Thursday, June 17, 2010

Run for your lives!!

The other day I promised a treatise of sorts on the running game, and here is the fruits of my labor. Just so we're clear, we're talking about a good old fashioned running game, not the "spread to run" philosophy. We're talking 7 or 8 men in the box, driving guys off the ball and controlling the rock and the clock with the run game. Why you might ask? I'm just a little tired of hearing about all the benefits of "spread" offenses, that cream lesser opposition into the floor only to come a little unstuck against a tough defensive team. I want to stand up and defend the corner of the rushing attack. But rather than expound the many benefits of this type of offense (ball control, eating the clock, physically and emotionally draining a defense etc), I want to look more at how an effective run game can be created and what goes in to making a rush first offense work. Shall we begin? -- Strength and conditioning: Let's face it, looking at the NFL you notice something strange about the O-line of certain teams. The Bengals, the Jets, the Ravens, the Dolphins and the Panthers to name a few. They're big guys. But more importantly they're powerful guys. They explode off the ball quickly and strike hard, riding defensive guys out of the hole and pushing them up and back. This is down to good old fashioned strength training. Time spent in the weight room shows on the field. In the run up to the draft this year everyone was looking at the ease with which DT Ndamukong Suh would fend off potential blockers, hold the line, then chuck them aside to get to the ball carrier. That's pure strength. His bench press showed, if nothing else, that Suh is no stranger to the inside of a gym. If you want to run the ball, that's the kind of strength you need in return. You need power guys, who explode into the faces of the D-line and match them step for step, swinging their butts round to get between ball carrier and potential tackler, creating holes for the RB to slip through. You need guys who are familiar with the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. But not just familiar, but who love it, who smile at the end of a good lift, appreciating mans temporary victory over gravity. Bob Ladouceur, HC of the famous De La Salle High Spartans, once claimed that his strength and conditioning coach was the most important guy in his program. That's a pretty good reference right there. -- Formations and Motion: You here this all the time from passing teams. The use of motion and varied formations to confuse a defense. Well, it applies to the run game as well you know. There is a great clip somewhere, probably lost in the vast expanse that is the library of NFL film, of the Minnesota Vikings motioning a TE across the front prior to a run play. It ends up taking not one, not two, but three defenders out of the play. He blocks one guy and influences two others away from the point of attack. That's pretty special. There's plenty of examples to go around of this stuff. Lining up in a standard I formation and sending the flanker across to the single receiver side, forcing the defense to bump it's coverage across and now leaving a relatively weaker tackler in the shape of a CB playing force on the TE side (not to mention the Linebackers shifting over). And of course, we can't forget the old classic two tight end set. Replacing a gangly WR with a powerful run blocker, the two tight end set is not to be underestimated. -- Play Variation: The tendency among modern teams is to build a playbook that contains more pass plays than a man could possibly hope to learn in one year, coupled with just enough of a running game to keep the defense busy. This, for me, is a serious miscalculation. Defenses watch film. They can recognise run plays in their early stages just as well as a QB can spot a blitz or detect a safety slowly cheating pre-snap to help get into his coverage assignment. So there has to be versatility. I formation, split backs, Wing-T style far/near formations. Running to the strong and weak sides. Running up the middle, running to the outside. Isolation plays, sweeps, counters, reverses. Handing the ball to the Fullback and having the Halfback lead block for a change. Versatility is the name of the game gentlemen. Don't forget that many defenses read the Fullback for their cue as to where the run is going, so have the fullback run out and take on a DE while the HB goes up the middle or the other direction entirely. Keep the defense reacting, not acting. -- Wide Receivers: This seems like an odd thing to mention in an article about the run, but Wide Receivers play a very important role. Generally I think the O-line gets you the first four or five yards. The receivers will get you the next five. Their blocks, on Corners, safeties or even cracking back on a linebacker, are vital for big gains in the rushing attack. Of course we know most receivers are about as interested in blocking as they are in the utilization of Marxist economic policy in the developing world. The key is how to solve that problem and the answer is a pincer movement. On the one hand the threat of not being allowed to play unless they commit to run blocking. On the other, the idea of revenge. Revenge for all the times the corner has held them up at the Line of Scrimmage. Revenge for all the times that safety has helped play double coverage against them in order to stop the QB throwing the ball their way. Revenge for all the times that linebacker has dropped into a passing lane and forced the QB to look elsewhere with the ball. And of course, revenge for all the times that said players have tackled, shunted, slammed, tripped, hit and generally caused misery for the Wide receiving corps. It's payback time, and paybacks a b****! -- Running back: Reality check time. You wouldn't send a dumpy receiver flying on a go pattern for the simple reason that he wont get very far and even if he does come up with the catch, he'll be closed down by the defense quicker than you can say "look out for the safety!". Thus, it must be understood that for a running game to really find it's feet you need a scat back, aka Chris Johnson or the Bills new pickup C.J. Spiller. You need a runner, a cutter, a speed guy who can force safeties to miss open field tackles. Of course, you also need a banger, the kind of back who can run up the middle, bust through an arm tackle and get you five or six solid yards. At the high school level may I recommend putting the Fullback in the Halfback spot and bringing in a back up guard or tight end to take on lead blocking duties. But the point is, you need someone who can get you tough yards, and you need someone who can turn a 6 yard run into a 20 yard gain (example will follow later). -- Fullback: I love fullbacks. One of my favourite players of all time is Tom Rathman, fullback for the 49ers and now their running backs coach. Rathman was a hitter. He loved contact and he would do whatever you asked of him. If you needed him to catch (and you will) then he would run the pattern with everything he had. But in modern times it seems the fullback is a dying breed, falling at the wayside in favour of third receivers and so called "H-backs" tight ends who are neither a tight end, nor a fullback, nor a receiver. They are just pieces. Personally, I advocate the return of the fullback. As already mentioned, when defenses begin to key off the fullback you can use that to your advantage with a bit of misdirection. But the proper place for the fullback is leading the halfback through the hole, sweeping linebackers and safeties to one side to allow the runner to get into the open field. Bring it on. -- Quarterback: An odd person to talk about in the running game, but what is more odd is the following statement; this player is the single most important man in your rushing attack. Hmm, not convinced? I'm gonna show you a clip later that hopefully will persuade you, but for now just recognise that on any given running play, two players cannot be blocked. The reason for this is pretty obvious, as the QB and the ball carrier can't block (obviously the QB can, but it depends how much you value him). What a QB can do though is run in the opposite direction on a bootleg, the threat of which helps to alleviate pursuit of a run from the backside. The extension of this is obviously play action. The setting up of the QB behind the play is a threat to throw, a threat that must be honored by the safeties. This, more than anything is the key to making the run game work. Play action passing, and the threat of it. A QB rolling out the backside of a play is a threat to run or pass and must be respected. When that threat is ignored, it must be punished repeatedly until indecision sets in amongst the defense. On top of that, the dropback passing game must be utilised to punish the defense for playing with 8 men in the box. Ultimately, even on a rushing team, the Quarterback is still the most valuable player. As long as he is a threat with his feet and his arm, to make first downs at the very least, the QB can keep the pressure off the rushing attack. So, onto video. First up are two videos of the Euless Trinity High Trojans from Texas. What I want you to pay close attention to are: - the solid blocks technique wise from the O-line, - the ability of the Running back to find space, cut and defeat open field challenges, combined with great downfield hustle by all concerned, - the use of lots of tight formations that according to the spread crowd should make it harder/impossible to run the ball, - the effect of the QB's actions on holding certain players such as the defensive ends, coupled with the often acres of open space for him to exploit on bootlegs. Part one: Part Two: The second video I want to share with you comes from the forbidden world of TV punditry. I say this because there seems to be a tendency among coaches to believe that anyone who has a job as a TV analyst is automatically inferior when it comes to football knowledge. Now I admit that some guys know more than others (e.g. Fran Charles, and here in the UK Mike Carlson), some have great moments and bad moments (e.g. Jamie Dukes, Mike Mayock) and some appear to have no idea what the hell they're talking about (e.g. Charley Casserly). This clip comes from the Big Ten Network, and was posted on YouTube. I present it to you as a great demonstration of the use of the QB in exploiting over pursuit of the run by the defense. And of course, having mentioned Tom Rathman earlier, I couldn't possibly leave you without showing this clip that I found: That is all, hope it was of some use and interest and I'll see you all tomorrow. Have a great day everyone.

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