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The Pump Fake
QBs still freezing defenders, creating separation with old tool
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Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers had first-and-goal at Carolina, poised to break open that September game in the third quarter.

Roethlisberger looked left, cocked his arm and completed his entire throwing motion, luring a Panthers linebacker toward the anticipated trajectory. The ball never came out, but a crowd of defenders gathered in that part of the field.

Big Ben then used another, quicker pump fake to draw the nickel cornerback further away from his favorite target Antonio Brown. Finally, Roethlisberger delivered the ball into the back right corner of the end zone behind the two defenders still close enough to get a hand in the way.


The NFL’s best quarterbacks have become better, post-modern offenses are more complex and the rules against down-field contact have been made stricter. Many times, though, the success of a passing play comes down to a simple old standby tool that’s been in the quarterback’s belt since the legalization of the forward pass.

The pump fake.

It’s just as much Johnny Unitas as it is Andrew Luck.

“You’ve just got to have great eyes. Don’t look at the quarterback. He’s like Medusa. He turns you into stone,” Minnesota cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, using Greek mythology to explain how to avoid getting beat by it.

Easier said than done.

“You’re taught to react. So every action is key,” Denver cornerback Tony Carter said. “If you’re a half-second off, it’s enough.”

Examples of defensive players frozen by pump fakes in critical situations aren’t hard to find. Here are three from this season:

u  Dallas trailed the New York Giants with barely a minute left in November, and the Cowboys offensive line gave Tony Romo almost 9 seconds to throw a second-and-short pass. Romo wound up with a big fake that sucked a safety into the shallow part of the field, and Dez Bryant eluded two other defenders on a crossing pattern to grab the go-ahead touchdown.

u  The following week, Green Bay took a 10-point lead on New England late in the first quarter when Aaron Rodgers found Richard Rodgers a step ahead of the safety for a 32-yard scoring pass. How did the rookie tight end get open? Rodgers faked a throw to his right toward Jordy Nelson, prompting the other Patriots safety to head that way.

u  Just last Sunday, Roethlisberger added another clip to his personal fake-throw highlight film, albeit during a less-dramatic 4-yard pass against Atlanta. He pivoted right and found Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann right in front of him. One pump wasn’t enough to get Biermann out of the way, so Roethlisberger raised his arm again as Biermann leapt high in hope of a bat-down.

The ball didn’t come out that time, either. Roethlisberger slung a sidearm throw to Brown, who maneuvered for a nominal gain. The Steelers kept that drive going and drained the clock for a seven-point victory.

“Kroy made a great play,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s the only option: Get it out as fast as you can.”

Roethlisberger was being rather modest.

“We know the play is never dead with him,” tight end Heath Miller said.

Being 6-foot-5 sure helps.

“It helps when you’ve got hands like his,” Steelers backup Bruce Gradkowski said. “I could never do that. I’d have the ball come out.”

Defenses aren’t helpless, of course.

Agile ends like Biermann, Houston’s J.J. Watt or Denver’s DeMarcus Ware are trained to disrupt even the shortest of throws when they’re not pursuing a sack against a deeper drop. Creating better passing lanes through the line and linebackers, then, is one reason to use the pump fake.

The other is to clear a safety away down the field. Typically, a receiver on one side will run a predetermined double route — like a slant-and-go — while the guy on the back side of the formation gets free on, say, a move up the seam.

Sometimes, well, it’s just improvisation.

CBS and SiriusXM analyst Rich Gannon, a 17-year NFL veteran and the league MVP in 2002, used the skill well while running the West Coast offense with Oakland. Luck, who with Seattle’s Russell Wilson is one of the best young pump-fakers around, remembered watching Gannon do that while growing up.

Gannon learned from TV, too, whether one of his peers like John Elway or Troy Aikman or Dan Marino.

“Sometimes I would pump knowing I had no inclination to even throw it that way,” Gannon said. “I knew where I was going to throw it. I just needed to move a linebacker so I’d have a bigger window to throw the football behind him. So it just comes with experience. When you’re a young guy, you’re just trying to throw it to the open guy. When you get older, you’re learning to manipulate the defenders.”

Even the best ones.

“Against an aggressive guy like me, a lot of quarterbacks try to pump fake me. Just trick plays, double moves,” Seattle safety Earl Thomas said. “It’s not going to be anything regular because they understand your understanding of what they’re trying to do.”