Friday, November 25, 2011

So I've been pretty inactive this past week.

From what I've seen around the web over the last few years it seems to be a curse that affects many a blogger. You have a whole bunch of free time on your hands so you think to yourself "you know what'd be a cool idea? If I shared all of my inane ramblings about a given subject with the world..."

Then you spend the next year or two writing your blog, pouring time into like it was a needy child that just constantly cried all day, everyday. Throughout this time period your readership can generally be counted using the fingers on one hand.

Then when things finally start to pick up and you actually begin to put together a consistent and moderately sized readership, all of a sudden every last drop of your spare time is getting consumed performing largely pointless errands on other peoples behalf. Just when you're starting to get over the hump, suddenly you find a long downward slope on the other side.

So apology's for the lack of posting recently. But for now at least I've managed to scrape together the time to take a look at one of my favourite positions on the football field, offensively at least; the Fullback.

I love Fullback's. Not quick enough to play tight end, not big enough to play linebacker, fullbacks are the forgotten players of the offense - an echo from the past when teams ran the ball 50 times a game, games didn't last three and a half f**king hours, and you actually used to spend more time watching the game than you did watching adverts.

Over the years however Fullbacks have fallen out of favour as teams progressively shift more towards pass orientated offenses that require three or four receivers and don't run the ball anywhere near as much. Under those conditions a 240 lbs lead blocking rhino isn't as useful as another 200 lbs gazelle at the wide out spot.

All is not lost though. Even in today's world of spread offenses and rules balanced to favour the forward pass, fullbacks can still contribute. Their main advantage is the ability to sneak out of the backfield on short yardage, play-action downs - especially in the red zone - and catch simple passes in the flat. There are still teams that run the ball fairly commonly, thus calling on their fullbacks to perform the traditional duty of lead blocker. And now more and more teams are designing misdirection runs out of I-formation sets to get the ball to their fullbacks. We're going to look at just a few of these plays over the course of this article.

First though we need to take a trip down memory lane and look at some of the old formations that teams used to use that prominently featured the fullback;

Now while my diagram may indeed look like a particularly shit game of "Connect 4" (click the image to enhance... just the size sadly, it'll still be badly drawn) there is a point to it. The highlighted players in yellow and red are the tight end and the fullback respectively. Really I only needed to do that for the final two formations, but hey. Indeed those last two formations may just look like mirror images, but trust me they're not. As you can see from the yellow blob on the end of the line, the tight end is to the right in both cases.

These are the types of formations that formed the back bone of most "pro-style" offenses from the 1960's through to the late 80's at least. Each formation gives certain subtle advantages compared to it's siblings. It's at this point that I'm wishing I'd had the foresight to label them with numbers. Of course I still could and you'd never know, but that's too much like hard work.

So starting in the top left we have the "split backs" formation, a favourite of many teams. Bill Walsh used to refer to this formation as simply 'Red' and it was the default formation around which his offense was built. The key to what makes the split backs so dangerous is the versatility. You have three down field receivers and two backs who can leak out of the backfield to attack the underneath coverage, giving the coordinator the option of sending five receivers out into a pass pattern.

Alternatively he can keep one, two or all of the three interior receivers (the two backs and the tight end) in to pass protect, and can do so in a dazzling number of combinations. Ok, perhaps not that many, but more than enough. You can also run the ball quite effectively, in no small part thanks to having that fullback in their to lead block for the running back.

Shown second is the "I-formation" which facilitates the downhill running game a little better and provides a better two-way threat to run the ball to either side, as well as creating some quick developing play-action passes. The main drawback is that it takes longer for the backs to get out into pass patterns when the quarterback takes a straight drop.

The two bottom formations lean heavily to one side or the other. The formation on the left facilitates running to the weak side, in particular toss runs to the weak side, with the quarterback pitching the ball quickly to the fullback. It allows the backs to quickly get out of the backfield on passing plays and "flood" the weak side of the defense. It also permits the protection to be set much better against blitzes off the weak side, especially if the weak safety is bltizing. The formation on the bottom right does similar things, except this time to the strong side.

In all of this the fullback plays a key role. He's usually a better pass blocker than the half back. He's often not bad as a receiver, despite my early dig at them. Indeed, Roger Craig of the 49ers was the first player to achieve both 1,000-yards rushing and receiving in a single season (1985), all while playing from the fullback spot as illustrated above. Fullbacks also make good ball carriers; just ask Franco Harris.

From the positions above the fullback can easily get out into most short-medium pass patterns and can also be brought into the running game as a ball carrier with a bit of creativity. Mostly this involves quick toss sweeps to the outside with the halfback lead blocking, as well as inside runs where either the halfback lead blocks through the hole or, the halfback runs to the outside in order to misdirect the defense (particularly the widest linebacker and defensive lineman) and allow the offensive line to concentrate on blocking the interior defensive players to create a path up the middle for the fullback.

We still see some of this in action today which is where we're going to head now, looking at a few plays from last Sundays games.

We'll start in Green Bay as the Packers took on the Buccaneers and facing a second down with less than a yard to go the Packers called upon the many talents of defensive lineman B.J. Raji, those talents being largely that he weighs over 300 pounds and is pretty strong! The Packers lined him up at Fullback and dipped into their playbook for a bit of simple misdirection. Let's take a look;

What the Packers do is to leave the outside backers of the defense completely unblocked. The defense - quite naturally I should point out - are expecting the Packers to use Raji as a lead blocker, piling his significant weight into the hole in order to clear a path for the running back. When those outside backers see everyone block down inside and give them a free path to the running back they think all their Christmas's have come at once.

What the Packers actually do is have quarterback Aaron Rodgers stick the ball straight into the gut of Raji (that's quite the significant target area to aim for!) and then step back behind to fake the hand off to the running back. At first glance it just looks like the quarterback has stumbled getting out from under center, or has bumped into Raji on the way back. It's not until the linebacker hits the tailback and you see him throw out his empty hands to break his fall that you realise what's happened.

This simple bit of misdirection allows the Packers to concentrate numbers at the point of attack and overwhelm the defense to the inside. Result of the play - touchdown. Here's the video.

Next up is the Seahawks versus the Rams, and a classic misdirection run for the fullback that leads to a touchdown.

The first thing to note about the play that we're going to see is that the fullback is Marshawn Lynch, who would normally line up as the tailback. That should be the first clue that tips off the defense. But to keep them on their toes the Seahawks are going to use a dive/toss play, where the fullback runs straight downhill as if it were a dive up the gut and the tailback immediately runs to the outside as if the play is a toss sweep.

Depending on who the play is designed for the quarterback will either fake the hand off to the diving fullback and then pitch it out to the tailback or he'll fake the pitch and instead give the ball to the fullback. This decision is pre-determined when the play is called in, unlike an option play where the quarterback has to read a defender.

Let's have a look at the diagram;

As you can see the tail back (the dotted line) goes immediately to the left when the ball is snapped. The key to this play is that a hard run by the tailback and a good fake by the quarterback will hold that backer on the left and usually the support man behind him. Both of them will key the tail back breaking off and will be forced to step in that direction just to be safe. This allows the left tackle - along with the rest of the Offensive Line - to block down on the inside defenders, leaving one or two men unblocked on the backside of the play.

As you can see from the red track leading from the fullback Lynch receives the ball and slides to the right, aiming for the gap that develops between the tight end and the right tackle. However he sees the two linebackers converging on this hole and decides instead to bounce it right around the edge. The tight end does a great job of getting his hands into the defensive ends chest and jacking him up, stopping him from reaching out to get at Lynch.

Then it's just a foot race between the linebacker and Lynch to get to the pylon, and there's a good reason that Lynch plays running back and the linebacker plays linebacker; speed. Touchdown Seahawks. The video is here.

Unfortunately that's all I have time for today. Hopefully you've learnt a bit about how fullbacks can still be useful even in these modern, pass happy times. There's so much more that they can contribute than what I've shown here, but at least this gives you a taste. By using misdirection teams can hold defenders or make them chase ghosts, allowing even the lowly fullback to sneak in a few yards and the odd score.

I'll leave you with this budget video that I found on YouTube of one of the most versatile fullbacks ever to play the game and one of my favourite players of all time; Tom Rathman! Enjoy.

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