Tune into a broadcast of any college football or NFL game this weekend, and I guarantee you’ll hear the commentators use phrases like “QB X did a great job making the right read” or “QB Y went through his progressions and made a nice pass”. But what exactly does “making the right read” or “going through progressions” really mean? Commentators freely toss these terms around but rarely explain what they’re actually talking about, which results in many fans misunderstanding, and later misusing them when talking about quarterback play.
Today I’ll take a quick look at one play on the All-22 from last week’s Panthers and Saints game, and I’ll go through what it really means when a quarterback “makes the correct read” and “goes through his progressions”.
If you saw this play during the broadcast, you’d most likely think it was just a quick check-down pass from quarterback Cam Newton to his running back Christian McCaffrey for a four yard gain. This is a simple and correct explanation, but it is important to note that there are several other factors in play as well, such as Newton making the “correct read” of the defense, and then “going through his progressions” on a specific passing concept, before finally throwing the football to the running back in the flat.
Confused? I don’t blame you -- I’ll explain further.
When commentators mention a quarterback making the correct read, they are talking about the quarterback’s ability to correctly read the defense and understand how using a particular route concept will attack it. A quarterback going through his progressions refers to going from one receiver to the next in a particular passing concept, based on what the opposing defense is showing before, and immediately after the snap.
Also, contrary to popular belief, NFL quarterbacks actually don’t make five reads as part of their progressions on most of their passing plays. Most of the time, even though there are five players running routes, the offensive design will feature a split field passing concept where one side of the field will have receivers running a particular concept, and the other side of the field will have receivers running a completely different concept. Most route concepts in football feature three reads, and some quicker three step drop passing concepts actually feature only two reads.
Now let’s re-visit the “simple check-down pass” Newton throws to McCaffrey, and let’s see how all these terms apply to this play.
It’s first and ten, and the Panthers are in an 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) set. The Saints respond with their nickel package, and display what appears to be a single high look pre-snap. However, the free safety begins moving back just before the snap, which indicates they are really playing a two-deep coverage shell. The middle linebacker dropping back to cover the deep middle portion of the field confirms this is a Tampa 2 coverage shell, a variation of the Cover 2 that features two deep safeties.
Diagram courtesy of NationalFootballPost.com
The route concept the Panthers will use is called the Flood concept, a three man route combination that is designed to stretch one side of the field at all three levels (deep, intermediate and short). This route concept is a great way to attack Tampa 2, because there are three receivers who will “flood” the left side of the field that has only two defenders to defend it. In theory, one of the three receivers are guaranteed to be open at some point in this play.
Based off what Newton sees from the defense pre-snap, the two receiver route combination to his right side featuring Devin Funchess and Russell Shepard are never a part of his progression. Newton isn’t looking to throw it to them at any point in this play because Funchess and Shepard’s routes are simply there to hold the defenders on that side of the field.
The first read in the flood concept is the go route, which Curtis Samuel runs from the outside wide receiver alignment. Even though the go route is the first read in this concept, I’ve noticed that unless it’s a complete coverage bust, quarterbacks will rarely end up throwing this ball deep, because defenses mostly do an excellent job of taking it away. As expected, the Saints free safety plays the go route well, and takes away Newton’s first option.
The second receiver in this route concept is tight end Ed Dickson, who is running an intermediate out route, and the third receiver is running back Christian McCaffrey, who is running a flat route out of the backfield. Ideally, the quarterback is looking to hit the tight end on the out route, as usually the outside cornerback will overcommit to the deep go route, or the underneath route. However, the Saints are well disciplined and the free safety does a good job taking away Samuel’s go route, and the cornerback also recognizes and takes away Dickson’s out route. This means the third receiver in Newton’s progression, McCaffrey in the flat, is open, and Newton hits him for a quick four yard gain.
It’s fascinating how all of this happens in roughly three seconds. Newton has to read the defense pre-snap, confirm his read immediately after the snap, realize the first receiver in the progression is taken away, move to the second receiver, notice he’s also taken away, and then finally throw to the third receiver in the progression. A second or two too late and Newton either gets sacked, or is forced to throw it away, because the defense is able to blanket all the receivers with the coverage.
Football is an amazingly detailed sport. What appears to be a simple check-down pass is actually much more complex once you dive into the details of the play. The next time you hear television commentators say “the quarterback made the correct read” or “went through his progressions”, you’ll hopefully have a better idea of what they’re really talking about.
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All GIF’s and images courtesy of NFL.com