By Matthew Marczi
The difference between the success and failure of a play comes down to the ability of skill position players to block more frequently than many people seem to realize. Since it tends to happen away from the ball, that’s understandable, but I think it’s time to take a look at some plays that illustrate the importance of the off-the-ball action for skill position players.
The Steelers were spoiled for years having Hines Ward at wide receiver, who blocked as well, and as passionately, as just about any other receiver in his era. Frankly, the Steelers are also spoiled to have Jerricho Cotchery, who is currently one of the best at his position as a blocker.
Remember this key third-down conversion early in the game? It wouldn’t have happened for Antonio Brown without Cotchery picking off the defensive back. Not to take anything away from Brown’s effort here, because the play was almost lost when Heath Miller failed to pick up his own block.
Emmanuel Sanders was the unsung hero of Brown’s second touchdown pass of the game, whose block all the way down the field gave his fellow receiver the space necessary to beat the rest of the coverage to the end zone.
It’s not just the blocking, of course, that provides ball carriers with the space needed to operate. As this second-quarter pass to Markus Wheaton shows, a downfield route can clear an entire side of the field for another player to come in underneath and have room to run after the catch.
Wheaton is an appreciative young man though, and he was willing to pay it forward when the opportunity presented itself, as it did in the third quarter on a short-yardage situation for Le’Veon Bell.
It was just a short gain, but that is what the play was designed for, and the combined efforts of Miller, Cotchery, and Wheaton to the outside is what gave Bell the opportunity to fight for the first down one on one.
This is of course just a small sampling of the kinds of things that need to happen for skill position players away from the ball in order to produce successful plays. In basketball, it’s common to talk about a player’s awareness and acumen without the ball in his hands, about how he sets up plays and things of that nature. It’s a topic that should be discussed more in football as well, though television camera angles are often prohibitive to this end.