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CAPACCIO: When is the QB Staring Down a WR?

By Sal Capaccio
Twitter @SalSports


“What defensive back are we putting into conflict?”

Remember that phrase as we go along in this piece.  Then, remember it every time you watch a pass play in the NFL.

There’s been a lot of talk and debate lately about QBs staring down receivers.  Of course, here in Buffalo, specifically about how often EJ Manuel is doing or not doing it.  Almost every time he drops back, completion, incompletion, or interception, I read analysis that says he stared down his receiver and rebuttals that say he didn’t.  What’s true and what’s not?  Well, as with most armchair analysis in sports, the truth lies somewhere in between.  Sometimes EJ definitely stares down a receiver.  And sometimes he gets accused of it when it’s simply not true.

We all know what staring down a receiver means.  A QB looks at his target for a (too long) period of time that allows a defender to see where he is going with the ball and then make a play on it.  Sometimes, EJ Manuel is totally guilty of this.  It was a knock on him by some coming out of Florida State, and many show how they believe he’s continued to do it.  So sometimes, that’s still a fair criticism, but other times, it’s unfair and not at all what it seems.

There are several reasons for false criticisms of a QB staring down a receiver.  Here are a few of the most common:

1. Presnap read/play design - A lot of plays, and we know this to be true with the Bills offense right now, are designed to get the ball out as quickly as possible and are designed to go either to a specific receiver, or who the QB chooses at the line of scrimmage based on coverages and what else he sees.  When this happens, he has to get the snap, get his eyes on his target quickly (as he’s dropping back or having to look up after a shotgun snap), and make the throw.  In fact, if he doesn’t do that and tries to look somewhere else before the throw, he can botch the entire play himself because the receiver will be well past the spot both are expecting by the time the QB looks back to him.  Things happen fast in the NFL.  On quick-pass plays, coaches will often tell QBs, “take 3 steps and as soon as that back foot plants, get it out.”  It’s hard to get it to the right guy or spot if you don’t get your eyes there quickly.

2.  Hot Read - This is very similar to the above situation, except it’s not a play that’s called in the huddle, but what both the QB and receiver know they have to do once they recognize a blitz coming.  And, obviously, with a blitz coming, the QB often has to get the ball out quickly.  But just as important as the QB recognizing this, the receiver has to see it, too, and get to that open area vacated by the blitzer as soon as he can.  The QB has to get his eyes on that receiver immediately after the snap.  And if both do their jobs correctly, throw it to that spot and player.  

3.  After the snap, QB throws to his first read because, well, he’s open - I think this is the most common mis-read by fans of a QB staring down his receiver.  Almost every pass play has a “first-read option” for the quarterback.  A player he looks to throw to if he’s open, then look to someone else if he’s not.  So, if Robert Woods, for example, is EJ’s first-read option, he’s going to look at him right after the snap.  And if Woods beats his man off the line, EJ needs to throw it.  So what happens?  EJ never looks anywhere else, only to Woods before he throws it to him.  Then some fans and media scream, “he looked at him the whole time!!” Well, of course he did.  Woods was his first read and he was open.  There was no reason to look somewhere else. 

Now it’s time to “put a defensive back in conflict.”

It’s a 3rd and 6.  QB takes the snap.  His eyes focus on one spot and he keeps them there, without looking anywhere else, before throwing the ball.  Besides this being his "first-read option” as explained above, there’s one more mostly never talked-about reason for NFL QBs to do that.  It’s because they’re not actually looking at the receiver.  They’re looking at a defender.  A defender who has to choose which receiver to cover.  A defender who is now “in conflict.”  So it absolutely looks like the QB is locked in on his receiver.  But in reality he’s actually locked in on the defensive back.

Here’s an illustration with three stills from last year’s game against the Ravens.  The Bills have Robert Woods running a deep post-pattern and also have Stevie Johnson running a drag underneath.  The defender the Bills are putting into conflict is the safety, #32, James Ihedigbo (at the 21 yard line).  He has to choose between staying deep with Woods (which is what he’s most likely taught to do here) or follow Johnson to the flat that was vacated by the CB who is running with Woods:

Most would immediately say Manuel is staring at Woods the whole way down the field.  But check out the next photo.  You can tell he’s actually staring at Ihedigbo.  Manuel put his eyes on the safety as soon as he gets the snap and for as long as he can until he sees him make a decision.  Manuel doesn’t have to look at Woods.  Or Johnson.  He knows where they’ll be.  He only has to see which receiver the conflicted defender decides to cover.

Ihedigbo chose Johnson.  Manuel saw it and launched the ball downfield to Woods for a touchdown.

I’ll hear and read a lot of people say the QB needs to look-off a defender, then go another way.  Sure, in many situations that’s right.  But in a lot of others, he actually needs to look RIGHT AT a defender in the area where the pass may be going.  Then throwing the ball to the receiver that defender doesn’t choose.

So the next time you’re watching a QB and think, “he’s staring down his receiver,” you could of course be right.  Or, there’s a good chance it only looks like that because that QB is staring at the defender in conflict.

Follow me on Twitter @SalSports

Filed Under :  
Topics : Sports
Locations : Buffalo
People : James IhedigboRobert WoodsStevie Johnson
08/12/2014 11:37PM
CAPACCIO: When is the QB Staring Down a WR?
Please enter your comments below.
08/13/2014 3:10AM
Good Insight, but...
You bring up some good points that I did not think about before, as a fan. This is particularly true regarding putting a defensive back in conflict. And on TV, it would seem that it would be difficult to automatically know the difference between whether a quarterback, i.e., EJ Manuel, was staring down his receiver or waiting for the defender to make his move. I don't have any funky service to review the plays later on. I just get to see what they show on the station as a replay. That is assuming I take the time to watch the replay. >> So that does take away some of the concern I have about Manuel and what I have observed as some of his inadequacies. But it does not take them all away. >> Even in this area, it still looks like he takes too long to move to his second or third options. Again, you bring up the other points that indicate there might not be time to look for those options, but I am not talking about those. What I see when I see Manuel drop back is someone who is unsure of himself on every play when he has time to think about what he needs to do. He inspires no confidence in me that he can get the ball accurately downfield in his receivers' hands on a consistent basis. >> On the other hand, Manuel strikes me as a quiet, gentleman. He seems to be neither boastful nor a braggart. So I hope I am wrong, at least in the long run. I hope that he does have the ability to get to his long range receivers on a consistent basis beyond my limited capacity to analyze his plays or learns to soon. It would be great to have a nice guy to cheer for, for reasons other than just being a nice guy. END
08/13/2014 6:05AM
Partial Explanation
Although Sal's explanation explains some of the situations that we see in EJ I think there are also other areas of EJ's game that need improvement. Even in the areas of pre-snap reads and hot reads, the great QBs in this league learn to use their sight to throw off defenders by not staring down their targets. All it takes is a temporary glance in another direction before coming back to your target to get you that split second difference to thread a needle. The other situation is the speed of his release. If EJ's motion is a long mechanical motion defenders are going to read that. And last EJ needs to process his read quicker to make a decision on the best option. This will only come by better experience and knowledge of the plays and defenses and better pass protection. The article definitely brought up some great points and it's good to hear real analysis. Last week EJ did seem to progress. Lets hope this continues. Now we need to see some results though. TDs. That's the bottom line. Complete the downfield march with points. All the yards in the world don't win games.
08/13/2014 6:48AM
Give Him Time
After an injury ridden rookie season, the book is still out on EJ. Only TIME will tell if can develop into a good one.
08/13/2014 6:52AM
The thing that kills me about this subject...
Is how do you know which way his eyes are (or not) scanning the field? People need to take a chill pill and allow this kid to develop. He has all the skill set that's needed to be successful. Not everyone can step into this league and put up RGIII and Can Newton numbers. (BTW: Did you notice they also had to regress a little bit before they got even better?) The biggest problem with this league is that players (particularly QBs) aren't given the proper time to develop anymore. The big money and lack of patience from the fans adds to this problem.
08/13/2014 7:33AM
great points
Can't argue against that. But the thing EJ is guilty of most is not being able to hit his guys in the numbers. I am confident he can do that when his receivers are not moving, but I wouldn't put money on him if he were trying to hit him on stride. I like the dude, but I wouldn't bet on him.
08/13/2014 7:39AM
Good Read
Thanks for explaining that topic. I'll look for defenders in conflict in Madden now lol. Anyways, A lot of people forget that Manuel got thrown into the fire last year. Kolb was supposed to be the guy while Manuel sat back and learned these things at a reasonable pace. Kolb went out, Manuel went in and starting learning how to "read and adjust" on the fly. I often wonder how the fans would feel right now if Kolb played the whole year while Manuel learned the ins and outs of the NFL game. I like to use Aaron Rodgers as an example. How many years did he get to watch Favre and learn from his failures and successes? The answer is 3. And then it took him 2 years to win the super bowl on a loaded team. Long story short. Give EJ a break People. He has way more to do than you think he does when he gets to the line of scrimmage. Lets give him a couple of years to master it before we throw him in the long line of recent Buffalo Bust QBs.
08/13/2014 8:17AM
I will agree with that
But i don't think ej will have to many of those problems. I mean in the past he would check down to his man that is open. And he would get stop right their. Now he got players if he do have to check down too. These boys are going to get yards after the catch. So instead of 2 and 8 you will be getting 2 and 5 or 3. See that works hands and hands with the next play they run. Because now you got the d guessing. Is it a run or pass to te and if they bite on that. And you do a fea flicker for a bome or pick up the first down than you have done your job. But hey ej have you every heard of the pump fake. You use it sometimes but you don't follow through with it. Because if you pumpfake one way you know they are going to move. And throw it another way for completion. That how you keep the defense on their heels. I don't want to talk about last year. Because you also didn't have all this talent to make this work. but you do know lets go ruff buff
08/13/2014 8:32AM
Offensive Coordinator Issues
After reading this article I'm inclined to believe that the real problem is offensive play design.
08/13/2014 9:18AM
When is the QB Staring Down a Receiver?
Dumb question. Wouldn't it be easier to ask a Tom Brady that question. Can't ask EJ that one. He's not good enough and that don't happen here. Come on Sal, get with it.
08/13/2014 9:31AM
Fast Fact
That Jonny Football Manziel guy looked pretty good the other day. Hmmmmmmmn. Let's think here..........................................................I think we messed up man. (Cheech and Chong)
08/13/2014 9:39AM
Just watch….
the games and try to enjoy them. Or don't, do something else. You are over thinking your role.
08/13/2014 9:40AM
WGR NEEDS TO GO !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
08/13/2014 10:23AM
You beat the dog hard enough and long enough
EXCELLENT! I hope all those arm chair QB's learn something from real analysis. It appears some just like to complain, they can ESDMF. No O-line QB looks bad, no receivers QB looks bad. Let's see how the season plays out before questioning playcalling.
08/13/2014 12:23PM
BuffaloRange.com - Just sayin
08/13/2014 1:02PM
Kudos Again to Sal
Sal's articles are, BY FAR, more insightful and better written than anyone else's on this station. I wish he could write more often, but he's too busy filling in for everyone else. Looking forward to more.
08/13/2014 3:07PM
I really thought there would be something today where Johnny Manziel wasn't brought up. Yet some mouthbreather, after 1 preseason game, says we messed up. I'm losing faith in the average fan...
08/13/2014 3:42PM
LOL at the day I need Sal Crapaccio, master narcissist & self-promoter, tell me what I'm looking at. Way to treat every reader like they are in 3rd grade. Article is full of excuses for Manuel.
08/14/2014 7:29AM
Stop using this dude as a fill in. He knows nothing and is usually wrong with his homer based opinions. Thanks for the article outlining the obvious! What's next, grass is green? I take a break from listening when this guy fills in.
08/14/2014 9:00AM
Did you read the article at a regular pace or fast pace? The rule is that you have to read Sals takes at 78 speed just like when he talks on the radio. He talks so fast, I can't register. I still can imagine Sal in a court room. I said once before that the stenographer would never keep pace with the writing in shorthand.
08/14/2014 1:27PM
Re: Re: LOL
How can yo talk so fast and not really say anything of substance at the same time? He does it.
Title :
Comment :
In light of the recent off field issues, has your enthusiasm for the NFL been affected?
  Yes. I'm not enjoying the games as much
  No. Why should it? Its a very small percentage of players
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