It is a game of yoctoseconds and inches. When everything comes together ‒ the play call, the execution ‒ it can be stunning, even beautiful. When the timing is off, it can be horrible and gut-wrenching. The New England Patriots soundly defeated the Indianapolis Colts thanks in part to well-timed and executed defense.
The quick out route can be one of the safest throws a quarterback makes, leading to easy gains against both man and zone coverages. But these pass plays can also be risky: if thrown too late, too soft, or behind the receiver, they could lead to interceptions with room for big returns.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck discovered the dark side of the quick out route in the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots. Late in the third quarter, with the Colts already down 24 points, Luck faced 3rd and 5 and needed to move the chains. Indianapolis lined up three receivers bunched tightly together on the right side:
In 3rd-and-5 situations, almost any defense will play man-to-man coverage, so Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton dials up a rub route ‒ a classic man-beater ‒ with outside receiver Donte Moncrief (#10) running a go route upfield while T.Y. Hilton (#13) runs a quick out route from the slot. The two routes cross, creating a natural pick. As Moncrief angles towards the middle of the field, the play works and creates congestion at the top of Hilton’s route:
If Luck throws the ball now, as Hilton begins his break, and the QB keeps the throw low and outside, he completes the pass. But that’s not what the third-year quarterback does:
Instead of pulling the trigger, Luck drifts backwards another step, giving Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis (#24) time to recover and undercut the route. Luck puts some air on the ball, perhaps trying to drop it in behind Revis, but the veteran corner leaps to make the interception. Revis has a lot of green space in front of him and returns the ball 30 yards to the Indianapolis 13, setting up a touchdown on the next play. Quick out routes that get jumped in this manner often lead to large returns, because there are few offensive players in front of the defender after Revis picks off the pass:
Three players not immediately involved in the play stand out from the all-22 perspective. Inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower (#54) drops into a zone and watches the bunch, ready to pick up a receiver crossing into the middle of the field. Free safety Devin McCourty (#32) shades towards the three-receiver side, ready to provide help deep. That effectively gives New England five pass defenders to cover the three receivers, which lets Revis jump the out route knowing that there’s help if Hilton makes a double-move.
Five defenders on three leaves second-year cornerback Logan Ryan (#26) “on an island” (no safety help) on the offensive left side against Colts receiver Reggie Wayne. That’s a tribute to the Patriots’ trust in Ryan, and it also reflects how far Wayne, the NFL’s active leader in receiving yards, has fallen.
Here’s the whole play from the all-22 perspective:
Luck didn’t learn his lesson from the mistake above, because he made another ill-advised throw on a quick out route in the fourth quarter, which linebacker Jamie Collins jumped:
Few quarterbacks have accomplished as much as Luck in his first three NFL seasons, and the 25-year-old is clearly one of the game’s brightest young stars. To get himself and the Colts to the next level, however, he needs to cut down on mistakes like these. He has already thrown 12 interceptions in just six career playoff games.
The out route can be an effective weapon, but quarterbacks must be smart about when and how they throw it. Twice on Sunday night, Luck wasn’t, and both ill-advised throws led to turnovers, contributing to the Patriots rout.
Follow Dave Archibald on Twitter @SOSH_davearchie.
Dave Archibald knows NFL defense, specifically how pass coverages, a good pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.