The Art of Separation

When discussing receivers, the typical evaluator will discuss size, speed, strength, hands, body control, and route running. A bigger wide receiver has an opportunity to make more catches because his size gives him an advantage. Hands, speed, and strength are pretty self-explanatory. Body control is more about a receiver’s ability to haul in the ball while he’s in the air. Route running is about a receiver’s ability to make sharp cuts and that gives him a better chance at getting separation.

Separation is the Holy Grail for a wide receiver. Being able to put space between his self and a defender is a quarterback’s best friend. It allows the QB to be more confident in his read and his throw.

It also has a big advantage in tight coverage.

I know that sounds confusing. If there is tight coverage, then it doesn’t seem like the receiver has separation, right?A lot of times a receiver must separate himself from a defender while the ball is in the air. There are very nuanced and subtle ways to do this that many receivers overlook. The best receivers in the league can fight off defenders with subtle tactics to create separation just before the ball arrives that essentially makes the defender incapable of defending the pass.

In New England, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker were two of the best at these very sly ways of separation. Welker has continued that tradition in Denver, and it’s a big reason why Peyton – and Brady before him – trusted Welker so much even though diminutive in stature and speed.

This catch against the Colts in week seven is a perfect example.

The Setup

Crucial situation. The Broncos are trailing 39-30 against the Colts. It’s 3rd and 17 in the 4th quarter and only 4:45 left. If the Broncos don’t get a 1st down here, the game is pretty much over. Peyton Manning shows his trust in Wes Welker to win in a tough situation.

Welker - Presnap

Welker is running a seam route up the numbers here. He has a hard outside stem and puts the cornerback on his inside hip. The corner will jam Welker off the line of scrimmage but the strong outside stem allows Welker to get into his route without much disruption to the timing.

Welker - All22 Throw

Cornerback Darius Butler is stride for stride with Welker on this route when the throw is made. The ball is in the air and Butler has great position. This coverage is about as good as it gets.

The Separation

Welker - Broadcast Stiff Arm

Welker is listed at 5-9 and 185 lbs. and is used to having to find ways to get separation. The route here will help Welker with that, but most importantly, note his hand placement on cornerback Darius Butler. He’s not shoving Butler, instead this is more of an arm bar while the ball is in the air.

Welker - Arm Zoom

This is a better shot of Welker’s hand placement. Notice how it’s low and under the shoulder. This is really a form of offensive pass interference but the lower the hand placement, the less likely it is to get called. This is actually a call that offensive players get away with on a regular basis, but Welker is the master of it.

Welker - Field End Zone arm route

You can see that Welker is angling back into the numbers. This throw is supposed to be thrown a yard or two outside the numbers to keep the safety from getting involved. Manning will throw it perfectly, except Welker is angling his route slightly back into the middle of the field. This drives the corner, who is on his inside hip, further away from the ball location. Welker’s use of his hands and feet have put Butler, who has played this route perfectly, in a position where he actually doesn’t have a play on the ball as it comes down.

The Catch

Welker - Catch

The ball is placed perfectly just outside the numbers. Welker has used his hands and feet to create separation when he extends for the ball. Butler, who initially was blanketing Welker, is now just an innocent bystander watching Welker haul in the pass.

This is a great example of how Welker can use subtle techniques to create spacing. This is a hard skill to evaluate as many scouts can overlook this principle. Welker likely learned it instinctively because he’s had to fight against bigger and faster corners his entire life. Larger receivers are less likely to have these subtleties down because they’ve never had to resort to them.

This is one of the largest factors in a wide receiver’s ability to win on throws down the field. Even a little separation can mean the difference between a deflection or a catch. When running routes down the sidelines, receivers will sometimes slow their feet while the ball is in the air and then speed up while using their elbow or arm to help create separation. Randy Moss and Brandon Lloyd were fantastic at this tactic.

In football it’s the details that matter. It can mean the difference between an incompletion or an explosive play for a touchdown. With such a small margin for error every week, it would benefit receivers to practice these tactics often.

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