Ben’s Breakdown: how reading the quarterback’s eyes led to interceptions in CFL’s Week 16

Photo: Larry MacDougal/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

When you look at the 3DownNation power rankings, the commonality between the top four teams is that their starting quarterback is the same guy who appeared at the top of the depth chart in June.

Hamilton’s Taylor Powell, Ottawa’s Dustin Crum, and Edmonton’s Tre Ford each opened the season as their team’s third-string quarterback, while Jake Dolegala was Saskatchewan’s fourth stringer. Of the eight quarterbacks who played this past weekend, only Vernon Adams Jr. and Cody Fajardo have more than a season’s worth of starting experience.

Chad Kelly and Ford have lit the league on fire, Crum and Dolegala have provided shots of adrenaline at times, and Powell has shown intelligence and discipline in his development, but with youth come learning opportunities. Even the best quarterbacks throw interceptions, but most of the picks thrown this week were indicative of inexperienced quarterbacks staring down their receivers.

Of the 11 interceptions thrown this weekend, 10 were picked off by defenders who didn’t appear to have man coverage responsibility on the play.

Zone coverage produces more interceptions because defenders are generally able to see the play developing in front of them. Sometimes they recognize the concept, sometimes a receiver tips a route, and sometimes the quarterback inadvertently tells the defender where the ball is going. This week’s interceptions were primarily the result of the latter, with eight interceptions credited to defenders reading the eyes of the quarterback.


Saskatchewan called a stick concept to the left side out of trips, which featured Samuel Emilus running a go route on the outside with stick routes from the number two and three receivers. Against cover four, Emilus and quarterback Jake Dolegala were on the same page, electing to sit the go route instead of running directly into deep coverage. Dolegala’s mistake was staring at Emilus from the snap. From his deep sideline position, Deandre Lamont read Dolegala’s eyes and flashed in front of Emilus for the interception.


As a veteran quarterback, Vernon Adams Jr. doesn’t typically stare down his receivers, but a bobbled snap threw off his timing. He had Alexander Hollins bursting up the numbers before breaking outside. Reading Adams’ eyes from his deep boundary sideline spot in cover four, Kai Gray broke on the throw and jumped Hollins’ route for an easy pick-six.


With Montreal sending a full zero blitz, defensive end Shawn Lemon knew Calgary quarterback Jake Maier had to get the ball out quickly. When he couldn’t get past Joshua Coker with his initial surge, Lemon backed off and focused in on Maier’s eyes, which were following Tre Odoms-Dukes across the field. Lemon tracked to his left, timed his jump perfectly and made a spectacular interception.


On second-and-twelve, Montreal was running staggered hooks to the left side against the Stampeders’ three-man rush. Calgary’s Nick Statz was sitting at the sticks on the boundary hashmark to that side with a three-deep shell behind him. Cole Spieker’s five-yard hook on the hashmark was designed to draw Statz in, but with Fajardo staring down Tyler Snead, Statz held his ground and then broke towards Snead as Fajardo started his throwing motion. Snead’s perfect hook route was for naught as Statz snatched the ball out of the air with a diving catch.


I’ll never understand teams running cover three inside the five-yard-line, but it worked beautifully for Montreal in this instance. Playing centrefield and without having to worry about anything behind him, Alouettes safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy watched Jake Maier’s eyes track Tre Odoms-Dukes into the end zone. By the time Odoms-Dukes broke in on his dig route, Dequoy was already attacking the ball, picking it off just before it reached the Calgary receiver.


Taylor Powell had two receivers to his left, Tyreik McAllister running a whip route from the inside, and Kiondre Smith with a 15-yard dig route in behind him. The whip route was supposed to draw in Wynton McManis from his middle linebacker position, opening up Smith in behind him, but McManis never bought it because Powell was watching Smith the entire time. After his drop, McManis followed Powell’s eyes and undercut Smith for a 58-yard pick-six.


The Argos were running dagger, a full-field concept designed to attack the middle of the field. Dejon Brissett had a drag route from Chad Kelly’s left, and on the right Rajae’ Johnson had a vertical route from the slot with Damonte Coxie running a 17-yard dig from out wide. The drag was meant to hold the linebackers, preventing them from cutting off the dig route, but in a pseudo cover one with a three-man rush, Jameer Thurman was left to roam the middle of the field. Thurman followed Kelly’s gaze, which was focused on Coxie, and when Casey Sayles tipped the pass, Thurman was directly in the ball’s flight path for the interception.

Flea flunker

On second-and-two, Hamilton tried to run a flea flicker, but everything went wrong. The Argos actually had a bust in coverage as both the boundary corner and halfback blitzed leaving Terry Godwin uncovered, but James Butler’s pitch back was off to the right. Powell secured the football with one hand, but with defenders bearing down on him, he threw the ball directly to Wynton McManis. He obviously wasn’t trying to throw it to McManis, but he threw where he was looking, and that’s where McManis headed.

As quarterbacks develop, they learn to use their eyes to their advantage, moving zone defenders away from where they want to go with the football, and there were some examples of this over the weekend as well.

Not all the league’s young quarterbacks are at that level yet, but they won’t get there without experience. It may hurt in the short term to be without Bo Levi Mitchell, Jeremiah Masoli, and Trevor Harris, but the young quarterbacks filling in for them will learn important lessons that will set both themselves and the league up for success in the future.

Ben Grant is the radio colour analyst for the Toronto Argonauts. He has been coaching high school and semi-pro football for 20 years.