No matter what game you’re tackling, play with your eyes up and you’ll be okay

The Florida State Seminoles shows that success is all about sticking with the processes

Quarterback Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles celebrates after his last minute heroics helped his side defeat the Auburn Tigers 34-31 in the 2014  BCS National Championship game. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

Quarterback Jameis Winston of the Florida State Seminoles celebrates after his last minute heroics helped his side defeat the Auburn Tigers 34-31 in the 2014 BCS National Championship game. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images


According to Jimbo Fisher, “Great players understand great moments”. Fisher, the Florida State Seminoles American football coach was referring to his freshman quarterback Jameis Winston. The fact that it was on his 20th birthday made guiding his team to an amazing 31-34 victory over the Auburn Tigers in the 2014 national college final even greater.

What makes these players great? Post-interview, there was the usual reflection and thanks to the “man above”, coaching team and fellow players. But it was the “sticking to the process” comments that were most interesting because I recall those words resonating from the Dublin footballers after winning the All-Ireland. Indeed the same is true of most modern elite sports.

Therein lies my fascination with American football – the process, to get the best players into the best position of opportunity.

Having mentioned them in previous articles I hoped for an Auburn Tigers win. With one minute and 19 sec remaining Auburn were ahead 31-27 in a sensational encounter when the moment Jimbo referred to began. Florida had 80 yards to cover and Winston made five of his six passes taking his team to the two yard line. He then found 6’6” wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a touchdown; game over. The processes required for this 80 yard completion in one minute and three seconds was fascinating.

These processes are most relevant when heading into the higher echelons of Heineken Cup and Six Nations. Munster, for instance, are flying in the Rabo and bound to qualify in the Heineken – yet their processes are coming under massive criticism. Concerns must exist at Munster Branch level as the coaching ticket is restricted to extremely short-term contracts.

From the off, Auburn’s tactics were to “hit the bulls in the mouth and see how they respond”. They did so by picking up the pace of their offence through “hard underneath cut plays” (sound familiar?). Defensively they admitted “we gotta get Winston on his back”.

There is so much symmetry between rugby and American football in the actual tackle. Major differences exist such as the 360 degree hit in football and the tackler’s extremely dangerous head position on the point of tackle.

Violent hits
I recall as an army officer playing against the United States Military Academy (West Point) in a rugby match in Kildare. I was playing at number eight and realised quickly how poor West Point were in general play. But their hits were violent and the 360 degree nature of the hit meant you were never safe, especially from their chop tackle – only a recent “revolutionary” technique in our game.

What else can we learn?

As the goal is to get 10 yards and a fresh cycle of throws while the defence is consumed by getting you on your back. The system employed and variety therein; blitz or fade, constantly oscillating between both based on what the attack is planning. It is superb to watch. How many they leave in the defensive line of scrimmage and how their defensive backfield aligns has enormous impact on the attack which forces “eyes up” football.

In watching Auburn’s quarterback Nick Marshall’s shot selection I realised how “eyes up” is completely applicable to American football.

From the outset American football appears very staged, even rigid. But it’s when the play is countered by the defence and the QB has to adjust the target position (akin to lineout cancels) that the receiver way down field must read what the QB reads.

Due to the flight time of the thrown ball, eyes up, is crucial. If the QB sees a cover defensive player arriving, and the receiver doesn’t, then the receiver will anticipate incorrectly and it’s an incomplete pass or interception. If they both see the same then the receiver will arrive into the future space while the ball is thrown.

Decoy running
The biggest lesson I learned from Monday is the role of their Seán O’Brien. So much decoy running and activity occurs in offence to afford O’Brien type characters, such as Florida running back Devonta Freeman and Auburn’s Tre Mason, opportunities.

With similar body types, they both have identical roles to O’Brien. The key difference is so much activity occurs to afford Freeman and Mason the opportunity to eke out those valuable yards. For O’Brien it can often be the other way round – creating for others.

Freeman and Mason consistently test the tackles, which is a dangerous occupation. Securing the catch is crucial because turnovers are death knells (more so than rugby) but their shifting of feet and hips to attack the weak point of the tackle is something we can learn.

Like O’Brien, Freeman and Mason are smaller so can’t take on the direct challenge. A really interesting statistic is the yards gained after contact, one which is worthy of noting in rugby. In fact I’d say it’s a crucial stat for positive continuity. For example in his first 100 yards gained Mason made 41 yards of them post contact.

American football contains a very specific counter attack policy which afforded Florida’s Levonte Whitfield 100 yards for a touchdown. Yes he has blockers to aid him but they are doing so in a really well honed system of counter attack.

In fact American football’s greatest skill is to ensure their great players exploit great moments. After all Whitfield is capable of covering 48 yards in 4:37 sec, the fastest recorded freshman in 2013.

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