Saturday, October 29, 2011

Matt Forte's touchdown run versus the Buccaneers

Sorry this was a little late, I've been pretty busy. Right, diagram time again.

I'll get the disclaimer out of the way first and explain that as always with these diagrams the alignments can't be 100% accurate through virtue of not having enough room in the drawing space to lay out a field to scale and the inability to draw scale sized little blobs etc. The balance is between making things clear and getting them lined up perfectly, so something has to give at times. I'm also hampered by relying on TV camera angles to judge distances etc.

With that out of the way, we're going to look at Matt Forte's touchdown run against the Buccaneers. We'll start by looking at the offensive formation and the defensive front;

So this is basically the look that the Bears got after sending their second tight end in motion to the strong side (as indicated by the dotted line). The defense shifted, with the weak safety starting to creep down a little and the defensive line shuffiling across to adjust from a relatively balanced formation to one that favours the strong side.

This look is perfect for the Bears. The fact that the strong safety was actually starting to drop back a little deep (slowing his reaction to the play) just made it all the more so. What the Bears are going to do is run a power sweep play to the right side, pulling two offensive linemen to lead the running back around the edge. It's what the Bears have been doing all season and they're the best team at it right now, mainly through virtue of the fact that they're one of the few true power running teams left in the NFL. It's certainly done no harm to Matt Forte's rushing numbers.

Now I'll make no secret of the fact that I love this play. There are just so many things about it that are interesting;

- In an age of zone running schemes it's fun to watch a more old fashioned power running play,
- It has a slightly quirky twist, something you don't see a lot of these days, 
- The blocking on the backside of the play,
- The whole concept of "smash mouth", "power" football,

I'll start with that last point because it's kind of a personal hobby horse of mine to climb on and complain about. Basically people mostly use the term "smash mouth football" in one of two ways, either a) to deride this style of play or b) to suggest that this style of play requires a degree of physical brutality and "manliness" that is beyond the more "finesse" orientated teams. Both arguments are as bad as each other and both fuel each others side of the debate. Both are also wrong.

People using the term in the manner described in A are trying to infer that somehow power football, or indeed running the football in general, is somehow a dying art and the reserve only of those coaches who aren't intelligent or daring enough to design fancy passing schemes. The term "three yards and a cloud of dust" often follow closely behind, in the rather naive and misplaced assumption that offensive coordinators calling power plays are merely holding onto the ball in an effort to not lose the game and to grind down the defense. The fact that Forte ran this one in for a 32-yd touchdown and could have gone further if there was more field to run with tells you everything you need to know about the big play potential of this running style.

On the other hand, people using the term in the manner described in B are trying to infer that power football is the preserve of tough guys, of coaches and players who like nothing more than grinding the opponents facemasks into the turf and then stamping on them for good measure. The implicit suggestion is often that "spread" offenses would never be manly enough to run this type of play, despite the fact that almost all "spread" teams have a power play in their playbooks. It also tends to show a lack of appreciation as to how difficult some of the blocks are, requiring leverage and technique over strength, possibly more so than in a zone play.

Which is second thing that interets me. After spending the last couple of weeks describing many of the details surrounding zone running plays and how ubiqitous they are in the NFL, it's nice to get a look at some "old school" running, if you'll excuse a slightly vague and over used phrase. At the minute the Bears seem to be almost single handedly keeping this style of running alive in the open field.

This isn't just your standard running play though. Normally if you're going to pull offensive linemen then you tend to pull the two guards, who are usually your smallest and most agile linemen. In this case the Bears are going to pull their center and right guard, a pretty unusual occurence, but a welcome and fun change up to see.

Lastly they're going to do something a little risky, but something I think more teams could do with trying; they're going to leave the backside defensive linemen completely unblocked. People always moan about numbers in the box against the run, but one of the best ways to defeat this is to simply leave one of the defensive linemen unblocked. Because this is a play that attacks the edge of the defensive front, you can afford to leave that backside man unblocked because he has no choice but to "stay at home" and play his contain assignment. If he doesn't, and instead persistently comes crashing down the line after the running back, that's when you switch to your constraint plays and start running QB keepers and bootleg passes out the backside.

On that note, let's get down to the details of the blocking scheme and see what's really going on here;

What the Bears are trying to do is to create something of a traffic jam up the middle of the defense, while at the same time trying to get some of their big bodied offensive linemen to the outside where they can block either linebackers or secondary men. It's the running game equivalent of creating a mismatch, like asking Vince Wilfork or Albert Haynesworth to cover a tight end like Jimmy Graham or Tony Gonzalez down the field in the passing game.

It starts by blocking down with the right tackle and tight end, marked with the purple arrows, a color which in retrospect I now regret using. These two players have advantageous angles with which to crash down on the defensive tackle and defensive end to their side. This is part of what I was talking about when I said that this play involves technique and leverage. These two offensive linemen have to get out of their stances quickly at the snap and attack their men from the side on, using their footwork and positioning to seal the two big defensive linemen to the inside.

Then we get the right guard and the center pulling, marked with the light blue arrows. They're obviously important, but we're going to skip past them just for a second.

For now we need to quickly peek at the blocks of the left guard and the left tackle, marked with the green arrows. The left guard probably has the toughest block out of any here. He has to get across the face of the the nose tackle "N" and cut that guy off. Again, this is not a block that really relies on great strength, it's more about speed and positioning. He has to get himself in front of the tackle and stop him from penetrating into the backfield through the hole vacated by the center and right guard, which in this case he did superbly, using his shoulder to block off the tackle who then gets caught up in the wash created by the down blocks of the right tackle and tight end.

The left tackle goes up to get the backside "Will" linebacker. This is a size mismatch in favour of the offense, but it's also something of a speed mismatch in favour of the defense. Luckily for the left tackle, all he really needs to do is to get his hands on the linebacker and disrupt his path across the field. You can't just ignore a 300 pound man trying to push you over as you run and in this case the tackle does manage to get his hands on the backer, knocking him flat on his butt.

We also need to touch on the block of the wide receiver to the play side and that second tight end. The second tight end runs right up and out, pulling the "Sam" linebacker away with him, who he then blocks. This is one of the differences that you can create by playing around with formations. In an "I" formation for example, that second tight end would be replaced by a fullback in the backfield, which would completely change the blocking scheme on the edge, so maybe one day when I catch a team running this play out of the "I", I'll draw it up then and we'll go over that.

The wide receiver on the playside also has a different block to make depending on how the corner over him is aligned. In this case the corner is sitting well back, which commonly would prompt the receiver to ignore him and block down on the strong safety, but as the strong safety is backing off even further, it makes sense for the wide receiver to take that corner, which he does.

Finally then we come to the blocks of the center and right guard. As you can see in the diagram above, they pull laterally across the field, trying to get outside of the wash of bodies in the middle. At this point they're looking for the first "color", that is a jersey of the opposing teams color, to show which they will then attack and block. This explains how having that second tight end in makes a difference. If this were an "I" formation with a fullback in the backfield then the right guard would likely end up getting to the edge first and blocking that "Sam" linebacker as he came down hill.

As it turns out, the linemen find themselves in a wide open space between the wash of bodies to the inside and the one-on-one block of the tight end to the outside. They have the "Mike" linebacker coming down to meet them (I imagine making a large gulping noise as he did) and the weak safety trying to sneak his way across from the backside, because secondary players only tackle from a position where they can't get hurt ;)

Let's put up another diagram so we can get a better look at this;

As you can see, the Mike linebacker now has a difficult choice to make. He can try and take on the block of a 290-300 pound lineman running at full speed, in the hope that he might be able to get around him or at least get a hand on the running back, while also knowing that if he fails then he's going to end up taking a very painful tumble. Or he can choose the lesser of two evils and just try to cut the offensive linemens legs, knowing that it might result in him getting crushed but at least he's taken out a blocker and then someone else can make the tackle.

In this case the Mike backer tried going one-on-one... and the right guard decided to cut the backer for a change, a situation which didn't end particularly well for the backer.

This means that the only person left who can realistically make the tackle and stop this play from going for a first down (the strong safety is too deep) is the weak safety who is desperately rushing across to make the play. The only thing between him and the ball carrier is the small matter of the pulling center. As you might expect, the center meets the challenge of the safety head on... or rather shoulder on, driving him back with a forceful blow and damn near knocking him off his feet. The end result of all that looks a little something like this;

Anyone that feels the need at this point to put on their best Vince Lombardi voice and shout "... what we're trying to get is a seal here - and a seal here - and try to run this play in the alley!", well you go right ahead. Because that's exactly what we're looking for and it's exactly what the Bears got. The Sam linebacker and the corner are sealed to the outside, and the weak safety and Will linebacker are sealed to the inside. This leaves Forte with a clean alley to run through.

Now it comes down to the strong safety to try and save the touchdown, but this is where running backs really earn their money in one-on-one situations with defenders. Forte cuts inside the safety almost effortlessly as he flies across to make the tackle. I'm not sure if Forte has been paid yet.

He still has to dodge a few more attemtped tackles from players that have managed to get off their blocks (*stares evily at the offensive linemen for not finishing off their blocks and staying on their assignments until the whistle*) but Forte manages to dodge these and make the endzone to put the Bears up 7-0.

So there you have it, the power sweep. This is your real "smash mouth" football; a series of difficult but well executed blocks, using technique and leverage to control the defensive line, while creating blocking mismatches of big offensive linemen against second and third level defenders. It's just a little odd that a tactic perfected and made famous by the Packers is now being used by the Bears!

Speaking of the Packers, in case you missed it, that link I put in above ("best Vince Lombardi voice") will take you to an article I wrote a long while back. The main article is a bitch and moan fest about hitting and fines in the NFL (and strippers), but if you scroll down past that you'll get to three videos of Vince Lombardi coaching the Packer Sweep.

As for the Forte run, mercifully someone has uploaded it to YouTube which you can watch here. In the event that link ends up dead due to copyright violations or something, here's the link to the video. Enjoy the advert. Both videos show the Fox broadcast, the commentary of which made me laugh when the commentator complains about the pulling linemen getting "caught up on the outside". Or as it's otherwise known to me and you; blocking.

There is also a link here to my recent article about a Frank Gore run against the Lions, which as I mentioned in that article demonstrates a compliment to the power play.

So I hope you enjoyed it. If so, share a link/facebook/e-mail someone etc. And I will see you tomorrow for my week 8 picks. Enjoy your day

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