After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
13 Feb 2013
by Matt Waldman
I like progress. Especially when that development is happening within a human being. With its high concentration of players to cover within a compressed period of practice time, one of the things sometimes lost in all-star game practice reports is the overarching performance that spans several days.
If there was a player who showed progress at the 2013 Senior Bowl it was Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams. I didn't see the first day of the South Team's practice -- it's the one day where both rosters practice at different facilities on the same day -- but based on the receiver's performance and the praise Lions wide receivers coach Tim Lappano was dishing his way in each drill, it was clear that Williams was one of the most improved players between Monday and Wednesday. If you had only seen reports about him after Tuesday's practice, you would have concluded that he was having an inconsistent week.
Inconsistency plus sustained effort is the formula of an ugly process that leads to a beautiful result: personal growth. Williams' growth as a player hasn't been isolated to a few days of a college all-star game practice in late January. The Baylor star has demonstrated improvement with his game since I watched him last year.
With prototypical height and weight, the ability to catch the ball with his hands, and big-play ability in the vertical passing game and as an open-field runner, Williams is already considered one of the better wide receiver prospects in this draft class. But Williams' development is an encouraging sign for the team that selects him in April. Here are four plays that illustrate the changes to Williams' game. Some of these improvements are a greater consistency of execution compared to years past. I'm taking these examples from his performance in Baylor's 52-45 overtime victory over Texas Tech in late November.
One of the common issues I notice among college receivers is a passive approach to catching the football -- especially against zone coverage where the open space influences a reaction to turn and wait on the ball. Here is a first-and-10 pass with 0:55 in the first half from an empty backfield, 2x3 receiver shotgun set where Williams demonstrates a more aggressive mindset.
Williams is the middle receiver on the trips side, running a hook route under a zone defender who is providing a large cushion to prevent the speedy receiver from getting behind him late in the half.
Williams does a good job of selling the vertical route as he releases into his stem. The angle of his back and the fact that his head and shoulders are over his front knee during his stride indicates that he is executing a good "drive phase" to his route. (The drive phase is term borrowed from sprinting to indicate the receiver is accelerating.)
Williams begins his break as he reaches the first-down marker. Note that he drops his hips into a sitting position and his head and shoulders are nearly over the knee of his inside leg. This is a pretty good "hard break" that Williams can continue to improve on. The receiver still had to take a few extra steps to stop his momentum and turn.
If he extends that first plant leg a little more and trusts it will withstand the force of a hard break, he'll generate a sudden and more precise change of direction. A great example of what I'm talking about is shown in this video where Michael Irvin gives a clinic to then-rookies A.J. Green and Greg Little.
When Williams finishes his break, he's two yards past the first-down marker and quarterback Nick Florence has released the football.
Although the zone corner providing the initial cushion over top is out of this shot, he's roughly five yards from Williams at this point of the route. In years past, Williams would wait for the ball to arrive. However, he has learned that not only is there a chance that the corner over top might defend the pass, but other zone defenders within a radius of five-to-seven yards will also have a shot to undercut a target like this one.
Another benefit for receivers when they work back to the football is that they increase their chances of making an uncontested catch. They also force defenders to commit to tackle angles earlier in the play. With a deft change of direction, the receiver should have a better chance to make a defender miss once he secures the ball.
On this route Williams doesn't have much room to work after the catch, but it also underscores why breaking back to the football is so important. Williams has three defensive backs who could have potentially closed on the ball if he "sat" on this break and waited for the ball to arrive. Although all three defenders gang-tackle Williams shy of the first-down marker, a second-and-2 with 0:50 left is much better than a second-and-10 out of range.
One of my favorite plays from Williams in this game is a 37-yard gain on a post route from a 1x2 receiver, 11-personnel pistol with 12:18 remaining. It's also the play where Williams breaks Kendall Wright's single-season yardage record.
Williams has the speed to eat this defender's cushion for breakfast and then ask the corner what time the Red Raiders will be serving lunch because he's still hungry. This is not why I like the play. Speed is a part of the NFL game. There are lots of guys who can run fast in a straight line in the NFL and most of them only see the field in the fourth quarter of preseason games.
Williams begins his break to the post 12 yards past the line of scrimmage. Many college receivers make this break, and their focus is to turn on that jets. That's just half of the equation. Establishing and maintaining a favorable position on the defender is most important and this requires a good initial burst more than long speed.
After Williams breaks inside, he straightens his angle just enough so he'll eventually slide ahead of the defender. The aim is for Williams to get his back to the defender before the ball arrives. This position gives him several points of control over his opponent.
First, Williams' position allows him to control the pace of his route. If the pass is underthrown, he can slow his stride without worry of the defender beating him to the ball. If the defender wants to avoid a pass interference penalty, he must play the man more than the ball and adjust his speed to the stride of the receiver. Against NFL cornerbacks, who seemingly run faster backwards than many college receivers running forward, controlling the pace of the route is vital.
With this position on the defender, Williams creates even more separation from his opponent. But not with his feet. The fact that the Baylor receiver has his back to the defender provides an additional barrier to the ball that the defender will have to overcome as Williams extends his arms to the football. Unless the defender has the arm length of an eight-foot man, beating the receiver to the ball is just not happening.
A great clinic on establishing position on vertical routes is a video I found of Packers great Sterling Sharpe teaching the likes of Dez Bryant and Adarius Bowman at an Oklahoma State practice. It's the first video of this post under the heading "Buying Back Real Estate". It's worth viewing.
Williams is the slot receiver on the twins side of this 3x2 empty shotgun set at the Texas Tech nine-yard line with 9:51 left.
With the corner playing tight to the line of scrimmage, Williams will have to get a quick release off the line in this compressed region of the field to give his quarterback a quality target.
Williams' release begins with his feet. He presents the illusion of forward movement by leaning forward, but all he has done is drop his back leg further outside with a jab step. This forces the corner to react to the outside and gives Williams just enough room to release to the inside.
Note how the Baylor receiver angles his shoulders away from the corner. Williams reduces that outside shoulder in a similar way that quarterbacks reduce the throwing shoulder from edge rushers as they climb the pocket. Here is a trio of shots from the end zone view
Jab step outside...
Outside arm swiping upward to block defender contact to pads.
The corner gets into trouble with this sequence because he now has to fight for position on this route and slow the receiver. The defender maintains his grip on Williams' arm too long and draws an interference penalty.
Two plays later after the defensive pass interference penalty, Williams scores on a four-yard corner fade on second-and-goal with 9:00 left in the game from a 3x2 empty shotgun set.
The outside twin receiver motions across the formation prior to the snap to leave Williams alone on the right side as the slot man with a cornerback shaded a step to the outside.
Williams leans inside with a change of foot position without moving past the line of scrimmage, baiting the defender to react and open the outside.
As Williams works to the end zone, he sets up his break by turning towards the defender and tracking the ball over his back shoulder while making light contact with the defender's chest to maintain position. This move baits the defender into thinking the route is a sideline fade.
When Williams turns away from the corner, he drops his arms and turns back to the defender. The fact that Williams drops his arms rather rather than elevates them is an important nuance. If he raises his hands towards the ball this early he'll be fighting through the position of the corner's arms and will not be able to turn his back to the defender. Dropping his hands allows him to turn away and establish position.
Williams looks the ball into his hands -- catching the ball with his fingertips to establish greater control of the ball's spin than using his palms -- and drags his feet. The Red Raiders corner has no shot at the ball and Williams' initial set up of the sideline fade earns him additional separation in this tight space when he breaks to the corner.
The catch with the fingertips is also helpful because Williams initially juggles the ball. If he caught it palms-first, the ball likely ricochets off his facemask or chest. In this instance, Williams gains control quick enough to secure possession and get his knee inside the the boundary. Even if he doesn't drag the back foot -- a nice added touch -- in the NFL one knee equals two feet.
When I watched Williams against Oklahoma last year, I made some notes about his deficiencies: "One of Williams' greatest weaknesses that he demonstrates repeatedly in this game is his body positioning to shield the defender from the ball. Some of this issue can be corrected if he can improve his skill at breaking back to the football as a route runner."
Williams has corrected that issue and then some. He's not the most refined technician in this draft class and he's not the best athlete. But from what I'm seeing, he's on track to develop into a strong combination of both.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, an online publication devoted to play-by-play analysis of offensive skill position prospects. Now in its eighth year of publication, the RSP provides pre- and post-draft rankings, analysis, and stylistic comparisons. Waldman also includes all of his play-by-play notes, grading reports, and a glossary that defines and explains his grading criteria. The RSP is available for download every April 1 and 10 percent of each sale is donated to Darkness to Light, a non-profit devoted to preventing sexual abuse in communities across the country.
4 comments, Last at 15 Feb 2013, 9:06am by jennyrichards