A Tale of Three Pick Plays

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]One of the toughest challenges to overcome offensively is facing a good man-to-man defense. They can disrupt the timing of your passing game, suffocate your receivers, and, worse, they can crush your team’s psyche. Essentially, the defense is telling you: You aren’t good enough to beat them. It could be demoralizing, so how do you beat it?

Against zone, an offense would simply flood an area with more receivers than defensive backs, but you can’t do that against man-to-man.

A common solution is pick plays or “rub” concepts in which receivers obstruct defenders or even run into them to free up other receivers. The plays are controversial because, strictly speaking, it is illegal to set picks–but they are difficult for referees to judge.

The art of subtly setting picks is not easily performed, but the feat can be accomplished with an understanding of where the defensive backs are and where, accordingly, the “receiver” needs to be. If a receiver understands this, he may be able to simply get in the way and sometimes no contact needs to be made at all–he would still help a teammate separate against man-to man coverage.

Jermaine Kearse, the Seahawks receiver, understands this art. In the Wild Card game against the Lions, he helped to free up teammate Jimmy Graham by setting a pick without ever making contact with the defensive back.

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On the play, Kearse is lined up in the slot while Graham is lined up outside of him. Kearse takes an outside release because he knows the spot he has to get to cut off the cornerback from driving on the slant route. The pesky defensive back covering him doesn’t give him a free release, so Kearse uses his strength and shoves him a full five yard until he can get to his spot.

The defensive back on Graham has to go around Kearse and can’t defend the play nor make a tackle.

If this play looks familiar, it’s because it is pretty much the same play that the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl on. They ran this infamous play at the 1-yard line when Malcolm Butler picked the ball off to seal the victory for the Patriots. The man who failed to set the pick on Butler? It was Kearse. Sometimes improvement in an art takes learning the hard way.

There are less subtle picks that referees simply miss because, frankly, it is difficult to maintain the constant vigilance necessary to spot them, especially with all the other responsibilities officiating entails. Indeed, some defensive coordinators would say that back judges are looking a little closer at defensive backs to commit penalties than their offensive counterparts.

The Packers were clearly the beneficiaries of this bias on Wild Card weekend. The pick definitely appeared illegal, but the play design was creative.

Packers running back/wide receiver, Ty Montgomery lined up outside, while Devante Adams lined up inside of him. Adams didn’t even pretend to run a route. He got to his spot and even extended his arms into the defensive back.

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Janoris Jenkins (#20), the cornerback lined up over Montgomery butdidn’t make much of an effort to get through the screen because he was expecting to switch assignments with Trevin Wade (#31), the cornerback lined up over Adams. Wade, however, didn’t get the message, leaving two defenders hovering over Adams while no one covered Montgomery, who probably hasn’t been that open since college.

A common defensive strategy to counter pick plays is to switch assignments. Switching requires more communication and, as with anything, the more moving parts involved, the greater the chances of something going wrong.

Against a switching defense, receivers don’t need to get into position to screen another defender; they can just pick the defender that’s on them, which would not allow for that defender to complete the switch.

This looks to be what happened on the game-winning play in the BCS National Championship game.

Quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense found themselves just three yards away from a touchdown that would upset Alabama with six seconds left. Alabama gave Clemson a heavy dose of man-to-man and the Clemson receivers had trouble creating separation from the uber-talented Alabama secondary all night.

On the most crucial play of the entire college season, Alabama once again lined up in a man-to-man defense. It is unclear whether the defensive backs were going to switch but, with a quarterback roll out to the right, natural flow might have gotten cornerback Marlon Humphrey (#26) to release from his man and get outside anyways.

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But he never had a chance, because wide receiver Artavis Scott (#3) blocks Humphreys and then dives into his knees. The slot receiver, Hunter Renfrow, causes his man to stumble with a nicely ran route, but the pick ensured that there wouldn’t be a switch and helped get Renfrow wide open for the game-winning score.

There, then, are the three pick plays I thought were pretty interesting from last weekend’s football games. If you are a coach, make a note. Especially, if you coach high school, as high school referee’s never throw the flag on picks. If you are a fan, hopefully this article provided you with a little more in-depth knowledge of pick plays. NFL defenses seem to be trending towards more man-to-man coverage so, naturally, we should expect to see offenses counter with more pick plays.

Follow Ted on Twitter via @RaidersAnalysis. Check out his site and his other work at ITP, such as how Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey seems like an omniscient back, Washington’s use of formations and on the evolution of the counter trey rush.

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