From the Far Hash: Drawing Up the Back Shoulder Pass
The back shoulder pass was the Packers signature play during the 15-1 2011 campaign. In fact, it was so good that John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, wanted Joe Flacco to emulate that for their 2012 season. Their result? Super Bowl XVII champions. Was it a coincidence? Most likely not because the back shoulder pass is one of the hardest pass plays to defend. Joe Flacco also cashed in on some serious money bags after the Super Bowl. He really should kick back 5% to Aaron Rodgers for that one. Copycat league indeed.
We saw the Packers run less of it during 2012 than they did in 2011. One large reason for that was because Greg Jennings was hurt most of the year. To successfully execute the back shoulder pass, there needs to be extremely strong chemistry between the quarterback and receiver. I think this one area where we will really miss Greg Jennings this year. That’s not to say Aaron Rodgers has bad chemistry with the other receivers (must be the off season workouts, right?). But, Aaron did have tremendous back shoulder chemistry with Greg Jennings. It will be interesting to see what sort of developments happen during Training Camp 2013 regarding the absence of Greg Jennings from the passing game.
Despite the Greg Jennings injury, we still saw a decrease use of the back shoulder pass during 2012. Why did we see such a drop off? Well, to answer that, we have to look at the anatomy of the play with respect to the defense. Several things must take place if the offense will attempt a back shoulder pass. They include:
1) The receiver must be on the outside of the numbers near the sideline. This ensures the throw will only be caught by the receiver or it will go out of bounds as an incompletion because only the sideline is behind him. The slot receiver can’t run this because a defender behind him could take it to the house.
2) The defense must be in man-to-man coverage, turning his back to the quarterback, giving the receiver an outside release.
3) The quarterback must have excellent chemistry and communication with the receiver because it’s an ad lib play.
4) The play must have the element of surprise to the defender guarding the receiver.
See Figure 1 below, which shows the wide receiver outside of the numbers and the cornerback giving an outside release.
[Figure 1; click to enlarge]
If you remember from my previous article, the Packers often face the Cover 2 man defense, which often does not give the receiver an outside release. That alone explains another portion of why we saw less back shoulder throws last year. The inside release that Cover 2 man cornerbacks give the receiver removes the possibility of a back shoulder throw. The receiver and the ball have no place to go because the cornerback is in perfect coverage. See Figure 2. Once again, a large portion of the Packers offense revolves around getting the defense out of Cover 2 man.
[Figure 2; click to enlarge]
Also, the back shoulder throw will not work very effectively against zone coverage. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but it’s very difficult. If you remember, in zone coverage, the defender guards an area and then covers anyone who enters the zone. The whole time, the defender has his back to the goal line and his eyes facing the receiver and quarterback. This is very different from man-to-man coverage, where the defender has his back to the quarterback; therefore, the defender cannot see the ball being released from the quarterback’s hand. In zone coverage, the defender usually drops to a landmark, which is often the top of the numbers. Once the ball is thrown, he aggressively drives towards the mesh point of the receiver and where the ball is headed. So, the back shoulder pass won’t work too well against zone because the element of surprise is removed. See Figure 3.
[Figure 3; click to enlarge]
Now, assuming the defense is playing outside release man-to-man coverage, the back shoulder pass is a real threat. Let’s take a look at what goes into making it a successful play. First, we need to take a quick look at the standard passing tree. As complex as most NFL offenses are, the passing routes are very uniform, predictable, and have been around forever. The reason they work, despite everyone running the same passing tree, is that the defender doesn’t know which route is coming. Below in Figure 4, we have the standard pass route tree.
[Figure 4; click to enlarge]
The numbers are used to refer to the name of the routes.
I also want you to look at the break points. Passing routes are very predictable because they have highly uniform break points. A break point is the depth of the route when the receiver will make a move. When the receiver is moving forward, that’s called a stem. When he moves in one of the 1-9 routes, he is breaking off the stem. Between 2-5 yards, there’s only two breaks: the flat and slant. That’s it. The next break point is almost always between 14-18 yards. It’s that predictable.
So, in man-to-man coverage, the cornerback must be in position to cover all 9 breaks. For the outside shoulder route to work, the receiver is counting on the cornerback expecting a break at 14-18 yards. In fact, the receiver is looking to take advantage of that. Essentially, it’s an ad lib break from tendencies.
Before we talk about wide receiver technique, we need to talk a little bit about man-to-man defensive technique. During coverage, the cornerback turns his back to the quarterback. Based on his position with respect to the receiver, he is instructed to either play the ball or to play the receiver.
If the cornerback is running even with the receiver, meaning their shoulders are touching, this is called “in phase” coverage (Figure 5). Also, if the cornerback is trailing the receiver, and can see his back number, this is also called “in phase” coverage (Figure 6). While the cornerback is in phase with the receiver, he is instructed to play the ball. This is because during the 14-18 yard break points, the ball must go through him to get to the receiver. If he is tight to the receiver, then that receiver is effectively covered for all seven (3-9 routes) 14-18 yard down field breaks. The quarterback will have to go elsewhere because the probability of an interception is increased.
[Figure 5; click to enlarge]
[Figure 6; click to enlarge]
If the cornerback is running ahead of the receiver, and can’t see his numbers, he is in “out of phase” coverage. He is then instructed to play the man. He has to rely on watching the receiver’s eyes, arms, hips, and hands to determine when the ball is arriving. He is not in position because the ball does not go through him; he is ahead of the ball. Therefore, his only option is to play the man. The reason for playing out of phase coverage is because the cornerback can use his body to influence the receiver. He can push into him to slow him down and/or squeeze him to his sideline help. By squeezing the receiver to the sideline, he takes away all three of the 14-18 downfield breaks (3, 5, and 7 routes). There will simply be no room for the quarterback to place the ball for the 3, 5, and 7 routes. The cornerback can also slow the receiver down on the inside 6, 8, and 9 breaks. So, the really only weakness the cornerback has is the 4 route. If the play call isn’t for the 4 route, and the cornerback has tight coverage, the receiver is effectively covered. The quarterback has to go elsewhere with the ball. See Figure 7.
Now, one of the best ways to exploit excellent man-to-man coverage is the back shoulder pass. If properly executed, it’s almost impossible to defend. It works against in phase and out of phase coverages. Here’s how.
It works because it’s the element of surprise. If the receiver has cleared his 2-5 yard break window, then the cornerback is expecting a break between 14-18 yards down field. So, to trick the cornerback, the receiver will make a break before for the 14 yard indicator. This is an ad lib play, so there has to be enormous trust between the quarterback and receiver. Another route was called in the huddle, so the play is reading and reacting to the defense. If the receiver gets an outside release with the cornerback’s back turned to the quarterback, it’s game on. The receiver will run about 3 yards down field and then give a quick glance, over his inside shoulder, back to the quarterback. This tells the quarterback that he’s going to run the back shoulder option. This is the chemistry part.
The receiver will run about 8-10 yards (or make a deeper break beyond the 14-18 yards because the cornerback has assumed the receiver is running a 9 route) and then make his break. His break calls for him to open his hips to the quarterback. So, if he’s on the left sideline, he will turn clockwise back into the quarterback. The ball will be thrown behind the receiver, away from the cornerback covering the inside of the receiver, where only the receiver can get it. By opening his hips, his momentum will allow him to catch the outside pass and his motion will continue forward so he can streak down the sideline with the ball. If it’s not caught by the receiver, it will fall harmlessly out of bounds because the receiver will have overrun the throw. See Figure 8.
[Figure 8; click to enlarge]
The back shoulder pass is very effective against out of phase coverage. This is because the cornerback is on the front inside shoulder of the receiver on the opposite side of the back shoulder throw. Also, the cornerback thinks he squeezed the receiver out of the 3, 5, and 7 routes, so he’s not looking for an outside throw. He lost his man in coverage and he has failed to play the man.
The back shoulder pass is also very effective against in phase coverage. This is because the ball is thrown behind the break points, so the cornerback has no way to play through the ball and he has failed to play the ball.
After reading this article, I hope you’ll be able to recognize the intricacies of this play. It has elements from the “just get open” backyard football be played as kids, but the reads the players make are grounded in sound strategy. You can now recognize it unfold on the field, which hopefully brings you more enjoyment during the games. Also, you can recognize when the play will not work, so you shouldn’t feel frustrated if you perceive a deficiency in that play call.
With Greg Jennings no longer on the team, someone else will have to develop that chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. Since we anticipate Randall Cobb being in the slot, the most likely candidates for the back shoulder pass are Jordy Nelson and James Jones. It will be fun to watch how the offense unfolds this year. I sincerely hope we see many more back shoulder passes during 2013. They are almost unstoppable. Moreover, it means the Packers aren’t facing Cover 2 man, which signifies they probably have a legitimate running game.
Only time will tell. Happy watching!