The huge AFC West match-up between the Oakland Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs was won by the home squad on Thursday night, with the Chiefs riding a quick start to their eventual 21-13 victory. Much of the post-game debate has focused upon Raiders’ quarterback Derek Carr, who entered the game an MVP candidate but struggled against Kansas City, completing only 17 of 41 passes for 117 yards, averaging 2.9 yards per completion. There were a number of factors that added to the down night for the young signal-caller, which of course included a tough Chiefs’ defense.
One play that was discussed in the aftermath was this 1st and 10 play early in the game, in which Carr makes a quick throw to Seth Roberts (#10) in the flat:
It’s a curious decision, throwing to your #3 receiver in the red zone so quickly on the play. But, it was the right one.
The play in question is a mirrored-passing concept, called “Indy 5” by Noel Mazzone. It is a concept designed to attack man coverage, with routes that can convert to vertical routes depending on the secondary shown and the alignment used by the cornerbacks. Here’s the concept:
First, look at the coaching point/adjustments for the X and Z receivers, who will be the first progression read for the quarterback – which we will get to in a moment. These players will run the fade, and are taught to expect the ball against Cover 2, which is the coverage the Chiefs run on this play. They’ll look for the ball in the honey hole, that spot deep along the outside behind the cornerback and away from the half-field safety.
Now look at the designation for F, which is the route Roberts runs on the play. He’s tasked with a four-step speed out, and needs to attack the leverage of the nearest defender – here, that’s going to be slot cornerback Steven Nelson (#20). Also, look at the designation in bold: “man beater.” If the defense shows man coverage, he needs to win his route, by attacking that sideline shoulder, making a sharp cut and getting separation on the break.
The QB on this play makes a read from left to right or right to left, depending on the ‘best side.” This is sometimes determined by which hashmark the football is on, or when the ball is in the middle of the field as it is here, the QB picks his best matchups. Here, Carr reads this from left to right, starting with Amari Cooper (#89) on the fade, to Roberts, and then he will get backside to the routes on the right side of the field – if he gets through the progression that long. Carr will first check the fade route and then come to Roberts on the man beater.
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Given that the defense is in Cover 2, you would expect Carr to throw the fade route to Cooper. However, remember that in the red zone, everything happens faster, and the field is more compressed. That’s an extremely narrow throwing window to challenge, especially so on a 1st and 10 situation. Therefore, the right call is to get the ball out to the flat route – the designated man beater on the play – and let your receiver try to make a play after the catch. Also, consider the context. This throw comes with just under a minute left in the first half, with the Raiders trailing 21-3. There’s a need for points no matter what in this scenario, and forcing a throw into a tight window might not be the best option.
The issue with this play is one of execution, and not decision-making. Carr makes the correct decision, he just puts the ball in a bad spot. First, this throw needs to come out toward the sideline, and not be left high and to the inside, forcing the receiver to slow his route and make an adjustment. In addition, Roberts needs to run a sharper route, as he needs to attack that outside shoulder, sell the defender on either a vertical route or something cutting to the inside, and then make a sharp cut that gets some separation on the break. The rounded-off route, plus the poorly-placed throw, add up to the missed opportunity here.
Quarterback decision-making does not happen in a vacuum. Every play has built in progressions, adjustments, assignments, and coaching points that can influence the decisions made by the man in the pocket. Looking at this play from 35,000 feet, one can certainly wonder why Carr made the decision he did. But when you dive into the playbook and the context of the situation, you can see that the right decision was made. Sometimes, it’s more about the execution than it is the thought process.