The check-down pass in the NFL was once considered nothing more than a safe play used as a last resort to help a quarterback avoid pressure and maybe keep him off the ground.
That play might have gained 5 to 8 yards, keeping a drive alive or setting up a short-yardage situation on the next down, but more importantly it kept the quarterback upright.
These days, it's much more than that. The check-down pass has become a weapon.
|Drew Brees and Pierre Thomas combined for six catches, 55 yards and a 16-yard TD in the Super Bowl. (Getty Images)|
Close your eyes for a second. You can visualize Brees scanning the field, looking left, looking right, looking deep and then short, dumping a pass to Reggie Bush or Pierre Thomas, their speed turning what looks like a 5-yard gain into a 15-yard gain -- or more.
"I think with any good passing game it's a must," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
With the emergence of spread offenses in the NFL, including teams using more three- and four-receiver sets on early downs to put pressure on defenses across the field, offensive coaches are seeing more and more chances to make the check-down a weapon.
"Chunk yards in the passing game can be a 6-yard check-down that turns into [a] huge gain," Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "We talk a lot about our quarterbacks throwing check-downs to locations. If the pass is accurate, it can turn the little play into a big one."
It's much more than just calling a play for the ball to be thrown to the back as the No. 1 option. For check-down plays to succeed, it has to be one of the last reads for the quarterback. It can't just be having the quarterback look to the first read and then throw the check-down. That's what young and not-so-good quarterbacks do. They play scared, with the check-down as their security blanket.
What the good ones do is scan the field first, looking for a big play elsewhere, before settling for the check-down. It might be the fourth read on a play, which is why it can be so effective.
That can mean the back is either in one-on-one coverage or he's moving to a vacant spot in the zone, ready to run away from traffic.
"He's as good as it gets throwing those passes," Ryan said. "It's such a big part of their offense. I wanted to see how he does so well. I noticed how accurate he is with the passes."
When Ryan came into the league as a rookie, he had a long talk with longtime NFL quarterback Rich Gannon about a variety of topics. During that talk, Gannon told him how important the check-down pass -- and the accuracy associated with it -- would be during his NFL career.
Ryan said he winced at that thought.
"The more I think about it now, it was brilliant," Ryan said. "He was right on."
If Peyton Manning is the master of the pre-snap theatrics, Brees can stake claim to being the best at throwing check-down passes. His ability to fire pinpoint passes, hitting Bush and the other backs on the run, is a big reason the Saints have finished in the top five in passing in each of Brees' four seasons with the team, twice finishing first.
The backs have been a big part of that. In 2006, Bush had 88 catches, then 73 in 2007. Injuries limited him the past two seasons to 17 starts, but he still had 52 and 47 catches. Thomas, the Saints' primary runner last season, had 39 catches in 2009.
But the key stat is this: They were one of only three teams to have two backs in the top 30 in the league with receptions that had yards after catch (YAC) of 11-20 yards. The other two were the Vikings and Patriots, who also happened to be quarterbacked by two good ones.
That means the two Saints backs turned a lot of short passes into big plays. Thomas had 11 catches with 11-20 YAC yards, while Bush had nine. That means 16.6 percent of their catches went for 11-20 yards after the catch.
"There's so much at work there," Brees said. "It's not just as simple as checking it down to a guy. First of all, you have to have players that can make something happen when they have the ball in their hands. You know, make a guy miss, set the speed, take it the distance or make a big play.
"But to create those opportunities for those guys underneath, you've got to have guys who can stretch a field that defenses are concerned about. Then there's just the level of patience on my part just to know that we don't have to force those things down the field."
One of the hidden keys of the check-down play is throwing accuracy. It has to be at the right spot, hitting the back on the run. If a back has to hesitate, the play might be stopped for a short gain. If he catches it on the run, it could be a touchdown.
It would seem to be one of the easiest throws. It is not.
"You're throwing to a guy in traffic who doesn't catch the ball for a living like a receiver," Ryan said. "That makes it tough. You have to hit them at the right time to make it an explosive play. You hit them on the run when they're running away from a defender or where they can turn away from the defender, make somebody miss, and then they have nobody within 25 yards. The accuracy of the throw is huge."
That's why Ryan studied Brees so intensely. He excels at hitting backs on the run in the right spot.
"Sometimes the underneath throws are the toughest," Brees said. "Your vision with all of those bodies in front of your face and trying to find throwing lanes and be accurate with the football ... can be difficult. There's a lot of things at work there, but that takes guys who can catch it underneath and secure the ball and then make a guy miss to make a big play."
As more and more teams spread the field, the check-down will be even more important.
"That's one thing I noticed more last season," Sparano said. "There was a lot more open area in the middle of the field. That makes the check-down even more important. Then what happens is they start playing the check-down and you can hit plays over the top in the area behind them. That's when you have the really big plays."
CBSSports.com correspondent Larry Holder contributed to this story.