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On the move: How teams use motion to help quarterbacks

With a surprising Daniel Jones twist at the end!

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

In a recent piece in his ongoing series on the use of motion by today’s offenses, my colleague Doug Farrar outlined the two different concepts employed by teams when putting a player on the move before the snap: Motion for information, and motion for impact, or to “disrupt.”

As someone who has long argued for the use of motion to help quarterbacks — and in particular Daniel Jones of the New York Giants — I thought it would be beneficial to dive into these two concepts and outline what they do to help the quarterback before the play, during the play, or both.

Let’s start with motion for information.

Expanding the decision-making window

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/ via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I’ve talked in the past about how smart offensive coordinators/play-callers need to try and expand the “decision-making window” for their quarterbacks. Think of it this way: According to Next Gen Stats Jalen Hurts had the slowest “time to throw” in the league last season, coming in with a time of 3.11 seconds. Ben Roethlisberger was the fastest, with a mark of 2.3 seconds. not a lot of time to read a defense, come to the correct decision, and make a strong, accurate throw. Especially with large men trying to cause you physical harm.

But that just measures the time from the snap of the football to the throw. So play-callers need to find ways to expand that timeframe, and it begins before the play starts. How? By giving the quarterback information before the snap so he can make the correct decision after the snap, and as quickly as possible.

For example, in an old New England Patriots playbook, in the section describing a pre-snap motion/movement, it reads as follows: “This is a mechanism to try and identify the coverage and help verify pressure.” By placing a player in motion before the play, you force the defense to react, and perhaps tip their hand.

One way is by illustrating man coverage in the secondary. Take this example from Week 17 against the Dallas Cowboys:

On this play, wide receiver Sterling Shepard begins the play on the left side of the formation, but prior to the snap crosses the formation and eventually aligns on the right side. If you notice, cornerback Jourdan Lewis trails Shepard across the formation, following him from one side of the field to the other. This is an indicator to the quarterback that the Cowboys are in man coverage. When the play is snapped, Jones looks first to the corner route on the right side from Darius Slayton, confident in the coverage thanks to the movement pre-snap.

Now let’s look at how pre-snap motion might indicate zone coverage, with an example from Week 10 against the Philadelphia Eagles:

On this play the Giants initially align with Jones in the shotgun and running back Dion Lewis aligned next to him, with the offense facing a third-and-5 in their own territory. Before the play it is tough to get a read on the secondary, and a quarterback might be thinking man coverage: The cornerbacks are in man alignment, and one safety is deeper than the other.

But then, Lewis moves out of the formation and to the left, emptying the backfield. In response, it is a cornerback who slides outside and not a linebacker trailing him towards the boundary. So either the Eagles are using a cornerback in man coverage against a running back or...they are in zone coverage.

Which they are. The Eagles drop into a Cover-2 scheme, and Jones throws the hole shot to Lewis attacking the soft spot of the coverage.

Those are two examples of how motion and movement before the play can give the quarterback information, and “expand the decision-making” window. Now let’s talk about the other kind of movement, motion to impact, or disrupt.

Creating at the snap

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/ via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The other goal of pre-snap motion is to disrupt the defense at the snap and/or put an offensive player in perhaps a favorable advantage as the play begins. As Farrar termed it: “When we talk about motion to disrupt, we’re talking about the ability to use pre-snap motion to put a defense in a bad position — either by moving a receiver to a spot where he’ll face a defender who can’t keep up with him, or by using motion to establish route concepts in which primary defenders are taken out of the play altogether.”

Take this example against the Chicago Bears:

On this third-and-3 play the Giants move wide receiver Damion Ratley into a bunch formation on the right, more for impact than information. The goal is to force the defense to have to react to this formation and potentially switch off coverage responsibilities based on the releases of the various receivers in the bunch set. But with the Bears dropping into zone coverage, no mistakes are made on switches, and Jones checks the football down.

Two of the more interesting examples of “motion for impact” from the Giants last season came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On this first play, the Giants motion Shepard across the formation and he is moving at the snap, and the offense sets up a throwback screen to him, hoping the defense ignores him as Jones rolls away from his intended target:

Then a bit later in the game they motion Golden Tate into a stack formation, showing the defense a potential wide receiver screen. Indeed Jones takes the snap and throws to Tate, but he is going to throw back across the field to Wayne Gallman on a trick play:

On both of these plays, the motion at the snap was used to get the defense thinking, and then the offense tried to exploit this as the play unfolded.

One of the more common and/or popular ways that offenses are using motion at the snap for impact comes on a design some lovingly refer to as “Jello:”

On these plays, the movement at the snap gets the defense scrambling, and creates opportunities in the passing game.

Of course, there is something to consider when outlining motion: How effective it has been for the quarterback. According to charting data from Sports Info Solutions, Daniel Jones has had...somewhat limited success when the Giants use any kind of motion before the play. Last season Jones completed 77 of 119 passes for 656 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions when the Giants used any kind of motion before the play, for a passer rating of 74.8. When no motion was used? Jones completed 203 of 329 passes for 2,287 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, for a passer rating of 82.5.

Something else to keep in mind...