhodes coming on the blitz. He NEVER sees him even after he’s hit. Not seeing something even after it happens is the exact opposite of the word “anticipation”. Is it not? Here’s the point. Vick is given that freedom at the line of scrimmage to look things over and adjust as needed. He’s operating under the protection schemes of Howard Mudd, remember, Peyton Manning’s old cohort in Indy. Mudd’s scheme is advanced beyond what Vick is capable of. Look at the results from that play you just watched.

Let’s say RB LeSean McCoy made a mistake in going to his right. That would seem plausible and would take some of the heat off of Vick for the turnover and ensuing defensive TD. Afterall, if Vick told McCoy through his pre-snap verbiage to pickup the safety blitzing off the left edge, then Vick is not to blame. There’s only one problem with that reasoning. Vick NEVER looks left pre-snap. He never sees Rhodes. Therefore he can’t have told McCoy to go left to block him. You understand? He NEVER sees it and his inability to change the protection before the snap results in a game changing, negative play. This has happened over and over again dating back to that Minnesota Vikings game just before Christmas of last year when Lezlie Frazier and company gave the league the blueprint on how to defend Vick. Prior to that game, Vick was playing at a level we haven’t seen previously. MVP talk was circulating. He scored 400 touchdowns against the Redskins on a Monday Night. All of that happened in 2010 (before Mudd was with the Eagles) and the first few games of 2011 (before Frazier let the entire league in on a little secret – that Vick can not operate pre-snap). If this same play happened against Brady or Schaub or guys like Manning or Aaron Rodgers, they would’ve seen Rhodes coming on the blitz, sent McCoy to pick it up and would have easily tossed a TD to DeSean Jackson running a slant at the bottom of the screen – who would’ve been WIDE open in the next second – a second not afforded to Vick because of his inability to make the appropriate adjustment. Which leads us to….

They say that winning the turnover battle gives your team an 80% better chance of winning.  I say then…what gives a team the best chance to avoid turnovers? The answer: a quarterback who knows what he’s seeing before it happens. Anticipation. It’s the reason Brady has posted a remarkable stat line against the blitz this season. Something to the tune of 15 TDs vs 0 INTs. He sees what’s happening pre-snap and adjust the protection to account for the extra rusher. Or he sees what’s happening and hits his “hot” route. Think about what Brady has done in 3rd down situations over the years. Boom. Welker. First Down. You don’t recall the hits that Vick takes. You don’t recall game-changing turnovers. You don’t envision those things because Brady negates those negative type plays by anticipating the defense’s intentions and taking advantage of the void in coverage vacated by the blitzer. In most cases, he finds Welker. We could probably find 500 clips of Brady tossing an option route to Welker on 3rd Downs as the opponent blitzes. He anticipates the blitz, finds Welker, throws accurately and….FIRST DOWN!

Schaub does the same thing – though he can also get some credit for the Texans rushing attack. He does a better job than anyone in football of anticipating the best possible running play and will audible regularly to get RB Arian Foster his best chance for success.

This is going to be one of the very best demonstrations of QB anticipation tonight. I really can’t wait to see these two pre-snap geniuses go at it.

In other words….it’s a highly anticipated game.

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