by Mike Tanier
Sunday's highlight reel seemed to be skipping like an old record. Every third play was a long run for a touchdown, usually on a routine sweep. LaDainian Tomlinson ran around left end for a touchdown. Ditto Maurice Morris. Derrick Ward nearly scored on a similar play. Adrian Peterson mixed things up with a touchdown run on a pitch right. Even Ron Dayne got into the act. There were plenty of big plays on draws and inside runs as well (watch the Jaguars replay), but the sweep was the play of the week.
From a tactical standpoint, none of these long runs looked noteworthy at first glance. They weren't counters. There was little motion, misdirection, or trickery. The running backs took the handoff or pitch, read their blocks, and ran, stiff-arming or breaking a tackle for a few extra yards. They weren't the types of plays I like to diagram, because they lack the artistic flourish of, say, a six-man blitz with an inside stunt. But Sunday's sweeps were fascinating because there were so many of them. Why were so many teams having so much success with such basic plays?
Let's examine the highlight reel frame-by-frame and take a closer look. In the process, we'll remind ourselves of two simple axioms: 1) Scheming is great, but success in the NFL is determined by execution. 2) Every player on the field has a role, even those far from the point of attack.
Diehl with the Fold
Early in the second quarter, the Giants started a drive at the Bears' 32-yard line. Derrick Ward took a handoff, swept around left end, and gained 31 yards. It was a simple play from a two-tight end I-formation (Figure 1, the right wide receiver and two defenders aren't shown), and there was only one wrinkle in the blocking scheme: Left tackle David Diehl and tight end Jeremy Shockey executed a fold block on the left side to help free Ward.
To understand why this play was so successful, let's look at each blocker's role, first in the design of the play, then in the way it was executed in Chicago.
Right Tight End: Blocks the defender covering him, prevents penetration. Kevin Boss does an adequate job stopping Adewale Ogunleye.
Right Tackle: Reach-blocks the 3-technique tackle and prevents him from pursuing down the line or occupying the right guard. Done and done.
Right Guard: Combo-blocks the 3-technique defender until the right tackle controls him, then pursues the backside linebacker on the second level. Chris Snee does his job well. He barely has to chip Darwin Walker (99) because right tackle Kareem McKenzie easily controls him. Because Lance Briggs (55) shoots a backside gap, Snee has no one to block and seeks out the safety.
Center: Reach-blocks the nose tackle. Another fine job by the Giants line.
Left guard: Combo-blocks with the center, then attacks the middle linebacker. Rich Seubert climbs to the second level, then catches a break when Brian Urlacher (54) briefly slips. Seubert walls off the slowed Urlacher.
Left tackle: Loops around the tight end, then either kicks out the force defender or logs the first defender to the inside. OK, now in English. Diehl is supposed to read the situation once he wraps around Shockey. The force defender is the defensive back aligned just outside the tight end when there is no wide receiver to one side of the field -- Tod McBride in this case. Under normal circumstances, Diehl would smother him and try to push him to the sidelines. If McBride crashed into the backfield before Diehl arrived, Diehl would run to the hole, look inside, and block any linebacker trying to pursue. Something strange happened on this play: McBride froze and looked inside at the snap, even though all of the action was flowing outside. He probably had man coverage responsibilities on Shockey and got mixed up when the tight end released to block. The momentary confusion made him a sitting duck for Diehl.
Tight end: Fold-blocks and seals off the play-side defensive end. Shockey is a very good blocker, but he only does a so-so job on this play. Mark Anderson (97) gets inside him and penetrates. Shockey's block takes Anderson far enough inside that the defender cannot redirect Ward.
Fullback: Lead blocks left. Takes on any defender who penetrates, or logs the first linebacker in pursuit, or kicks out any late arriving defenders to the outside, or races through the hole for a downfield block. Fullbacks have a lot of decisions to make, and Madison Hedgecock makes the right one here. With McBride caught inside, Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer alertly flows toward the sideline in an effort to force Ward back inside. That makes him Hedgecock's man, and Hedgecock makes a solid block.
Running back: Take the handoff and climb to the line quickly, aiming for a hole about a yard off the tight end's left shoulder. Read the blocks of the fullback and left tackle to determine the cut. Ward executes properly and makes the right read, though the blocking is so good that he cannot go wrong. He executes a stiff arm at the safety level and high-wire's the sideline for additional yardage.
Amazingly, Ward scored a two-yard touchdown three plays later on the exact same play. Same formation. Same fold block with Shockey and Diehl. Once again, Diehl and Hedgecock opened a big hole by cutting off the force defender and the pursuit linebacker. The only reason the plays didn't look exactly alike on the highlight show was that Ward stopped running after two yards.
There are several reasons why this play worked so well for the Giants. One is so obvious that I won't mention it until the next section; see if you can spot it now. Another is the defensive call by the Bears: Briggs and Urlacher were both crashing gaps at the snap, taking Briggs out of the play and making Urlacher an easy mark for a second level block. Throw in some execution lapses (Urlacher's stumble, McBride's hesitation) and you have the recipe for easy yardage.
Peterson Toss Crack
The Giants aren't the only team that can line up in an I-formation with two tight ends and jam the ball down an opponent's esophagus. The Vikings run the ball pretty well, too. In the second quarter against the Lions, Adrian Peterson took a pitch on second-and-15 and ran 16 yards for a touchdown.
This play is so similar to the last one (Figure 2) that they are practically mirror images. Let's compare and contrast. The Vikings play is different from the Giants play because the run is to the opposite side, and:
- Playside tight end Jim Kleinsasser (40) is really an H-back, a yard behind the line of scrimmage and a yard wide of the formation.
- Playside receiver Bobby Wade (19) crack-blocks a linebacker. Note that there was no playside receiver on the Giants run.
- The offensive guards do not combo block the defensive linemen. Instead, they immediately climb to the second level. If the guards were covered head-on by linemen, it is likely that uncovered linemen (like the center or left tackle) would climb out to the linebackers instead. The Giants were using a zone-blocking principle which would have protected them in the event of a hard slant or stunt by the defensive line. The Vikings are just blocking head-on.
- This play is a pitch, not a handoff, and there is some minor counter action when the quarterback turns left after the snap, then pitches right. The pitch occurs more quickly than a handoff, allowing Peterson more time to shuffle laterally to set up blocks. Because of the crack block and the toss, this play is a variation on an old standard called Toss Crack.
These are significant differences, but the similarities are more striking. The tight end and playside tackle fold-block. The guards have second level responsibilities against pursuit linebackers. The fullback lead-blocks into the hole. The offensive linemen reach-block to contain defensive linemen and free the guards. These plays are close cousins.
Ward gained big yardage for the Giants when a cornerback hesitated, a linebacker slipped, and the defensive call took the backside linebackers out of position. Peterson gained big yardage because Wade, right tackle Ryan Cook, and the two guards all made excellent blocks. Remember when I said that Diehl's first responsibility in the Giants run was to kick out a force defender? Here, Cook blocks the outside cornerback. The guards use excellent technique to contain Ernie Sims (50) and Ted Lehman (54): They take great angles, then block with their heads and inside shoulders to the right (play side) of their defenders. This body positioning leverages the defenders inside, putting them in bad position to pursue the play. Sims and Lehman help the Vikings' cause by taking too long to diagnose the play, but let's cut them some slack. It's second-and-long, Tarvaris Jackson is a pretty good runner, and a play-action rollout to the left is a possibility they must account for.
Peterson makes a great cut inside the block of Cook to score the touchdown, but even an ordinary back would gain 10 yards on this play. The key to the success of this run isn't Peterson, or the fold-block, or the work of the guards on the second level. Have you spotted it yet? It's the reach-blocks. Look at the defensive linemen in Figures 1 and 2. They are all single-blocked, except for some brief combo-blocks by the Giants. Reach-blocks can be tough to execute (look how far the Vikings left tackle must go to reach No. 78 Cory Redding), but all of the centers and tackles in these two plays handled their assignments with ease. They deserve some credit, but the defensive lineman also deserve some blame. There are some big name linemen in these diagrams, including Detroit's Shaun Rodgers (92). If they penetrate or force a double team, they can redirect the back or allow a linebacker to flow free to make a tackle four or five yards downfield. Instead, they allowed guards to climb past them and cut off pursuit.
We don't think of defensive tackles having a major impact on outside runs. When it comes to stopping long gains, they do their part by keeping those guards at the line of scrimmage where they belong.
Our last play is slightly different from the first two. Still, we'll see recurring themes: The importance of getting guards to the second level to block pursuit linebackers, the need for good point-of-attack decisions by the fullback, and the need to seal off the playside defensive end.
LaDainian Tomlinson scored a 28-yard touchdown on a power sweep that the Chargers run so often that the Chiefs must have seen it a hundred times in the past three years. The Chargers line up with two tight ends and a weak-I formation (Figure 3), they pull the offside guard, and they give the ball to LT2. Everybody in America knows it's coming, but that doesn't make it easy to stop when the Chargers are executing well.
Mike Goff's (79) pulling block on this play is different from the fold block executed by the linemen in the last two diagrams. He won't arrive until well after fullback Lorenzo Neal has reached the point of attack. In explaining the Giants play, I outlined the likely decision process for the fullback and the pulling blocker. The decision process in this play is similar, except that Goff has little chance to kick out a force defender. That is Neal's job. Goff's duty is to attack the hole and either log a pursuing linebacker or race to the safety level. Against the Chiefs, he was able to run downfield and bother the free safety, guaranteeing a touchdown.
Take a close look at the left side of the offensive line. The center and right guard combo-block the 3-technique defender, then the guard slips out to the second level. The left tackle reach-blocks the defensive end, allowing the tight end to seal off the strongside linebacker. Once again, these blocks should not be that easy. If the playside defensive end forces a tackle/tight end double-team, then Goff must block the Sam linebacker and the safety comes free. That's a five-yard run, maybe less if the Sam beats Goff to the hole.
Eliminating the Middle Man
Never judge a player or team by the highlight reel. For every end run that made it to NFL Gameday, there were twenty that were stopped for just a few yards. In general, defensive tackles occupy double teams, linebackers shed blocks in pursuit, force defenders evade fullbacks, and running backs gain three yards. Toss crack isn't the play of the future, it's a play of the past, one that every team from the prep level up knows how to execute and how to stop.
Still, it's a beautiful play to watch when it is executed well. The Vikings, Giants, and Chargers are second, seventh, and ninth in the NFL in rushing DVOA. They use fewer delays and stretch runs than other good running teams like the Patriots and Jaguars. The Vikings and Chargers have great running backs, but all three teams have been able to insert backup runners and still have success on the ground. These are good fundamental running teams. Two of them are all but assured a playoff berth, and the third (the Vikings) could still make it.
Does the running game mean more in the playoffs? Probably not. But solid fundamentals are critical in every situation, especially in the postseason. Rushing yards are harder to come by against the Patriots and Cowboys than they are against the Lions and Chiefs, but if these teams can keep neutralizing defensive tackles and logging linebackers, they'll be able to keep some playoff games close.