Before we get to any game tape here, let’s just straighten one thing out: The sole purpose of this blog is to use game tape in an attempt to make a fair assessment of which players deserve praise, and which deserve blame. There’s no agenda here – as the old saying goes, the tape doesn’t lie. And so with that in mind, let’s look at a key reason as to why the simple screen pass has proved so problematic for Mark Sanchez and the New York Jets over the previous 12 months or so.
Most of us will be aware by now that during Friday’s pre-season game in Detroit, Sanchez lobbed a pick-6 straight into the arms of Lions rookie lineman Ziggy Ansah. And if my Twitter timeline is to be believed, the only man who was responsible for that error was the embattled Californian signal-caller. Simple… except that’s not what the tape says…
Take a look at Picture One (below) where you’ll see the real reasons why this play fell apart. Right tackle Austin Howard is circled in yellow, and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is ringed in turquoise. The key players for the Lions are defensive ends Willie Young (red) and Ziggy Ansah (black).
Wind the tape on a few frames and the play design seems to be holding up well (Picture 2). Ferguson (yellow) has nice low pads and is in the perfect position to get underneath Ansah and floor him with a cut block. Meanwhile Howard (yellow) has defended Young’s outside speed rush (the move that so often undid him throughout the 2012 season). Then things begin to go wrong…
On the backside of the play, problems start when it emerges that Young is on a two-way go (Picture 3). His inside spin move leaves Howard completely flat-footed, and within a split-second he’s completely beaten. Meanwhile, rather than setting Ansah on the floor, Ferguson has used his low body position to get underneath the defender’s pads so that he’s able to stand him up. In fairness to the veteran tackle, this error is more likely due to poor play design and therefore he’s simply just executing his assignment. However, for a screen to be effective, it’s usually essential that the playside tackle clears a passing lane via a cut block rather than obstructing it by standing his defender upright.
Now Sanchez finds himself back-pedalling to avoid the pressure from Young whilst also staring at a closed passing lane (Picture 4). At this point it’s unlikely that he’d have time to get outside the hash marks and be capable of offloading the ball without getting called for intentional grounding and – even if he did – there would be a significant danger of him being hit by Young as he threw. (Considering the degree of criticism that was heaped on him last year over his inability to avoid strip-sacks, it’s maybe possible to forgive Sanchez for not taking that option).
The smart move for Sanchez here is to get two hands on the ball and eat some dirt but, as has often been the case in the past, he instead decides to try and force the issue by getting the ball through a passing lane that never really existed. Ansah (who, by the way, deserves immense praise for his own role in disengaging from Ferguson and getting into a position where he can make a play) simply has to raise his hands when he sees that Sanchez is about to release the ball and, fortunately for him, he manages to hang onto it (Picture 5).
So let’s summarize by asking a question: Who was to blame for this pick-six? Well, the media sharks who are eager for an easy story have wasted no time in pointing the finger directly at Sanchez and nobody else. And the section of the Jets fanbase that are happy to sacrifice their reason and objectivity in order to create a SoCal scapegoat have been quick to follow suit. But the game tape clearly demonstrates that while Sanchez could have done better by taking the sack, it’s unlikely that we’d even be talking about his role in the play if Howard had been adequate in pass protection and Ferguson had dumped Ansah in the turf rather than standing him up.
Is it the first time that Howard’s lack of talent has led to a busted screen play? No. Rewind to Week 4 of the 2012 season when the Jets entertained the 49ers.
On this designed screen pass to Shonn Greene (Picture 6) the hapless tackle is beaten to the outside by Niners lineman Ray McDonald.
On this occasion McDonald is able to tip the pass and it’s intercepted by Patrick Willis (Picture 7). Again it’s fair to say that Sanchez could have taken the sack, but in reality it would be much fairer to say that his greatest error is to not account for the fact that he is playing behind a right tackle who is completely out of his depth at the NFL level.
Because the bottom line here – just like it was on Friday night – is that if Howard had done his job properly, nobody would have even looked at this play twice.