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Art of the rub: Pick plays catching on among NFL teams

The Bills’ best defensive backs might as well have formed a musical trio and sung in harmony. All were in unison about what doomed them last week against the San Diego Chargers.

Corey Graham practically spat the words on the locker room floor. “Pick plays,” he said.

“They picked us,” Stephon Gilmore said, “and we didn’t adjust.”

Aaron Williams added the only way to beat the Bills’ man coverage “is to do pick routes, and that’s what they did.”

Pick plays, also known as rub routes, have been around forever. High schools run them effectively. But they’ve been more noticeable because they offer a pointed rebuttal to the aggressive, man-to-man defenses that have gained popularity in recent years.

New England Patriots and Denver Broncos receivers are prolific at these plays, where one receiver runs into a defender to help a teammate get wide open.

“Any coach who has been a defensive back realizes how difficult it is to try to guard those routes,” said Doug Plank, the former Bears safety whose uniform number named Buddy Ryan’s revolutionary 46 defense.

“A rub route is one of the most challenging techniques as a defensive back to successfully avoid or fight through.”

Pick plays are sneaky, but not nearly as nefarious as they sound. In fact, they’re usually legal. And even when pick plays break the rules, they are difficult to spot.

Offensive coaches prefer to call them “rub routes” and will note they don’t become “picks” until a rule is broken. For the rest of this article, let’s abide by that distinction.

Rub routes are most common in the red zone, where the field is condensed and space is at a premium. But they may happen anywhere on the field.

They are legal within 1 yard of scrimmage, where offensive players are allowed unlimited contact as potential blockers – even when the ball is in the air. If a tight end can block a defensive end at the line, then a receiver should be allowed to block a defensive back.

Rub routes also are legal everywhere else as long as the receiver doesn’t initiate contact. When the receiver does trigger a collision, a penalty won’t be called unless an official determines the receiver intended to.

Rub plays can be successful even without contact. Merely forcing a defensive back to break stride, stutter step or turn his body can provide the ray of light a quarterback needs to complete his pass.

“As an offensive player, you have an entitlement to space,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained this month. “It’s a question of – if there’s contact – how the officials view the contact as to if you’re trying to run a pattern, there’s incidental contact or you’re trying to interfere with the defender who is trying to cover somebody else.

“That rule really hasn’t changed. It’s not a new rule. We have to do it in a way that we’re entitled to run the route that we’re running. We have to do it in a way that it isn’t a foul relative to what the defenders are doing.”

Rub routes aren’t for receivers only.

A few years ago, the Patriots were masterful at obstructing linebackers from covering running back Kevin Faulk, with linemen setting up a picket fence for him to run up the sideline.

Other teams like to pick for their tight ends in the flat.

Where the play typically becomes a penalty is when the sacrificial receiver misses his mark or does a poor acting job.

A rub receiver obviously bracing for contact will draw an official’s attention. So will the receiver who stops after the contact, suggesting he did his job and had nowhere else to be.

“If you’re a defense that doesn’t get a flag when a rub guy stops, you’re not living right,” University at Buffalo offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Alex Wood said. “Usually, it’s immediate. Or letting the route deteriorate, not keeping a flat trajectory. That also draws a flag.”

Wood has coached rub routes for decades. He was the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive coordinator in 2004, the Minnesota Vikings’ quarterbacks coach for Daunte Culpepper’s first four seasons and the Cincinnati Bengals’ receivers coach for Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick.

“It takes a tremendous amount of coaching to get them not to do something erratic,” said Wood, who considers Cris Carter and Anquan Boldin among the best he’s worked with.

“This is more for an inside receiver, a guy who likes to bump it around a little. Some kids get a little claustrophobic about that closeness. As they get closer to a defender or making a collision, it’s hard to get them to act consistently.”

Turk Schonert, the former Bengals quarterback and Bills offensive coordinator, noted there are some receivers who simply won’t sacrifice for a rub route.

“Guys have to be willing to do that, and some just don’t want to,” Schonert said. “Some guys are selfish, or the effort isn’t there. They try to do it, but they want to be a receiver, not a rub guy.”

Schonert is a receivers coach for the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL, where all picks are legal.

Like Plank, he wonders why teams don’t implement more rub concepts into their offensive schemes. The plays are effective, and the NFL rule book continues to favor passing offenses.

“They’re just so tough to defend,” Schonert said. “And the reason they’re popping up so much is because the officials are allowing it. Guys are taking advantage of it.”

The Chargers certainly did in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Weighing the options

Rub routes work only against man-to-man coverage because zone defenses can let receivers crisscross all day underneath them.

“So many teams are playing pressure defenses, and 90 percent of the time they’re in man-to-man coverage,” Plank said. “Why not use this rub route? When receivers really get good at it, they can even use officials at times as part of the landscape.”

In a man-to-man scheme, defensive backs must position themselves at staggered distances from the line of scrimmage, or levels. If defensive backs aligned themselves at the same distance, then crossing receivers would force them to run into each other right after the ball was snapped.

“At the same level,” Plank said, “you’re never going to win that battle, whether you’re in the red zone or the middle of the field. Usually, the better player is in press coverage and the slower, less-gifted guy will play off.”

That’s how the Bills were lined up when the Chargers victimized them on a rub route less than three minutes into the game.

Three Chargers receivers were on the left. Closest to the sideline, the Bills’ Gilmore was 2 yards off Keenan Allen. Bills cornerback Nickell Robey was 6 yards off the line, guarding Malcom Floyd. Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin was 2 yards off Eddie Royal.

At the snap, Allen ran a slant, while Floyd cut to the sideline for what would be an out-and-up pattern. Robey went underneath to cover Floyd but collided with Allen. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers connected with Floyd up the sideline for 49 yards.

What’s a defense to do?

Options include switching the defenders off their receivers once a rub is detected or simply battling through the traffic.

The Bills expected the 5-foot-8 Robey to do the latter, to be more aware of Allen and take a deeper pursuit that avoided contact while staying behind Floyd. But Gilmore and Robey also could have flip-flopped coverage.

“The best way to stop them,” Schonert said, “is to hit the guy they’re picking for, get your hands on him and knock him off his spot. That’s easier said than done.

“Or you just attack it. As soon as the DB sees it, don’t sit back and wait. All that’s going to do is allow the blocker to get in position.”

Wood noted an emerging tactic to curtail rub routes in the college ranks is a man-zone combo. Defenses can confuse receivers by playing man one side of the field, zone on the other.

Plank, among the grittiest players in Bears history, laughed at the idea of how helpless rub routes and crossing patterns can render a defensive back.

“There’s something about the logic and the whole DNA of a defensive back,” Plank said, “where if you cross routes on any type of downfield pattern, especially if they’re in close formation, it blows the dynamics of your mind.

“Just crossing those two receivers is like putting a positive and a negative charge on a different terminal. It makes you freeze for just a second, and that’s all a receiver needs to beat someone.”

Potential uses abound

Plank has given rub routes considerable attention over the decades. He started seven seasons for the Bears at safety. He was an assistant secondary coach for the New York Jets in 2009.

But what he learned in seven seasons as an Arena Football League head coach was significant. On a tiny field, AFL offenses operate with quick decisions in a compressed area where receivers don’t have time to outrun defenders.

Rubs are the AFL’s primary method for receivers to get open.

With a similar philosophy in mind, Plank can’t understand why NFL teams don’t get aggressive on two-point conversion attempts.

Rather than kick an extra point from the 2-yard line, Plank advocates capitalizing on that yard-from-scrimmage, anything-goes territory and the officials’ apparent indifference.

“Why not challenge the officials?” Plank said. “You’re going to spring somebody wide open. And if they call it, then how are you hurt? You move the ball back 10 yards and you kick the extra point.

“Teams should line up every single time and say, ‘We’re going for two, and we’re going to stretch these rules to the limit, and we’re going to make it almost impossible to cover your man because we’re going to run such chaos at you with crossing routes.’ ”

Plank wouldn’t get much more conservative on the other 98 yards of field either.

He recalled a recent college play. A receiver was penalized for a pick, wiping out what would have been a long touchdown play that was sprung by the interference.

And so what?

“Is it worth getting called for one, maybe two pick plays a game when you can break open the game? Absolutely,” Plank said. “Is that worth the risk? You bet it is.

“You get caught every once in a while, but if you do not get called on it, then there’s no reason your receiver should not be in the end zone with the ball.

“I’m just surprised more offensive-minded coaches don’t try these rub routes because inevitably they’re going to get the benefit of the doubt.”

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