It's hard to play good defense in today's pass-happy NFL, but some teams are getting stellar production from their defensive backs by teaching an old-school technique that helps cornerbacks break more quickly on short throws in their area. "Keying the three-step" is the term used to describe this read-and-react maneuver. Hall of Fame cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson made a living stealing interceptions utilizing this technique.
As a young player with the Oakland Raiders, I learned how to "key the three-step" from six-time Pro Bowler Eric Allen. The technique helped him rack up 54 career interceptions, including eight pick-sixes, and made it tough for quarterbacks to complete quick passes in his area. Remarkably, Allen would routinely align 8 or 9 yards off the line of scrimmage -- and still repeatedly pick off or bat away slants, hitches and quick-outs. Most observers assumed the veteran was gambling or guessing on those plays, but Allen told me he could tell which routes were coming based on the quarterback's drop.
The All-22 Coaches Film has revealed more and more cornerbacks making plays on quick routes. Through six weeks of play in 2015, there have been 70 interceptions on passes that traveled 10 yards or less in the air (up from the 60 through the first six games of 2014), with 21 resulting in pick-sixes. Given that most of those interceptions were produced on "keying the three-step" maneuvers, I thought this would be a good time to explain the technique and why it is so effective.
What is the "keying the three-step" technique?
Defensive backs around the NFL have been "clueing" quarterbacks for years, but a renewed emphasis on combining "read" steps with vision on the quarterback has resulted in the recent uptick in pick-sixes. The cornerback will align 8 yards away from the line of scrimmage in a slightly "cocked" position (outside foot up, inside foot back) to see the quarterback's drop. He is positioned slightly on the receiver's outside shoulder, to allow him to see through the receiver to the quarterback down the field. At the snap, the cornerback will take a slow first step while reading the quarterback's drop, to see whether it's a quick set-up and throw or an extended drop. If the quarterback sets up to throw after his third step from under center (or if it's a catch-and-fire from the shotgun), the cornerback turns his eyes to the receiver and takes a direct angle to cut off the pass-catcher at the break point. When the technique is executed properly, the cornerback gets a quick jump on the throw and steals a pick on a quick pass to the perimeter.
After reviewing All-22 Coaches Film from this season, I'm impressed with how well cornerbacks are executing the technique, with Denver BroncosPro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib -- who has 30 career interceptions in eight seasons, including eight pick-sixes -- proving to be one of the best in the business. In the play depicted below, from Broncos' win over the Kansas City Chiefsin Week 2, Talib demonstrates perfect technique picking off an Alex Smith pass in the second quarter. Talib aligns 7 yards off the line of scrimmage, with his eyes affixed on Smith. He takes a slow read step while keying Smith's drop. When Smith quickly sets up and cocks his arm, Talib breaks to the receiver and steps in front of the pass (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In addition to demonstrating flawless technique against dropback passers, Talib has shown sound footwork and fundamentals against quarterbacks operating from the shotgun. In the play depicted below, from Denver's Week 6 win in Cleveland, Talib picks off Josh McCown on a perfectly executed "keying the three-step" maneuver. At the snap, Talib is positioned about 8 yards away from the line of scrimmage. He is aligned slightly inside Browns' receiver Travis Benjamin, reading McCown's footwork in the pocket. When McCown catches the snap and quickly wheels around to make a throw, Talib makes his break on the hitch route. With Talib breaking before the ball is in the air, he is able to snatch an interception on the way to another defensive score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In a Week 5 loss to the Packers, St. Louis Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson utilized the "keying the three-step" technique to snare a rare pick off Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field, as you can see in the play depicted below. The fourth-year pro aligns 8 yards away from the line, with his eyes focused on Rodgers. He is keying Rodgers' footwork, to determine whether the reigning MVP is throwing the ball quickly or attacking downfield. When Rodgers sets up quickly in the pocket after a three-step drop and cocks his arm, Johnson knows the ball is coming out rapidly, and he breaks on the hitch route by James Jones. With a great break and superb vision on the ball, Johnson snags his second interception of the season (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Why are more defensive backs utilizing this technique in 2015?
The rules restricting contact on the perimeter have prompted more offensive coordinators to rely on the passing game in 2015. Play callers have increasingly featured a series of short passes (slants, hitches, quick-outs and bubble screens) to replace the running game. Consequently, defensive backs are facing more quick-rhythm throws throughout the game, and their only chance of neutralizing these high-percentage lay-ups is to aggressively jump short routes on the perimeter. While there is certainly some risk involved in jumping routes, including giving up a big play or touchdown on a double move, the prospect of nabbing a pick-six makes that a worthwhile gamble. With 21 of the 23 pick-sixes in 2015 occurring on passes of 10 yards or less, it's clear the emphasis on "keying the three-step" has produced critical turnovers and defensive scoring opportunities.
What are the dangers of using the "key the three-step" technique?
Every cornerback in the NFL is taught the "key the three-step" technique during their first minicamp practice, but few are able to master the maneuver, because it requires outstanding eye discipline and anticipation. Defenders must be able to read the quarterback's movements while maintaining proper leverage on the receiver. Most importantly, cornerbacks must take proper angles to the break point -- to cut off pass-catchers -- while maintaining the awareness to avoid falling for double moves (stop-and-go, slant-and-go and out-and-up) on the perimeter. If the defender plays with great discipline and awareness, he will easily avoid falling for such "sucker moves" and snag interceptions on a variety of throws tossed his direction.