Check Downs and Hot Routes
(December 2012)

I really think some fans and especially the media are over analyzing Brandon Weedon’s performance each game. Every week in newspapers and on websites I see charts trying to make sense of each of his passes. I think its terrific that Browns fans and the media take such a close interest in the Browns, but you can’t make an honest judgment about a quarterback by charting his passes by down and distance.

The decisions that quarterbacks have to make are squeezed by both a limited amount of time and a small window of throwing space. Lets compare it to a couple of other sports that have some sort of progression. When Tiger Woods is teeing it up, he is often thinking several shots ahead. He wants to place his tee shot somewhere where he has a chance to place his second shot near enough to the hole to try for a birdie. When Justin Verlander is facing a big hitter, he too is thinking ahead, sometimes four or five pitches. He’ll hit the outside corner, then throw one high and tight, then try to get him to swing art something low and away.  Vanessa Wiliams does the same thing, getting her opponent moving left and right, then back and forth, waiting for the kill shot that will win the point.

All of those athletes have some sort of progression to their game, something planned but not perfect, something that gets constantly adjusted to what the game is given.

On every pass play a quarterback also has some sort of progression, a series of looks to decide whom he is going to throw the ball to. His progressions rely tremendously on what the defense is doing, including but not limited to how many are rushing or blitzing; is it a zone or man coverage or a combination of the two; field position; what part of the field is the defense leaving venerable; and what match ups favor the offense. But unlike Tiger Woods looking over his next shot and checking his yardage book, or Justin Verlander looking in at his catcher’s signal and shaking him off, a quarterback’s progression is on a very tight time schedule, just a matter of seconds. Unlike Tiger and Verlander, his decision comes in a snap of a moment, with a lot of very big guys fighting it out around him.

Two terms you hear people in the media use more during a quarterback’s progression than ever are check downs and hot routes. They both have important roles in a quarterback’s progression during a pass play.

Hot routes are one way to equalize a defensive team’s blitz package. When a team blitzes, it will leave an area empty. For example, if the Will linebacker blitzes, there will be a defensive hole on the weak side where the linebacker would have stayed and covered if he were not blitzing. A hot receiver, usually a running back or tight end or inside receiver, will fill the area vacated by the blitzer. When the linebacker commits to the blitz vacates an area there is a very short window of both time and space to get the ball there.  The timing has to be near perfect.

In most offenses the quarterback will call out the hot receivers on the line of scrimmage, before he starts his cadence. Some QB’s will even point to a linebacker and yell hot, to remind the closest receiver that he is to fill that linebacker’s space if he blitzes.

Sportscasters and writers have really latched onto the word “check down” in recent years, and almost always in a negative way. I just read an article about the Cowboys game that stated “Most of Weedon’s second half passes were of the check down variety.” The fact that a check down is a negative is not true, and often can result in a big play. At its worse, a completed check down pass is better than nothing, and can result in a gain of a few yards and the avoidance of throwing into coverage that could result into a turn over.

A check down is usually the last of three of four options that a quarterback has on a pass play. For example, his first option might be to hit a receiver cutting deep over the middle. His second option might be another receiver cutting across the middle under the first route. If both of those routes are not open his last option, the one he checks down to, is a back out of the backfield sitting gown five yards over the line of scrimmage.

When a quarterback s accused of throwing too many check down routes in a game the obvious is never mentioned, that the first two options were usually not open. It often it has nothing to do with the quarterback’s moxie or arm strength, it has to do with a defense doing a good job, and the quarterback being smart and not throwing into coverage.

This criticism is especially harsh when it is third and long, the deep routes are not open, and the ball is thrown to a back on a check down route that does not get a first down. “What is he doing? Fans and sportswriters yell, “that’s a useless throw. He didn’t even get the first down.” But in the big picture it wasn’t. A six or seven yard gain on a third and fifteen situation means something. It means the punt will be six or seven yards farther down field, and the following drive will have to go six or seven yards farther to set up a field goal or a possible touchdown. If your defense could force a three and out and a punt out of your opponent, then your next drive will have six or seven less yards to set up your field goal or next touchdown.

And sometimes, not often but sometimes, a back will turn a five yard check down into a ten of fifteen yard run. Trent Richardson has one this several times this season. Old time Browns fans can remember Greg Pruitt and Eric Metcalf being the masters of taking a five yard dump pass and turning on their magic and making big plays.