Last in an occasional series
The analytics say that running backs don’t matter anymore because passing is the most efficient way to move the ball. But we all can agree that watching your team run the hell over its opponent is awesome. There is something visceral about watching fat guys reset the line of scrimmage into the defense’s lap to allow the running back to burst through. Maybe that’s the very untalented former offensive lineman in me, but what can I say?
The modern run game involves the quarterback too, but it is simply the house built on a long-established foundation. Besides the kicking game, run blocking is the clearest link between the football of today and the game’s invention 150 years ago. Fielding Yost was running some of this stuff at Michigan in 1905. In many ways the game has changed, but it also has stayed the same.
So is this going to be a history lesson where you wax philosophical or what?
No, but it is worth noting that nothing in this sport is really new. At best, it’s an adaptation of the bones that have always been there. There was a simpler time when most teams just lined up and counted from inside out. The nose was 0 (if there was one) and then you work out from there. Hat on a hat, block your man.
This straightforward approach assumes the offensive linemen can win one-on-one matchups and the running back can run, uh, straight forward, and the defense isn’t doing anything screwy with its front, and on and on and on. There isn’t a ton of straight-up man blocking in today’s football, and similar to our pass blocking explainer, man blocking should be thought of as analog.
So what’s digital?
In today’s run game, there are more or less two types of plays we care about: Plays with pullers and plays without. You have probably heard of counter — the play that powered the Washington Football Team and Nebraska to championships in the 1980s and ’90s. Former Washington coach Joe Gibbs stole the play from Nebraska, as he said in an interview with Sports Illustrated:
“We saw some film on Nebraska, and Tom Osborne was doing some really innovative things with his line up front. We were watching it and thought, God, that’s good stuff. So we stole it.”
Counter and its cousin, power, are the primary plays you’ll see involving pullers in modern college or pro football. A puller is an offensive lineman who moves laterally from his original spot on the line to somewhere else after the snap. On power and counter, the most common type of pull happens when a guard pulls from the back side of the play (where the run isn’t intended to go) to the front side (where it is).
The plays are fairly similar. In fact, on the front side, the rules are basically the exact same. The starkest difference for watchers is that counter can have two pullers while power has only one. On power, the guard typically becomes a lead blocker leading through the hole and getting to the second level.
On counter, the guard will block the end man on the line of scrimmage and the tackle will in effect become the lead blocker.
In more modern iterations of counter, the second pulling player has changed to include a fullback or an H-back, but the essence is the same. The guard kicks out, and the second player leads through.
The other difference with counter is that the running back typically fakes like he’s going backside before heading to the front to give the blocks time to develop.
There are other pulling plays:
- Trap sees the offensive line leave a particularly problematic interior defensive lineman unblocked, and the puller can smash into him.
- Sweeps involve the puller(s) getting to the perimeter to act like a convoy.
- Pin-pull can see a tackle pull outside of the tight end right next to him to get a big run on the outside.
- Dart features a tackle pulling similar to power.
- Center pulls can be a destructive change-up used by option teams, featured most prominently this season by Coastal Carolina’s electric offense.
But power and counter are the backbones of running schemes that feature pulling offensive linemen.
So what happens when they don’t pull?
In 2020, football teams that aren’t pulling linemen on running plays probably are implementing a version of zone blocking (with one caveat applied to inside zone, which is a play that can look a lot like something else called Duo, but that is a rabbit hole we don’t have time to go down).
Inside/tight and outside/wide zone are ubiquitous in football, and they have truly formed the basis for the game in the new millennium.
Zone’s revolution can be traced back to the mid-1990s and the Denver Broncos, who regularly produced 1,000-yard rushers with fewer mauling offensive linemen and basically interchangeable running backs. The offensive line coach for those Broncos teams, Alex Gibbs, was famous for saying that inside and outside zone were the only plays he ran.
There are a lot of nuances to zone blocking. The differences in the types of zone running plays can amount to offensive line footwork and sometimes are tough to spot even on TV replays. Zone blocking isn’t really that fancy on the chalkboard; you truly have to see it for yourself to watch how an offensive line works as one cohesive unit.
The nuts and bolts involve the offensive linemen blocking the gap that is away from them in the play-side direction. Where the double teams are concerned, one blocker comes off the double to take care of a linebacker once the linebacker flows and the double team is controlled. Like I said, sometimes you have to see it to believe it.
The backside player can be taken care of in myriad ways, but shown above is an en vogue way these days, where the H-back on the front side actually blocks opposite of the run in what’s called “split zone.” There are natural opportunities for double teams, with one blocker disengaging to take care of a linebacker on the second level.
With the pulling plays we talked about above, the ball is more or less intended to go one place along the line, and it’s behind the pullers. But with zone runs, while the running back will have an aiming point (could be the leg of a frontside lineman or the tight end’s butt), the run really can hit anywhere. The possibility of a cutback when the defense is flowing to where it thinks the run is going only adds to the threat. It’s incumbent on the running back to make the right read.
For most of the past decade, zone blocking has dominated the game in more ways than just outside and inside because it’s the foundation for the way the game has evolved.
You’re talking about that zone read stuff, aren’t you?
As a matter of fact, I am. You’ll remember where this series started: with gaps and the beauty of the zone read, a play that makes the backside defender wrong no matter what he choice he makes. That’s the read element to the basic zone read play.
On the zone read, the backside defender will be left unblocked and the quarterback’s responsibility is to make him wrong no matter what he guesses. If he stays outside, the running back gets the ball. If he chases the running back, the quarterback keeps and runs around him.
Adding the quarterback as a credible rushing threat has changed the defense’s math, adding another player to account for. Then add passing concepts with wide receivers on top of the running game, and you create plays that are, as Urban Meyer puts it, virtually impossible to stop when executed correctly. Those are RPOs, many of which are rooted in a zone blocking scheme.
Football usually evolves by making what is old new again in a never-ending chase to stay ahead of the guys on the other side of the ball. That’s what makes the game beautiful, and once you understand the basics, you start to see how intricate things can be and hopefully become a smarter football watcher.
Read more from the “Watching Football Smarter” series: