One of the biggest gameplay issues that I notice people struggling with is the deep ball. As many of us have migrated to the "next-gen" systems, we have had to completely change our offensive approaches now that lob passes into double and triple coverage are no longer completed with ease. While the game has become more realistic now that the deep pass is not completed with such high frequency, there are some issues that arguably make deeper passes overly difficult to complete. For many people, the difficulty they encounter in completing the deep ball is extremely frustrating, and results in extreme disappointment with the game. While I agree that the vertical passing game is, at times, under effective, I have also found a number of effective ways to produce big plays in the passing game on deep throws.
There are 3 important steps that are vital in the vertical passing game. Understanding how to translate these steps into the video game is the key to completing more deep passes.
1) Deeper passes take more time to develop, and thus require better pass protection than short or intermediate passes. The QB can't make a throw downfield if he's been sacked before the WR has had a chance to get deep -- pass protection is vital.
2) The receiver has to beat his man and get open. In terms of NCAA Football, it's important to understand what routes will get open against various coverages. If you try to throw the wrong route against the wrong coverage, then the WR will have almost no chance to make a play, regardless of what kind of ratings mismatch you have.
3) The QB has to throw the ball on time and lead the WR to an open area. Nothing is more frustrating than having a receiver beat his man by several steps, and then watch the quarterback either throw the ball out of bounds, or more commonly in NCAA Football 08, throw a low flying bullet-type pass which the DB then easily bats down or intercepts.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the elements that are important in the vertical passing game, we can narrow things down by taking these basic principles, and applying them in the game with specific plays and adjustments that will actually work in the game.
How to Protect the Passer
The first element that's outlined above is pass protection. In NCAA Football, pass protection can be a tricky proposition due to the lack of slide protection. Often times, against the aggressive blitzing type defenses that might be vulnerable to a deep pass, it can be extremely difficult to block everybody and give the play time to develop -- especially if you play online or competitively. The difference between the good players and the great players though is the great players know how to beat the blitz for big plays on a consistent basis. Once you learn how to protect the passer against the heat, you can actually turn the tables on the defense and make them afraid to blitz you, which is a huge advantage.
There are really two ways to improve pass protection and give the QB more time to throw. The first is off of play action. This holds true in real life as well as the video game, and is most effective from under-center type sets like Ace Big or the various I-formation sets. The play action fake causes the defensive line to abandon the pass rush and try and stop the running back; it also has a side effect of potentially drawing a safety down closer to the line of scrimmage (LOS), or preventing a linebacker from dropping into his zone. However, in terms of the deeper passing game, these things are less important than the added pass protection. It's worth noting that in real life, most of the deep balls that teams attempt involve a play action fake, for this very reason. Most of the time, the idea behind the play action fake is not to have any direct effect on the DB that's guarding the intended WR, but rather to simply give the QB more time to throw, and to perhaps cause the safety to be slow in giving support over the top.
The other thing that can improve pass protection is to hot route players to stay in and block. Often times the "stock" plays have a fullback or tight end running a shorter route that isn't effective, and by hot routing these players to stay in and block, the offense will get a lot more time to throw the ball. This tactic can also be used in conjunction with play action to give us even more time to throw (and in addition to that, play action pass plays where the fullback and/or tight end stay in to block are much more difficult for a human opponent to diagnose as a pass play). The basic goal of hot routing players in to pass protect is to ensure that nobody comes through the line untouched. In most cases, the maximum number of blockers is 8, which is termed "max protection." As you math wizards may have deduced, an 8-man pass protection scheme only puts 2 players out in pass routes; so it's important to only use this type of protection against heavy blitzes where the defense only has a few players in pass coverage. Most of the time, a 6 or 7 man protection scheme (hot routing one or two players to block, and then having 4 or 5 players run pass routes) will be adequate. Another thing that can help improve pass protection in singleback (either shotgun or under-center Ace formations), is to use package subs and put a fullback in instead of your running back, since he's likely a better pass blocker.
But in order for these hot route adjustments to be effective, you also have to know where the blitz is coming from. If you have a running back hot routed to block to the right, and there's a heavy blitz coming from the left, then the play won't be successful. Some shotgun formations, where the HB and TE are both lined up on the same side of the formation (strong side) have inherent vulnerabilities to blitzes that overload the "weak" side, and in those cases it will be necessary to use both hot routes and motion to move a blocker over so he's in position to pick up the blitz. One thing that I really like to do against opponents that I know like to blitz a lot is to hot route 2 players to block (giving me 7 total pass blockers with my 5 OL and the 2 additional protectors), and have one player block to each side. If it's a formation with a tight end and only one halfback, I'll hot route the tight end to block, and then have the halfback block to the side of the formation opposite where the TE is lined up. If it's a 2 back formation, I'll hot route the backs to block in opposite directions. While this doesn't always work perfectly, it does greatly improve pass protection against most plays.
But wait, it gets even more complicated. In NCAA Football, defensive players in man coverage will automatically convert their man to man assignment to one of 3 possibilities when that man is assigned to block. Safeties will convert their man to man assignments into a deep zone over the middle, outside linebackers will convert their man to man assignment into a blitz, and middle linebackers will convert their man to man assignment into a QB spy. The two of these that are most troublesome are the deep zones of the safeties which can prevent the WR from getting open deep, and the blitz assignments of the OLBs which bring added pressure and prevent the play from having time to develop. One way to counteract this effect is to use "delay" routes (which are the blue colored routes on the play diagram). Delay routes essentially cause the designated player to stay in and block for a few seconds before releasing into a pattern, which is important for two reasons: First, it gives added protection without causing the defense to blitz extra players the same way that a regular pass block assignment does. Secondly, if a safety is assigned to guard the player, he won't convert to a deep zone and take away the deep ball.
In addition to these adjustments, you may also need to be prepared to roll out of the pocket. Aside from the overload blitzes up the middle that can create problems, one popular tactic in online play is to pinch and then crash the defensive line, which can also produce extreme pressure coming up the middle (again, due to the lack of slide protection). One thing that I have found useful is to hot route a TE to block and then roll out to that side after the snap. Another trick that a lot of people don't know about is that you can actually hot route WRs to block; so if you're in a bunch formation, or perhaps a 5-wide formation where a WR is lined up close to the offensive line, you could even hot route him to block and then roll out to that side. The critical thing to understand when rolling out of the pocket is to roll out to the same side as the pass routes are developing so you're not trying to throw all the way back across the field. I know that a lot of guys in the sim community get a bit ill when people talk about rolling out, but the reality is that you essentially have to be prepared to do it with the lack of slide protection and all the heat that comes up the middle in this game. And it's not all that unrealistic, teams often use designed roll outs to move the pocket and help avoid pressure.
One thing that I would suggest to anybody that's interested in developing a vertical passing game is to go into practice mode against a defense that has a good front 7 (I always use LSU or USC), put the defense in various heavy blitz playcalls (if you play online, you might make note of what formations people tend to blitz out of effectively, and then practice against the heavy blitz plays from those formations) and experiment with different combinations of hot routes, motions, delay routes, and QB roll outs to see what works best for you. You might also find it useful make notes against the computer so you can decipher what formations tend to generate the most pressure, and to then practice against those formations.
While it can be frustrating to produce time for the QB with the lack of slide protection, there are ways to do so effectively. It's a slow process that takes time and patience, but once you unlock the secret of pass protection, you will immediately experience an improvement in your deep passing attack.