FLORHAM PARK – In his previous football life, Dawan Landry often shook his head when he saw a defensive back get beat by a deep pass.
“The guy is in position,” Landry would think. “He should make a play on the ball.”
Then Landry experienced the reality of the deep ball, and learned why defending it is among football’s most stressful experiences. Landry played quarterback in his first season at Georgia Tech, 2001, and then switched to safety. He has played there ever since, and will begin his ninth NFL season Sunday, when his Jets host the Raiders.
From the moment he moved to the other side of the deep ball, defending it instead of throwing it, he realized why making a play on this ball is not as simple as it seems.
“From the outside looking in, it always looks easy,” Landry said. “It’s a lot more technical than it looks.”
Often last season, it appeared far too challenging for the Jets. They finished 22nd in the NFL in passing yards allowed, largely because of deep completions.
In the first 11 games alone, they surrendered gains of 30, 31, 38, 40, 46, 53, 53, 60 and 60 yards on deep passes. And those were just the long balls that didn’t result in touchdowns. Opponents scored on deep completions of 43, 51, 55, 66 and 77 yards. Those 14 completions accounted for 25 percent of the passing yards the Jets allowed in their first 11 games, during which they went 5-6.
The Jets spent countless hours of practice and film study working on improving their deep ball defense this offseason.
“We have to be better,” said Dennis Thurman, their defensive coordinator. “It is not something that we are going to just keep talking about. It is something that we have to get.”
But the deep ball has a chance to test the Jets even more this season. In Sunday’s opener against an Oakland team that loves throwing long passes, the Jets will start a converted safety, Antonio Allen, and a career backup, Darrin Walls, at cornerback. Even when Dee Milliner returns from a high ankle sprain, one of those two players is likely to continue starting.
The Jets’ cornerback issues come in a season when the NFL is aggressively trying to limit contact by defensive backs more than five yards down the field. This could hamper one of the longtime tactics for defending the deep ball — the “look and lean” technique.
“A lot of these offenses, they’re going to throw the deep ball just to get a pass interference,” said former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, now an ESPN analyst. “They’re not just looking for the big play. They’re looking for the penalty also.”
For the Jets especially, one of football’s most stressful defensive plays just got even more nerve-wracking.
THE MOST ANXIOUS OF MOMENTS
The deep ball can put an anxious pit in a defensive back’s stomach. All it takes is that sound – the simultaneous gasp of thousands of fans when they see a quarterback flick a long pass to a receiver who is a step ahead of a defensive back.
“The times I’ve gotten beat in games on a deep ball, the first thing you hear is the crowd,” Woodson said. “You can hear that, definitely. You know the ball is in the air. Now you have to absolutely track the ball, and that can be a kick in the ass.”
Defending the deep ball is about more than just running as fast as the receiver, or being able to catch up to him. But that is a legitimate part of it.
“If you don’t have that type of recovery speed, I don’t care what type of skills you’ve got, you’re going to get beat with the deep ball,” said former NFL receiver Desmond Howard, who now analyzes college football for ESPN.
When physical skills are equal, as they often are in the NFL, precision and patience take over. This is where Landry failed at first, as a young safety at Georgia Tech. When a receiver beat him deep in a one-on-one practice drill, Landry decided to turn around and play the ball. That might feel like a natural reaction, but it is all wrong, because you lose track of the receiver, drift away from him and slow your pursuit, all at once.
Landry said defensive backs are always taught to never look back for the ball until they are “in phase” with a receiver – basically running next to him, hip-to-hip. Once in phase with the receiver, the defensive back should “look and lean,” Landry said. That means simultaneously turning back for the ball while slightly leaning into the receiver’s area.
The purpose of the lean is twofold: It lets the defensive back physically track the receiver while not looking at him, and also closes the spacing between the two players.
By his own admission, looking and leaning is the toughest part of playing the deep ball for Walls – locating the ball in the air while maintaining “control” of the receiver. He called it “the hardest thing for DBs to do.”
For as challenge as the “look and lean” is to perfect, Tim McDonald, the Jets’ secondary coach, hopes the NFL’s downfield contact emphasis doesn’t completely eliminate the tactic.
“We’ve got just as much right to that space as they have, as long as we lean, not into them, but we lean to that space,” McDonald said. “We don’t give him space to come in and get the ball.”
What if a defensive back gets beat, and trails his receiver? In this situation – “out of phase” – the defensive back must look at the receiver’s hands. When he sticks them out to catch the ball, the defensive back has to jab his own hand ahead to disrupt the play. The best receivers, like Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne, wait until the last minute to extend their hands on deep balls, and rarely tip off defensive backs by turning their heads early, to look for the ball.
There is a delicate balance for a defensive back trying to determine when exactly to turn, locate the deep ball and momentarily lose sight of the receiver. When in phase, he can glance at a receiver’s eyes, to see when he looks up for the ball. But this can present problems for a corner trying to time his initial contact, because a receiver usually looks up first, and then stretches his hands out. So, watching his hands can be safer.
“It’s better to just play through (looking at) their hands than their eyes, because you might make early contact,” said Milliner.
Despite standard teaching points, every secondary coach and defensive back has a preference. McDonald wants his players to watch for outstretched hands, wait for the “blur of the ball” to appear in their field of vision, and then reach out to break up the pass. Former NFL cornerback Eric Davis liked playing outside-in technique on deep balls. This means being closer to the sideline than the receiver, so you keep both him and the ball in your field of vision when looking up to track the pass.
Even if, after all this, the defensive back finds himself in the ideal situation to go after the ball, he can still screw it up. Say a cornerback is running stride for stride with a receiver down the right sideline, and he is to the inside of the receiver. A common mistake is for the corner to turn his head left, to locate the ball. When the corner does this while running, he fades toward the inside of the field, away from the receiver. He also loses sight of the receiver. The corner should look over his right shoulder instead, said Davis.
“You have to turn your head up, toward the sideline, and look up,” said Davis, an NFL Network analyst who played 13 seasons in the league.
PREPARATION IS KEY
As a kid, Ed Reed loved playing a game with his friends, though it only required one friend. Reed would stand on the field, and his buddy would stand 50 yards away, and they would simply throw the ball back and forth. Reed watched it spiral through the humid Louisiana air, tracking the arc of the pass into his hands.
“Looking back at it, you never know the things that you do as a kid, how it’s going to bless you later in life,” Reed said.
Few players in football history tracked – and picked off – deep balls better than Reed, a future Hall of Fame safety who joined the Jets midway through last season and now appears on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL.”
Tracking deep balls is one of a defensive back’s hardest duties. A corner can position himself perfectly, in phase, but if he looks at the wrong moment, or just can’t spot the ball, he is toast. There is more to both skills than just reacting to outstretched hands.
Davis said a cornerback must know the quarterback’s arm strength. Against a quarterback with a cannon, like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, a corner must wait longer to look, because the deep ball will travel farther. A quarterback with a weaker arm, one that maxes out at 35 yards, requires the corner to look once he is about 15 yards off the line, since “that ball is in the air because we’re halfway there,” Davis said.
Positioning matters, too. If the receiver Davis guarded happened to “outside release” off the line — which means trying to get between Davis and the sideline — Davis knew there were only a few routes the receiver could run, one being a deep “go” route, straight down the sideline.
If the receiver kept running straight at the 15-yard mark, especially with a weaker-armed quarterback, Davis knew he could expect the deep ball, and turn to locate it. And depending on whether the play began from the far hash mark, near hash mark or middle of the field, Davis would have an expected angle in mind: Would the ball drop in at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock in his field of vision?
Ball tracking in the deep middle of the field seemed to come naturally to Reed, who said he developed hand-eye coordination by playing basketball and baseball in high school. Even in the NFL, he would catch punts during pregame warm-ups, to mimic deep balls.
“I loved to catch punts before a game because that’s ultimately tracking a deep ball, 60, 70 yards down the field,” Reed said.
Woodson, the former Cowboys safety, found a similar solution to problems he encountered with tracking the ball from the middle of the field. Mike Zimmer, then the Cowboys’ secondary coach, would shoot balls from a Jugs machine, arcing them almost like punts, and have Woodson and the defensive backs turn, run, locate the ball, chase it and catch it.
Woodson said this taught him to do what the best defensive backs, like Deion Sanders, so often do — “become the receiver” when the ball is in the air. You can’t ever develop into a great deep ball defender unless you learn this. And you can’t learn it if you don’t locate and track balls properly.
“When we go out looking to draft people, one of the things you ask is: Can he find it? Can he catch it?” said Jets head coach Rex Ryan. “Because the great ones can catch it. You have to be able to find it, or there’s no way to play the deep ball.”
Once a defensive back masters the foundation of playing the deep ball, such as looking and leaning, and he can track the ball, he must then put himself in the receiver’s brain. For a safety, playing the deep ball is “truly all about angles,” Reed said.
Reed often determined the angle he might need to break on a pass by surveying the offensive formation. He looked at the receiver alignments and splits, considered the route combinations they might present, and determined the angles at which he could need to break toward a pass — 45 degrees to this route, 90 degrees to that route. He processed it all before the ball was even snapped, a human protractor.
Reed, a sage of film study, was with the Jets for the final seven games last season. The Jets signed him largely to patrol the deep middle of the defense and prevent deep balls – something that occurred with mixed results. In the final five games, as the Jets went 3-2, they allowed just two completions of longer than 26 yards on deep attempts. Neither produced a touchdown. At the very least, they did not get burned as badly as earlier in the season.
Reed’s most significant contribution, though, probably came off the field. He frequently held film analysis sessions with the younger defensive backs. When he spoke to them about deep balls during these meetings, he emphasized the importance of understanding down-and-distance and formation situations in which opponents tend to take the most deep shots.
“Most of it is just realizing when that situation is, and just being able to recognize it,” Walls said of Reed’s message.
As the Jets tried to build on Reed’s lessons this offseason, McDonald put his defensive backs through all the usual deep-ball drills in practice – what to do when you’re in phase, what to do when you’re out of phase, how to look and lean. All the while, McDonald wanted them to understand that sharpening deep ball defense is not entirely robotic repetition, nor just reacting to a receiver’s movements during games. Much of it depends on identifying the receivers on film every week who are likeliest to take the Jets deep – and put them in this potentially harrowing, game-changing situation.
“To me, it’s as much mental as it is physical,” McDonald said. “That (mental aspect) is the part of the game that we really have to be better at.”