Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Aye, There’s the Rub

The Broncos and Patriots run more pick plays with greater precision than any other team in the NFL. Before you start screaming at your TV on Sunday, learn which ones are legal and how receivers try to get away with even more

By
Greg A. Bedard
· More from Greg·

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.” 

mmqb-end-slug-square

More from The MMQB
18 comments
Michael39
Michael39

"Is he trying to gain an advantage by rubbing somebody off?"  

Gtox
Gtox

Very insightful article that I learned from. I had no trouble following the "pic"ture sequences. However I did find it hard to fathom some of the stupid, ignorant comments.

skanee00
skanee00

Picking is cheating.  The passing game is supposed to be set up by running the ball, not by illegal picks.  If linebackers and db's are worried about the run, they can be caught off balance by the pass.  When they are worried about the pass, they can be caught off balance by the run.  This is how the game of football is supposed to work.  Vince Lombardi would be sickened by the amount of cheating going on in today's game.  The NFL needs to crack down on illegal picks. 

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

Every team runs illegal pick plays to one degree or another, I'm no Pats fan but this is ridiculous.  

DAN B1
DAN B1

why cant you use animated gifs like everyone else.   these still shots are horrible

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

pats are kings of illegal pick plays and trying to catch the other team off guard.  like the hurry up QB sneak that brady does… you can win and be respectable or win period.  pats just win period but I've seen enough games that they excel at that and i don't ever recall seeing a flag.   

johnvas49
johnvas49

I'll be interested to see how the game in Seattle will be called.  If defensive holding is called like it was in the game at Candlestick, then the 49ers have a chance to mount some offense.  Otherwise, it'll probably be a long day...

TonyRome
TonyRome

@jimmyjon_55555 Tell me what is respectable in your opinion? Would it be the early wide spread use of PED's like the Steelers of the 70's, or would it be the intentional chop blocking and salary cap cheating of the Broncos in the late 90's. Please tell us what your idea of a respectable win is.

BillBeattie
BillBeattie

@jimmyjon_55555 Glad you aren't coaching my team. You'd lose almost every game! Don't catch the other team off guard????? Why not???? That's just smart football. Baseball pitchers do it by throwing curve balls and change ups. Want to outlaw them too? The hurry up QB sneak has been in football since the days of Vince Lombardi. 


You can't have seen many games if you think the Pats or Broncos never get penalties for picks. Guess you didn't even read the article. Plus most pick plays are legal, and as the article mentions since every receiver is being watched by a ref, it usually isn't worth getting a penalty that will bring back a TD or a long gain by doing an illegal pick. 

Mike26
Mike26

@jimmyjon_55555 Manning and Brady have done it for a long time and the NFL has long since stopped trying to impede their success by officiating the rules when these two take the field.

nhr
nhr

@jimmyjon_55555 Ummm, not sure I've seen anything in the rule book that other teams can't do it to.

KevinDoucette
KevinDoucette

@jimmyjon_55555 That actually would probably be Manning and the Broncos. Manning was the guy who started the hurry up to catch teams. They also run more pick plays then anyone in football. If they're not called then it's ok. That's basically how it goes in the NFL. I'm also sure that Manning and Brady get away with more then most teams. Again, that's just how it is. It's not going to change anytime soon either. 

We all know that the NFL wants big names in the playoffs as far as possible. Manning and Brady are probably still their biggest drawing cards and won't do anything that would potentially hurt these teams.

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

@TonyRome @jimmyjon_55555 whats respectable… not running pick plays - the pats used to run that with welker all the time- one guy would pick welkers defender - while he cut underneath-  and there was never a flag… but- if you got too close to mrs brady?  you better believe you'd be called for something.  

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

@BillBeattie @jimmyjon_55555 you're baseball analogy doesn't make sense.  what the pats do a lot of would be akin to a pitcher throwing a quick pitch while the batter wasn't set in the batters box.  but i get it- they can do what they want.  although- don't ever tell me that they get called on those pick plays.  

jimmyjon_55555
jimmyjon_55555

@KevinDoucette @jimmyjon_55555 good points- its making football unwatchable - seeing the calls consistently go one teams way.  horrendous officiating in the Pats - Indy game.  pats got away with pass interference- and then tripping on the same drive - followup by NE scoring right after- that was the game right there.  

Newsletter