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There’s a secret sauce to creating big plays

We asked Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, and more of the NFL’s biggest playmakers how they get all that yardage.

It looked like a routine deep shot down the sideline.

Eli Manning took the snap, executed a simple play-action fake, and rolled out to his right. Manning heaved the ball down the field, where it looked like it was going to sail out of bounds.

But it didn’t.

Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. reached back to snag the ball with one hand like Ken Griffey Jr. would on a deep shot to the outfield. Beckham was somehow able to toe-tap both of his feet in bounds, and his momentum carried him into the end zone.

Whether it’s one of the greatest catches in the history of the NFL, a breathtaking run where a back has to evade a shoestring tackle, or a starry-eyed quarterback launching a pass to a receiver deep down the field, big plays make football fun. Hell, even the NFL created the wildly successful RedZone channel to showcase every highlight and every touchdown scored on Sundays.

Explosive plays are more than just exciting to watch, though. They also give teams an edge. Six of the top nine teams in plays of 20 or more yards made the playoffs last season, and all nine of those teams finished with winning records.

And while fans and writers really only get to see the final product on Sundays, a lot of time and preparation goes into making these plays possible. Most of the magic happens on offense, so SB Nation decided to catch up with a few of the best playmakers and scheme organizers in the game today.

Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, George Kittle, Chris Thompson, and former New York Jets offensive coordinator John Morton have all played different roles in helping to produce big plays. They gave us their unique perspectives on what really goes into those — and their favorite ways to create them.

The star tight end: How Rob Gronkowski beats man coverage

Gronkowski has been on the receiving end of countless explosive plays via the golden arm of Tom Brady. In 2017 alone, the Patriots tight end had 18 receptions of at least 20 yards, tying him for fifth in the NFL. The work involved with creating these plays is apparent in the effusive way Gronkowski talks about his favorite routes to run against varying coverages.

Gronkowski has made a living as a dominant receiver in the middle of the field, especially up the seam. Cover 1 (one safety playing deep) is Gronkowski’s favorite route to run against defensive backs.

“One-high coverage, I like to go up the seam,” Gronkowski says. “There’s only one safety deep, so I feel like the quarterback can split the safeties. I like seam routes. You’ve just got to give a little move and burst up the seam — just read where the safety is on which side of the field, and hit ‘em up the seam.”

This route against the Jets is a perfect example of Gronkowski reading the safety en route to a big play down the field.

With the safety lurking in the middle of the field, Gronkowski elects to play outside of the linebacker playing man coverage on him, using the body of the linebacker as an obstacle for the safety rotating over.

Against other types of coverage, Gronkowski’s knowledge of the game was clearly on display. For example, he loves running quick slant routes against Cover 0 blitzes with no safety over the top.

“On zero coverage, they’re going to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback right away,” Gronkowski says. “So the quarterback has to get the ball out of his hands right away before he gets hit, because we don’t have enough blockers to block because of all the blitzers coming in.”

This example isn’t a Cover 0 blitz since there’s a safety playing deep in the middle of the field, but the same principles can be applied because it’s a man-coverage blitz. With the linebackers vacating the middle of the field, Gronkowski knows he has to be in and out of his break quickly to give the quarterback a target.

“I like to hit a slant, and that explosiveness comes into play because you want to explode out of your three-step slant — on your third step you want to explode out of it to get separation from your defender,” Gronkowski says. “So a three-step slant is the way to go if you can get separation on that third step, to get open quick enough so the quarterback can get you the pass.”

This level of understanding among the game’s elite players isn’t uncommon.

The No. 1 wide receiver: How Antonio Brown stays a step ahead of a defense

Brown is a good case study on how a strong understanding of the game can help players overcome perceived athletic shortcomings. Compared to his peers in the NFL, the Steelers receiver is an average athlete: A 4.56 40-yard dash at 5’10, 186 pounds doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of defenses. Mentally, he always needs to be one step ahead of his competition.

For example, when asked how he would create a big play against teams playing with two deep safeties, Brown had a handful of routes already in mind. “Two-high, we need some ins, we need some in cuts, in curls, we need some digs.”

Basically, Brown likes to run routes that break toward the middle of the field against defenses with two safeties playing deep. This makes sense — as the safeties drop into their zones, a natural gap opens up in between the cornerback and the safety, creating room for Brown to work underneath.

Take this play against the Green Bay Packers: The Packers come out in two-high (two safeties playing deep) and rotate to a Cover 3 (three defenders deep) or “cloud” coverage at the snap of the ball. With the safeties rotating over toward the side Brown is on, the spacing between the cornerback and the safety to Brown’s side resembles a two-high look. Brown runs the deep dig, catches the ball in front of the safety, and accelerates down the field for a nice gain.

“Two-man, we need some deep outs, seam routes,” Brown says.

Two-man is just another way to document Cover 2 Man, which is two safeties playing over the top with man coverage across the board underneath.

The playbook is wide open versus man coverage with a receiver of Brown’s talent level. Again, the deep dig is open for him against the Packers and he comes down with a big-time contested catch.

Against one-high safety looks, Brown has a pretty simple answer on how he likes to create big plays.

“One-high, whatever you like,” Brown says.

As arguably the best receiver in the game, that’s all Brown needs to say to get his point across.

The role-playing tight end: How George Kittle uses deception to set up a throwback

While Gronkowski and Brown win with technical prowess, high football IQ, and elite ball skills, some players function more as chess pieces in an offense. Kittle, the second-year tight end for the San Francisco 49ers, falls in that category.

It’s interesting to see how any team manufactures touches for its tight ends in space. For the 49ers, Kittle plays a huge role in the deception Kyle Shanahan regularly employs in his offensive schemes.

Before Shanahan was a head coach, he routinely showed this ability in his various offensive coordinator stops around the league. From Owen Daniels to Jordan Reed to Austin Hooper, Shanahan has proven he knows how to spring tight ends loose for large gains through the use of play action. One play Shanahan uses a few times a season is the tight end throwback.

Kittle didn’t catch one of these big throwback plays, but he did have a great explanation on how they come to be.

“That whole play is based on how well our outside zone is going,” Kittle says. “You set that up the entire game before you run it. If you’re hitting outside zone, you can make the linebackers flow and you can get them to second-guess their reads — ‘Is this play action? is this outside zone?’

“With a couple outside zones, if you get one big one, they’re going to start coming downhill. Then you can hit them with a bootleg and they’ll start dropping a little faster. Hit another outside zone play and that’s when they’re completely second-guessing themselves. And that’s when you hit them with one of those plays [the throwback]. Now they’re so concerned with [Jerick] Jet McKinnon running down the sideline, while you got a tight end leaking out the backside, and they won’t even pay attention to him.”

The bootleg is another play-action pass that relies on a strong outside zone game to get defenses in an awkward position where they have to cover athletic tight ends coming out of the backfield. Kittle holds the belief that an effective running game will create these opportunities.

“The bootleg, again, it all depends on the outside zone. You can’t have a play-action scheme without a run game. It just doesn’t work.”

The dual-threat running back: How Chris Thompson burns teams with the wheel route

Washington’s Chris Thompson isn’t a household name, but he’s a dynamite receiving option out of backfield. Before he broke his fibula against the New Orleans Saints last year, Thompson was having a monster campaign. His 13.1 yards per reception ranked first among all running backs.

One of Thompson’s favorite routes to run, and one of the most easily identifiable routes, is the wheel route. Against man-to-man coverage, it’s especially deadly because most linebackers don’t have the athleticism to sprint up the field with a running back on a wheel route out of backfield.

“That’s one of those things you see pre-snap,” Thompson says. “OK, I got man-to-man and this guy doesn’t know it. Especially when it’s later in the game, this guy doesn’t know what I’m going to do because I’ve ran so many different routes.

“But that wheel route, it’s something amazing, man. When it’s working well and you get that man coverage, like that’s what you live for.”

It certainly is a beautiful play when everything goes right for the offense.

“The biggest thing for me, especially in our offense, is usually when we run wheel routes we have a guy picking for us. Setting a pick in some kind of way — a legal pick — in some kind of way,” Thompson says with a laugh.

“I found a perfect tempo to be able to release outside and try to get upfield [depending] on how the linebacker is playing me. If I see him try and go underneath the pick? I just take off sprinting. If I see him just sitting there being patient, I’ll pick my speed up a little, but not full speed because he’ll throw it back shoulder.”

Thompson also notes certain players are harder to beat in coverage than their peers — like Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner.

“Bobby Wagner, I’ll use him for example. He’s not one of those guys that you can speed past because he’s one of the fastest linebackers in this league.”

Thompson also went in-depth about the value of screens in the NFL and how much practice time they require to hammer down.

“The one I had against the 49ers, the long one, that’s what we call a Chip Screen,” Thompson explains. “Basically we’re supposed to be simulating like we’re about to block the defensive end, like chopping his feet. Just so happened it was man coverage and I saw Ray-Ray Armstrong (No. 54 in the clip below), he was kind of coming down towards me a little bit, so I knew I needed to get the ball in my hands and face him up.

“The next level of it is just feeling your offensive linemen and just kind of giving them time to set those blocks up. Oakland, for example. I was able to be patient, catch the ball, get back inside, and let my guys do their work. I know [Brandon] Scherff, he’s gonna get down there and make his blocks. Spencer Long, he’s gonna go out there and he’s gonna cut his guy... It’s more so just having patience, and I think that comes with having a better feel for the game.”

The offensive coordinator: How John Morton calls plays that fit his players

No one believed in the Jets’ offense prior to last season. Quarterback Josh McCown was coming off of an up-and-down season with the 1-15 Cleveland Browns, the Jets’ offensive line appeared to be shaky at best, and their perceived best receiver, Quincy Enunwa, was out for the season with a neck injury.

None of this fazed former Jets offensive coordinator John Morton. For the 13 weeks the Jets had McCown as their starting quarterback in 2017, they ranked 10th in percentage of plays over 20 yards (6.68 percent) — a higher mark than offenses with serious firepower like the Atlanta Falcons (6.67 percent), Los Angeles Chargers (6.27 percent), and Pittsburgh Steelers (5.59 percent).

“As a coach, it’s your job to get guys in the right position to succeed,” Morton says.

One of the players Morton gushes over was wide receiver Robby Anderson, who finished the season with 17 catches of at least 20 yards, good for sixth in the league. “Robby Anderson was a guy that could track the deep ball very well. Josh could throw it and Robby could go get it and Jermaine (Kearse) had a really good season, too,” Morton says.

Anderson did a little bit of everything for the Jets’ passing game, playing both the X and Z receiver positions.

The X receiver for an offense always lines up on the line of scrimmage before the snap of the ball. That alignment means he can’t go in motion and is extremely likely to see press coverage, since the defensive back is within arm’s length of him.

The Z receiver lines up off of the line of scrimmage. This player can go in motion and gets the added benefit of not having to face as much press coverage, due to the distance between him and the defensive back covering him.

Anderson’s speed and ability to make plays down the field allowed him to be productive from both spots in 2017.

“The thing with Robby was he could play the X, he could play the Z,” Morton says. “After a while, when you connect on some of those they’re worried about the speed, and then he doesn’t get bumped. And that’s a good thing, because then you can start doing other things ... throughout the game it’s like a chess match.”

Morton notes that his time as the wide receivers coach with the Saints helped him see the importance of moving receivers around between the X and the Z spots to try to take advantage of different skill sets.

“Most of your X receivers are bigger and really good in one-on-one coverage and versus bump and run. If you got a guy that struggles a little bit with that, you make him a Z.

“Like when I was in New Orleans, when [Brandin] Cooks was there. When I got there, he was an X and you know, he’s just a smaller body. We moved him to Z after I got there, and he had a lot of success there.”

Having players in the right position helps with creating big plays, but calling plays based off of defensive tendencies is crucial as well.

“You get certain tendencies when you study film, and you kind of go by that. If it’s a high percentage that they’re going to play a certain man-to-man coverage on this down and distance, or in a certain area of the field, then you go with that and you play the percentages,” Morton adds. “Usually it works out pretty well.”

Morton had an assistant in the booth feeding him information about play-calling probabilities that helped keep the offense afloat. Through the use of matchups, tape study, and a little help from the eye in the sky, Morton was able to lead the Jets’ offense to an overachieving season.

Naturally, most big plays come from the passing game; today’s NFL game is centered on it. With thorough tracking of tendencies, coverages, and personnel, offenses can figure out when to call certain routes to spring loose players for a chunk of yards.

When that preparation is paired with elite players throwing and catching the ball, teams can build deadly passing attacks that make their offenses hard to stop.

Those big plays are fun to watch, fun to create, and they give the teams who make them a better chance to win. So the next time you see a play break open for a big gain, enjoy it — and remember that a lot of practice, studying, and a little bit of luck made it all happen.


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