The Speed of Tebow’s Release

April 17, 2009

One of the major complaints about Tim Tebow by those who say he won’t make it in the NFL is that he has a slow release. This critique is related to the charge that he has poor mechanics.

I am not a trained coach, but I believe I can show you at least what armchair NFL GMs see in him that causes the real scouts to fret. I will compare him to Sam Bradford, a guy who was said to be a surefire top-five pick in the draft if he had come out.

All times that I quote here came from studying the national title game frame-by-frame in Avidemux. It’s not as precise as professional video gear, but it’s close enough for these purposes and any error will be consistent throughout.

Here is a sequence showing Bradford’s throwing motion. Pay close attention to the second frame, as that is where the biggest difference between the two guys comes from.

bradford1bradford2bradford3bradford4

Bradford has a compact throwing motion, which is what NFL scouts are looking for.

In the first frame, he is holding the ball in the classic quarterback stance. Frame two shows the farthest out his arm goes in his windup. You can see that the ball is close to his body and his arm is about at a right angle.

The final two frames finish out his motion. This throw, which is representative of his standard throws, takes about 467 milliseconds to complete.

Here is a sequence of Tebow’s motion.

tebow1tebow2tebow3tebow4

In the first frame, Tebow is in the same starting position as Bradford was in. The second frame shows a very different story however. The ball is far away from his body, and his arm is almost fully extended.

The final two frames finish out his motion. This was the most extreme example of Tebow’s long windup I could find, and it took 734 milliseconds to complete. That time is 267 milliseconds longer than Bradford’s throw.

Not every one of Tebow’s throws take this long, but it illustrates the perils of having a longer motion. Even moreso in the NFL than in college, a fraction of a second can be the difference between a catch and a tipped ball, and a tipped ball and an interception. The throw above was Tebow’s first interception of the national title game, a pass that was picked off by a safety reading his eyes and jumping in front of a receiver.

As I said though, this was the longest delivery I could find for him. I chose it because it makes for the clearest pictures. To find out a rough approximation of how much longer Tebow’s motion is than Bradford’s is, I took a sample of ten normal passes apiece and timed their motions. I did not include passes where the players were being hit, throwing on the run, or shovel passes.

I found that Tebow’s average time across the ten passes was 557 milliseconds, with all but one pass taking a half second or more. Bradford’s average release was 487 milliseconds, with the most common time being 467 milliseconds. The difference in average was not great at just 70 milliseconds.

As I said though, my ability to time their motions is not exact, and certainly Bradford’s motion looks a lot quicker than Tebow’s does. Tebow has a habit of bringing the ball down near his waist during his windup, while Bradford generally brings the ball straight back from his neutral stance.

Simple physics says it takes more time to move an object along a longer path, so Tebow’s release is labeled “slow.” It is not a huge difference, but just think back to Michael Crabtree’s catch that beat Texas. If the ball came a tenth of a second later, the defensive back coming to help may have gotten a finger on it.

Florida’s new quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler has been working with Tebow this spring to shorten up the motion. He is also working on getting Tebow to have a “10 o’clock release point,” as opposed to the sidearm-like delivery you can kind of see in his fourth frame. Bradford’s fourth frame shows what I would assume to be a 2 o’clock release point (since he’s right handed and Tebow’s a southpaw).

Tim Tebow is one of the most driven people I’ve ever seen though, so the effort will be there. He has almost a full year from today to prove to the Mel Kipers of the world that he can be something other than an H-back in the pros. Shortening up his delivery and fixing his release point will go a long way to that end.

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How to Setup a Perfect Option Play

February 25, 2009

As unbelievable as it would have sounded in 1996, Florida has turned into one of the best option football teams in the country. The Gators use it about as effectively as anyone else, and it is a major part of the offense.

Since Florida doesn’t use the option as its primary offensive play like Nebraska used to or Navy currently does, it can be even more effective than normal if the Gators set it up properly. Of course, having devastating backfield speed helps it succeed as well.

Here I’ll show you how Florida set up an option play against LSU this past season to score a back breaking touchdown.

thesetup

This is the play prior to the option. TE Aaron Hernandez is lined up on the left side of the line, but the formation’s prominent feature is the bunch of receivers on the right. RB Chris Rainey is in the backfield to QB Tim Tebow’s left.

What ends up happening is a rather pedestrian hand off to Rainey who gets a rather pedestrian three yards. The receivers did a pretty good job of blocking for him, but the middle linebacker followed Rainey the whole way and made the stop.

The next play is from the right hash in practically the same formation.

theformation1

This time the running back is Jeff Demps, and he lines up on Tebow’s right. Otherwise, the formation is identical. It’s an unlikely proposition though that Florida would run the same play twice in a row, especially since the right side is now the short side of the field. Urban Meyer’s philosophy is to get players into open space, after all.

Anyway, LSU lines up in exactly the same defense and prepares to defend the formation exactly the same way. The Tigers are in a basic 4-3 defense with the safeties in cover 2. Each safety will move forward to provide support on his side.

Hernandez will peel off of the line immediately to block the outside linebacker. LT Phil Trautwein will go upfield to take on the middle linebacker. The two guards will go for the two defensive tackles, but C Mike Pouncey pulls away and shoots between the defensive end and left DT. His target is actually the left safety.

As is often done on option plays, the defensive end will not be blocked. He must decide to play the quarterback or running back, and if all goes according to plan for the offense, whoever he doesn’t go for will spring for a big gain.

thepitch

Here we can see Hernandez engaging the linebacker on the left, and he will drive him towards the sideline. Trautwein has already taken out the middle linebacker. Mike Pouncey can be seen running through the line to go take on the safety.

Right guard Maurkice Pouncey tried to cut block his defensive tackle by diving at his feet. After all, since the play is to the left, he doesn’t have to get much of a block. However, the tackle sidesteps the cut block and can be seen pursuing Tebow.

At this point, LSU would seem to have defeated the play because the tackle can go for Tebow and the end can go for Demps. The only problem with that is that the end doesn’t know it, and he stays locked on the quarterback.

Tebow pitches to Demps, and the running back uses his speed to go right by the defensive end. There’s plenty of open space ahead for him to run in.

thecutback

Now out in the open field, Demps is running towards the sideline. He had to swing wide of the DE, and that is also the direction the blockers are going in.

Demps is not content simply to head out of bounds for a big gain though. He knows he has excellent speed to get even more. So, he cuts back once he has cleared the DE and is behind the blocks. Hernandez has done a great job of keeping his man contained and Mike Pouncey is about to push the safety over.

In the upper right you can see a couple other LSU defenders coming over to try to help, but it is far too late at this point for them to be of assistance. Demps is too fast for that.

thefinal

The safety that Mike Pouncey blocked is in the bottom middle, getting back up to his feet after having been knocked over. All of the defensive linemen and linebackers who had been in pursuit can be seen in the bottom right as they slow down. They know they can’t catch up.

That leaves one man to beat: the other safety. Once he recognized that the play was not to his side, he made a beeline to the other and as you can see, he took an excellent angle.

Unfortunately for him, Demps turns on his afterburners at about the 15 yard line. The diminutive ball carrier also changes his angle to go more towards the corner to escape the oncoming defender. The safety finally catches up at the one yard line, just in time to give Demps a helpful shove in the back as he crosses the goal line.

Here’s the play in real time from both the normal camera angle and the blimp shot. Gary Danielson does a quick rundown of what I laid out here in depth. I like how instead of discussing angles at the end, he opts instead just to say “ZOOM!” If I wasn’t a Gator fan, I’d probably hate him by now.

This touchdown put Florida up 34-14 with a minute to go in the third quarter, effectively icing the game away for good.

Wrap Up

Two main factors helped make this play a success. One is the outstanding speed of Jeff Demps. A slower back would likely have been tackled by the defensive end at the cutback stage, as that window was very small. Plus, someone with less speed would definitely have been tackled short of the goal line by the second safety.

The second factor was the setup for the option with the previous play. That one made it appear that the bunched receivers were there to serve only as blockers, and by running behind them, it drew the defense’s attention like a magician’s beautiful assistant.

While they were blockers the first time, the second time they were only there to keep four extra defenders on that side. It opened up the rest of the field, and by having the quarterback be a threat to run, Florida created a numerical advantage on the left.

Most modern offensive football theory one way or another revolves around creating a numerical advantage. The option is one way to do that, and if you set it up correctly, it can be devastating.


Percy Harvin’s Signature Play: The Counter

November 17, 2008

The counter play is a general term for a misdirection running play where everything appears geared to having the ball carrier go in one direction, but he ends up running the other direction. In other words, the runner goes counter to the expected direction.

It is a play that Percy Harvin is absolutely lethal on. Both his first quarter and third quarter touchdown runs against South Carolina came on the brand of counter play that Urban Meyer likes to use. I will diagram the latter since it was longer, but the other would have been a touchdown from any distance away from the end zone as well.

The Third Quarter Run

Here is the formation:

formation-presnap

Florida begins in a three-wide set with Kestahn Moore as a running back next to Tim Tebow and Aaron Hernandez lined up as an H-back behind RT Jason Watkins. Louis Murphy is wide to the right, Riley Cooper is wide to the left, and Harvin is in the slot.

Here you can see Tebow signaling to Harvin to go in motion. Harvin will come in close on the other side of Tebow to create a symmetrical two-back set.

The South Carolina defense begins in a nickel set, named as such because there are five defensive backs. The defense recognizes that this will probably be a running play with Harvin moving to the backfield, so the corner that was on Harvin slides behind the linebackers to add another layer of run protection. One of the safeties moves up by the linebackers to create a de facto 3-4 set.

Here is what will happen once the ball is snapped:

readytosnap

This is a bit busy, so let’s take it one piece at a time.

Four of the five offensive linemen will block to the right. Moore will come out of the backfield to the right as well. When Harvin takes the hand off, his first couple steps will be to the right. This is the setup, preparing the misdirection of the counter.

RG Mike Pouncey is a pulling guard on this play, called that because instead of going straight ahead, he will pull away from the rest of the line and run around back of it. He will pick up the blitzing outside linebacker on that side. Hernandez will also come around in that direction and shoot between Pouncey and LT Phil Trautwein like a blocking fullback. Harvin, after faking to the right, will cut back to the left and follow Hernandez through the hole.

Something that I didn’t diagram above because it would have made everything too messy is that after the handoff, Tebow rolls right and fakes a throw to Murphy to give the defense one more thing to think about. Murphy will run down field to block, and Cooper at the top will battle his covering cornerback.

downfield

The actual outside linebacker on the left went in after Tebow’s fake. The middle linebacker No. 40 you see there initially went forward to pick up Moore coming out of the backfield, but when he recognized that Moore did not have the ball, he turned around to go after Harvin. The safety who had come up to become the fourth linebacker also got frozen by Moore’s fake run, and he also reversed course to go for Harvin. Both were too late though; Harvin is too fast for either to catch him.

Harvin’s original covering cornerback was Hernandez’s blocking target, but the corner began running back up the field before Hernandez could get a clean block. It didn’t matter though; Hernandez got enough of him to slow him up, and that’s all Harvin needed.

Cooper has the next important block, and it’s no surprise he’s up there as he has become Florida’s best blocker among the receivers. The corner will eventually release from the block, but once again, he was slowed up enough for Harvin to speed past him. The other safety (not pictured) will come in to try to make a play shortly after this frame, but he underestimates Harvin’s speed and takes the wrong angle.

Harvin splits that corner and the safety, and his raw speed helps him pull away. Here’s the video of both the first quarter run and the third quarter run, and you will see the same thing in both: a fake to the right and run to the left.

That Looks Awfully Familiar…

If you’re thinking to yourself that those runs looked familiar, then you are right. Let me paint the scene.

It’s the 2006 SEC Championship Game. Florida led 17-7 at halftime, but a mostly disastrous third quarter allowed Arkansas back in the game. The Razorbacks took a 21-17 lead, but a muffed punt by Reggie Fish that the Gators recovered gave them a 24-21 lead.

It was still close, and Arkansas still had a slight edge of momentum. That is, until Percy Harvin ran a counter play.

formation1

Here we see more of a spread formation. Jemalle Cornelius is at the top, with Bubba Caldwell next to him. Dallas Baker is the tall receiver at the bottom, with Harvin inside of him. FB Billy Latsko is lined up in the H-back position that Hernandez was in above.

Harvin goes in motion towards Chris Leak, and the linebacker who had been on him also slides back behind the other linebackers. It’s the same move we saw the South Carolina cornerback make. This time though, Harvin does not come to a stop, but instead he slows down and his shoulders are still parallel to the sideline when the ball is snapped.

presnap

As with last time it’s a bit busy, but again let’s take it a piece at a time.

The play is going the opposite direction as before, so four of the five offensive linemen block to the left. LG Jim Tartt pulls this time, and he takes on the right defensive end. Latsko will come around and pick up the middle linebacker who is following the DE.

Harvin takes the handoff facing the left sideline, so his original covering linebacker will continue in that direction. I didn’t diagram the quarterback again this time to keep the messiness down, but Leak will run to the left as though he had the ball after handing it off. In response, the outside linebacker on the left will crash the left side of the line as you would expect him to.

After taking the hand off though, Harvin catches the defense off guard by immediately turning around and running between Tartt and Latsko. Upon seeing this, Harvin’s linebacker will turn on a dime and head the other way.

Let’s go to the wide shot for the final part.

downfield1

Harvin is now in the open field, and that’s always a bad thing for opponents. Only two players have a chance to get him now: Harvin’s linebacker and the sole safety on the play.

The linebacker is trying to make up for being fooled, so he is slightly off balance and running as hard as he can towards Harvin. The safety who is playing center field apparently doesn’t think his teammate can make the tackle, so he also runs as hard as he can towards Harvin’s projected running path instead of hanging back to be the last line of defense.

In other words, both guys overpursue on the play. Harvin sees this happening, so he cuts it back to the left and sails down the field for an easy score. Here is the play in real time:

On the first play after a punt, Harvin takes it to the house to give Florida a 31-21 lead and the momentum back. Each team would tack on another score for the final margin of 38-28.

In Final

Urban Meyer will tell anyone willing to listen that Percy Harvin has the best first step in college football. These plays make it easy to see why.

The 2006 edition of the play also illustrates one of the reasons why Meyer, a guy who loves running it up the middle as much as anyone, will spread the field often. By having two receivers at the top, Arkansas was forced to cover them both with corners. That meant there was only one safety instead of two for Harvin to have to deal with. Removing defenders from the middle was the goal, and it worked.

Chris Fowler’s column last week went over how Florida has become a lot more of a power team instead of a spread team this year. That was reflected in 2008’s play above where there were three guys in the backfield instead of two. However, Kestahn Moore coming out wide to the right from the backfield drew both a linebacker and a safety, effectively accomplishing the same goal.

Harvin has had many highlight reel plays in his time at Florida. No play appears more frequently on it than the counter.


Breaking Down Florida’s Triple Option

November 15, 2008

One play that has become a staple of the Gators’ offensive attack this season is a modified triple option. I’m going try to break it down in simple enough terms for anyone to understand what’s going on, so if you’re a seasoned EA NCAA Football pro, just be patient.

The triple option is named as such because there are three possibilities and the quarterback must choose which one to do based on the defense. He has options, in other words.

Traditionally, the three options are a hand off to the fullback, a hand off to the tailback, or the quarterback running it himself. Here is a diagram of the traditional triple option from the I-formation, so named because the quarterback, fullback, and tailback make the form on a capital I:

traditional-i-left1

The quarterback receives the snap from under center and begins moving backwards. He motions like he is going to hand it off to the fullback, and makes the first decision. If the defensive tackles in the middle start moving to the left to contain the play, he will continue and actually give the ball to the fullback for a run up the middle. If the DTs stay in the middle, he will pull the ball back from the fullback, keep it, and continue running to his left.

Now, a second decision must be made. The defensive end on the left will not be blocked by the left tackle in order to have an advantage farther up the field. If that DE attempts to go after the quarterback, the QB will pitch the ball out to the tailback who will be behind and to the left of him. If the DE anticipates a pitch and goes after the tailback, the quarterback will keep in and run with it.

This play can be run from a variety of different setups for the fullback and running back, and it can be done to the right or the left. Those different formations along with the wide variety of blocking techniques means that you can create a fairly complex offensive scheme off the basic principle setup described above.

It used to be quite popular in college football. Not many teams use it anymore because it requires a lot of practice to get it right and because the quarterback tends to take hits from defenders on the play. It has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years thanks to guys like Urban Meyer, Rich Rodriguez, and Paul Johnson.

Florida’s Modified Triple Option

With the way the Gators run it, they use a running back and a wide receiver instead of a fullback and running back. In addition, the quarterback is in shotgun instead of being under center. Here is Florida using it against Vanderbilt with the setup before the snap.

left-pre-snap

This is basically a 10-on-10 play as WR Riley Cooper (at the bottom) will take himself and the cornerback on him out of the play. Louis Murphy at the top will run down field as a decoy and deep blocker. The key players here are QB Tim Tebow, RB Chris Rainey, WR Percy Harvin, and TE Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is at the left edge of the offensive line.

Vanderbilt’s safety recognizes the formation as a running play, so he moves up and becomes a de facto fourth linebacker on the play. Just before the ball is snapped, Harvin goes in motion and runs behind Tebow and Rainey. He is playing the role of the tailback as pictured above. Rainey, all 5’9″ of him, actually has the fullback role.

Hernandez’s job is to go out and block the safety. The defensive end on the left will not be blocked. That leaves five offensive linemen to block the three other defensive linemen, so two (LT Phil Trautwein and RG Mike Pouncey) will ignore them and go farther up the field to take on linebackers. Here is a shot shortly after the snap.

left-postsnap

Harvin has run around back as you can see. Tebow sees the defensive end is coming to the middle to stop Rainey, so he choses to keep the ball instead of handing it off. Hernandez had to run around the DE to go after the safety, so he actually will arrive too late to properly get the block.

Vanderbilt did its homework and was ready for this one, with the safety assigned to the quarterback. The key was moving him up before the play; had he been back at the normal distance, he would have been easily blocked. The outside linebacker (to the left of Hernandez) is assigned to Harvin. Lets go forward a few frames.

left-seconddecision

As I said, the safety cuts in before Hernandez can get to him and the linebacker is covering Harvin. Recognizing that a pitch to Harvin would be a big loss, Tebow decides to keep it.

Unfortunately for the safety, the quarterback is pretty nimble for being a big dude. Tebow will do a spin move as the safety goes flying by, negating Vanderbilt’s proper defense of the play. He then runs down field between a couple blocks and gets nine yards after lunging at the end.

You’ll note that there are three white jerseys beyond the original line of scrimmage, not just the two guys I singled out above. C Maurkice Pouncey did the same thing his twin brother Mike (#55 in the picture above) did in that he let someone by to block in the second level.

The result is the guy he would have been blocking got right to Rainey as he hit the line. Either Rainey was really a decoy all along, or Maurkice got confused on his blocking assignment. It appears the latter might be the case because as you can see, he’s going right after the linebacker that Trautwein is already blocking and he looks somewhat confused if you watch him.

Here is the whole play at full speed. I would recommend going to the actual YouTube page and clicking “Watch in high quality” because it’s a lot clearer.

The Other Way, Please

Let’s take another look at the same formation, but this time oriented to the right instead of the left.

right-pre-snap

The formation is the same only reversed. Deonte Thompson is the receiver at the top in the Riley Cooper role of taking himself and his covering cornerback out of the play. Kestahn Moore is the running back instead of Rainey, and Harvin is still the receiver in motion. Carl Moore is the receiver at the bottom in Louis Murphy’s stead, and his blocking assignment is the cornerback, #17.

Aaron Hernandez has switched over to the right side of the line since the play is going to that direction. Our friend the safety has already moved up here, and he is still Hernandez’s blocking assignment.

What is interesting is the offensive line assignments are the same as they were when the play went to the left. The defensive end to the offense’s left is still going to be the one unblocked instead of the one on the side where the play is. Trautwein and Mike Pouncey are still the guys who are going upfield to block. Maurkice Pouncey this time comes around behind Mike to get block the right defensive tackle while LG Carl Johnson must block the left defensive tackle.
right-postsnap

Moore is absolutely a decoy this time, and he immediately runs out to the right with no fake handoff to him. Therefore, there’s only one decision to make now. This is no triple option play, it is an option right disguised as a triple option in its formation and pre-snap motion.

If the linebacker goes for either Moore or Harvin, Tebow will keep it. If he breaks off and goes for the quarterback, then Tebow will pitch it to Harvin. The linebacker ends up taking an in between position, sort of covering Harvin as he stands in front of Moore. Tebow decides to keep it.

Since Hernandez doesn’t have to run a circular path around the defensive end this time, he gets to the safety quickly and takes out his legs. You can see Hernandez’s legs on the ground beneath the safety (#33). The #30 in black you see there is the middle linebacker, and he is Mike Pouncey’s man.

The unblocked defensive end (#90) is now in a footrace to try to beat Tebow to the hole between Maurkice Pouncey and other defensive end being blocked by RT Jason Watkins (#77). Tebow wins that race, so from here it’s a matter of downfield blocking.
right-hole-hit

Tebow is approaching the hole having beat the DE to it. Because Maurkice Pouncey pancaked his man though, Johnson is unable to slide over to block the defensive tackle. Watkins is moving the hole to the right, giving Tebow the chance to beat the DT to the hole if he’s fast enough.

The linebacker who couldn’t decide on whether to go for Harvin or Moore locked up and Moore is running past him to go block up the field. Harvin has run to the sideline completely out of the play as his job is done.

The safety and middle linebacker have actually collided, causing both to fall down. That frees Mike Pouncey to run past both of them and try to pick up additional defenders up the field.

right-final

Tebow had the wheels to narrowly beat the defensive tackle to the hole, so all that’s left now is to hold the downfield blocks long enough to get him to the end zone.

Mike Pouncey (not pictured) did his job, picking up the other safety who did not fall down. Otherwise, Tebow would have been tackled at about the 15 yard line. Left tackle Phil Trautwein is still blocking his linebacker (#6), who at this point has given up on being able to get to Tebow. Thompson (#6) has forced his cornerback to be off balance, so #14 is no threat.

Remember cornerback #17 from the beginning? He has returned and is threatening to take Tebow down before the goal line. Carl Moore either did not finish his block or he was unable to hold it, and that’s him (#16) jogging into view at the bottom right.

Tebow takes an angled path towards the front corner of the endzone, and the angle is enough as the cornerback cannot get a good enough grip on the speeding Tebow to bring him down. Touchdown, 14-0 Florida.

Here is a look at the full play. As with the last one, I recommend going to the YouTube page and clicking “Watch in high quality.”

Conclusion

I hope you now have an understanding of both the principle behind the triple option and the way that Florida has used it this season. I also hope the second example gives you a glimpse of the complexity that option offenses can present even though on the surface, it’s just the quarterback running and deciding whether or not to keep it or give it.

It is for that reason that we’re unlikely to ever see the option die in the college ranks. Tebow is faster than any of the Vanderbilt defensive linemen, so he was able to exploit that in both of these examples. There are other, faster quarterbacks out there who do this too, and there will be plenty more to come.