What can Terry McLaurin learn from working with Doug Baldwin?
Washington’s star receiver worked with Baldwin this offseason, but what can he take from Baldwin’s game to improve his own?
Terry McLaurin has already established himself as the top wide receiver on the Washington Football Team roster and one of the best young receivers in the league. Going into his third season in the NFL, McLaurin has the opportunity to take the next step and become a truly elite receiver. He improved from year one to year two, running even crisper routes, being more physical after the catch and fighting through the extra attention he earned from defenses from his impressive rookie campaign.
But there is still room to grow for McLaurin. A key part of his game that he’s focusing on this offseason is releases. McLaurin is an X receiver, which means the majority of the time, he aligns directly on the line of scrimmage rather than a yard off it like the Z receiver typically does. That means that if the opposing cornerback looks to play physical press coverage, they can get right up in his face and give him no space from the snap. This makes releasing into a route against physical press coverage very difficult to do without getting knocked off the path and messing up the timing of the route.
McLaurin isn’t bad with releases. In fact, because of his speed, he can use a speed release off the line and run by a corner if they aren’t fully alert to the snap. But there are times when McLaurin has struggled to release. Some corners are just as fast as him, enabling them to match his speed release, while others are bigger and physical, using their size and length to land a jam at the line of scrimmage.
So to help him develop an arsenal of releases, McLaurin worked out with former Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin this offseason. Baldwin wasn’t the biggest, fastest or strongest receiver, but he was consistently one of the best route runners in the league during his eight year career.
So what are some things that McLaurin can learn from Baldwin? Fortunately, he did an NFL GamePass Film Sessions video a few years ago and discussed his route running and release techniques.
There are three main points Baldwin made in that video that are worth looking into.
One of the keys to success in the NFL is preparation. That extends far beyond just understanding the game plan that the coaches install each week. Baldwin cited how he used to keep a portfolio every year full of details on each defensive back he faced, the techniques they used and what situations they used them in. That allowed Baldwin to know patterns over years of film study that gave him knowledge of what he was likely to be up against before he even set foot on the field. Things like depth of cushion, leverage alignment and even which hand the defender used to jam were all details Baldwin was aware of going into each game.
Back in 2017, Washington fell victim to that level of preparation.
On this play, Baldwin beats Josh Norman for a 30-yard touchdown late in the game. He makes a terrific move at the line of scrimmage to avoid a strong jam attempt from Norman, eluding him completely on his way across the middle of the field, leaving him wide open for an easy touchdown. The way Baldwin anticipated the jam from Norman was almost like he knew it was coming. That’s because, as Baldwin explained in his Film Sessions piece, he did know it was coming.
“I’m taking in information from before we’re on the field, you know the week prior when we’re studying the film and getting the scouting report up to this point where he started to come up in my face. Just knowing Josh Norman, he plays on the right side of the offense. When he ever tries to put his hands on you, if he does his one-hand jab, he’s always going to lead with the left. He’s going to jab with the left so that he has safety help. That’s just what he does.
“The difference is, now he’s in the slot with me. That’s my playground, that’s where I like to get down. He’s starting to inch forward and I’m feeling him. Really all it is, I’m reading body language. I’m reading his body language, his mannerisms, and when I’m watching film I’ll just watch how guys walk on the field, what kind of man they are and it tells me a lot about them. In this situation, I know that Josh Norman is confident enough in his ability that he’s going to try to do this. So when he starts to lean, I already know what I’m going to do.”
Norman leans in and attempts that one-handed jab with his left hand, just as Baldwin anticipated, and he defeats it with an incredible dodge at the line that allows him to release freely inside. It’s a fantastic play, but it’s one that comes from hours of preparation and film study.
It’s evident McLaurin studies film just from the way he runs his routes and attacks certain defenders. But the level of detail Baldwin goes into and the portfolios he creates every year to give himself an archive of information to go back to is next level preparation. McLaurin referenced that there’s a lot of film out there on him now and certain defenders will have played against him multiple times. Keeping records on what techniques the likes of Eagles’ cornerback Darius Slay uses against him, for example, will go a long way to helping him win that match up twice a year.
As Baldwin emphasized with his preparation, gathering information is key. But that isn’t just limited to before the game. Information can be learned even as the play develops. McLaurin loves to use his speed to run by corners, which is great when it works. But when it doesn’t, he’s going too fast to really read what the corner is trying to do to him and missing potential clues that could help him get open.
Baldwin was excellent at the line of scrimmage because he wasn’t ever in a rush, he always remained patient. In his Film Sessions piece, he talked about using a skip step to gather information from the cornerback covering him. By taking this patient step, he could learn clues from the corner’s body language, positioning and reaction to his first steps that give him valuable information.
“So depending on what the route is, obviously, I’ve got to figure out which side I’m going to try and attack you at. So, when I’m doing the skip, I’m just gathering information.” Baldwin explained. “So lets say I’m trying to go outside. So I’ll come off [the line of scrimmage with the skip step] and I’ll kind of lean to the inside so that way [the defender] kind of opens his hips that way and then I’m crossing over back [outside]. All it is is body language and mannerisms, so I’m reading [that].”
This play is a perfect example of what Baldwin is talking about. Baldwin is isolated to the left of the formation and the Titans leave a corner in press coverage against him. Off the snap, Baldwin uses that skip step that he mentioned to gather information on the cornerback. The corner allows him to work inside and opens his hips inside. This tells Baldwin the corner wants to protect the outside and funnel Baldwin inside towards the safety. Baldwin then changes the pace of his route, speeding up a bit as he works down the field. He then suddenly sells a jab step inside, getting the corner to freeze for a second as he prepares to work inside. Baldwin then bursts past the corner to the outside and down the sideline.
For McLaurin, being patient more often is something he can improve on. There are times when he is patient at the line of scrimmage and there are times when he is too hurried.
On third and seven, McLaurin motions across the formation from left to right. The motion allows him to stack behind tight end Logan Thomas, keeping him off the line of scrimmage and protected from a potential jam at the line. However, McLaurin doesn’t make use of the advantage gained from his alignment. Perhaps because of the urgency of a third down play, McLaurin rushes off the line and at his defender, getting himself jammed as he looks to break, instead of setting up the defender for a clean break. The defender is able to get his hands on McLaurin and stick to him, stopping any separation and preventing him from getting his hands to the ball as it falls incomplete.
In those key third down situations, the urgency can cause players to rush, but Baldwin was so effective in those situations because of his patience. Had McLaurin taken a skip step to gather information and set up a break inside, then he might have been able to separate and pick up the first down.
Setting up defenders
The combination of preparation and patience allowed Baldwin to gather as much information as possible as he looked to release into his route. Knowing the tendencies of each defender from film study and quickly processing cues from body language and mannerisms during the play gave Baldwin the ability to attack leverage and manipulate defenders to create separation on a consistent basis.
On this wheel route, Baldwin aligns in the slot against Vontae Davis. Davis plays with a press technique at the line of scrimmage with outside leverage. This isn’t ideal for Baldwin, who wants to work outside on his wheel route, meaning Baldwin has to find a way to manipulate Davis off his outside leverage if he is to avoid getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. Baldwin takes his skip step inside to gather information. Davis responds not by attempting to jam at the line, but by opening up his hips slightly inside.
Baldwin knows that with Davis’ hips aligned that way, he has an opportunity to beat him with his signature crossover move. With Davis keeping his hands low, Baldwin also knows there isn’t a threat of a jam yet, so he has time to take an extra step or two. Baldwin takes full advantage, using that extra step to sell a hard jab step inside. Davis bites on the fake inside and Baldwin crosses him up with the crossover move to get back outside and work freely into his route.
It’s a terrific release and route in general from Baldwin. That crossover move is a fantastic weapon to have and McLaurin has used it from time to time, but has had mixed results with it.
On this play against the Rams, McLaurin works against a corner that has consistently pressed him at the line of scrimmage throughout the game. He wants to work inside on a curl route, so he attempts to set it up using a similar method to Baldwin. He takes his first few steps outside before crossing over back inside and up the seam. However, the pacing of the route and number of steps is what causes McLaurin issues. The route is all one pace from the moment the ball is snapped. He instantly rushes outside and then uses a few stutter steps before working back inside. Baldwin was much more subtle, using the skip step to slowly work into the route and gather information before suddenly bursting one way or the other.
McLaurin’s stutter step move takes too many steps and prevents him from crossing over with the sharpness needed to get by the defender. The defender is able to reach out with his inside hand and land it on McLaurin’s chest as he uses the crossover, which helps the defender flip his hips and stay on McLaurin’s hip throughout the route.
That’s not to say McLaurin can’t use the crossover though. There were times during the season he had great success with it.
Here, McLaurin worked against a Detroit Lions team that focused on pressing at the line and playing man coverage. He’s tasked with running an out-breaking route from a split outside the numbers, which can be hard to create separation without some set up. McLaurin opts for the crossover at the line of scrimmage, but sets it up better this time. Instead of full speed and multiple stutter steps, McLaurin slows himself down a bit at the line. He works inside initially with a jab step that gets the defender to open his hips inside. McLaurin then knows he has the beating of the defender and quickly crosses him up to burst by him on the outside. It’s a clean release that allows McLaurin to set up the rest of his route and create plenty of separation down the field for a big gain.
That play shows that McLaurin is perfectly capable of emulating the type of releases and route running ability Doug Baldwin displayed throughout his career. However, he’ll need to replicate the preparation and patience that Baldwin had if he is to learn how to set up defenders and release cleanly on a consistent basis.