The Saints-Cardinals tilt this Sunday afternoon might not seem like a marquee game, but it features two of the league’s marquee wide receivers: Marques Colston and Larry Fitzgerald. A seventh-round pick out of Hofstra in 2006, Colston entered the league as the ultimate underdog. Fitzgerald, the No. 3 overall pick in 2004, entered as a top dog, billed by some as the best rookie receiving prospect ever.
Over the past seven seasons, the two wideouts have posted remarkably similar numbers. Fitzgerald has averaged 77 receptions, 1,042 yards and eight touchdowns a year for Arizona. Colston has averaged 68 receptions, 941 yards and seven touchdowns for New Orleans. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, as Colston has caught passes from a future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees, while Fitzgerald has spent the past three years chasing down balls from future insurance salesmen.
But Colston’s quarterback alone doesn’t explain how a 252nd overall pick winds up nearly matching the production of a No. 3 overall pick who has appeared in seven Pro Bowls. The popular assumption, that scouts simply whiffed on Colston, is true but incomplete. Isolate Colston on film and you can see how he slipped to the last round. He doesn’t have great speed or quickness, particularly when getting in and out of breaks. He’s big but not quite a Plaxico Burress-type weapon outside the numbers.
The magic is that Colston plays in one of the NFL’s most creative passing systems. Coach Sean Payton uses a wider variety of formations than any offensive wizard in football, creating a litany of mismatches out of those myriad formations.
The main beneficiary is Colston. A lot of New Orleans’ formations put him in the slot, which does two things: 1) It naturally accentuates his size (6-4, 225 pounds) and ability to pull down balls that are thrown away from his body, and 2) It matches him against a safety or linebacker—especially when the Saints are in standard 2-WR personnel, which, with multidimensional players like Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, is more often than most high-flying passing attacks. In short, when Colston is on the outside against faster cornerbacks, he is a middle-tier starting wide receiver. When he is inside against slower safeties and linebackers, he ascends to Fitzgerald’s level.
Brees and his bigger receivers, especially Colston, spend extensive practice time working on different seam route throws and adjustments. So far this season, Colston has run 62.1 percent of his routes from the slot, which is on par with his career average. The Saints have gouged defenses with him here.
Fitzgerald has not benefited quite as much from these favorable mismatch creations. Under Ken Whisenhunt, he primarily aligned as the X-receiver, which meant he was isolated on the weak side. This kept him out of combination routes—that is, multiple routes that are timed and constructed in a way that has different receivers working together to create specific spacing and throwing angles. Here’s an example:
The Cardinals did not have to always design route combinations for Fitzgerald to get open. Thanks to his raw talent, he could usually get himself open in isolation, especially if he got one-on-one coverage outside. Using Fitzgerald on isolation routes also made whatever double teams he drew more pronounced, opening wider lanes for other receivers and painting a clearer picture for Cardinals quarterbacks.
This season, Fitzgerald’s role has changed. One of the first things Bruce Arians did upon arriving in Arizona was designate the 30-year-old star as the Z-receiver, meaning he’s the movable piece who aligns all over the formation and occasionally goes in motion before the snap. Fitzgerald is the focal point of Arians’ system, which is rich in combo routes. His newfound versatility was on display in Week 1, when he caught eight balls for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Look at all the different pre-snap alignments from which Fitzgerald caught those balls.
With formation changeups and combination routes presenting such obvious advantages for wide receivers, you might wonder why Whisenhunt didn’t use the tactics more often when he was coaching Fitzgerald in Arizona. The answer, in short, is Whisenhunt didn’t have savvy enough quarterbacks. Most combination route designs naturally present multiple reads for the quarterback, which a solid veteran (like current QB Carson Palmer) can handle.
Younger quarterbacks on route combo plays often have more rudimentary reads that are defined. The routes are intertwined not to create multiple throwing options, but to instead get one specific guy open. If that receiver doesn’t get open, the quarterback’s only other option is a check-down. (The Vikings do a lot of this with Christian Ponder.)
Then there are the young quarterbacks who are learning to read NFL defenses but are being ushered along gradually. One is Ryan Tannehill, whose Dolphins host the Falcons this Sunday in another matchup that features marquee receivers (Mike Wallace for Miami; Julio Jones for Atlanta).
Against the Browns in Week 1, the Dolphins used a lot of isolation routes, spreading the field with Wallace outside and allowing Tannehill to easily identify the coverage rotations to that side. Though Wallace was only targeted five times, the Browns did not aggressively rotate help-coverage to his side that often. (Wallace was merely stifled by cornerback Joe Haden.)
Tannehill, perhaps not expecting one-on-one coverage for Wallace, went into the game bent on attacking Cleveland’s weak corners on the other side (Buster Skrine and Christopher Owens). Not coincidentally, a lot of Wallace’s routes in that game stemmed downfield and outside, which was supposed to lift the coverage and make one-on-one matchups clearer for Tannehill to identify elsewhere.
The results were acceptable, as Miami’s offense played well enough to win. But in Week 2 against the Colts, the Dolphins made it a point to take better advantage of their $30 million free agent acquisition. Wallace was targeted three times on the opening series and wound up with nine receptions. Most of them were shorter patterns that quickly got him the ball before any double teams could materialize.
As for Miami’s Week 3 opponent, the Falcons offense down the stretch last season made spectacular use of route combinations. That figures; they had two first-class receivers, Jones and Roddy White, a future Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez, and a precocious pocket passer, Matt Ryan. This season, however, those same route combinations have been less striking, as defenses recognize that White, who has been severely hobbled by a high ankle sprain, can be stopped with basic one-on-one coverage.
Consequently, Atlanta’s offense has sputtered a bit, but Jones has kept them afloat. He posted a career-high 182 yards on 11 receptions in last week’s win over St. Louis. And in Week 1 he kept the Falcons competitive by attracting ridiculous attention from Saints defenders. A key play in that game was a 50-yard catch-and-run by Harry Douglas, which set up one of Atlanta’s two touchdowns. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Dolphins coaches made special note of this play when they studied the Falcons. There was nothing fancy about it, but it featured a route combination off the exact type of effect they’re hoping to get out of Wallace.
The NFL continues to become more and more a passing league. Great offenses will continue to find more and more innovative ways to feed star receivers.