Aye, There’s the Rub
At several points during Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, fans undoubtedly will scream or tweet some version of the following statement: “That was a pick play!”
No team incorporates picks or rub routes into its offense more than the Broncos and Patriots. In their Week 12 meeting this season, which New England won in overtime, 34-31, the teams combined to run 12 plays from the second quarter on that featured an offensive player trying to free a teammate by getting mixed up with his defender. There were six run by each team.
Picks and rubs are often used in crucial situations, when a big play is needed, and often in the red zone because real estate is at a premium.
One player on each side in that Week 12 matchup, the Pats’ Danny Amendola and the Broncos’ Eric Decker, drew pass interference flags for pick infractions. But New England also got one of its biggest plays—a 33-yard pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski on the opening drive of the second half to jumpstart its 24-0 comeback—off a pick from receiver Julian Edelman.
So we’re going to see them on Sunday. And contrary to popular belief, they can be perfectly legal.
“I kind of chuckle because everybody goes, ‘That's a pick play! That's a pick play!’ ” says former ref Jim Daopoulos, who spent 11 years as an on-field official and 12 more as an NFL supervisor of officials. “Well, pick plays are legal. It's legal to throw a pick.”
There are also picks that are illegal. We’ll explain the difference so you’ll be able to tell the difference on Sunday. But first, you need to understand why picks are so prevalent in today’s game.
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When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady square off in the AFC title game, the defensive coordinators know they’re going to have to play a lot of man coverage against the receivers.
The elite quarterbacks in today’s NFL are more accurate than ever, making the previously popular zone coverage not the smartest play. Even beyond accuracy, they’re much more advanced than their predecessors. And Manning and Brady are the crème de la crème.
“I think [Bears coach] Marc Trestman said it probably the best: The NFL is really a league of contested throws,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said earlier this season before facing the Broncos. “If you’re on offense, you have to make them; on defense you have to stop them. I think that’s really true. You have to contest the throws of these players, especially guys like Peyton ... they’re too good, too skilled. I think you just have to be willing to go down there, challenge, compete and go like that.”
Picks, rubs and screens. We’ll probably see a little bit of everything in the AFC title game.
That means man-to-man coverage. Maybe not every down, but a good portion of the time, especially when defenses need a stop. If you allow Denver and New England receivers free entry into the secondary without getting pressure on Manning or Brady, those quarterbacks are going to pick a defense apart.
That has led to a dramatic rise in man coverage in today’s game. The offensive counter has been to run picks or rub routes, and to align receivers in bunch or stack formations, in order to gain a little bit of free space for them to operate. The goal is keep the defense from getting their hands on the receivers and slowing down the timing of the routes.
“You want [the receivers] to run really close to one another,” Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said earlier this season. “And then there's other ones where there's just pure crossing routes where guys are just running across the field under or over one another. You just want guys to run really close to one another so the guy covering him has to bow over the top [go around the other offensive player].”
Defensive techniques used to combat the rubs and picks vary from team to team, and down to down. Some teams get even closer and more physical with the receiver so he can’t freely pick off a teammate. On some downs you’ll see defenders switch the players they’re covering.
“It’s a matter of wills at some point,” Sutton said.
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There are two very important points to keep in mind when talking about legal versus illegal picks: within one yard of the line of scrimmage, anything goes—you can block the defender as much as you want and it doesn’t matter if the ball is in the air or not; but beyond that one-yard buffer it is illegal for an offensive player to initiate contact with a defender.
A basic pick play, like in basketball, occurs when an offensive player is stopped in the field of play. If a teammate runs by and the trailing defender runs into the player setting the pick, that is perfectly legal; the offensive player did not initiate the contact.
From there, however, it gets complicated. There’s a gray area that forces officials to judge intent. Incidental contact, just one guy running into another, is also not an infraction.
“What is that offensive guy doing?” Daopoulos says. “Is he trying to gain an advantage by rubbing somebody off? Has he initiated some contact that has put that defender at a disadvantage? That's what you're looking for. You’re looking for somebody gaining an advantage by doing something that they shouldn't be doing.”
That’s what happened on the two penalties in the Broncos-Patriots Week 12 game. On the first, Amendola looked like he was just running a slant across the formation, but at the last second he dipped a shoulder into Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was trying to cover Gronkowski. Brady obviously didn’t agree with the call, as you can tell by his comments following the game.
“Certain teams do it a lot,” Brady said. “We don’t do it a ton because we tend to get penalties when we do it, so it defeats the whole purpose. You kind of talk about it and you get excited to do it, and you think it looks good and then the refs—we got called last game on a pass interference on Danny which was … (pause) ... anyway.”
On the Decker play, which happened on a crucial third down early in overtime, he took out Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins; it was illegal even though Decker actually contacted his own teammate, Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, before blocking Collins.
“If they run their guys into each other, as long as neither one of them are initiating the contact [on purpose], it’s OK,” Daopoulos says. “It's strictly up to the official if he feels Decker sees that guy. It happens so quickly and sometimes it’s just a gut feel. You get that by seeing these plays over and over again. You know exactly what they’re trying to do. They're trying to put that hesitancy in the defensive back’s mind, make him think he’s going to get blocked, but they know they can't initiate that block. All it takes is that split-second to make that defensive back hesitate.”
The officials looked like they missed a few other pick infractions in the first Broncos-Patriots matchup.
With 11:19 left in the second quarter, Patriots running back Shane Vereen dropped a pass when he was wide open down the left side. The Patriots love setting picks for Vereen out of the backfield. How did he get so wide open here? Gronkowski laid a blatant pick, even sticking his right leg out for good measure, to delay linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
The 33-yard pass that Gronkowski caught in third quarter, thanks to a pick from Edelman on safety Duke Ihenacho, was not called either. “You talk about a pick. If the one before it was a penalty [on Amendola], what the heck was that one?” NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said on the telecast.
But if you look closely, Edelman’s contact with Ihenacho came at about the 50 yard, one yard from the line of scrimmage at the 49. That’s a legal play. A couple more feet away from the line of scrimmage, and that play is called back and the Patriots are facing 2nd-and-14.
Keep the one-yard rule in mind when you see the quick receiver screens that both teams like to run, especially the Broncos with Demaryius Thomas. The other receivers can block the opposing cornerback within one yard of the line of scrimmage, whether the ball is in the air or not.
Defenders, however, are more limited. They can’t do what Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib did (but wasn’t flagged for) on third down with 12:14 left in the fourth quarter: grab the back of Thomas’ jersey to prevent the screen pass.
“That's a foul,” Daopoulos says. “Even if the pass isn't thrown, then you can have the defensive hold. Those defenders can’t restrict the receiver from going up. This is an offensive game, and unfortunately for the defensive players, this game is set up for the offense to score points. They've put a lot of restrictions on the defensive players. They can bump them in that first five yards, but they can’t grab and restrict. You can never grab the jersey, grab the shoulder pad. You can’t physically restrict them. All you can do is bump them and ride in that first five yards. Then after five, you have to release them.”
Beyond the one-yard zone, offensive pass interference is in effect from the moment the ball is snapped until the receiver catches the ball (or until a defensive player touches the ball). It’s different than defensive pass interference, which can only happen when the ball is in flight. So, on one of the Broncos’ favorite plays, Decker can’t block Talib on a screen pass to Thomas beyond the 1-yard zone until Thomas catches the ball.
Picks, rubs and screens. We’ll probably see a little bit of everything on Sunday. Hopefully you can now tell what is legal and what isn’t, although the ultimate call falls to the trained eye of the flag thrower. The truth is, most of the picks you’ll see on Sunday are legal.
“Every eligible receiver has an official watching him and what’s going on,” Daopoulos says. “You don’t see too many calls on it because most of the players are pretty well schooled. They know what the rules are, they know what they can do. And now that you’re in the playoffs, the last thing these guys want to do is do something illegal and wipe a big touchdown off the scoreboard. The players, especially at this point, know what they’re doing.”