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Mastering the checkdown


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http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/story/13506006/mastering-checkdowns-supercharging-passing-games

The check-down pass in the NFL was once considered nothing more than a safe play used as a last resort to help a quarterback avoid pressure and maybe keep him off the ground.

That play might have gained 5 to 8 yards, keeping a drive alive or setting up a short-yardage situation on the next down, but more importantly it kept the quarterback upright.

These days, it's much more than that. The check-down pass has become a weapon.

Drew Brees helped lead the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory last season in large part because of his ability to turn those safe, check-down passes into so many big plays.

Close your eyes for a second. You can visualize Brees scanning the field, looking left, looking right, looking deep and then short, dumping a pass to Reggie Bush or Pierre Thomas, their speed turning what looks like a 5-yard gain into a 15-yard gain -- or more.

"I think with any good passing game it's a must," Saints coach Sean Payton said.

With the emergence of spread offenses in the NFL, including teams using more three- and four-receiver sets on early downs to put pressure on defenses across the field, offensive coaches are seeing more and more chances to make the check-down a weapon.

"Chunk yards in the passing game can be a 6-yard check-down that turns into [a] huge gain," Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We talk a lot about our quarterbacks throwing check-downs to locations. If the pass is accurate, it can turn the little play into a big one."

It's much more than just calling a play for the ball to be thrown to the back as the No. 1 option. For check-down plays to succeed, it has to be one of the last reads for the quarterback. It can't just be having the quarterback look to the first read and then throw the check-down. That's what young and not-so-good quarterbacks do. They play scared, with the check-down as their security blanket.

What the good ones do is scan the field first, looking for a big play elsewhere, before settling for the check-down. It might be the fourth read on a play, which is why it can be so effective.

That can mean the back is either in one-on-one coverage or he's moving to a vacant spot in the zone, ready to run away from traffic.

Brees and the Saints excel at it. So much so that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan spent part of this offseason studying Brees and his ability to get big plays from the check-downs.

"He's as good as it gets throwing those passes," Ryan said. "It's such a big part of their offense. I wanted to see how he does so well. I noticed how accurate he is with the passes."

When Ryan came into the league as a rookie, he had a long talk with longtime NFL quarterback Rich Gannon about a variety of topics. During that talk, Gannon told him how important the check-down pass -- and the accuracy associated with it -- would be during his NFL career.

Ryan said he winced at that thought.

"The more I think about it now, it was brilliant," Ryan said. "He was right on."

If Peyton Manning is the master of the pre-snap theatrics, Brees can stake claim to being the best at throwing check-down passes. His ability to fire pinpoint passes, hitting Bush and the other backs on the run, is a big reason the Saints have finished in the top five in passing in each of Brees' four seasons with the team, twice finishing first.

The backs have been a big part of that. In 2006, Bush had 88 catches, then 73 in 2007. Injuries limited him the past two seasons to 17 starts, but he still had 52 and 47 catches. Thomas, the Saints' primary runner last season, had 39 catches in 2009.

But the key stat is this: They were one of only three teams to have two backs in the top 30 in the league with receptions that had yards after catch (YAC) of 11-20 yards. The other two were the Vikings and Patriots, who also happened to be quarterbacked by two good ones.

That means the two Saints backs turned a lot of short passes into big plays. Thomas had 11 catches with 11-20 YAC yards, while Bush had nine. That means 16.6 percent of their catches went for 11-20 yards after the catch.

"There's so much at work there," Brees said. "It's not just as simple as checking it down to a guy. First of all, you have to have players that can make something happen when they have the ball in their hands. You know, make a guy miss, set the speed, take it the distance or make a big play.

"But to create those opportunities for those guys underneath, you've got to have guys who can stretch a field that defenses are concerned about. Then there's just the level of patience on my part just to know that we don't have to force those things down the field."

One of the hidden keys of the check-down play is throwing accuracy. It has to be at the right spot, hitting the back on the run. If a back has to hesitate, the play might be stopped for a short gain. If he catches it on the run, it could be a touchdown.

It would seem to be one of the easiest throws. It is not.

"You're throwing to a guy in traffic who doesn't catch the ball for a living like a receiver," Ryan said. "That makes it tough. You have to hit them at the right time to make it an explosive play. You hit them on the run when they're running away from a defender or where they can turn away from the defender, make somebody miss, and then they have nobody within 25 yards. The accuracy of the throw is huge."

That's why Ryan studied Brees so intensely. He excels at hitting backs on the run in the right spot.

"Sometimes the underneath throws are the toughest," Brees said. "Your vision with all of those bodies in front of your face and trying to find throwing lanes and be accurate with the football ... can be difficult. There's a lot of things at work there, but that takes guys who can catch it underneath and secure the ball and then make a guy miss to make a big play."

As more and more teams spread the field, the check-down will be even more important.

"That's one thing I noticed more last season," Sparano said. "There was a lot more open area in the middle of the field. That makes the check-down even more important. Then what happens is they start playing the check-down and you can hit plays over the top in the area behind them. That's when you have the really big plays."

Edited by DaMeatTrough
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Good article. The key is that it's the 3rd or 4th option.

If you imagine 40% of your throws are incompletions, and at least 1/2 of those are throws that you don't have a guy open, and you're just throwing it out there, that leaves a lot of room for improvement.

If Ryan can take 10-15% of his throws and drop them down to Norwood, Snelling, etc., instead of incompletions, that quickly changes the stats to 65-70% completion percentage and 8 ypa.

It also opens up the deep passes. Far too often, last year, we saw if the deep crossing patterns weren't open, Ryan just had to throw it away. A 10 yard completion there to a back will keep everyone honest.

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Awesome post. Hopefully Matt will learn from this and not have to throw so many away.

I saw someone say that Dallas abused our Oline last year, well a few screen passes or checkdowns would've turned that game right around. glad to see Matt studying Brees and including the RBs more into the passing game will see Matt throwing fewer passes away and increase his pass %

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3rd or 4th option? Our first option is Roddy White and our second option is Tony Gonzalez. Here's where it gets tricky. Jenkins has been our 3rd leading receiver after Gonzo and White. If Harry Douglas is completely healthy, he is a bigger homerun threat for a 3rd option.

So if Douglas moves up to the third option, and we put our backs as the 4th option, where does that leave Jenkins? That would put Jenkins in the Marty Booker role from last season...

It's a good problem to have, I'm just saying, I wonder where Jenkins is going to be in that selection process.

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I think most people would assume Jerious Norwood would be perfect for this facet of our offense, but I'd like to see it go to Jason Snelling. The guy has incredibly soft hands for a big guy, enough wiggle to make a guy miss, and the power to plow over someone.

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I think most people would assume Jerious Norwood would be perfect for this facet of our offense, but I'd like to see it go to Jason Snelling. The guy has incredibly soft hands for a big guy, enough wiggle to make a guy miss, and the power to plow over someone.

Since it's best used as a 4th option, we need it regardless of personnel. We can't predict which plays Roddy/Tony/Douglas/Jenkins are going to be covered up, so we need the option there on all passing plays. The real key is going to be getting Michael Turner good at catching passes out of the backfield. He takes the majority of snaps so we need him to be able to fill this requirement of our passing game.

Before anybody gets all sensitive and starts defending Turner, keep in mind he's never caught more than 6 passes in an entire season. He's by far our best RB between the tackles and around the edge, but he's not flawless.

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Since it's best used as a 4th option, we need it regardless of personnel. We can't predict which plays Roddy/Tony/Douglas/Jenkins are going to be covered up, so we need the option there on all passing plays. The real key is going to be getting Michael Turner good at catching passes out of the backfield. He takes the majority of snaps so we need him to be able to fill this requirement of our passing game.

Before anybody gets all sensitive and starts defending Turner, keep in mind he's never caught more than 6 passes in an entire season. He's by far our best RB between the tackles and around the edge, but he's not flawless.

I agree about Turner, that's why I said I'd like to see Snelling get those plays. That's the beauty of it: while Snelling isn't as good as Turner at running the ball, he has the same style. That means we can use him in the same formations without giving the play away to the other team. That opens up the passing game even more while he is in the game. I think the key is to get Snelling a few more touches rushing the ball, unless Norwood can show that he is capable of carrying even half the load.

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http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/story/13506006/mastering-checkdowns-supercharging-passing-games

The check-down pass in the NFL was once considered nothing more than a safe play used as a last resort to help a quarterback avoid pressure and maybe keep him off the ground.

That play might have gained 5 to 8 yards, keeping a drive alive or setting up a short-yardage situation on the next down, but more importantly it kept the quarterback upright.

These days, it's much more than that. The check-down pass has become a weapon.

Drew Brees helped lead the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl victory last season in large part because of his ability to turn those safe, check-down passes into so many big plays.

Close your eyes for a second. You can visualize Brees scanning the field, looking left, looking right, looking deep and then short, dumping a pass to Reggie Bush or Pierre Thomas, their speed turning what looks like a 5-yard gain into a 15-yard gain -- or more.

"I think with any good passing game it's a must," Saints coach Sean Payton said.

With the emergence of spread offenses in the NFL, including teams using more three- and four-receiver sets on early downs to put pressure on defenses across the field, offensive coaches are seeing more and more chances to make the check-down a weapon.

"Chunk yards in the passing game can be a 6-yard check-down that turns into [a] huge gain," Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We talk a lot about our quarterbacks throwing check-downs to locations. If the pass is accurate, it can turn the little play into a big one."

It's much more than just calling a play for the ball to be thrown to the back as the No. 1 option. For check-down plays to succeed, it has to be one of the last reads for the quarterback. It can't just be having the quarterback look to the first read and then throw the check-down. That's what young and not-so-good quarterbacks do. They play scared, with the check-down as their security blanket.

What the good ones do is scan the field first, looking for a big play elsewhere, before settling for the check-down. It might be the fourth read on a play, which is why it can be so effective.

That can mean the back is either in one-on-one coverage or he's moving to a vacant spot in the zone, ready to run away from traffic.

Brees and the Saints excel at it. So much so that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan spent part of this offseason studying Brees and his ability to get big plays from the check-downs.

"He's as good as it gets throwing those passes," Ryan said. "It's such a big part of their offense. I wanted to see how he does so well. I noticed how accurate he is with the passes."

When Ryan came into the league as a rookie, he had a long talk with longtime NFL quarterback Rich Gannon about a variety of topics. During that talk, Gannon told him how important the check-down pass -- and the accuracy associated with it -- would be during his NFL career.

Ryan said he winced at that thought.

"The more I think about it now, it was brilliant," Ryan said. "He was right on."

If Peyton Manning is the master of the pre-snap theatrics, Brees can stake claim to being the best at throwing check-down passes. His ability to fire pinpoint passes, hitting Bush and the other backs on the run, is a big reason the Saints have finished in the top five in passing in each of Brees' four seasons with the team, twice finishing first.

The backs have been a big part of that. In 2006, Bush had 88 catches, then 73 in 2007. Injuries limited him the past two seasons to 17 starts, but he still had 52 and 47 catches. Thomas, the Saints' primary runner last season, had 39 catches in 2009.

But the key stat is this: They were one of only three teams to have two backs in the top 30 in the league with receptions that had yards after catch (YAC) of 11-20 yards. The other two were the Vikings and Patriots, who also happened to be quarterbacked by two good ones.

That means the two Saints backs turned a lot of short passes into big plays. Thomas had 11 catches with 11-20 YAC yards, while Bush had nine. That means 16.6 percent of their catches went for 11-20 yards after the catch.

"There's so much at work there," Brees said. "It's not just as simple as checking it down to a guy. First of all, you have to have players that can make something happen when they have the ball in their hands. You know, make a guy miss, set the speed, take it the distance or make a big play.

"But to create those opportunities for those guys underneath, you've got to have guys who can stretch a field that defenses are concerned about. Then there's just the level of patience on my part just to know that we don't have to force those things down the field."

One of the hidden keys of the check-down play is throwing accuracy. It has to be at the right spot, hitting the back on the run. If a back has to hesitate, the play might be stopped for a short gain. If he catches it on the run, it could be a touchdown.

It would seem to be one of the easiest throws. It is not.

"You're throwing to a guy in traffic who doesn't catch the ball for a living like a receiver," Ryan said. "That makes it tough. You have to hit them at the right time to make it an explosive play. You hit them on the run when they're running away from a defender or where they can turn away from the defender, make somebody miss, and then they have nobody within 25 yards. The accuracy of the throw is huge."

That's why Ryan studied Brees so intensely. He excels at hitting backs on the run in the right spot.

"Sometimes the underneath throws are the toughest," Brees said. "Your vision with all of those bodies in front of your face and trying to find throwing lanes and be accurate with the football ... can be difficult. There's a lot of things at work there, but that takes guys who can catch it underneath and secure the ball and then make a guy miss to make a big play."

As more and more teams spread the field, the check-down will be even more important.

"That's one thing I noticed more last season," Sparano said. "There was a lot more open area in the middle of the field. That makes the check-down even more important. Then what happens is they start playing the check-down and you can hit plays over the top in the area behind them. That's when you have the really big plays."

good article

I agree about Turner, that's why I said I'd like to see Snelling get those plays. That's the beauty of it: while Snelling isn't as good as Turner at running the ball, he has the same style. That means we can use him in the same formations without giving the play away to the other team. That opens up the passing game even more while he is in the game. I think the key is to get Snelling a few more touches rushing the ball, unless Norwood can show that he is capable of carrying even half the load.

+2

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Getting Norwood and Douglas fully healthy + back this year will make our passing attack just that more explosive. Ok, Snelling is probably a decent recipent for the checkdown but he's got nothing on Norwood or Douglas. Remember the Jets game when Norwood took a little 4-yard pass and burned the Jets for 38 yards? More of that would be awesome.

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i can't imagine how focusing on checkdowns is such a wonderful thing. i'm shocked at some of you people, it's like you've already forgotten the joey harrington days.

i understand the importance of it, but Ryan checked down a lot more last year than his rookie year, and it didn't do much for us. we either have to have better designed plays or switch up the personnel packages a bit. i want Ryan going down the field more, he did that a lot less last year than his rookie year, and if he does that and works on the touch passes for the checkdowns when he doesn't have anybody open downfield, our offense will be more complete. i just kind of dislike the idea of it becoming a focal point and him getting too anxious to make the 'safe' play by checking down.

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Since it's best used as a 4th option, we need it regardless of personnel. We can't predict which plays Roddy/Tony/Douglas/Jenkins are going to be covered up, so we need the option there on all passing plays. The real key is going to be getting Michael Turner good at catching passes out of the backfield. He takes the majority of snaps so we need him to be able to fill this requirement of our passing game.

Before anybody gets all sensitive and starts defending Turner, keep in mind he's never caught more than 6 passes in an entire season. He's by far our best RB between the tackles and around the edge, but he's not flawless.

Couldn't have said it better. I can promise you that Turner is never ever looked at as a receiving threat. Snelling is way better as a pass catcher, but for this "check down" thing to be really effective, Turner is going to have to start catching more balls out of the backfield. Atleast 1-2 passes every game or so.

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i can't imagine how focusing on checkdowns is such a wonderful thing. i'm shocked at some of you people, it's like you've already forgotten the joey harrington days.

i understand the importance of it, but Ryan checked down a lot more last year than his rookie year, and it didn't do much for us. we either have to have better designed plays or switch up the personnel packages a bit. i want Ryan going down the field more, he did that a lot less last year than his rookie year, and if he does that and works on the touch passes for the checkdowns when he doesn't have anybody open downfield, our offense will be more complete. i just kind of dislike the idea of it becoming a focal point and him getting too anxious to make the 'safe' play by checking down.

There is a difference between checking down and short passes.

How many times last year did you see him stand in the pocket, look down field, and then hit at RB in the flats? Not often.

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Here is Brees studying options early on in his career...

3763722226_c2b7b5f34d.jpg

No way. That guy looks waaay taller than Brees. ;)

@Desert_Falcon: I dont think they are focusing on the checkdown with respect to changing

the offense to a greater or lesser degree, more of Ryan and the Coaches focusing on 'improving'

at the checkdown pass. I added in coaches because last year we ran a lot of plays where there

was no checkdown option; Maximum protection with one WR and TE. With Douglas returning and a

healthy Norwood these type of "checkdowns" could result in huge gains. Another sign our offense

is ready to open it up a little more.

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