The Art, Magic and Science of Quarterbacking: Stance and Cheat Step

Mark Schofield spent a short lifetime playing quarterback. Now he is in the midst of a second lifetime watching, evaluating, and writing about the position. In this summer series covering techniques for playing QB he takes us through some of the books he used to learn to play the position, using film to illustrate these important concepts.

Proper footwork is a crucial element in the success of a quarterback in the passing game. Before the passer even starts his dropback into the pocket, the positioning of his feet prior to the snap must be examined. In his book Coaching Quarterback Passing Mechanics, Steve Axman illustrated two important concepts: The pre-snap stance and the “cheat step.” Axman is no stranger to quarterback play. The coach spent decades in college football, serving as the quarterbacks coach at the University of Maryland (where he coached Neil O’Donnell) and at UCLA (where he coached Troy Aikman). After a very successful head coaching stint at the FCS level with Northern Arizona, Axman moved to the University of Washington (where he coached Marques Tuiasosopo) where he served as the assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.

Regarding the pre-snap stance, Axman posits that “a good pre-snap stance will also enable the quarterback to begin his dropback stepping action efficiently and without false stepping.” So, how does this look? Axman writes:

A right-handed quarterback staggers his left foot backward approximately six inches in a toe-to-instep relationship with his right foot. This slight stagger actually helps put the quarterback six inches deeper into his drop. More importantly, the slight stagger action of the feet helps to eliminate any false stepping action of the left foot, which often occurs when the quarterback starts with even foot positioning. From an even alignment of his feet, a quarterback often will take a short punch step forward with the left foot so that he can push off of it more comfortably to get into his drop back action.

Here are some examples of this in action, first with Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers:


Now we have Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears:


Finally, one example from the college ranks, and Chris Bonner of CSU-Pueblo:


In addition to adding distance on the dropback, which is essential given the athleticism of today’s defenders, this staggered stance reduces the chances of the quarterback and center tripping each other after the snap. As Axman writes, “… the left-foot punch step is the primary reason that a quarterback is stepped on by his center, which can cause the quarterback to be tripped up.”

Once the quarterback accepts the snap, he can begin his drop from center. Some quarterbacks – beginning with the right foot – actually start their drop by moving their left foot first, utilizing a “cheat step.” Returning to Axman: “The cheat step is a short, backward, balance step of about six inches that helps the quarterback get into his full dropback more quickly. The cheat step helps the quarterback roll over his left foot and makes the actual first depth stepping action more efficient. In addition, the cheat step helps to prevent the incorrect, short, forward step many young quarterbacks will take prior to their initial dropback step.”

We can see Bonner displaying the cheat step in action in this video. On this play he executes a three-step drop before throwing a quick route to his left. The end zone angle reveals that he moves his left foot first after the snap, cheating away from center prior to the proper three-step drop:

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That tiny cheat step gives the quarterback an extra few inches on his drop. It might not seem like much, but in the three-step passing game, where defensive linemen are taught to recognize the drop and get their hands up to cause deflections, every inch helps.

Every great journey begins with an initial step. For quarterbacks, each dropback is a journey, which begins with proper alignment of the feet before the snap, and a tiny cheat step as that initial step.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield knows play actionspectacular plays and how to throw on Cover 2Cover 3 and Cover 6.

7 thoughts on “The Art, Magic and Science of Quarterbacking: Stance and Cheat Step

  1. I’ve noticed when in the shotgun, Peyton Manning opts to go with his feet even. Whereas just about every other QB I can think of does the cheat step. Is it a comfort thing for him?

  2. Here’s a good picture of his feet in the gun. [img][/img]

    1. Good catch! Yeah, it is likely a comfort thing more than anything. Depth on your drop is not as much a factor when in the shotgun, given the deeper starting position. But some QBs still use the staggered stance and cheat-step in the shotgun, Cam Newton comes to mind off the top of my head.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Interesting. I don’t know much about quarterbacking or going backwards, but my intuition is that the cheat step is a mistake. My coaching instinct would be to stagger farther and take my first step with my right foot. Is there any counter-examples or harder data about why this is? Or is it just “the way it’s done”?

  4. That’s a good question Eric. It’s a bit misleading in that the “cheat step” happens as the QB is accepting the snap from center, and it’s really an additional step added to the sequence of steps for a QB. So consider this sequence for a right-handed QB making a three-step drop:

    Ball is snapped -> Cheat step with left foot -> QB secures snap -> first deep drop step with the right foot.

    This allows the QB to gain a few extra inches into the pocket with the left foot before starting his normal drop. And since he then steps withthe right foot after securing the snap, the center hasn’t moved much from his initial stance.

    Confusion is likely due to some of the wording in the article which I might have to clean up.

    Thanks for the question – and for reading!

    1. So what you are saying is if you tried to take a full (right) step instead of a cheat (left) step as the ball is snapped, you would be pulling out too quickly to properly handle the snap? Makes sense to me.

      QB is it’s own weird world.

      My personal experience coaching HS linebackers and d-line is that you have to spend a lot of time eliminating false steps. Easiest example is if you are just standing with your feet balanced and try to burst forward, most kids first instinct is to take a step backwards with their off foot. There goes the .1 second difference between breaking up a pass and getting off the field, and 4 more downs.

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