Ball placement refers to the location of a quarterback’s throw relative to a receiver and nearby defenders. Good ball placement depends on the situation, route, and coverage, but it is the location of a throw that best allows a receiver to make a play on the ball while minimizing the opportunity for the defender to interfere with the throw.
The most common form of good ball placement allows a receiver to make yards after the catch. In this example, Drew Brees perfectly places this ball to Brandin Cooks en route to a 98-yard touchdown. When Brees releases the ball, Cooks is at the 10-yard line. When Cooks makes the catch, he is at the 29. Brees leads his receiver by 19 yards, and the throw hits Cooks directly over his inside shoulder so he doesn’t have to break stride. The ball is perfectly placed so that the receiver can maintain his speed while making the catch at an easy and natural point on his body.
Low ball placement is typically used by quarterbacks to guide their receivers to the ground in front of a defender. Quarterbacks often throw low on shallow routes or in the front of the endzone when yards after the catch are less important. Balls are often placed lower to protect receivers from hits or to reduce the likelihood of a turnover. On this Tom Brady touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski, Brady throws the ball low and away from the defender. With the receiver in the endzone, yards after the catch are irrelevant, and it is important to eliminate the possibility of an interception. Brady places the ball at shin height away from the defender, a location where only his receiver can make the catch.
Another common ball placement is the back-shoulder throw. This occurs when a receiver is running a vertical route, and the quarterback intentionally throws the ball behind the receiver. In this example, Aaron Rodgers delivers a back-shoulder throw to receiver Jordy Nelson. The defender is in a good position to defend a throw like the one to Cooks above. However, this leaves him vulnerable to a ball placed short and to the outside. The receiver adjusts to the ball, making the grab for the touchdown. This ball placement is incredibly difficult to defend, but it also requires a high level of communication between the quarterback and receiver.
The number one rule of ball placement is to put the ball where the receiver can make a catch. The number two rule is to place the ball away from a defender. If the receiver is in the open field, that means placing the ball on his front shoulder so he can keep momentum and maximize his yards after the catch. If the receiver is partially covered, it means locating the throw where the defender can’t make a play on it and where the receiver won’t get hit. Sometimes this means throwing it to the receiver’s back shoulder, at shin height, or above the receiver where he must make a jumping grab.