Everyone sees the quarterback before the snap, that's where the general viewers’ eyeballs go on any given down. They see him pointing at linebackers and safeties. Tapping his helmet and shouting out at wide receivers. He's reorganizing the running backs, shifting their sides and even tapping linemen to alert them to changes.
But what's he doing? Like, really, what is that guy doing?
The easy answer is, a lot.
Depending upon systems and the quarterbacks experience in the system, the pre-snap decisions are the first step to whether or not an offense sinks or swims on a given play.
Although there is plenty of variance from system to system, coordinator to coordinator as well as quarterback's experience and comfort levels, we'll look at some of the more basic pre-snap identifiers that help make teams successful.
We'll start inside the box, with counting. You walk up to the line or line up in the shotgun and quarterbacks have to count. They count the amount of defenders in the box. They count the number of defenders on either side of the ball. They count how many guys are on the line versus lined up off. They count potential pressure threats.
Counting is the first step in figuring out where your team has an advantage, or a disadvantage. If the defense has seven or eight players in the box, that means only four or three players in dedicated coverage looks; the offense might want to check out of the run. If the defense only has five defenders in the box, quarterbacks should look to run into that space.
The same goes for playing sides. If the defense has overloaded the playside, or strong side of the formation, checking to a weakside run can work in a big way. In a pass situation, sliding the protection to the overload side will help the line focus on the more immediate threats.
And, by counting and identifying (of ID-ing) possible pressure threats, quarterbacks help their offensive linemen and running backs know who to look out for on the blitz.
So, your quarterback has got the inside the box reads counted out, huh? He's good to go, right?
Wrong. He's got to take a look at what the guys on the edge are doing as well. That means checking for one-high versus two-high safeties, nickel or dime packages versus base personnel, hints at the coverage being played by the corners and other wide defenders, and looking for pressures from depth.
ID-ing one-high versus two-high safeties seems to be kid's stuff, until you realize just how hard defenses work to maintain a two-high safety shell, regardless of the actual coverage being played. As players get better, the ability to disguise the defense improves and thus, quarterbacks are continually assessing and re-assessing the safeties to figure out if they have a one or two look.
One-high safety helps tell you that the defense has just one guy playing the deep middle. They might be playing man-free or a three-deep zone, but the point here is that the middle is not exactly open because one guy is sitting right there.
Offenses are built to look for mismatches and nowhere is there a better chance of finding mismatches than on inside receivers, when teams fail to get their pass defense packages into games. If a defense doesn't get their nickel and dime people in the game, that means they have linebackers split out covering slot guys and of course the H-back type players.
When quarterbacks find these type of mismatches they exploit them, but, your QB can only see these gross defensive miscalculations by looking for them pre-snap. So, add that to his plate before the play ever starts.
After doing those things, the quarterback gets to the edge guys, the cornerbacks. Are they playing off? Are they up in press? Are they aligned inside or outside? Do we have a real mismatch where my receiver can win the one-on-one battle outright before his help gets there? Those are all things the quarterback must assess in order to determine whether it is zone or man and where he may have an advantage to use against the defense.
Last, but not least in this equation, the quarterback is again looking for threats of pressure. Safeties coming up to blitz inside or outside, nickel guys looking to loop inside or come off the edge or corners coming from the boundary to get to him. Secondary pressures are rarer than linebacker pressures, but they are also not usually picked up as well and can end in devastating fashion.
If a quarterback, with the help of his wide receivers, can identify a pressure from depth before the snap, the chances that pressure succeeds are slim to none. The quarterback can slide the protection to thwart the blitz or he can hit his hot read in the void before the replacement defender inserts himself.
Really good quarterbacks get through all of these reads, no problem, and understand what they all mean, even as the picture the defense has painted shifts up until the snap of the ball. Guys with less experience or less understanding miss little things or misinterpret what the defense is trying to do to them, hence some of the mental mistakes that lock a quarterback into bad decisions. Other players get to look at the reads, but because of inexperience or lack of trust from the coordinator, they are not allowed to alter the play call much, if at all.
It is an evolving picture as defenses and offenses get more advanced and each side tries to out-think the other in what has become a perpetual game of cat and mouse. The offense comes out in one look, defense adjusts, and the quarterback shifts the offense into something that can counteract defense's move for a big play. Defense bounces back with an automatic pressure to stop offense's adjustment and the cycle continues throughout the game.
For the quarterback, the work done before the snap is, at least at times, more important than what happens after the ball is put into play. Great pre-snap reads will set a guy up to hit the defense where it hurts and put his line and skill guys in a position to be successful. Bad reads can ground a great play call before it ever leaves the hangar.