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08-08-2009, 08:35 PM
Football still simple game
Saturday, August 08, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For all the countless hours spent trying to complicate it and for every added layer of sophistication constructed by its indefatigable coaches and postgraduate level video students, football, even at the NFL level, still retains a ready simplicity.

Players still react to specific indicators in the game's visual logic, a universal understanding that if A happens, then B is virtually assured.

The understanding extends into every area of football culture.

If (A) a rookie stands up to sing in a training camp dining hall, then (B) an unpleasant listening experience will ensue.

So when Ziggy Hood's rendition of "Hey There Lonely Girl" reinforced all that at Saint Vincent Training Camp the other day, there was little use in pointing out that A.Q. Shipley's subsequent offering of "Mary Jane's Last Dance" might have been marginally better, that is to say awful.

But it is somehow comforting to know that perfectly simple things still carry meaning on the field, no matter how hard coaches try to disguise intent and no matter how rigorously they instruct players not to tip things off.

"The hardest thing to do is play quarterback, but you still look at the two safeties and they'll tell you just about everything you want to know," said Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. "That's been true since I was a quarterback.

"The other day, Dennis [Dixon, the second-year backup] had a situation where the defense was overloading, but he continued to look into the teeth of it, and he threw incomplete. A play later, Ben [Roethlisberger] had the exact same read, turned right away and threw it to the back side, and we got an 18-yard completion."

If A happens, then B is virtually assured.

Looking at it from an opposing angle, veteran Steelers corner Ike Taylor concedes that finding the simple things in an offense isn't always so automatic.

"Coaches are always tweaking things, and you can watch another team on film all week and then, when the game starts, you know they've tweaked some things again just for us," Taylor said. "But there are some things that are pretty simple. Route combinations are still the same. Route concepts are still the same. A lot depends on where you are on the field.

"Say it's third-and-3, the coach calls for a bump and run, what happens is almost always a slant or a fade. I tend to look at finding tips from a specific person. If a guy has done something against me, I might see something that reminds me of it. It's instinctive sometimes."

Instinct has become all the more critical in the pro game, where most players and coaches have long since figured out the evident telegraphing via certain behaviors or techniques. Offensive linemen once signaled a run or pass unwittingly by the tips of their fingers. If, with a hand on the ground before the snap, the tips were a bloodless white, it meant their weight was forward for a running play. If the tips were not, it meant their weight was back to pass protect. Blockers either learned better balance or simply taped their fingers. Similarly, wideouts once engaged in telltale presnap body language depending on whether they were going to be involved in the play or not. Modern defenders rarely pick that up anymore.

In today's game, most on-field espionage is completed in the second or the first few after the snap. It's then that schemes often break down and instantaneous alterations are made.

"The ability to adjust away from the scheme," said Steelers personnel chief Kevin Colbert, "is often the difference between being a good player and a great player. The perfect example is our quarterback."

Roethlisberger's improvisational gifts have been tirelessly documented, and while that part of his game has never gone underappreciated inside or outside of pro personnel offices, it's Big Ben's ability to flash through his usual progressions is what sends the game's top minds into reverent testimony.

The most conspicuous example remains -- and could for a long time -- his Super Bowl snatching arrow to Santonio Holmes at the only spot he could have delivered it Feb. 1, 2009.

"We were anticipating a blitz," Arians said. "There was play action and we were in blitz protection, and his progressions were flat, curl, corner, and the tight end dragging across the backside. He pump-faked on the curl and they jumped it, then he put it over the top to 'Tone. Unbelievable. Defensive backs are coached to watch the quarterback's eyes, and when he profanityfilterprofanityfilterprofanityfilterprofa nityfilters his arm, they're supposed to break on the ball. (The word that the idiot profantiy filter is keying on is c*o*c*k*s. - mesa)

"So Ben knows you can use your arm and your eyes to get people open."

In a game where simple things still matter, there's no simplifying genius.
Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on August 8, 2009 at 12:00 am

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