Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Three Step Drop

Finally... it's here. After all the waiting it's not even that big of an article. But it's done, so there.

So today we're going to look at the three step drop, a play that is very much a double edged sword and somewhat misunderstood at that.

For a start we need to get the obvious point out of the way that the three step drop isn't specifically a play in its own right, but a series of plays which share common footwork for the quarterback. I find it useful though to think of them as just small variations on a single play as it helps to keep in perspective the fact that they all share the same strengths (high completion percentage/easy yards) and the same weaknesses (few tacklers to stop a defender in the event of an interception/the ease of the pass tempts its overuse) .

Now my biggest bug is the way people on TV talk about the three step drop. How many times for example have you heard this choice phrase; "a three step drop, ball control offense..."?

That's a classic phrase used to describe the West Coast Offense as run by Bill Walsh, a name that I would hasten to add that he notoriously did not approve of, not least because most of the ground work for his offense was laid in Cincinnati, Ohio, as the offensive coordinator of the Bengals under Paul Brown.

It's also an incorrect assertion that the "West Coast Offense" was based around the three step drop. Having sat down in the past with a pen and paper and actually logged the pass attempts during old 49ers games (when Walsh was in charge), I can tell you that at most the three step drop constituted maybe 25% of the passing plays, and that's only in selected games (like Super Bowl 19).

In general the "ball control" aspect of Walsh's offense was made up of five step drops, the idea being that it's a relatively easy completion that often results in a first down. In addition, many of the seven step passes called involved clearing space for the running backs coming out of the backfield, who then provided easy dump offs to the quarterback while setting up the running back in space (maybe a post in itself at a future date).

As for the three step drop, Walsh himself said on numerous occasions in books, interviews, seminars, articles etc, that the three step drop was more of an opportunity play. It's not something you really plan to use and send in as a call to the quarterback; rather the play is something that the quarterback audibles to when the opportunity presents itself.

That opportunity usually comes when the defensive coverage is set too softly, giving the receivers far too much of a cushion (the corners align too deep away from the wide receivers). Under these conditions they are likely to turn and retreat if a receiver launches aggressively out of his starting stance and will then not have enough time to react to a quick, short throw.

The three main routes run by receivers off the three step drop are; the quick hook, the quick slant and the quick out. A fourth route is the quick fade, with the ball typically being caught about 20 yards deep, as opposed to the 40 yards that you would expect off a proper fade route coupled to a 5 step drop. The quick fade is normally used as an adjustment by the receiver to bump and run coverage, or down in the red zone by taller receivers. We'll look at all four routes over the course of this article.

We'll start I think with the quick out.

The quick out is a route that has really fallen heavily out of favour in modern football, which is somewhat surprising given that my research suggests that this was Walsh's favoured use of the three step drop. Certainly I've seen the likes of Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon catch more quick outs than any other kind of quick route.

Like all quick passes the quick out is very difficult to stop if performed correctly, but can go horribly wrong if done incorrectly. Indeed the reason this route has fallen out of favour may be related to the fact that an interception of a quick out almost always results in a defensive touchdown. It'll be obvious why this happens when looking at a diagram of the play. For simplicities sake I've removed everyone from the play except the corner, receiver and quarterback;

You'll have to excuse me for not using a curved line for the route but such is the way of Microsoft, who it seems insist on making everything about their products as difficult and frustrating to use as humanly possible. Suffice to say that in actuality that route would be a nice smooth turn made after about 5 yards. Typically if the receiver has his inside foot forward (which you do now, don't you receivers? I said don't you!) then he'll break off his fourth step. In the case of our receiver in the diagram he would have his left foot forward and the footwork would be; right, left, right, left (cut to the outside).

By the time the receiver has levelled out his route (horizontally) he'll be about 7 yards deep and heading towards the sideline. If he makes the catch then chances are he'll run out of bounds shortly afterwards, unless he happens to be exceptionally agile or has lined up in such a way as to give himself more space.

That's an intriguing point so we'll just touch on it briefly. By lining up a few yards closer inside to the offensive line than normal the receiver can create more space for himself outside, allowing him the opportunity to catch the ball and run with it, but this does tend to tip off the defense and an experienced corner will smell that somethings up.

Once he's made his break, the receiver turns back immediately to look for the football. At this point the receiver is watching for the ball and not where he's going, so it's easy for a receiver to lose track of his route. If he starts to lose ground (comes back toward the line of scrimmage) that's not ideal, but it's not exactly the end of the world. However if the receiver gains ground (goes deeper) that can be dangerous, as it brings him closer to the covering corner. As with everything football related only through thorough and repeated practise will the receiver develop the proper sense of positioning and depth.

As for the quarterback, he unsurprisingly takes three steps back, turns and throws. There are three important points that need to be observed though. Firstly, and probably the most critical, is that the quarterback keeps his eyes centered down field during his drop. If he turns and looks at the receiver as he's dropping back then he will tip off the throw and a corner in zone will almost certainly jump the route. The quarterback must keep his eyes locked down the middle of the field, either focusing on the middle linebacker, a safety, or the goal post in order to help him from tipping off the throw.

Secondly, the quarterback must take the three quickest steps he can. Depth is not so much a concern as the timing of the drop. It's a three step drop, so it's not like he's going to be holding the ball for ages while the pass rush closes in. Thus it is more important for the quarterback to get the timing right than to get separation from the pass rush. He takes three quick steps, then as his third step hits he pivots on the ball of that foot, turning to the receiver and making the throw. For a right handed quarterback the footwork would be; right, left, right (pivot on this step) and then throw. Speed is the key, although a coach should be aware (especially with a young quarterback) of the quarterback taking this to the extreme and taking three silly little steps.

Thirdly the quarterback must make sure the pass does not get intercepted. If it is then there is nobody between the defender and the goal line to stop him running it in.

The advice given by Walsh was for the quarterback to fire the ball directly at his mans hip, not trying to lead him at all, but just firing a bullet right through his near hip. Now I'm going to disagree hear a little and suggest an alternative, but before you e-mail me complaining that you taught your kid my preferred approach and he got picked off for six, just remember that Bill Walsh won three Super Bowls (and probably should have stayed on for a fourth) while my Super Bowl trophy cabinet is currently empty, and doubtless will remain so forever barring an extraordinary stroke of luck.

See the problem I have with throwing the ball directly at the receivers hip is that your inviting a pass that gets thrown short and behind the receiver, which then gets picked off. Anytime you see the intermediate out (10-12 yards) get picked off, this is usually the primary cause. Personally I prefer to see the quarterback zing that thing in at just a little over shoulder height, while trying to put the ball just out in front of him.

The trouble with this approach is that it sometimes (when thrown badly) leads to the receiver being brought back down hill and going out of bounds for just a six yard gain, as well as making it slightly harder for the receiver to make a clean catch and turn upfield for extra yards. But given the nature of the quick out (a short pass with the receiver running into the side line) I personally feel this is acceptable, especially as I think it reduces the risk of interception.

Again, it's one of those things that the quarterback and receiver have to work hard on in practise in order to develop an understanding where they both know what the other is going to do before they even do it.

The last point about the quick out relates to the offensive tackles. It is absolutely essential for the offensive tackles to cut block their assigned man in order to keep his hands down. If they allow the pass rusher to observe the quarterback and to use their hands then they will likely tip the ball, and a tip in this situation is likely to lead to an interception. The offensive tackle can afford to take one punch step back, sometimes two, then he must cut aggressively at the pass rushers knees.

Whether he hits or not is largely irrelevant. What matters most is that the cut is done aggressively and in such a manner as to force the defender to reactively dodge and bring his hands down to fend off the cut block. The reaction of the defensive man is more important than whether the tackle actually blocks him. This is a quick pass, so even if the tackle fails to make contact then it matters little; the pass rusher will not have time to get to the quarterback (if he does, then it's time to start looking for a new quarterback).

In addition, any offensive guard who finds himself with a man in a three technique (aligned on his outside shoulder) should also use the cut, just to be safe. If the defender slants hard inside across the guards face then this is not so much of an issue, but if the defender shoots the gap between the guard and the tackle then the guard needs to cut, otherwise the defender has a chance of blasting through into the passing lane, albeit it a small one. Best not to take chances.

From a play construction point of view, the coach should be aware that he musn't incorporate outside flares by the backs or the tight end, as doing so is likely to drag linebackers right into the passing lane. If you have a tight end then he should be sent inside to hook up over the ball. Backs should either be incorporated into the protection or made to run routes either through the line or just quick hooks into the position where the offensive tackles originally lined up.

Lastly, the quarterback needs to know when to check into this play, or when to check out of it if you have called it in from the sideline.

If you've given him this play as part of your audible system then usually it's going to be used in lieu of a running play or on a second down when the distance to go is 7 yards or less. What he's looking for is the distance of the corners off of the receivers (the cushion). Ideally you want the corners as far back as possible, 10 yards or more (standard Cover 3), though anything down to about 7 yards deep is ok.

However your quarterback needs to be aware that the closer the corners are to the receivers, the more likely it is that the coverage is being disguised. He should try and get a good look at the safeties, especially paying attention to see if they are shifted unusually far across to one side or the other. This could suggest that one of the corners will bail out, the safeties will rotate across and the opposite corner will sit underneath at a 5 yard depth ("Cloud" Corner), leaving him right in the passing lane.

The quarterback should be looking right down the field anyway when the ball is snapped (remember, he's trying not to tip off the pass) so he should see the safeties rotating across. If that's the case then he needs to throw away from the rotation; if both safeties shift across to the right (from QB's perspective) then chances are the right corner is in "Cloud" and the left corner is bailing out into Cover 3. The rotation is "to the right" so the quarterback looks left, being wary of any linebacker dropping off into the curl/flat position to that side.

If this is a play that has been sent in to the quarterback or was part of an opening script of plays, then the quarterback needs to be ready to check out of the play if the corners are playing too tight against the receivers. The receivers can change their routes to quick fades if that approach takes your fancy, but beware of the safeties and understand that such an automatic reaction can easily be exploited in future.

For those who've fallen asleep by now I can only apologise. That was supposed to be a short summary of the key points. At this rate I'll still be here writing this during the Super Bowl. On the plus side, most of that stuff above applies to other plays so it's useful to know.

The next play is probably the least popular of all the three step plays and that's the quick hook. The quick hook is designed to get five cheap yards from the throw, as well as whatever additional yards the receiver can get with his feet. This is probably better suited to receivers with above average run after the catch skills.

Basically this is just like any other hooking pattern, where the receiver runs full speed off the line to sell a deep pattern and force the defender back, only to break down quickly and turn back to the quarterback. The only major difference between this and an intermediate hook is that the receiver stops and turns much quicker.

As a result he doesn't have the same momentum as a receiver running an intermediate hook would, so instead of having to get low and take four quick steps at the top of his route to slow himself down, often the receiver running the quick hook can just stop almost dead in his tracks. He also need not come back towards the ball in the same way that he would on an intermediate pattern. Instead the ball comes to him.

In fact the diagram I've put up probably is a little misleading, but as long time readers will have already guessed I'm too lazy to go back and change it. Really the receiver stops and just kind of flips his hips on the spot. The footwork for this receiver (being on the right side with his left foot forward (inside foot forward!)) would be; right, left, right, left, right (pivot back to the quarterback).

That fourth step (a left) can be slightly longer than normal in order to help the receiver dig in and slow down. The fifth step (right) is used to pivot on. The receiver puts the ball of this foot down and turns, finding his balance with his left foot. If anything he actually ends up drifting towards the sideline with that balance step. He must be careful though not to move about too much. By the time he turns the ball should be coming almost directly at him.

Switching to the quarterbacks perspective, the quarterback should put this pass on the receivers outside shoulder as he turns. You do not want to pull the receiver inside and indeed if the pass is aimed to the inside shoulder and then thrown errantly it can end up right in the hands of a closing defender. Keep the pass towards the outside.

The quarterback should take three normal steps, pivot and throw. You do not want the receiver standing around waiting for the pass, as this will only invite defenders to close on him and pick it off. By the time the ball is released the receiver should just be turning and getting his feet set. On the other hand if you go to quickly the receiver will not have enough time to turn and make the catch.

The offensive line still need to be cutting and the coach still needs to be wary of using routes with the backs or tight end that might drag defenders into the passing lane. If executed properly and with the right receiver this play has a surprisingly good potential for yards after the catch.

Next is the quick slant;

Without doubt this is the most common and popular three step play used by contemporary offenses. The quick slant offers the best opportunity for the receiver to catch the ball in stride and run for extra yards, as evidenced by the occasional three step slant that you see going all the way for a touchdown. It's also - at least in my opinion - the most dangerous.

With the receiver coming inside you're bringing him into a situation where he can be bracketed by defenders on both sides and where any catch can potentially end with him taking a clout right in the face at high speed while in a largely defenseless position. Buyer beware, as they say.

To help mitigate that problem is not unusual to have the receiver line up a little further outside. Given that receivers often line up quite wide as it is, this "cheating" into position has a greater chance of going unnoticed by the defender.

The receiver lines up with his inside foot forward and takes three steps off the snap before making his break. In the case above it would be; right, left, right (break inside on this step). The receivers main concern after that is to angle hard inside. The perfect angle is considered 45 degrees, but it really depends. If the corner back is sitting way off and giving the receiver a large cushion, he can sometimes afford to take a slightly more vertical angle. If the corner is only 5-8 yards off at the snap, then the receiver might actually have to take a slightly sharper cut inside.

The absolute key is that he crosses the defenders face and gets in front of him. You cannot end up in a situation where the receiver is running shoulder to shoulder with the defender. He must cross that mans face and put himself between the defender and the ball. The ball we be thrown ideally a little bit in front of him or if not then right between his numbers.

Again this is where I diverge from the conventional wisdom. Typically quarterbacks are coached to hold the receiver up a little, throwing the ball right at him and making him pause slightly. Personally I think this is a waste. I would much rather see the receiver catch the ball in stride and have a better opportunity to make this play into a big gain.

If he fails to make the catch then the ball should be hitting him and bouncing away, not getting picked off. If the ball is thrown at his hip by mistake then he should still have a chance of reaching back and grabbing it. If the receiver runs his route too vertically with a corner in close proximity then the corner can under cut him and catch a pass that is too short, or the corner can ride on top of the route and interfere even with a well thrown pass. That's why it is so essential for the receiver to break hard inside and cut off the defender.

Now before we talk about the quarterback it is important to cover the linemen's responsibilities and the general play design first, to put into context what we are going to ask the quarterback to do.

The first thing is the play design. Whereas before we tried to avoid doing anything with the backs or tight end that might pull a defender into the passing lane, now we have to be aware that the natural drop of the linebackers presents the problem. If they drop back into their normal zones then they will be sitting right in the path of the throw.

Instead we now need to actively pull them out of position using the backs or the tight end. This is the very definition of the term "Flare Control", using the running backs routes to control the movement of the linebackers.

Ideally what we're looking for is to have a tight end or running back run immediately out wide into the flat on the same side as the slant. This is designed to pull the outside linebacker covering on that side (or whoever is dropping off into that hook zone) away towards the sideline. If they stay firmly put then the quarterback can just dump the ball off to the back, but if they move across then the quarterback should be able to throw the ball in behind them.

The linemen also need to be aware that - perhaps with the exception of the center - they all need to cut their respective pass rushers. With the receiver coming inside it is critical that there are no hands flapping about to break up the passing lane. However because this play takes a little longer to develop the linemen should be cognisant of the fact that they can now take two or three quick steps before cutting, especially as the quarterback may need to go to a secondary receiver if the passing lane to his primary receiver is cluttered. If the linemen cut too early they give the defenders a chance to recover.

As for the quarterback, now he needs to take the three biggest steps he can. Again the coach needs to be watchful, especially with young players, that the quarterback doesn't take this advice to the extreme. Just three of the biggest steps the quarterback can naturally take, even if its a little slower. This creates time for the receiver to get the correct depth and then pick up some speed as he breaks inside. It also gives the linebackers time to clear out of the passing lane if indeed they are drawn off.

This is where the quarterback now looks for his read. Having kept his eyes straight downfield as he drops back, using his peripheral vision to spy on the linebackers, now he must turn towards the expected passing lane and identify the linebacker who should otherwise have been dropping into it. If the linebacker is standing in the lane or is close enough to break on the pass then the quarterback must hitch up and find a secondary receiver.

If the linebacker is running past the lane on the way to covering a back out of the backfield then the quarterback must anticipate that the linebacker cannot turn in time and then zip it in behind him. He must try and put the ball just a little bit out in front of the receiver, allowing him to catch it in stride and run with it for maximum effect. Ideally the quarterback should try and keep this pass down a little, more towards the players numbers. If he misses the pass he does not want the ball carrying into the arms of a waiting safety.

Unlike the quick hitch and the quick out, the quick slant can still be used if the corner is playing down a little tighter, say 4-5 yards off. It's still not ideal,  but acceptable. Again the receiver must be conscious to break hard inside and not let the defender get a decent position. However even this play will normally not work well against bump and run coverage as the disruption off the line plays too much havoc with the timing.

The only alternative in that case, providing you have called in the three step drop and the quarterback as no way of audibling out of it, is for the receiver to run a quick fade, which can also be a useful play down by the goal line;

In the case of the quick fade, pretty much everything changes. Unlike the other three step passes that are used when the corners back off and give the receivers a big cushion, the quick fade is better when the corner comes down short and gives the receiver only a small cushion. Normally this is an automatic adjustment that the receiver makes because he finds himself facing a close corner when a quick play has been called.

Because this is usually an adjustment by the receiver, often the offensive line will have no idea and still cut, which is fine, except that now it's not such a big issue if they can't get their mans hands down.

The quarterback is going to take three big steps and will need to hitch up before throwing this pass. He's going to loft it high and to the outside, where only the receiver can get it. All too often quarterbacks seem to worry that they will throw it in such a way that the receiver ends up going out of bounds and as a result they over compensate and pull the ball inside.

This is even worse than the receiver going out of bounds. The pass must absolutely remain on the outside. Only one of two things can be allowed to happen; either the receiver catches the pass or the ball goes out of bounds. That's it. Under no circumstances can the quarterback afford to pull the ball inside.

The receiver in turn needs to play his part. He needs to get around the corner, then press him inward, trying to keep his route vertical and leaving himself some space (ideally about 5 yards) to the outside to work with. The quarterback drops the ball into this area and the receivers fades away from the defender to get it.

In some cases the quarterback may need to put the ball on the back shoulder of the receiver. This stems from problems with the receiver getting separation in such a short period of time. Usually the quick fade is caught between 15-20 yards from the Line of Scrimmage, which isn't much time to get clear of a good corner. Therefore it may be easier for the quarterback to hold the receiver up a little with the back shoulder throw. If the receiver is even with or past the defender, then the quarterback should lead the receiver as normal.

Something that the coach can do to help this play (if it's a pre-planned call) is to use the tight end running a vertical route to occupy the safety and stop him coming across to interfere. In addition, it's useful to instruct the quarterback to look for physical mismatches, with a tall receiver against a shorter corner being the ideal opportunity to test this quick fade.

So there you have it, a brief look at the three step drop. The three main points to emphasise out of this are, 1) that the three step drop is of more use as an audible than a game planned call made from the sidelines, 2) that it's a relatively easy completion, but does carry some significant risks with it for what is ultimately often just a very modest gain, so coaches shouldn't get too drawn in by the allure of such passes and 3) that the real key to making passes like this successful is the timing between the receiver and the quarterback, an understanding that can only be built with hard work on the practise field.

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