Collectively, we've grown accustomed to an inadequate offense and even the smallest morsels of positivity are looked upon as an offensive explosion. The most critiqued individual in this town outside of Peter Angelos, has to be Matt Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh probably has forgotten more about offensive football than I'll ever know but his football acumen certainly doesn't project to the field. Some that defend Cavanaugh say that he hasn't had the tools to open up the offense, particularly at the wide receiver position. Why is it that these receivers can't get open very often and when they do, we all expect them to drop the ball? What's so difficult? Is it the receiver, the offensive scheme, poor patterns, all of the above? For a closer look at this topic, we've called upon the expertise of football guru and future analyst for GAMETIME's Chalk Talk segment on AM 1300 The Jock, Bill Pisano.
What Makes a Receiver?
The game of football has always been referred to as the thinking man's game. Many believe that it's because of the strategy involved, especially since the football stereotype is that of an athlete with a God-like physique and the intelligence of a head of cabbage. However, in order to play the game of football each and every player on the team must be able to comprehend what is occurring in front of him, make decisions and adjustments and execute a strategy in order to overcome their opponent. Receivers typically are stereotyped as the cabbage head god, but may be the best example of the type of intelligence needed to be a successful player in the NFL.
Often receivers are judged by their ability to make catches, run away from defenders and score touchdowns. But to play the position of receiver, it takes a great deal of intellect and understanding of what's occurring on the defensive side of the ball. In order to make the catch, run away from defenders and score a touchdown a receiver must get himself open. That doesn't happen by accident, especially in the NFL when each week the secondary is trying to shut down the offense's best big play weapon.
From the moment the play is called to the second the whistle is blown, a receiver must make a number of decisions. The decisions include how to release from the line of scrimmage, how to run a route, where to run a route, what to do after catching the ball or whom to block downfield. All of these decisions can be mapped out before each play begins when the receiver lines up, however not all of the decisions are set in stone once the play begins. A receiver must adjust to what is being done by the defense during each play.
Reading the Defense
In order to run a route, a receiver must have an understanding of what a defense is trying to do. He must be able to read if the defense is in a zone, man-to-man or double coverage. This will help him to decide how to release and where to run his route or if he needs to convert the route to a different pattern. Further, he must understand if the defense is in a blitz, if so he must either convert his pattern to a "hot route" or run off his defender so that the other "hot route" can get open.
A "hot route" runner is pre-determined during the week of preparation prior to the game and is typically designed to get the receiver inside leverage on the defender. The reason a receiver wants to have inside leverage is that it is an easier throw for a QB to make under pressure and there is less coverage help inside as the other defenders are either involved in the blitz or are maintaining inside leverage on their receivers.
If there is a blitz on and the receiver and the QB picks it up prior to the snap, there must be some form of communication between the two in order to make the adjustment. Usually a hand signal or a call is made to one another. If neither pick the blitz up prior to the snap, the receiver must re-adjust his pattern to give his QB a chance. Sometimes a route will be cut short or the receiver running an outside route breaks it off inside or comes back towards the line of scrimmage.
Often if a pattern is designed to be run against man-to-man coverage and a zone defense is played instead, a receiver will run a complimentary route adjusting to the zone defense. Just as a blitz will throw a wrench into a play designed to attack a zone defense, a "straight" defense can alter a play designed to attack a blitzing defense.
Many defenses in the NFL play a physical type of style in their pass coverage. It usually starts at the line of scrimmage when the cornerback or safety is playing just a few yards off of the receiver. The reason for this is to jam a receiver and ruin any timing patterns (we'll get to this topic) a team may execute. Since the jam is only allowed in the first five yards of a receiver's route, a secondary player will do whatever he can to impede the progress of the receiver. In order to combat this type of physical play a receiver must utilize moves similar to a defensive lineman rushing a passer. A head juke, swat of the hands may work one time, or a hand slap with a rip move may work the next. But rarely does the same move work every time. So the receiver must have a plethora of release moves and understand when to utilize them/change them up.
Running a Pattern
There are several types of patterns that are run in football. For the most part, typically more than one receiver runs a route during a pass play. These routes are designed to compliment one another and attack a defense in a particular way so that one or more receiver becomes open. However, if a particular defense is being run or the defender is doing a good job defensively, he must adjust his route or run to an area that will allow him to get open.
Further, if the receiver sees that his quarterback is being pressured and he is being covered, he must readjust what he is doing and find a way to provide an outlet to the QB. Most big plays occur from a scrambling quarterback finding a receiver looking for an open space. The designed play breaks down completely and the intelligence and the decisive actions of the receiver help to make what looked like an impending disaster turn into a big play. Although some of the biggest plays occur during these situations, a lot of big plays occur utilizing specific timing patterns.
Sometimes a timing pattern is run by an offense to attack a defense in a specific way. Usually it is a "quick hitter" or play designed to occur very fast. A great example is seen in the three step drop pass plays that most teams run. In these plays typically a QB takes just three drop steps in the pocket (most passes are five to seven drop steps) and fires a bullet to a receiver on an inside slant, fade or quick out pattern. These plays are designed to spread a defense out and allow a receiver to make a play. It requires a receiver that can get a quick release from the line of scrimmage, run a precision route and catch the ball. If any of these specific actions becomes delayed, the timing pattern will break down and the play may flop.
Catching the Ball
Obviously for a receiver this is the most important thing that he can do. If he cannot catch the ball he is useless as a receiver. However, we see receivers dropping passes all the time. Even the greatest receivers have dropped a few passes. Why is it so hard to catch a pass? It's simple, a receiver must have great concentration on the football and look it into his hands when thrown to. The same type of concentration must be had when a golfer swings his club or baseball player swings his bat.
With all the decisions that have to be made, the bodies flying in front of the ball and defenders hanging on a receiver's back his concentration can easily be broken. If he is thinking about being hit, turning up field to get into the end zone, staying in bounds or doing anything but catch the ball he is going to mis-handle the throw. The drops become more profound when the receiver has worked so hard to get himself open.
After the Catch
If the receiver is the receiver that catches the ball there is only two things he needs to do, get a first down or touchdown. That's it! No light to be shed here. But if the receiver is not the receiver that catches the ball he must look for a body to hit. Some of the biggest pass plays occur because a receiver that didn't get thrown the ball made a block that sprung the receiver that caught the ball. A receiver must understand that if he is not thrown the ball his responsibilities have not ended. (Hello Randy Moss.) He has a duty to help his other teammates make a play and to do that he must provide blocking assistance.
Obviously all of these actions are easier if the receiver is big, strong and fast. Physical attributes along with a high degree of intelligence and excellent decision making skills can help a player separate themselves from their competitors. But some of football's greatest receivers are guys with a great deal of intellect and understanding of what's occurring on the defensive side of the ball. Their ability to react, adjust and concentrate have allowed them to be successful in a game which everyone believes that bigger, stronger and faster is better. Remember, football is not called the thinking man's game for nothing.
So folks as you can see, playing the position of receiver in the NFL is a bit more complicated than those days when you drew up plays in the dirt or told your receiver to go down to the red Pinto and cut left. Playing receiver is more than just running a route and catching the ball. It is a craft that is developed over time, or so we're told.
Is it your time yet Travis?
Tony Lombardi is a native Baltimorean and a diehard Ravens fan. He is also
a writer for Ravens24x7.com,
a website for all those that bleed purple.