What Happens When a Play Breaks Down?

Ryan RiddleCorrespondent ISeptember 11, 2013

Sep 8, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) runs with the ball against the Green Bay Packers in the fourth quarter at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Packers 34-28. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

It's no accident that some of the biggest and most exciting plays in football occur when the X’s and O’s break down. The reason for this high volume of big plays is simple—NFL-caliber play demands strict assignment responsibility as well as an intense understanding of specified roles within a system.

So when the designed play of an offense is abandoned, as it so often is, predictability and reads for the defense usually fly right out the window. This innately creates and exposes several weaknesses within the defense, thus freeing up the opportunity to gain huge chunks of yards down the field.

On the flipside, this can also provide a great opportunity for big plays on defense, as quarterbacks, running backs and receivers tend to overcompensate while making something positive out of a busted play. These are the times we see those ill-advised throws across the body or fumbles while scrambling around the pocket. Sometimes it’s better to fall on a bad snap rather than try to pick it up and make a play.

From the defensive perspective, this is a critical time. Any lack of hustle during a broken play will not only stand out like a sore thumb, it will also get the defense torched. These are the plays when those bigger guys up front start to jog, or even walk, well before the play is concluded. The longer it is extended, the more fatigued the player will become.

The element of attrition plays a pivotal role during elongated plays.

I can specifically remember how tiring it was trying to physically dominate an offensive lineman at the line of scrimmage all by myself. Once that task is over, I then transition into “predator mode” in order to close the gap between myself and the ball-carrier as quickly as possible.

To finish big-play opportunities, it’s imperative that you close ground fast to prevent any escape by the runner.

By the end of a long pursuit, I was always exceptionally winded as I tried my best to recoup for the next play.

For a defender, trying to play effectively while gasping for air is insanely difficult. One of the only worse feelings is heading to the sideline to ask for a breather. The competitor in me would never allow that to happen, which explains why it hasn’t occurred so much as once in my entire football career.

Leaving the action because of fatigue never seemed to be an option. In my mind, it was akin to seeing Michael Jordan ask for a sub during a critical part of the game just so he could catch his breath. There is a reason this scenario never transcended the realm of the hypothetical: Great competitors fight through fatigue.

Every single snap should be played with high intensity, though it becomes difficult to sustain that level during long, drawn-out plays—especially during a time when the opponent is also running a hurry-up offense.

Proper reactions in the secondary also become critical during a broken play.

In man-coverage schemes, defenders assigned to an eligible receiver in a pass route are encouraged not to turn and look at the quarterback unless the ball has been declared. They must keep their eyes on the man they're covering to avoid losing track of him. 

Unfortunately, this also puts the cornerback in a dilemma when dealing with a scrambling quarterback. The last thing you want is to be covering your assigned man while having your back to a guy like Terrelle Pryor. Pryor can easily turn a scramble play into a huge run. (see video below)

From an X’s and O’s standpoint, there’s very little that can be done against improvisational playmakers at quarterback.

Sure you can try and spy him with a linebacker or safety, but you must remember that when doing so, you also weaken your coverage while simultaneously asking a single player to potentially make an open-field tackle on an elusive ball-carrier.

Another option for the defense is to focus on the quarterback by playing some type of zone coverage. This allows defenders to react on the fly should the quarterback take off and improvise. However, in doing this, they tend to open holes in the coverage, which only gets worse as the play extends.

Improvisational quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick love to use this dilemma to their advantage in order to exploit the secondary and find wide-open receivers down the middle of the field.

Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers have made a living extending plays, improvising and making things happen on the go. This type of backyard football is given a lot of emphasis at practice during the week so that everyone knows what to do in case of a pocket breakdown or quarterback scramble.

In fact, "Big Ben" happens to be one of the best in the league at this style of play. He’s so good that he may have become over-reliant on this for sustaining drives throughout the season.

For coaches, few things can be more demoralizing than to have the perfect play called, essentially shutting down the offense only to have guys like Pryor or Cam Newton create something with his legs and athleticism.

Sometimes in the NFL, the best you can hope for is not necessarily to stop these types of plays and the players who run them, but to simply slow them down.  


Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and current Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.