By Justin Sottilare
Whether you’ve been playing QB for years or just starting out, the way you study and train will determine your level of success. You must consistently focus on the fundamentals of your position. There’s no way around the work. No shortcuts. There are, however, strategies you can implement to ensure your learning is efficient. It boils down to knowing your critical success factors and then coming up with a training plan for each of them.
Before we get to that, I want to mention that none of this will be as effective if your exercise program isn’t specific to QBs. If you’re creating your own, make sure it includes a lot of rotational power, recovery for your joints (specifically the elbow and shoulder), and lower body coordination exercises (footwork drills, single leg movements). Other than that, just follow a basic skill position explosive workout program and you’ll be good. Now, let’s focus on those critical success factors and the methods of training for each.
Identifying the Defense
It’s important for a QB to understand exactly what’s going on around him. To be a good QB, you must be smart. Being able to look across at a defense, identify what front they are in, what blitzes/coverages can be run from that front, then narrow them down based on a few keys to exactly which blitz/coverage it is will be a major factor in determining how well you will perform on the field. This is something that will take years to develop and is so vital that it should be worked on every day. You also need to know the weaknesses of every defense and then call on specific tools in your toolbox to defeat them. Those tools are audibles. To be great, you need to have the ability to audible in an instant. That only happens when you can identify the defense with enough time left to think of a play call and get all 11 guys on the same page with the new play. This isn’t something that anyone is natural gifted at. It’s problem solving with a very quick timer. To become good at this, you have to practice solving problems (identifying the defense) on a consistent basis. Here are some practical ways you can begin improving your ability to identify a defense.
1) Tag games on Hudl – you cannot fully understand something until you are able to tag the information on Hudl. Doing this will force you to know the subtle differences in each front, know their names, recognize patterns in fronts, coverages, blitzes, and situations (among many other things). This is a very time-consuming strategy, but it’s worth it. I’d suggest tagging as much as you can, but if you’re strapped for time, at least tag the following: Down & Distance (D&D), OFF Formation, OFF Play, DEF Front, DEF Cov, and DEF Blitz. If you do not have Hudl and want to tag a game, download and use this excel template to tag games. (p.s. I’d recommend tagging a few NFL games occasionally, to give you some ideas on the way they call plays in the big leagues. They mix up their play calling very well, and you’ll also get a great idea on what plays they like to run versus certain fronts).
2) Flash cards – this one is simple, but it works well. After you’ve got your game tagged, write down an offensive formation on one side and then the main fronts, coverages, and blitzes used by your opponent on the other. This will change every week and doesn’t need any more than 10-15 minutes a day to get these down by heart in a matter of days. Each week, you will need to master the opponent’s defense. You’ll also find that many teams have the same types of strategies. You can do this with D&D as well, especially 3rd & long and goal line.
3) Explain it to someone else – you don’t understand something until you can teach it. Throw on some game film and just start explaining things to someone. If they know about Football, that’s great because they will usually ask better questions, but I’ve done this with family members and it works just fine. Encourage them to ask questions throughout. As you explain things, if you lack knowledge, both of you will notice. That’s called the knowledge gap and will show you what you need to learn more about. Good ideas for this are to try and explain an NFL QB’s thought process from breaking the huddle to the end of the play. Try to see what he sees. Watch the offensive play, then go back through knowing the outcome of the play and try to figure out how it got there. You will not know what he’s thinking on every play (or most), which is great because this will show you where you lack. Don’t worry about sounding like an idiot. Get out of your comfort zone and annoy some people with explanations.
4) Filter your data – I like to watch film first by formation. I’ll watch every play from spread, then every play from trips + (trips to the field), trips – (trips to the boundary), and so on. Filtering plays is the quickest way to identify patterns. If I’ve got 3 games tagged and in all 3 games the defense lines up a specific way against trips +, I can assume they will line up that way when we line up in trips +. If they switch it up for each game, we need to figure out why. Ask yourself ‘what do we think they are most likely to do against us?’ Then come up with a plan for all the options and focus your practice on the alignment and coverage you think they will give you. (p.s. Doing this will also help quicken the process of creating scout cards and scripting practice.)
5) Practice, practice, practice – every single snap in practice you can identify the defense (whether you’re in or not). Don’t just go through the motions. You should be mentally exhausted after every practice from all the problems you’ve solved, play after play after play. If you do this on a consistent basis, you’ll learn quickly. If you have someone you can report to after each snap for a 5 second explanation of what you saw, it will go a long way. This won’t always be possible and shouldn’t be as you want to keep the tempo of practice up but try this during slower periods of practice. Preferably this would be done with a coach or another QB. Another super nerdy thing you can do is to have a voice recorder with you (or have someone hold it) and give a 5 second explanation after each play of what front/coverage/blitz they ran and listen later while watching film (requires video record of practice).
6) Pre-snap Checklist – I have a checklist that I go through each snap that helps me. It goes as follows: 1) Identify the number of safeties, 2) number of guys in the box, 3) depth of corners, and 4) aliens (defenders who stand out or are out of place according to their base defense. This will help show blitz). Going through this every snap will get you in the habit of identifying what’s happening on the other side of the ball.
Being able to identify a defense perfectly will only be useful if you make the right decisions afterwards. This is far more difficult than most people believe. You must be robotic in your thinking. Think of each play like a flow chart. Every moment there is a fork or split. If your first read is open, throw it. If your first read is dead, use your feet to guide your eyes to your second read and so on. This also applies to pre-snap decision making as well. Let’s say you have a run play called but if they line up with a specific front that stops the run play, you have to know what audible to go to. This requires you to identify the defense, recognize a problem, decide on a solution, then make the audible. This entire ‘flow chart’ happens within seconds. Very few people on the planet are in situations in which they need to make the number of decisions QB’s make at the speed they make them. Because of this, it’s not a skill most people have unless they practice it. Let’s get into that now…
1) Grade your decision making – the best way to improve your decision-making is to record it and grade it. Give yourself consistent feedback for both practice and games. Once again, you won’t be able to grade it unless you know it well. Once you’ve developed the ability to make good decisions on a consistent basis, focus on making those decisions faster. This is a game of speed. QB’s who go through their reads faster win more often and stay healthier because they get rid of the ball faster. If you want to start grading your decision making, here’s a template you can use to grade that (among other things). You’ll have the ability to change the factors you’re grading in the template.
2) Create flowcharts – sit down with any play and think about it from start to finish. In which moments do you need to make decisions? What are the potential outcomes of each of those decisions? Where do they lead to? Once you have each of these flowcharts in place, have them with you when you grade your practices and games. You will be able to identify exactly where you made your mistake and what you can do differently to avoid that in the future. If you do this consistently, you will rapidly increase the speed of your learning. Asking these questions will also help you develop a deeper understanding of the play as well, which is always a plus. Just a heads up, this is something that takes a long time to do. I’m currently working on these as I type this article and will be uploading them as I complete them (for common Football plays).
3) Footwork Drills – add drills that focus on the decision-making process. This is easy to implement during warm-ups. Call your play, perform your drop back and then go through your reads by having your feet guide your eyes. You can go through 4 reads and then drop out and run or throw. You include progressions on 1v1’s by calling a full play and not just 1 specific route. Go through the full progression (knowing you’ll be throwing the 1v1 route).