Awareness and Urgency on Third Down (with Sam Bradford)

A quarterback earns his stripes in critical situations. Whether it be 3rd/4th down, in the red zone, in the 4th quarter, etc., quarterbacks have to be able to operate when the stakes are higher. Quarterbacks must be able to assess the situation and execute accordingly.

3rd/4th down situations can be especially tough. More often than not, teams are bringing extra pass rushers in order to force the quarterback to get the ball out quickly. Quarterbacks have to be able to identify the number of pass rushers and where the blitzers are coming from in order to know when and where to get rid of the ball. When facing the Houston Texans in Week 5, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford showed that seemingly minute mistakes can be the difference between having to punt instead of earning a fresh set of downs.

The Vikings were in a 3rd-and-7 situation here. The Texans defense came out in a Man-Free look (man coverage with one deep safety). There are five defenders on the line of scrimmage, while another defender is lurking close to the line of scrimmage about five yards off of the left guard. Given the pre-snap look, it would be fair to assume that the Texans are bringing at least five and the critical defender is the player creeping toward the line of scrimmage over the left guard. If he comes, the ball should replace him; if he stays in coverage, the quarterback needs to go elsewhere.

The creeping defender ended up being a blitzer and ultimately the sixth rusher. For Bradford, that should have confirmed that he had 1-on-1 coverage across the board and a deep centerfielding safety over the top. Bradford’s first look should be to the slot receiver Jairus Wright running the skinny post. Furthermore, the ball should start coming forward as Bradford completes his three step drop. Fortunately for the Texans defense, that is not what Bradford did. Bradford took an extra ‘reset’ step at the end of his drop, which gave edge rusher Whitney Mercilus just enough time to sack Bradford from his blind side.

Bradford’s left foot is hitting the ground. This is his first step. As his first foot hits the ground, it’s already apparent that the Texans are, in fact, bringing six rushers. Unless there is an unexpected late drop from one of the rushers, there won’t be a defender hovering the short/intermediate middle of the field area.

Second foot in the ground. The Texans are still showing six rushers. By now, Bradford needs to be deciding if he wants to throw the skinny post to Wright or not. If not, he needs to set up to go vertical to one of his outside receivers or prepare to wait on the late-developing route from his tight end.

The ball should be coming forward right now. Bradford’s back foot is coming down at the end of his drop and Wright looks to be starting his break to the inside. The throw is there if Bradford pulls the trigger from this platform.

Instead of throwing at the top of his initial drop, Bradford waits on the route and takes an extra ‘reset’ step. This still shot show Bradford bringing back his left foot in order to begin his reset, as opposed to bringing that foot forward in order to plant and throw.

As a result of not anticipating the route opening up, Bradford held onto the ball too long and got sacked inside of his own 20-yard line. Bradford, a seven year veteran, should have been able to recognize the coverage and execute accordingly, but he fell short in this instance.

Now, in all fairness to Bradford, he had a quietly impressive season and played about as well as the Vikings could have expected him to. He executed well in plenty of other situations like this one, and this sort of piece could be written about any quarterback. Every quarterback has botched a third down like this at some point or another. Sam Bradford just happened to be the unlucky pupil that I chose to use as an example of how precious every morsel of time is on 3rd/4th downs.

The fragility of decision making on 3rd/4th downs is something that can make or break quarterbacks. Good quarterbacks must be able to handle these situations and be able to convert at a high rate. The better the quarterback, the more likely it is that they are excellent on 3rd/4th downs and being able to sustain drives. Even a couple more critical conversions per game than the “average” quarterback can be monumental to a team’s success. 3rd down isn’t referred to as the “money down” for nothing.

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DeShone Kizer and Winning in the Red Zone

Confidence is a necessary trait for quarterbacks. If a quarterback doesn’t believe he can hit the throw, he won’t hit it. Quarterbacks have to take a number of factors into account before determining the confidence they have in themselves to complete a pass. Anything from the intended target, opposing talent, coverage scheme, and so on and so forth, can boost or diminish a quarterback’s confidence in a particular route concept.

Part of confidence is knowing what the defense is going to do. Quarterbacks can operate much smoother when they have a good idea of what they are in for. Of course, defenses can disguise and shift coverages, but every quarterback does his best to identify coverages pre-snap and reassess the coverage post-snap to determine where the ball will go.

In the red zone, confidence is necessary. The field is shortened and mistakes are magnified. Quarterbacks have to be even more aware, precise and, most of all, confident than they are between the 20’s. The difference between one extra hitch, a slight misread or a slight hesitation can be the difference between a touchdown or settling for a field goal.

How DeShone Kizer Attacks the Red Zone

Cover-2 is one of many coverages that a defense can employ. Below is a diagram from Inside The Pylon of a basic Cover-2 look:

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The two deep safeties have a lot of responsibility on this play. They must be able to cover one half of the field from beyond about 10 yards. The position of the safeties help take away the seams (around the numbers), but leave some room for the quarterback to fit the ball down the hash marks or on the sideline. Quarterbacks have to be able to manipulate the safeties to stay away from their desired route, as well as have the arm to fit the tight windows down the hashes or to the boundary.

In the red zone, Cover-2 bodes well for the defense because the shortened field makes throws to the boundary even tougher, while the bevy of linebackers over the middle give a clouded view of the middle of the field. That doesn’t seem to matter to future NFL quarterback DeShone Kizer.

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Kizer talked about this play during his ESPN visit at Jon Gruden’s QB Camp. As Gruden and Kizer went on to dissect, this play should have been dead. Trying to fit this ball into that window requires great confidence, timing and arm talent. Kizer put all of that on display here.

Through his drop back, Kizer must quickly determine the position of the field side safety and decide if he can make the throw around the safety. Kizer notices that the safety is still in a stationary position by the time his drop is finished. Without second guessing, Kizer fires over the cornerback and wide of the safety, perfectly placing the ball in a spot where only wide receiver Will Fuller could get to it. Few quarterbacks have the talent to complete this pass, let alone the gall to even attempt it. Great quarterbacks can hit throws that aren’t really there, and Kizer has that ability.

Kizer can attack the area between the two deep safeties, too. During Notre Dame’s battle against Texas at the beginning of the season, Texas tried to stop Kizer with a two deep safety look in the red zone. Although the receiver couldn’t hold onto the ball, Kizer fired in a dart that ranks among some of the best passes from any player in this class.

Once again, Kizer attempted to fit a window that few others have the talent or bravado to attempt. Texas rolled out in what looks Cover-2 coverage where the outside linebackers are carrying the vertical threats up the seam to high-low them with the safety on their side of the field. In all reality, this is good coverage. The safety near the left hash is holding outside leverage and the linebacker is playing just under and inside of the receiver. The window for this throw is virtually nonexistent.

Instead of backing down to the coverage, Kizer trusted his ability and fired away. The ball was rifled into the receiver’s mitts, both away from the safety on the left hash and above the linebacker underneath the receiver. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, the far safety read this play well and was able to fly over to hit the receiver as he was coming down, ultimately forcing the ball out of his possession for an incompletion. Regardless of the result, Kizer made a special throw to try to give his team the lead.

Of course, Kizer can beat more than just two deep coverages in the red zone. Duke attempted to slow down Kizer’s red zone triumphs by employing a Cover-3 look that was heavily shaded to the short side of the field. To no surprise, Kizer found a way to beat it.

Duke heavily shaded their coverage to the trey (trips with a tight end) side of the formation. With so many defenders to that side of the field, it would take a massive blunder for someone to come open on that side, assuming the defense doesn’t blitz from that side. Kizer is then left with essentially 1-on-1 coverage to the far side of the field.

To make sure credit is given where credit is due, the receiver runs one hell of a route on this play. The way he helped sell the inside slant was perfect and gave credence to Kizer’s pump fake. With Kizer and his receiver coming together to sell the inside slant, the task then becomes fitting the ball somewhere between the defender and the far boundary. Luckily for the Fighting Irish, they had one of the only quarterbacks in the country who could hit this throw–if not the only one.

Not unlike the other examples above, there is no margin for error on this throw. The timing, velocity and placement has to be perfect. Also like the examples above, the sheer confidence that Kizer possesses to believe he can make this throw is mesmerizing. He knows that is going to be a daunting throw, but he wastes no time in going for it.

As the cherry on top of Kizer’s red zone ability, he is a legitimate running threat. Notre Dame often used him as an integrated part of their run game, whether it be speed options, read options, or quarterback power.

Here’s a shot of Notre Dame’s speed option. Kizer measures in at 6’4″, 233 pounds and has enough speed to force defenses to account for him. On this play, Kizer shows his ability to stick hit foot in the ground and get up the field once he decides that he isn’t going to flip the ball to the running back. Once Kizer has his path to the end zone, he wiggles through the traffic and marches into the end zone for a touchdown.

Notre Dame scored plenty of touchdowns over Kizer’s two years as the starter through concepts like this one. Kizer is good at initially reading the key defender, then making himself a lethal runner, if that was the best option for a given play.

DeShone Kizer is a menace in the red zone. He has the intelligence, confidence, arm talent and rushing ability to be a multi-faceted red zone quarterback. No matter the coverage or defensive front, Kizer has proven that he can find a way to get his team into the end zone. Kizer’s maturity and multiplicity in the red zone will give him a great advantage in the NFL, both as a rookie and as he grows into his own as a veteran. There are a bevy of reasons to buy into Kizer as a top prospect, but his best selling point just might be his proficiency in the red zone.

John DeFillipo and What Could Be

NFL coaching staffs are constantly changing. Struggling offenses often dismiss their offensive coordinator at the end of the season, while offenses that overachieve lose their offensive coordinator to a better team. The Cleveland Browns lost Kyle Shanahan to the Atlanta Falcons this past off-season, and he left huge shoes to fill. As daunting of a task it was to replace one of the best offensive minds in football, the Browns front office did about as well as they could have with their new offensive coordinator, John DeFillipo. 

Flip! If nothing else, DeFillipo has the best nickname of any coordinator in the league. Having a fun nickname is not what has earned Flip his keep, though. Flip is one of the smartest, creative passing game masterminds around. Cleveland’s rushing attack/approach has not been quite as good as it was under Shanahan, but considering Flip’s focus is quarterbacks (formerly Oakland’s QB coach) and Shanahan is a rushing mastermind because of his father Mike, it is no surprise that Flip has not quite been able to live up to Shanahan’s rushing prowess. Flip has made a name for himself through the air, however.

Prior to being scooped by the Browns, DeFillipo worked with the Raiders as their quarterback coach. In both the 2013 and 2014 season, Flip’s effect on the quarterback was evident. 2013 is not quite the same success story as 2014, but what Flip got out of Matt McGloin in 2013 was unexpected. More than anything, Flip got McGloin to believe he was good. Getting production can be as simple as that. Of course, McGloin was no world beater and was rightfully replaced, but the fact that Flip got McGloin to not think and just throw the route was a feat.

A year later, the Raiders gifted DeFillipo with a young, moldable quarterback in Derek Carr (who, ironically, was the preferred quarterback prospect of Shanahan). While at Fresno State, Carr had developed bad habits in pocket movement and reaction to pressure because of the nature of Dave Schramm’s protection calls in his putrid offense. These deficiencies reared their head throughout Carr’s rookie season, but to a much lesser extent than they should have. Carr had finally begun to look comfortable sitting in the pocket, which was a rarity at Fresno State. Carr’s comfort became confidence and so on and so forth, and ,though Flip is no longer in Oakland, he left a lasting effect on Carr that has helped him become one of the best young passers there is.

Now, in Cleveland, Flip has continued to help his quarterbacks immensely, but this time with a much larger tool. With control of the play calls and play designs added to his knack for inspiring confidence in his passers, DeFillipo was the perfect target for Cleveland, who drafted a project of a quarterback in Johnny OVO two years ago. What is interesting is that despite DeFillipo’s lack of experience and the frightening task of harnessing Manziel, Cleveland’s front office still put their faith in Flip. Cleveland is the first team that Flip has coordinated for at any level, though that would be tough to guess based on the success of the offense thus far. Josh McCown has been the starting quarterback in Cleveland this year and has been able to be not-terrible, which is accomplishment enough for any recyclable quarterback. Much of his success is rooted in Flip’s passing concepts, as well has Flip’s ability to coax quarterbacks into taking aggressive shots.

Some of Flip’s concepts are fully dependent on McCown throwing with confidence. In essence, there are a handful of plays that Flip has that are telling McCown, “Trust me, the throw is there. Just make it.” These plays almost always feature Travis Benjamin or Gary Barnidge, both of whom have stepped up this season as key targets. Also, these plays are predominantly deep out breaking concepts, like “Smash” variations or “Corner” throws. Any lack of urgency in these throws and it is an easy incompletion, but because Flip has done a damn good job at timing these play calls and has gotten McCown to buy into his concepts, these tough throws work for the Browns- or at least they should, but McCown can not be counted on to throw accurately.

Here is an example of both Flip creating a simple read/throw for his quarterback and said quarterback then not giving the receiver a chance at the ball.

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The pre-snap motion- a major staple of Flip’s offense, especially with tight ends and fullbacks- clues McCown in on whether or not the defense is playing man coverage. The New York Jets defender follows the motioned receiver on this play, indicating man coverage. With one defender on the play side being ran to the middle of the field and another being ran to the boundary, Barnidge’s deep corner route is a mano-y-mano situation. McCown then proceeded to do little to let Barnidge at the ball, albeit good coverage. Still, DeFillipo pulled his weight on this play, just as he always does.

DeFillipo’s call sequencing/timing and awareness of the opposing defense is outstanding, and that may even be why McCown has bought in so religiously. Flip walks into every stadium with a sound game plan, only to be bolstered by the adjustments he makes as the game ebbs and flows. Weaknesses are attacked often; seldom does DeFillipo over complicate a play call in an effort to look smarter than everyone else (looking at you, Todd Haley). Cleveland’s narrow loss to the San Diego Chargers exemplifies Flip’s ability to work on the fly and keep a defense on their toes.

San Diego has two major defensive weaknesses through the air: their inside linebackers and the infamous Steve Williams. San Diego’s linebackers are neither smart nor particularly athletic, so there is a lot to be taken advantage of. Flip’s favorite way to attack the linebackers was to clear the middle of the field with seam routes to Barnidge or full on “four verticals” concepts. The Chargers linebackers continued to flow down field with the deep threats, opening up the underneath for delayed passes to the running back. These plays end up looking like an elongated high-low concept, and that makes perfect sense as Flip also used more common high-low route combinations. For example, this Drive/Dig combination can catch stubborn linebackers off guard.

Flip Drive-Dig

The circled linebacker is the focal point of this play. The linebacker may peek over and see that the two outer receivers in the trips formations took steps down the field first, meaning they could be getting deep, so the linebacker must too. On the other hand, the linebacker could see the underneath route and jump on it immediately. Against linebackers who were not smart enough to quickly recognize the high-low and not athletic enough to recover from their mental mistake, Flip allowed his quarterback to thrive.

Flip also gave McCown plenty of opportunities to pick on- you guessed it- Steve Williams. The way in which he attacked Williams was a testament to him knowing when to move on from one strategy to another. Namely, Flip called for a lot of plays that stressed Williams, especially when in San Diego territory. There would be stretches where DeFillipo would attack him a couple times in a row, then focus the attack elsewhere in order to not get his offense exposed. Flip gets all he can out of moments of defensive weakness, but is not too stubborn to move on and chip away at a separate weakness.

Though, the best offensive minds force weakness into the defense. On top of using heavy doses of motion, mostly with tight ends and fullbacks, DeFillipo does a good job of cycling the defense out of position. High/lows and wheel routes (undefeated) are the best way to do this- and you bet Flip knows it.

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This play forces a lot of rotation from the defense. Underneath defenders flow to their rights while the defensive backs all move to their lefts. Had the intended target not slipped and fouled up his timing with the catch point, this would have been complete. What makes this particular play work is the tight end’s “in/hitch” route. Lining up the tight end to move him from the right side of the field to the left forces the inside linebacker to the right side of the field to hold his coverage. If the linebacker vacates too early, the tight can stop his route and make the catch there. Conversely, playing the shallow route with too much patience will lead to a crease in the defense for the “dig” route to be complete.

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Wheel routes are undefeated, especially when aided by misdirection. The naked bootleg to the right side indicates that the throw is almost certainly going to the right side of the field, so the defense played the odds. The Ravens lost their bet big time as Barnidge was able to slip by the defense by disguising himself as a pursuing blocker. Barnidge broke into open field, turned around for the easy reception and, just like that, put the Browns in scoring position.

DeFillipo controls the skies. He has a gift for exposing defenses and getting his passers to buy into the offense. The same sentiment can not be expressed about his handling of the run game, though. That is not to say Flip’s rushing attack has been a total flop, but DeFillipo is leaving yards to be desired, even if the base of his rushing attack is sound.

“Power” and “counter” concepts are the heart of Flip’s ground attack. Theoretically, this is similar to a lot of successful rushing teams right now, but Cleveland personnel is struggling to hold up. Power/counter plays require a kick-out man, who is more than likely a fullback or a tight end. Nobody in this player group can block adequately. They are pushed back into the backfield more often than they seal off the rushing lane. Granted, expecting a fullback or tight end to be like a 6th offensive lineman is absurd, but they should be able to provide a healthy constant of sealing off linebackers. Cleveland’s do not, and their starting tight end is the worst of them all.

Though, Flip does not get a laundry list of excuses. A good deal of the blame can be thrust upon him. As a young offensive coordinator, DeFillipo has yet to hone his craft as a coordinator of the rushing attack. Often, this means making minor adjustments based on the opponent to better the chances of the unit holding their ground. Flip has been able to show this level of aptitude with his aerial attack, though he does not have a strong identity as a creator for his running backs, largely because some of his blocking schemes fail to create defined rushing lanes, instead looking like a mosh pit of one 300 pound man trying to out-muscle the other.

DeFeillipo’s coordination of the rushing attack is a bit of a clunky mess right now, and that is probably to be expected of a first year coordinator who has exclusively worked with quarterbacks throughout his career. As his career as a coordinator progresses, his understanding and manipulation of the rushing attack will become increasingly evident. Flip’s passing approach, however, is one of the best in the business and he has already done more with Cleveland’s quarterbacks than was to be expected of them.

2015 is not John DeFillipo’s year to shine. Hell, 2016 probably won’t be his breakout year either because the Cleveland offense seems to be a piece or two away. DeFillipo appears to be more of an investment in the future than an immediate powerhouse of a coordinator like Shanahan was.  With as brilliant as his passing concepts and play calling have been at just 37 years old, DeFillipo is one of the best budding minds in the league. Flip’s time to shine has yet to come, but Cleveland has a young mind primed to be a renowned presence in this league.

All-22 Shootouts: Tyrod Taylor vs Ryan Tannehill (Week 3)

Just a few months ago, anyone who suggested that Tyrod Taylor may be a better quarterback than Ryan Tannehill would have gotten laughed at. Now, as a whole, Tannehill is still the much better choice, but to suggest that Taylor has been better this year, especially last week, has merit. 

Neither the Bills or Dolphins offensive coordinator is particularly wonderful, though Buffalo’s Greg Roman has gotten off to a much hotter start than Miami’s Bill Lazor. Roman has done well creating passing lanes for Taylor and maximizing his full skill set, and that showed versus Miami. On the opposite sideline, Lazor did not do much to manufacture space for Tannehill to throw to. Coordinating aside, the passers themselves played an equal factor in this blow out.

Taylor has risen above his expectations for the season, thus far. He has thrived in this offense, taking advantage of what the defense gives him to do so. Taylor has been asked to move from the pocket a lot, whether it be some sort of option play or a play action roll out. This is the best way to maximize Taylor. He has the speed; taking advantage of Tyrod’s athleticism to force defenses to account for him creates extra space in coverage.

As much as Taylor’s athletic ability opens things up, some of Roman’s play designs create plenty of room on their own. So long as Taylor recognizes the defense, the pass can typically turn into an easy completion.

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Take this red zone play, for example. Taylor motions his receiver from right to left and the defensive back follows, indicating man coverage (Buffalo used shifts often to try to expose the coverage). The already moving receiver shoots out to the flat at the snap of the ball while the tight end on that side of the formation runs a sort of corner route to cut off the defensive back chasing the motioned receiver. This downfield “rub” forces the defensive back to take an adjustment step or two, giving just enough space for the motioned receiver to pick up a solid gain.

Plays like this, as well as crossing routes, were staples of Roman’s offense against Miami. Many of these plays required some sort of play action to catch the defense slipping. Due to the success of the Bills rushing attack, Miami’s linebackers were constantly cheating up to play the run. With Miami giving Taylor the space he needed to work the field, he was able to pick apart the Miami defense.

Roman and Taylor picked on Miami’s linebackers all day. Short outs, crossing routes, shoots out of the backfield- you name it, Buffalo was calling it to abuse Miami’s linebackers. The most glaring example of linebacker manipulation came in the second quarter.

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Here, the Bills ran double tight end crossing routes- the cornerstone to everyone’s offense in Madden 07. Miami’s right linebacker doesn’t realize that it is a double cross, so he stays under the tight end crossing from left to right. The tight end crossing from right to left gets a free run over the middle of the field. What’s concerning from Taylor is that this play was executed marvelously by everyone but him. Taylor needs to fire this ball as soon as he sees the right linebacker move to the left. Getting this ball out quickly to the tight end would have given him plenty of room to run with only one immediate defender to beat. Alas, Taylor is still susceptible to shooting himself in the foot, even with his other developments.

Tannehill played in complete opposite fashion of Taylor. Throughout the game, Tannehill threw the ball with precision all over the field, but some of his decisions were questionable. Contrary to his normal style of play, Tannehill forced the ball down field a lot versus Buffalo. While this should typically be encouraged, Tannehill was forcing these throws into coverage and was intercepted on one of such attempts. That particular play seemed to be more of a miscommunication than a patently poor decision, to be fair. Nonetheless, Tannehill was far more reckless than usual on throws beyond 15 yards. Despite the over-zealousness, Tannehill threw with efficiency for most of the game.

Ten yard outs/hooks and crossing routes of all depths were Tannehill’s go-to in trying to dice Buffalo’s defense. Overall, Tannehill lead his receivers for extra yards and put the ball where only his men could get, if necessary. His best throw of the night, a touchdown to Rishard Matthews, was a crossing route placed with perfection around defenders.

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Although, Tannehill’s accuracy was almost a shame because of his struggles with getting the ball out. Tannehill was holding the ball too long, not to mention he was doing so against one of the best defensive fronts in football. By the time he decided to throw, a defender would be in his face to shut down the play, one way or another.

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The unnecessary pause in releasing this ball allows the edge defender to notice that Tannehill is throwing the ball that way, stop and swat the ball away. Had Tannehill gotten to the top of his drop and snapped out of it to complete the throw, Miami almost certainly moves up the field on this play. Tannehill could have even turned to the crosser underneath for a much easier throw, though he did not do that either.

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Again, Tannehill does not throw the short crosser. Tannehill had plenty of room to make a quick throw, but he opts to drop his eyes and sprint away from the oncoming defender. With none of the routes being on the side that Tannehill bailed out to, the play was wasted, whereas it could have gone for at least a short gain.

The two quarterbacks played vastly different on their Sunday matchup. One, Taylor, executed his offense well despite accuracy some troubles with getting the ball where it needed to be, while Tannehill made a handful of poor decisions but threw exceptionally well when he made the correct decision. At the end of the fourth quarter, it was Taylor’s style of taking what the defense gives up that prevailed and put up a stunning 41 points. Tannehill is typically more impressive than this and Taylor may not be able to sustain this quality of play, but it is tough to argue that Taylor was not the better quarterback last weekend.

Jameis Winston: #Smart

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This off-tackle run had the potential to go for a big gain, thanks to Jameis Winston.

Notice at the beginning of the GIF, New Orleans has a defender crashing the edge outside of the second tight end. If the tight end stays on the line, the defender has the advantage at the point of impact because it is a compacted area and, generally, if a defender has a few steps to gain momentum like that, he can set the edge. Seeing this disadvantage, Winston removes the outer tight end from the line of scrimmage, tipping the space advantage in the tight ends favor as he would then have plenty of room to set up his engage.

To no surprise, the defender adjusts accordingly and steps back, theoretically giving himself enough room to beat the block in a different way. What this is really doing is clearing out the space between the two tight ends, giving the running back a clear lane. On paper, this adjustment would have lead to a huge gain. Instead, the inner tight end gets blown off of his block and the right tackle fails to get to the second level quickly enough to pick up the linebacker.

No matter what adjustment Winston had made, this play was doomed because of the talent that Tampa Bay sports up front, but this adjustment on a good team leads to a big gain. Winston, in just his second NFL regular season game, made a critical adjustment that he knew *should* have opened up the play.

Winston is a special player. He is going to be really good for a really long time because of this level of mental processing.