Seminoles on Offense: Manuel's Interception
E.J. Manuel's interception came from a split-back, three-wide formation in the shotgun against a 4-3, with a standing outside linebacker serving as the fourth man along the defensive front, and then a cloud Cover 3 behind it.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher regularly recites this mantra: "Corners lie. Safeties tell the truth."
At the snap, it's obvious this is a three-deep defense, with three players responsible for deep zones and four players having short-to-intermediate coverage responsibilities. There was no attempt at deception. Just an immediate rotation into "cloud" coverage, in which both safeties have deep responsibilities, along with the cornerback to the wide (or "field") side and the short ("boundary") corner having flat responsibility.
The call was a play-action pass with a two-man route on the left involving a short in route from the outside receiver and a flag route from the slot. There was also a post from the split end, and then the backs were responsible for weak-side blitz protection before releasing into the flat.
Typically, this play reads from right to left, although I think FSU does "coverage" reads under Fisher rather than sticking with true "progression" reads. The first option is going to be the post route, and if that's not there, the read will go high-low on the other side, with the back as the check-down option in the flat.
In our situation, this is what the play looked like as it developed:
Note where Manuel is looking in the above picture. He's taking a look at that safety playing center field as he starts his drop. The QB's first responsibility in FSU's system is to locate the safety and identify whether it's "single-high" (one safety in the middle of the field) coverage. He's obviously done that right away.
Unfortunately, as is evident by the next picture, he makes no effort to look that safety off his intended target. Although, against Cover 3, it's not clear if the safety would have indeed moved at all since he knows there is help on either side.
At this point, Manuel knows where he's going to throw. Unfortunately, so does the safety since Manuel has been staring at the spot for some time now.
When I first saw this throw, I thought he had misread the coverage. But it's clear from these screen captures that Fisher was shooting straight when he gave his explanation in the postgame press conference: "He had a poor decision on the interception. They rolled, they clouded the coverage, and he saw it. He just thought he could stick it in there. He just tried to juice it in there. ... He came right back over as soon as he did it and told me what they were in and what they were doing."
What would have been the right decision against this coverage? Once Manuel knew the center safety was staying home, the best play would have been to reset his feet and hit the outside receiver on the left as he cut off the in route as a part of his read and headed back towards the sideline. It's possible he could have squeezed the ball in there had he looked off the safety by staring down the slot receiver and only coming back to the post at the last second -- and throwing a dart -- but it's still a risky play and won't be one he'll want to make against stronger competition.
Understand this: Manuel likes to take shots down the field and isn't shy about rolling the dice. This is a positive trait, but it's important for him not to overreach, especially since he's surrounded by weapons that can create yards after the catch.
Seminoles on Defense: Joyner's Interception
Based on the early returns, moving Lamarcus Joyner to the strong safety spot may have resulted in the biggest position improvement on either side of the ball. Joyner is disciplined, physical and, best of all, has elite range for the position. ‘Nole fans will recall Reggie Nelson serving as an "eraser" at center field for Florida several years ago, and Joyner flashes that kind of range, although he is also capable of one-on-one coverage and playing closer to the line of scrimmage due to his physical nature. FSU hasn't had a true center-field safety since Pat Watkins, and Joyner can do this every time the defense goes single-high. He should allow the ‘Noles to run more aggressive underneath coverage all year.
All that aside, the play resulting in Joyner's interception was an inexplicable decision by ULM quarterback Kolton Browning. The Warhawks were in a power-pistol formation with twins to the left side. FSU put eight defenders -- plus cornerback Mike Harris -- right on the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Joyner was alone in the middle of the field from the time the ball was snapped.
After the play fake, ULM ran a two-man route with both receivers going deep against FSU's three coverage players. Harris got a good jam on the targeted receiver, causing him to stumble out of his break.
Despite having plenty of time, Browning still decided to throw deep down the field at his stumbling target. Joyner was standing directly in the path of the route, ultimately having to backpedal and catch what amounted to a punt.
I chalk this decision up to frustration and impatience, as I can't imagine the QB didn't know this ball was likely to be intercepted before he threw it.
Either way, Joyner wound up with what will likely be the easiest INT of his career. So why then focus on this play?
It highlights a key point lacking throughout much of 2010: FSU's deep-coverage safety stayed home. Last year, this was not always the case from the strong safety position, and that change should keep a few scores off the board this season.
Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early 2000s and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.
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