What Is a Check Down In Football

A check down in football refers to a safe short pass thrown when intermediate or deep receivers are covered. Check downs are one of the later reads by a quarterback meaning he will throw a check down after realizing the nearby receiver is his best option.

Check downs are most commonly thrown to running backs but can be caught by any eligible receiver. These throws usually go for a gain of a few yards but are often considered a negative play due to the small amount of yardage gained.

Where Are These Passes Thrown

Check down passes are almost always thrown in the flat. The flat refers to the area the covers the line of scrimmage and ten yards behind it.

The routes run most often on these plays is called a flat route. On these routes, the running back starts in the backfield and runs to the left or right sideline.

His route ends right around the line of scrimmage. When the ball is thrown to a player running the flat route he typically catches it right around the line of scrimmage and is able to get a few yards after the catch before being tackled.

running back check down

What does Captain Check Down Mean?

Captain check down is a nickname sometimes given to quarterbacks who have a tendency to check the ball down. When using check downs often in your offense you are likely not going to be very successful.

Some quarterbacks who lack elite arm talent tend to play it safe with these short passes. These passes when done often can also improve your stats somewhat artificially as you increase your completion percentage and are very unlikely to throw an interception.

This makes the overall image of a quarterback who throws these passes quite poor. Hence calling a quarterback captain check down means they are no good as all they do is throw safe short passes.

Why Do Quarterbacks Throw Checkdowns?

As you know by now check downs are not the most successful of passes to throw. So why are they so common in football?

There are several different reasons why quarterbacks opt to throw these passes.

Opposing Defense

The opposing defense’s strategy is a common reason for quarterbacks to throw these passes. A bend but don’t break defense is one that allows short plays but makes sure to stop long passes and runs.

This sort of defense is going to face a lot of these short throws. This is because that is what they are allowing the offense to have. When playing a defense like this your playcalling will naturally dictate some of these check downs.

This will allow the offense to consistently pick up chunks of yards. If they are able to do this consistently the defense may be forced to change their system.

Using these short passes is going to take advantage of the defensive formation. By playing towards their weaknesses check down passes can be used as a tool to win the game.

Quarterback talent

The other reason quarterbacks tend to make these short passes is because they are easy for the quarterback. Some quarterbacks don’t have the arm strength or accuracy to succeed in the NFL. These players mask this lack of talent by utilizing these short passes.

Windows in the NFL can be quite small and if your quarterback cannot zip it in there then a short safe pass may be the better option. This sort of situation is especially common when a rookie or backup quarterback are put into a game.

Additionally, on some occasions, offensive players are able to make something out of nothing when given the ball in space. This allows the odd checkdown to be effective. And often can make the quarterback look a little more competent than he is.

captain checkdown

Which Players Receive Check Downs?

When it comes to targetting teammates on check-downs there are a few positions that tend to catch the bulk of these passes. Since running backs and tight ends often act as a team’s safety valves these players are at the top of the list.

Running Back

Running back is usually the player on the team that is going to catch the most check-down passes. On a check down the quarterback is going to look deeper down the field only to settle for a shorter option.

Since running backs are typically closest to the quarterback they often present an easy short pass. Oftentimes the running back will simply wait in the flat as a check-down option if nothing else is open.

The catches will usually result in a small gain of yards but they are much better than taking a sack.

Tight End

The tight end is another option when it comes to check down passes for a quarterback. Since tight ends do not possess great speed their routes usually tend to be within ten or so yards of the quarterback.

These players also tend to be especially talented at finding holes in a zone defense.

When a quarterback cannot find his intended target it is common for them to look for an easy completion. A tight end sitting between two zones is often a great option for the quarterback.

This position is especially relevant on checkdowns when a player develops familiarity with their quarterback. Tight ends can often be the favourite receiving option for a quarterback when he gets in trouble.

This has been shown in the NFL with Heath Miller and Jason Witten. These two players were always the go-to option when their quarterbacks need to complete a pass.

The chemistry between a quarterback and their tight end can allow them to find each other in the chaos when a play breaks down.

Slot Receiver

The slot receiver is another position that is often on the receiving end of check-down passes from the quarterback. Slot receivers are quick shifty players that tend to receive a large number of short passes throughout a game.

The receivers tend to lack top-end speed and achieve the majority of their separation from short quick cuts.

This usually means the slot receiver will be within ten or so yards of the quarterback on the majority of their receiving routes. This paired with their ability to get open means that slot receivers are often a great option for a quarterback looking for an easy pass.

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