The New England Secondary: Exploit the Hesitation

One of the major storylines in the NFL this season, and not just during Super Bowl LIII, is the job that Los Angeles Rams’ head coach Sean McVay has done with young quarterback Jared Goff. After being selected with the first overall selection in the 2016 NFL Draft, Goff seemed like a potential bust in his rookie season. But the former University of California quarterback took a huge leap forward in his second season under rookie head coach McVay, and improved upon that this past season, helping lead the Rams to the Super Bowl.

But like most quarterbacks, he is not without his flaws.

Goff threw 13 interceptions this season, and analyzing those turnovers you can identify some tendencies. If the New England Patriots are going to slow down the Rams’ offense and force a few mistakes, it might come down to whether they can execute a three-word gameplan: Exploit the Hesitation.

McVay comes from the Jay Gruden system of offensive philosophy, so in the Rams’ offense you see a lot of half-field concepts and reads, designed to simplify the decision-making process for the quarterback. Even in those designs, Goff has a tendency to lock onto his primary read and stare it down, leading defenders to the football with his eyes. In a vacuum, he can still be successful given how open his receivers are at times, but when you add hesitation to the mix, it can be deadly for the offense.

Here is one example, from Los Angeles’ Week 3 game against their cross-town rivals. The Rams have the football in the red zone, facing a 3rd and 5 on the Los Angeles Chargers’ 10-yard line early in the second quarter. The Rams line up with Goff (#16) in the shotgun and empty the backfield, using a trips bunch look to the left and a slot look to the right:

The two receivers on the right are running back Todd Gurley (#30) and tight end Gerald Everett (#81). They run a Smash concept, with Gurley running the hitch and Everett running the corner route over the top of the RB:

The Smash concept is one of the Rams’ more common route concepts, and it sets up an easy-to-read two man concept to one side of the field. Goff reads the outside defender and throws off of his decision. If he stays deep with the corner route the QB throws the hitch, but if the outside defender squats on the hitch, Goff throws the corner.

Here, the Chargers run a Red 2 coverage, a red zone Cover 2 variation:

Cornerback Casey Heyward (#26) starts the play aligned across from Everett, but he passes him off to the safety and squats on the running back’s hitch route. There is a windown to hit the TE on the corner against this coverage, in fact, this is a perfect coverage to run this play against. But as Goff hits his drop depth in the pocket, he takes an extra beat/hitch as he looks at Everett. That hesitation is fatal:

If Goff gets this ball out right as he hits his drop depth, the Rams likely have six points. But the hesitation gives safety Derwin James (#33) a chance to get under the route, and he picks it off.

Goff threw four interceptions in the Rams’ Week 14 meeting against the Chicago Bears, and hesitation was an issue on two of them. On one play, Goff’s hesitation invited extra pressure, which forced an underthrown pass. But in the second half, Goff’s hesitation came again on a Smash concept, and it is even more egregious than the previous example.

Late in the third quarter the Rams face a 1st and 10 in Chicago territory, having just intercepted Mitchell Trubisky. Los Angeles trails 15-6, but has a chance to turn this into a one-score game with a fruitful possession. They line up with the football on the Bears’ 27 yard-line and empty the backfield, using a three-receiver bunch to the right:

The concept Goff looks to throw is a Flat-7 Smash to the right, with Gurley releasing to the flat. Wide receiver Josh Reynolds (#83) runs the corner route, which he flattens a bit in response to the Chicago Cover 4 look:

There is a window to hit this throw on the corner route, similar to the previous example. A linebacker jumps out to cover Gurley in the flat, leaving Reynolds in a one-on-one situation against cornerback Kyle Fuller (#23). With no help over the top, Fuller needs to respect a potential vertical route, so when Reynolds breaks to the sideline, he has enough separation. But watch how long Goff waits after he hits his drop depth to pull the trigger:

From the time Goff hits his drop depth to the time the ball is out of his hand, over two seconds elapse. That might not seem like much but in the NFL, it is an eternity. Especially when the quarterback is staring down the route. That gives Fuller the chance to jump the route and make the interception.

Watching it from the end zone angle gives you the full effect of the hesitation:

Goff’s hesitation, as with the previous example, gives the football right back to Chicago. Exploit the hesitation.

Here is one more example, from the Rams’ Week 15 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Early in the second quarter the Rams have a 7-6 lead and the football in their possession, facing a 1st and 10 on their own 44-yard line. They line up with Goff under center in a 2×2 formation:

Goff checks the play at the line of scrimmage, and adjusts into one of the Rams’ more-utilized play-action concepts. The Rams will often use a maximum protection, two-receiver concept with a dig route from one receiver, and a comeback from the other. That is the designs the Rams run here, with Brandin Cooks (#12) running the dig route from the left and Reynolds running the comeback along the right sideline:

On this design, the quarterback has simple two-receiver read progression. He checks the comeback route first, which is usually a good option against man or zone coverages. However, if that is covered he then looks to the dig route, with that receiver either finding grass against zone, or running away from a man coverage defender.

Here, Goff comes out of his fake, hits his drop depth and – again – stares down Reynolds and hesitates. Can you guess the result?

Complicating matters is the fact that Goff’s throw is behind Reynolds and to the inside, giving cornerback Avonte Maddox (#29) an easier path to the football. Again, however, the hesitation is the focus. Look at it again from the end zone angle:

Goff’s hesitation in the pocket leads to another turnover opportunity for the defense.

The path ahead for the Patriots’ secondary is clear: Exploit the Hesitation. If Goff is going to hesitate on his throws during Super Bowl LIII, there will be chances for the Patriots’ secondary to create some turnovers. Just one or two could swing the outcome of what is shaping up to be a very exciting Super Bowl.

For more on Jared Goff and Super Bowl LIII listen to the Monday episode of the Locked On Patriots podcast

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