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5 thoughts on Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, pick plays, rub routes

01.20.14 at 1:49 pm ET
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1. The pick play (or rub route) is something that receivers have been using across the league for many years. A move designed to gain separation for a pass catcher (usually using another receiver to pick off the defender), it’€™s something that’€™s been a staple of the Patriots offensive playbook for a long time. When executed properly, it’€™s perfectly legal, and both New England and Denver are very good at executing it. Looking at the Nov. 24 game between the two teams, you could see several, including picks from Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and Eric Decker, all of which helped teammates get open.

Three days after that game, Tom Brady was asked about pick plays, one of which resulted in an offensive pass interference penalty on wide receiver Danny Amendola.

“Certain teams do it a lot,”€ he said. “We don’€™t do it a ton because we tend to get penalties when we do it so it defeats the whole purpose. You kind of talk about it and you get excited to do it and you think it looks good and then the refs ‘€“ we got called last game on a pass interference on Danny which was … anyway.

“€Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’€™t. Certain games don’€™t ever get called and we’€™ve gotten called. So you probably tend to do it less if you get called. It’€™s more of a body presence thing and making sure that you don’€™t get called for a penalty because it’€™s an illegal play. You’€™re not supposed to do it. You’€™re not supposed to set picks — it’€™s not basketball. But you can have body presence and make a guy bubble under or over, whatever you’€™re depending on, what you really want to do.”€

Now, there’€™s some gray area when talking about a legal pick vs. an illegal pick. When the receiver is within one yard of the line of scrimmage, the receiver can block a defender and there’€™s no cause for a penalty. However, once a receiver gets past that one-yard window, he can’€™t initiate contact with the defender. In addition, officials have to keep in mind the fact that if there’€™s a ball headed in the direction of a pass catcher and defender, ‘€œIf the contact occurs as ball is being touched, there is no offensive pass interference. When it happens all at the same time — the ball being touched and contact elsewhere — it is not a foul. The contact has to be clearly before the ball is touched for it to draw a flag.’€ Officials also have to judge intent, as well as what constitutes incidental contact and what constitutes a premeditated shot on a defender.

Brady was asked about being able to run the play within one yard of the line of scrimmage.

“€Well, yeah, if you’€™re on the line of scrimmage, you can do it, because technically, you’€™re a blocker at that point. We had a play in the AFC championship game, at the end of the game I threw to Kevin Faulk in 2007, where we did pick them. I think Jabar [Gaffney] came in and actually picked the guy. We threw it and they were complaining [for] a flag, but it was right on the line of scrimmage. It’€™s on the line of scrimmage you can get away with it. It would be like a tackle blocking a defensive end, they don’€™t know what to call. But if you’€™re down the field … Defenders hold and they get away it and they get away with that all game, you don’€™t get calls. It’€™s just the way the NFL is now. They hold, we do things; it’€™s just kind of you do business as business is being done.”€

Now, fast forward to Sunday, and the fateful collision involving Wes Welker and Aqib Talib that ended up sidelining Talib for the rest of the afternoon. At first glance, Welker and teammate Demaryius Thomas were running crossing routes over the middle of the field, and Talib was tailing Thomas while Kyle Arrington was in man coverage on Welker. The ball was intended for Thomas, who has a window for a few moments because Welker went crashing into Talib, sending both players to the ground. Thomas dropped the ball and the pass went incomplete. There was no flag on the play — former VP of Officiating Mike Pereira indicated that it was the right decision.

Was Welker trying to do everything in his power to create separation for another receiver? Yes. Is it an occasionally risky play that could end up hurting either the receiver or defender? Yes. Was he deliberately trying to injure Talib? While Welker didn’€™t necessarily do anything to get out of the way, from my standpoint I don’€™t think that was the case. I know that things got personal between Welker and the franchise last offseason. but for me it’€™s a stretch to think that Welker went out there with the intention of knocking an opposing player out of the game. This appears to be a case of two players at the wrong place and wrong time, and Talib getting the short end of the stick.

2. Some context: You can’€™t tell the story of Welker the receiver without acknowledging that a sizable portion of his success as a pass catcher is due to his ability to find creative ways to gain separation when going over the middle. In the relatively early days of his career, he was able to get that separation from the umpire, who (then) was stationed over the middle, roughly 5-7 yards off the line of scrimmage on the defensive side of the ball.

However, before the start of the 2010 season, the NFL decided the umpire was going to move from behind the defensive line to behind the offense. (The league decided to make the move after several umpires had been injured in recent years in collisions with players. There were more than 100 occasions in 2009 when umpires were knocked down by players.) The move also took away one of Welker’€™s greatest assets. One of the most well known secrets across the league was the fact that the receiver loved using the umpire as a pick to gain separation from a defender. (One official told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette that when it came to utilizing the umpire to their advantage, the Patriots “do it all the time with  Welker. … [New England] likes to use [the umpire] as a pick.”€)

In 2010, when the umpire was moved, Welker talked about the impact it could have on his game. “They’€™ve said it’€™s always going to be an advantage to me, but I always felt like he got in my way more than he got in the defender’€™s way, to me,”€ Welker said of the umpire. “I’€™m actually kind of excited to have him out of the way, and let me work that middle. I never really noticed him a lot of the time when he was there. Only when he was in the way. Like I said, I always felt like he was in my way more than the defenders. Every once and a while, I’€™d get a good pick from him and I was able to do something with it.”

3. The idea of legal picks could be revisited by the competition committee this offseason, but it could also serve as the spark for Bill Belichick to be more assertive when it comes to rules issues leaguewide. The coach has had several issues with the rulebook over the years (like here and here and here), and has — at least to this point — only been lobbing in suggestions from the sidelines on how to make the game better. Maybe this will serve as some sort of impetus for Belichick to step up and make the changes he occasionally hints at.

4. It was interesting to see reaction across the league over the last 24 hours, but the fact that much of it was split along defensive and offensive lines wasn’€™t a surprise, with the strongest language coming from Bills safety Jim Leonhard and former Patriots wide receiver Donte’€™ Stallworth. Tweeting during the game on Sunday, Leonhard called Welker’€™s move on Talib a ‘€œsuicide mission,’€ and added “Unreal pick he set, not sure how not a flag.”€ Stallworth’€™s statements came on Monday, and he was quick to respond when he was made aware of Belichick’€™s comments: “I have nothing but love and respect for Bill Belichick, but he’€™s absolutely wrong about Wes Welker‘€™s hit on Aqib Talib… and he knows it,”€ he wrote in a series of Tweets. “[I]f EVERYONE would get out of their [objective] feelings and watch the play w/an explanation on its execution, they would know. I wish I could do a film session to explain to the people who have NOT seen a rub play 1,000 times over on film, practices and games’€¦I’€™m not really defending Wes… I’€™m just telling the truth.”

5. Brady was closer than any Patriot to Welker when the receiver was in New England, but he told Dennis & Callahan on Monday that he hadn’€™t seen the play. (“The game ended. I went to the locker room, was on the bus, flew home and woke up this morning. I haven’€™t turned on the TV or anything. Hard for me to say.”) He was asked if he knew of any animosity between Belichick and Welker: “€œI have no idea. He could probably answer that better than me. Wes is a great player and a great friend. They played a lot better than we did yesterday. We certainly didn’€™t make enough plays to win. There’€™s a lot of plays that impact the outcome of the game and we didn’€™t make enough good plays to impact the outcome in a positive way for us. It’€™s unfortunate for our season to come to an end like this, but I’€™d say Denver earned it and played a lot better than we did yesterday.”

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