A "pick-play" is essentially offensive pass interference, the following clarification gets at the heart of the matter.
Rule 8, Section 5, Article 2 (Forward Pass, Backward Pass, Fumble)
Prohibited Acts by both teams while the ball is in the air. Acts that are pass interference include, but are not limited to:
(e) cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball.
Seems simple enough right? The important wording in this portion of the pass interference rule is "making contact with him." The tricky part is it is still completely a judgement call by the ref. In most cases (even though we know these plays are designed to create the pick effect), the question that arises is intent. If there is contact, was the contact intentional? Did the receiver knowingly cut off a defender to spring someone else open? Was the receiver just running a route and things got congested?
When judging intent, the little things that Broncos receivers do make it near impossible to call the penalty. I have seen these plays run many times and almost every time, the receiver slows down and seems to try and avoid blatant contact with the receiver. They keep their arms to themselves and make no chuck content whatsoever. So they avoid blatant contact which takes away that first part of subsection (e).
A fine line, but a line the Broncos likely addressed in Training Camp. Remember, teams have officiating crews in to go over all the rules and procedures and most importantly provide clear examples of what does and does not constitute an infraction.
Let us use an example. You tell me, is their intent to make contact without playing the ball?
So what do you say it is? I'm going to tell you right now, it's a beautifully designed stab/crossing route combination meant to pick the Mike LB and spring the crossing route coming against the grain.
Truthfully though, I can argue either side. I can say "hey I'm just running my route, I have every right to that real estate as the defender."
These route combinations are what muddle intent and make these pick routes judgement calls. It is hard to call in real time when the motion that occurs is not so overt that it draws attention to itself. So unless you see a blocking motion like grabbing outside the shoulder pads or extending the arms after a pushoff, anything short of knocking a defender on his ass is probably not going to get called.
Now here is an example of a legal pick play.
From the same rule, Article 4 "Other Prohibited Acts by the Offense. Blocking more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage by an offensive player prior to a pass being thrown is offensive pass interference."
The key wording here is "more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage." Within a yard you may block and knowing this rule is something that has set up one of the best redzone plays the Broncos use.
Man to man, Welker (orange) will be sprung by this legal pick. The Broncos are at the one yard line so a block between the 1 and the goalline is legal. Demaryius is going to shoot across and impede Welker's man, also in the process bringing his man with him. Here he also avoids running over the DB and once the block is made, springs for the corner.
Notice that the pick or block happens at about the half yardline (completely within the rules). Something opposing DB's should recognize is this play and the corners should actually switch off in order to neutralize the pick. In that instance, Thomas probably has good leverage on a fade to the corner.
Welker's man is now chasing a step and a half behind and the play is wide open for the TD.
Great design, and within the rules.
What did we learn today?
- Pick plays are cleverly designed combination routes
- Pick plays when carried out correctly leave the question of intent wide open for interpretation
- Despite all the complaining Chiefs fans do about the Broncos using them, the Chiefs use them too
- There are legal pick plays so long as the pick occurs within one yard of the line of scrimmage
- The Denver Broncos are really good at executing them, pound sand NFL
Bottom line, this is a huge gray area that will be widely debated and analyzed until the NFL decides to clarify what they will and will not call. The refs have a hard enough time deciding what constitutes PI in the first place so if you are not a fan of pick routes, you probably will be annoyed by them for years to come.