By Sal Capaccio
“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.
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