Word of Muth: Stretch Slice

Word of Muth: Stretch Slice
Word of Muth: Stretch Slice
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The Redskins had a simple game plan against the Colts: run the football effectively and use play action to create big plays. They were able to run the ball pretty effectively, but they didn't find any big plays in the passing game. As a result, the Redskins lost another close game to fall back to .500. Despite not coming away with a victory, the coaching staff has to be happy with the way the team ran the ball. A big part of that success was the emergence of a possible workhorse in Ryan Torain, who ended the game with 100 yards and two scores.

Of course, Torain wasn't blocking for himself out there: he had a lot of help from the fullback, tight ends, and offensive line. The offensive tackles were the focus of Cris Collinsworth's commentary (and the majority of this article), but the interior offensive linemen played better. Artis Hicks and Kory Lichtensteiger never jumped off the tape. That was actually a good thing.

The Redskins were running a lot of Zone Stretch. It's a play that doesn't lend itself to really impressive blocks, especially on the interior line, where a stalemate is often a win for the offense. Both guards did a nice job of staying engaged with their men and keeping them on the line of scrimmage. This allowed Torain to be deep into the line of scrimmage before he would make his first cut. The later a running back can make a cut, the harder it is for linebackers to flow over top of plays without getting caught up on their own defenders or opposing offensive linemen. Casey Rabach was solid as well, but he was a slight tick below the guards.

The Redskins' tackles didn't play as well as the interior line, but then again, they had a much tougher job. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis may be the best defensive end combination in the National Football League (copyright: Ron Jaworski). In the running game, I think that Trent Williams and Jammal Brown brought the fight to the Colts. Ryan Torain was consistently able to get to the edge of the defense and chew up chunks of yardage at a time (let it be noted that the Colts secondary was a big part of this too -- they were MIA in run support). That being said, they were usually double-teaming with the tight ends on these plays, so they were rarely on their own. Still, they were effective double teams, and there's no such thing as style points for an offensive line.

Pass blocking was a different story. It's not that either of them was awful, because they weren't, but they were far from dominant. Robert Mathis finished with a sack and a half and two quarterback hits. And I think it might be because Jammal Brown seems to be hurt. He was on the injury report, and I don't expect him to come off any time soon. He just isn't moving as well as he did earlier in the year. It's possible that Mathis just made him look more hobbled than he is (Mathis has made a career out of making o-linemen look slow), but I think there is something wrong with him.

Trent Williams was only beaten cleanly once (he did get flagged twice for holding), but he was often in Donovan McNabb's lap as he was throwing. It's the kind of thing that will rarely kill a play by itself, but it can affect a quarterback a lot. When a quarterback is throwing and there are a lot of bodies around, he tends to be inaccurate. I'm not sure if it's because quarterbacks can't step into the throws, or if they're afraid of hitting their hands on their follow through, or if they simply have a hard time seeing with a bunch of 300-pounders 10 inches away. Whatever the reason, you don't want to be too close to your quarterback when he releases the ball.

The reason Williams was so close to McNabb was Freeney's bull rush. I was surprised to see how often, and easily, Freeney was bull-rushing Williams. Freeney is known far more for his spin move than any other move, but that's exactly why his bull rush was so successful against Williams. The best way to stop a spin move is to keep all your weight back and wait to throw your hands. If you can do this, you'll be on balance and ready to punch once the defender finishes his spin.

Well, that is the worst way to stop a bull rush. Williams was so focused on Freeney's spin move that he wasn't prepared for heavy dose of bull rush. It makes sense when you consider that Williams is a rookie and that most college pass rushers really only have one good move. The encouraging thing for Washington fans should be that, even though the first-year player was off balance most of the game, he was athletic enough and strong enough to prevent a truly bad game. A lot of rookies would have been in over their heads, but Williams was able to battle all game and have a decent outing against a superstar.

If you watched the game with the sound on, you probably noticed Cris Collinsworth discussing the impact Freeney and Mathis could have on the back side of running plays. Collinsworth noted that the Redskins staff was concerned that the Colts' two defensive ends would chase down everything in their zone running game from the backside. Usually, you don't worry about the backside defensive end on the Zone Stretch because if he is making the tackle on plays away, you just bootleg him to death until he learns to stay home. But with guys as fast as Freeney and Mathis, they can stay at home on the Bootleg and chase plays down from behind. So the Redskins staff got a little creative and added a slice concept to their zone stretch plays.

Figure 1: Standard Stretch Slice

The basic principle of slice blocking is to send one guy (always a skill player) across the formation, behind the line of scrimmage, to block back on the defensive end. It's a great way to divide the defense in two, because everyone is flowing one direction, and the slice block stops the momentum of one defender and creates a nice seam. I think that's where the name comes from; the goal of the play is to "slice" the defense right in two (a former teammate thought it was because whoever is coming across the formation will almost always throw a cut block on the defensive end). The slice concept is usually only seen on inside zone plays since backside defensive ends can rarely make a tackle on stretch plays. But like I said earlier, Freeney and Mathis aren't ordinary defensive ends.

The Redskins ran this Stretch Slice play from a bunch of different formations and motions. The way I liked the most was probably the simplest (just like Walter Sobchak, I'm a sucker for simplicity). Washington would line up in an offset I formation and use the fullback, Mike Sellers, as the slice man (Fig. 1).

There are two reasons I really like this stripped-down version. The first reason is that it gives the linebackers a quick misdirection read. Seeing the fullback run the opposite direction of the tailback will always freeze linebackers for a millisecond. That slight hesitation makes it so much easier for the offensive linemen to climb to the second level and block linebackers. The second reason is because I really like watching Mike Sellers block -- he's good at it. The Stretch Slice play provides Mike Sellers with an opportunity to throw a nice cut block on defensive ends, and I still hate defensive ends. Just because I stopped playing football doesn't mean I have to stop being an offensive lineman at heart.

Figure 2: Single-Back Slice

Another way Washington ran Stretch Slice was out of a single-back set with two tight ends. Earlier in the game, they had come out in a balanced single-back set, motioned Chris Cooley across the formation, and run a Stretch play that was designed to get to the outside immediately, with Cooley and Fred Davis double-teaming on the edge. They came out the exact same way this time, including the motion (in the diagram I left out the motion because it just got to be too many lines, instead I just started it with Cooley where he needed to be), but Cooley went back across the formation and became the slice man. As I said earlier, I prefer the other way the Redskins ran this play, but this version was effective as well. One advantage to running the play out of this formation is that it sets up much better for play action. Now, Chris Cooley will release in the flat and you still have another tight end to be a big target in the middle of the field.

The Stretch Slice was the bread and butter for the Redskins on Sunday against the Colts, but the Colts have struggled against the run this season. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Redskins running game is starting to find its stride. The success could just as easily be attributed to the Colts' horrendous tackling. I'm sure we'll learn more as the season goes along.


20 comments, Last at 24 Oct 2010, 10:56am

#1 by dbostedo // Oct 21, 2010 - 1:02pm

Looks like figure 1 is wrong - it's the same as figure 2. Great article as usual!

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#3 by andrew // Oct 21, 2010 - 1:44pm

If you look at the links ("Muth102110-2.jpg") for both, its obvious that the first was meant to be ("Muth102110-1.jpg"). Thus looking at that URL we find:

Standard Stretch Slice

a slightly different image.

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#2 by AudacityOfHoops // Oct 21, 2010 - 1:02pm

Figure 1 and Figure 2 look the same to me.

But I can picture what Fig 1 should look like in my mind. Good writing. Loving this series so far.

One thing I would suggest is, if you reference a play that has been diagrammed in a past Word of Muth, it would be nice to throw in a link to that old article, so we can refresh our memories.

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#4 by Bill Barnwell // Oct 21, 2010 - 2:22pm

Image issue here is fixed.

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#5 by Dean // Oct 21, 2010 - 2:27pm

All that and a Lebowski reference! Outstanding!

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#6 by bubqr // Oct 21, 2010 - 3:13pm

Still great as usual.

Added bonus : it reminds me of the time spin move was also my best trick, set up with a few outside rushes with hands on the OT's facemask/eyes : He starts getting angry and lunges at you on the next outside rush, then hand move + spin...Good times.

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#7 by Bobman // Oct 21, 2010 - 3:39pm

Nice work, Ben. I agree that their blocking generally worked well, especially the slice. But you have to admit the Colts got a lot of penetration Sunday night. If not for horrendous tackling, the stat sheet would look pretty bad and it would have been a tougher sell for a "good Redskins blocking" piece. Moala, in particular, surprised me with his penetration. He was a 2nd rounder last year who hardly saw the field and the term bust has been mumbled prematurely, so seeing him be disruptive was a pleasant surprise. (Now teaching him to tackle or at least slow down Torain is the next step....)

There were between 3 and 6 times a DL or LB hit a RB a yard or two behind the LOS, only to have the play go for 5-10 (or more?) positive yards. The difference if they could tackle is maybe 35 yards off the rushing total, and suddenly, on the stat sheet at least, that looks pretty hum-drum.

You did mention the Colts' poor tackling at the very end, but I think it played a bigger part than what that one sentence implies.

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#8 by Karl Cuba // Oct 21, 2010 - 3:52pm

Another great article, I feel like I could suit up for a game in the trenches soon. I'd get killed (just not hefty enough) but these articles really help to understand line play.

Is there any chance of a run down of how the zone stretch blocking scheme interacts with the running back's reads? I ask because the outside stretch is the one running play that I just can't run with any success at all on Madden, it's a three yard loss every time and it does my head in.

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#14 by Thomas_beardown // Oct 22, 2010 - 4:44am

Any running play where you're asking linemen to move is always risky in Madden. 8 times out of 10, it means your linemen is moving to a position ignoring everything around him, so the DT that is right next to him runs right through his gap and gets your running back. It also doesn't simulate true double teams.

Another problem is that stretch plays are long developing and Madden linemen never hold their blocks.

One last piece of advice. If you're playing Madden 11 with the sprint button turned on, make sure you don't push that sucker for as long as humanly possible. You'll go a little faster, but all your blockers will instantly assume you are past them and they don't need to block anymore.

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#17 by Karl Cuba // Oct 22, 2010 - 12:37pm

I love the removal of the sprint button, it means that I no longer ruin perfectly well executed running plays by hitting it too early.

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#9 by Dan W (not verified) // Oct 21, 2010 - 4:00pm

Just want to give another thumbs up to Ben for this.

I'll admit I've missed one or two of these columns so far this year, but I'm going to make a point to go back and read them because every time I read one I learn something about blocking and/or football in general that I didn't know. I'm not always in the mood to read technical or even diagrammy articles and just want to look at a chart to see how bad San Diego's ST's are, but upon this reading I was reminded just how "readable" these are.

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#10 by Dan // Oct 21, 2010 - 4:11pm

Sending a FB or TE back to block the DE costs the offense a blocker on the play side. Could you say something about what this numbers disadvantage means for the offense, and why the Colts weren't able to take advantage of it? I'm guessing that poor run support by the Colts secondary was a big part of it.

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#11 by commissionerleaf // Oct 21, 2010 - 4:27pm

"Poor run support" comes from all parts of the Colts defense except maybe the DT's. The linebackers tackle like cornerbacks, the safeties and cornerbacks (except Bethea) tackle like kickers, and Freeney and Mathis sell out on the pass rush regularly (which is their job, I'm not knocking them, but they aren't run stopping DE's). I shudder to think how many yards DeAngelo Williams and the Carolina O line would put up against the Colts, if Ryan Torain and Washington can get to triple digits.

The Colts are a BRAND NAME in poor run support. It's like "Carolina Quarterback".

There is no Jerraud Powers. There is no Clint Sessions. There is only "Colts DB who just missed a tackle."

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#12 by Bobman // Oct 21, 2010 - 5:54pm

I don't quite agree, but thought your post very funny and, yes, there was some truth to it. But Powers had an excellent game and Session was decent too. The tackling was poor, but I think their main concern strategically was McNabb's long balls (insert joke here) and they were effective at that.

Remember, they gave up 100 yards to Torain but in 2006 they averaged about 160 YPG... and somehow won the SB. I am not condoning bad tackling, but this is not necessarily a fatal flaw. (Extensively playing 3rd string safeties, WRs, RBs, and some other backups, however, might be....)

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#13 by jedmarshall // Oct 21, 2010 - 10:38pm

Tackling for the most part is pretty bad, but I have to disagree with a few points. Freeney and Mathis appear to sell out for the pass rush a lot, but if you watch closely they are in on a surprising number of running plays. Powers is an absolute beast and one of the most underrated CB's in the league. He's great at coverage and very rarely misses a tackle.

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#19 by turbohappy (not verified) // Oct 22, 2010 - 5:21pm

Freeney and Mathis do run themselves out of running plays (or just get pushed out of it) that come to their side routinely. However, as the plays diagrammed in this article suggest, they routinely run down running plays to the other side from behind.

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#15 by Thomas_beardown // Oct 22, 2010 - 4:46am

Great article Ben, look forward to it every week.

I just wish it didn't come out the same day as Walkthrough.

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#16 by Mountain Time … // Oct 22, 2010 - 5:58am


I saw something else in this game that interested me. Could you clarify, am I seeing things correctly here, or am I misinterpreting what I saw? I wrote in my recap of the game that because Washington's line was aided by a ref crew that happened to be disinclined toward calling holding on either team, the Colts were forced to make an interesting adjustment: they started to use their line to rush McNabb in kind of a run mode in the second half. Their linemen seemed to want to stay in their lanes and hold their ground rather than selling out rushing the passer like Freeney and Mathis usually would, which not only impeded Donovan’s vision down field, but made it more difficult for him to tuck the ball away and scramble to gain yardage. I’ve never noticed a defense doing this on purpose, but it seemed to be a clever plan that worked well enough to win.

I also liked how Washington's linemen were able to peel off their linemen to get down field to block, but I wasn't able to understand what allowed them to do so, other than a vague sense that the TEs and FBs were doing their jobs exceptionally well. Thanks for teaching this stuff!

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#18 by Michael K (not verified) // Oct 22, 2010 - 3:39pm

"The Stretch Slice play provides Mike Sellers with an opportunity to throw a nice cut block on defensive ends, and I still hate defensive ends"

I love that sentence so, so much. As an ex-guard/center, I'd replace "ends" with "tackles" but the spirit is identical.

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#20 by Ben S (not verified) // Oct 24, 2010 - 10:56am

Nice work Ben. I always look forward to these articles as I can't always keep track of what the Skins are doing in the running game while watching the game live. Thanks for the break downs.

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