Ranking the Most Under-the-Radar Skills in the NFL

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJune 18, 2013

Ranking the Most Under-the-Radar Skills in the NFL

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    J.J. Watt made one of the NFL's most under-the-radar skills more relevant in 2012. His aptitude for batting down passes was a major boon to the Houston Texans' defense. 

    It is a trend to see other under-the-radar skills creeping above the line and into relevance. Blitz pickup, particularly by running backs, is quickly becoming an essential quality at the position.

    The same is true of blocking by wide receivers. Once considered a luxury, this skill at the position is vital in certain prevalent rushing schemes.

    Here are the most important under-the-radar skills in the NFL.

1. Blitz Pickup

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    The blitz is the most prominent weapon defenses rely on to try and stifle the modern passing game. That makes blitz pickup an invaluable part of protection schemes.

    Defensive coordinators know they cannot rely on covering the myriad of route combinations. Nor can they cope with the matchup nightmares posed by diminutive, speedy slot receivers and "joker-style" tight ends.

    That means designing more sophisticated blitzes. The key to these designer pressures is targeting weaknesses in protection. That often involves attacking weak blockers.

    Unleashing a stud pass-rusher against a running back is a mismatch every defensive coordinator loves. So pass-blocking has become an essential skill for pro running backs. Those with poor blocking skills will fast become a liability to their offense.

    In a Sports Illustrated article by Tim Layden examining the legacy of the late-Jim Johnson's Double A-gap blitz, former offensive line guru Joe Bugel noted how important running backs have become in pass-protection, saying, "This blitz has changed what you need in a running back. He's got to be able to pass-block, or you really can't have him on the field."

    Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice has become one of the league's best at picking up the blitz. Playing against the blitz-happy Pittsburgh Steelers twice a season has helped Rice hone this vital skill.

    Rice has learned how to recognize blitzers in fire zone schemes designed to conceal the true source of pressure. His ability to fend off linebackers like Lawrence Timmons and safeties like Ryan Clark, is a key part of the Ravens' game plan for the Steelers.

    With defenses turning to more sophisticated blitz concepts, blitz pickup is an under-the-radar skill no offense can do without.

2. Downfield Blocking by Wide Receivers

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    Just like running backs adept in pass-protection, wide receivers who block well for the run were once considered a luxury. Yet the rise of certain versions of the zone-running scheme make downfield blocking an essential skills for wide receivers.

    It is particularly important in the outside zone scheme favored by the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. Both teams love the zone-stretch run to attack the edges of defenses.

    This staple play requires both wide receivers to perform key roles in the blocking scheme. On the play side, a receiver is needed to set the edge.

    Away from the run, receivers crash down and seal the back-side. Because the zone-scheme relies on cutback lanes, receivers can be used to come inside and create those lanes.

    A breakdown of Redskins runner Alfred Morris scoring against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from Week 4, shows the key role receivers play in zone-blocking.

    In the example given in this article, it is Josh Morgan who makes a vital block, as part of the play's design. This shows why Shanahan and teams that run the zone-stretch in general, have favored big, physical receivers.

    During his glory years with the Denver Broncos, Shanahan used towering duo Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey to create cutback lanes and clear paths downfield for Terrell Davis to exploit.

    These demands are central to the outside zone-blocking perfected by the scheme's innovator, former line coach Alex Gibbs. Grantland.com's Chris Brown detailed the collective nature of outside zone-blocking and the important of wide receivers in the scheme:

    Gibbs's style of zone blocking requires total commitment by every offensive player--linemen must be perfect technicians, not just fat guys who push others around; runners must make reads and make one cut-and-go rather than juke and tap dance like the next Barry Sanders; and quarterbacks and receivers can't treat runs as breaks because they're expected to execute assignments and make blocks.

    The zone scheme has helped the Texans and Redskins dominate the league's rushing charts in recent seasons. Washington boasted the NFL's best ground attack in 2012. The Texans were second in 2011.

    Contending teams like the Seattle Seahawks also utilize the zone-based system. Even a traditional power team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, is switching to a zone scheme, according to The Tribune-Review.

    The rise of read-option and pistol concepts will also increase the number of zone-blocking concepts in offensive playbooks.

    The ability of wide receivers to execute blocks downfield will not stay under-the-radar much longer. 

3. Batting Down Passes

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    Thanks to J.J. Watt, batting down passes at the line has a little more prestige than in the past. In truth, it has always been a vital, but under-the-radar skill all defensive linemen should hone.

    Coordinators insist that if a lineman cannot get to the quarterback, he must put his hands up to knock away the pass. At the very least, if the lineman's outstretched hands don't bat down a pass, they should block a quarterback's view and disrupt the throwing lane.

    The batted pass can be devastating to an offense. It creates the potential for several big plays by the defense.

    In his book, Coaching the Defensive Line, the late, great defensive mastermind Fritz Shurmur explains how a batted pass disrupts an offense:

    By raising the hands and arms the rusher can force the passer to throw the ball with a higher trajectory. This lofting of the ball means that the ball will not travel with the same velocity that it would when thrown unobstructed. A thrown ball that does not travel fast allows the pass defender more time to react and intercept the pass.

    (taken from Fritz Shurmur, Coaching the Defensive Line, pages 75-76, Harding Press, 1997)

    Not only does the batted pass put the offense at risk of a turnover, it is also a demoralizing play for a quarterback. Seeing a throw slapped down in a bravura show of defiance, like the one by Watt in the video above, reaffirms the dominance of a defense over the offense.

    In a pass-first league, undermining the quarterback on both a physical and emotional level, has become paramount.

Tackling by Cornerbacks

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    Cornerbacks who can tackle are no longer a pleasant surprise. They are essential to the success of modern defensive football.

    The pass-first nature of offenses has forced defenses to rely on multiple defensive back packages more often. The nickel has become the de facto base defense for almost every team in pro football.

    Coordinators are willing to field nickel looks more often on first and second downs. The problem is to some teams these are still running downs.

    Even quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady who run passing schemes, will soon turn to the run if they see nickel on most snaps.

    Extra cornerbacks on the field is great for the pass, but will soon leave a defense exposed against the run. That is unless those cornerbacks are stout tacklers as well as athletic cover men.

    In the video above, the Green Bay Packers and Charles Woodson provide a perfect example of why this is so important. The Packers are in their 2-4-5 nickel look.

    This is a familiar front deployed by coordinator Dom Capers. He is willing to field five defensive backs, even against the Minnesota Vikings and powerful runner Adrian Peterson.

    Woodson is lined up as the nickel or slot corner. Once the ball is snapped, he comes free off the edge and stops Peterson for a loss.

    Now he doesn't deck Peterson or even take him to the ground, but Peterson does not overrun Woodson or power out of his grasp. Usually a featured running back would expect to win a tussle with a corner.

    Capers is able to use the nickel as his base because of contributions like this one from Woodson. Against the Houston Texans in Week 6, his gameplan to stop a prolific zone-rushing attack was predicated on Woodson's tackling talent.

    With more defenses fielding three cornerbacks on more snaps, the pressure is one these players to be able to tackle. It is no longer a bonus, but an essential requirement.

5. Maintaining Proper Pass-Rush Lanes

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    Dual-threat quarterbacks have dominated the NFL in the last two seasons. Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are destroying defenses thanks to their ability to make plays as runners.

    Their rushing talents remind defenses of the importance of a key under-the-radar skill. Dual-threat quarterbacks are challenging defenders to maintain proper, disciplined rush lanes.

    The idea is not to give a mobile quarterback any avenue of escape from the pocket. We have all seen the anxious defensive end who slants inside and gives a fleet-footed quarterback like Griffin a free lane to the outside.

    Pass-rushing against mobile quarterbacks is not about sacks, or even hits. It is about keeping a scrambling passer trapped in the pocket.

    It is a fundamental skill so often ignored. A Sports Illustrated article by Paul Zimmerman, detailed how Fritz Shurmur's Packers correctly executed this skill against Steve Young, one of the premier rushing quarterbacks of his generation, in the 1997 NFC Championship game:

    He has blitzers who can bring heat while at the same time cutting off a quarterback's escape lanes (Young was credited with one yard rushing on two runs), a technique defensive coaches preach ad infinitum when facing a mobile quarterback but seldom see.

    Running quarterbacks are being used in more elaborate schemes. They are challenging defenses to gamble and hope to use defenders' natural aggressive instincts against them.

    Pass rushing must now be combined with good lane discipline to contain these versatile players.