The Elephant in the Locker Room: The Preparation in Lockett’s Separation


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By Greg Wright

“The separation is in the preparation,” Russell Wilson is fond of saying. By that, he means “Do your homework, and it will pay off on the field.”

Seattle wideout Tyler Lockett has become an expert at getting just the right kind of separation at just the right time while running his routes for Russell Wilson, and the skill has paid great dividends this year for the Seahawks… and for Lockett particularly, whose brand-new 3-year, $37.8 million contract extension prior to the start of the season is now widely regarded as a bargain for the ball club.

This week, the Seattle Times dubbed Lockett the “Contact King. The Flag Aficionado. The Houdini of Hand-Fighting.” This after Football Outsiders reported that Lockett leads the league in drawing defensive pass-interference calls. In addition to Lockett’s 899 yards receiving, his downfield skills have produced 182 yards in pass-interference penalties on 6 plays, all for automatic first downs averaging 30 yards. What an asset.

The Times‘ Mike Vorel, in an attempt to describe Lockett’s skill with “hand-fighting” while running in lock step with defensive backs, said of one such play that Lockett “attempted to extend his arms, felt a relatively microscopic amount of contact and dramatically dropped like he had unexpectedly lost control of his lower extremities.” Vorel makes it sound like Lockett has simply perfected the art of pro-soccer flopping.

Hardly.

What Lockett does is far more sophisticated than that. And as for Lockett himself, he’s not particularly dishing on his secrets. All he would tell Vorel is that “I try to put myself in positions where it’s easy to be able to see it if I’m not able to get both my hands up.” And that involves a whole lot of preparation that Lockett puts into getting just the right amount of separation from the DB at just the right time–simultaneously opening up the windows of visibility for the officials and confusing the hell out of the DB about where the ball is, and when it’s arriving. Fellow receiver David Moore offered Vorel a little better insight to the knack: “Tyler’s great at attacking the ball at the end of the play.”

If you study film of the P.I. calls that Lockett draws, you will notice a number of key points.

First, he’s speedy enough, quick enough, and tricky enough to get DBs chasing him downfield immediately off the line of scrimmage. And more often than not, Lockett will win the battle for the sideline. This gets the DB’s back to the QB, so that his only clue about the movement of the ball in the air will come from the receiver himself. Advantage, Lockett.

Second, Lockett is indeed incredibly skillful at tracking the ball in flight, even as he’s racing 3o or 4o yards downfield–even if, as in last week’s game with Kansas City, Wilson has lofted the ball in an impossibly high arc so that it’s dropping down into Lockett’s hands at an incredibly steep angle.

But third, where Lockett really excels in tracking the ball is not giving away the position of the ball via hand movements or facial expressions. In fact, Lockett tightly controls his hand movements and facial expressions to fake out DBs–either making them think the ball is arriving earlier than it actually is, or surprising them cold with its “sudden” arrival on target.

Yet the truly astounding factor in all of this is Lockett’s athleticism as he is able to make very subtle changes to his downfield trajectory so that he is in complete control of his body’s proximity to that of the DB–so that he has closeness when he wants it, and separation when he wants it… and pass interference calls when he wants them.

Finally, he has brilliant instincts about when it’s better to draw P.I. than to attempt a catch–when a D.B. simply has better position, or when the ball will be slightly under- or over-thrown. He’s managing probabilities all while running sprints and hand-fighting.

I seriously think that DBs and WRs alike will be doing masses of film study on Lockett in the coming weeks and years. Analyzing his moves is a master clinic in technique.

Let’s look at just two sequences, both from the first half of the win over the Chiefs.

Working against Free Safety Steve Nelson, Lockett wins the initial hand battle at the line of scrimmage, releasing downfield and already turning to look for the ball. Nelson immediately has to be concerned about the ball being in the air.

 

Lockett then adjusts his path downfield, taking a step further toward the sideline. Nelson has to counter, both slowing him slightly and bringing his momentum across Lockett’s path.

 

Just as Nelson’ momentum brings his body into contact with Lockett again, Lockett brings his right arm up in a motion that Nelson interprets as the arrival of the ball. He begins to turn his head to look for it.

 

The ball is nowhere close to arriving, and Lockett knows it–and also knows he has Nelson completely bamboozled. Lockett pulls away from Nelson, getting the separation that he wants while Nelson is looking away for the ball, and as Lockett’s right arm is clearly being held down by the bewildered Nelson. Right in full view of officials and thousands of spectators.

 

By the time the ball arrives on the scene (circled), Lockett is already flat on his belly and the automatic first down by P.I. is secured. Nelson still has no idea what has just happened, or where the ball is. Lockett has known all along. Genius.

Here is the second.

Just before halftime, Lockett is working against CB Charvarius Ward on the opposite side of the field. Again, Lockett wins the hand-fighting battle for position off the line of scrimmage, and Ward is forced into reaction mode.

 

As against Nelson earlier, Lockett uses this advantage to get separation and take a step toward the sideline, baiting Ward into following.

 

Ward’s momentum takes him into Lockett as Lockett steps toward Ward. As Lockett brings up his right arm, Ward instinctively reaches out to impede the motion, interpreting it as the arrival of the ball. He has no choice because he has no idea where the ball is. That white glove on the dark blue jersey screams “I’M GRABBING HIM! SEE???”

 

Ward starts turning to find the ball and Lockett pulls away, knowing full well that the refs and everyone in the world can see Ward’s armful of bicep. Ward aids and abets Lockett as his motion to find the ball accentuates both the interference and the separation.

 

Lockett flings an arm out in gesture that says “I’d love to get TWO arms out here to catch this thing, and I’ll give you two guesses as to why I CAN’T!”

 

Again, Lockett is already on the turf and the automatic first down guaranteed before the ball ever hits the ground. Doubtful that Lockett could have gotten to that one if he’d wanted to… but we’ll never know, will we? And it just doesn’t matter. Brilliant.

Keep an eye on this guy. He’s gonna be driving defensive backs crazy from here on out. Before they even step on the field, he’s gonna be in their heads.


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