Calling a run play is easy enough. The end result is just as easy to grade. Running backs receive most of the glory on successful attempts while blowups in the backfield seem to focus on the defender recording the tackle for a loss. But it’s often the many and myriad intricate actions in between that ultimately determine the outcome.
In a Week 15 contest between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins, neither team’s running game produced much on the ground. Miami’s running backs accounted for 52 yards on 18 attempts (2.9 per carry average) while their counterparts tallied 84 yards on 25 attempts (3.4 per carry average). This is a tale of two runs.
The Drawing Board
First diagrammed on a chalkboard before being brought to life on the practice field, run plays come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Concepts vary from power to speed to finesse, all working in concert with different run-blocking schemes. But no matter how well-designed, a run play can be dead on arrival due to faulty execution up front (or dominance by the defensive line). Sometimes, such as the play shown below, success or failure is determined before the running back even secures the handoff.
Dolphins: The Line-Up
On a 2nd-and-4 from the NE 30-yard line with just over five minutes to go in the second quarter, the Dolphins are in the midst of a drive that started from their own 27. Working with two tight ends lined up to the right (from the defense’s point of view), quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes the snap out of the shotgun with running back Lamar Miller offset. The Patriots are in nickel personnel with a 4-2 alignment and safety Patrick Chung near the line of scrimmage.
The Dolphins will attempt a toss play to the strong side of the formation, using a pin-and-pull blocking scheme in which the center and play-side tackle will pull across the line of scrimmage toward the point of attack outside the tight ends:
Just prior to the snap, tight end Charles Clay (#42) goes into a short motion inside before retreating back outside. Perhaps keying off the motion, linebacker Dont’a Hightower ‒ keeping the same depth ‒ shifts from the strong-side A gap to the inside hip of defensive tackle Sealver Siliga who is just outside the strong-side B gap.
Failure to Execute
At the snap, the Dolphins fail to execute thanks in large part to the work of Siliga. Left guard Daryn Colledge, asked to pin/turn his assignment (Siliga) away from the run, gets driven back by the defensive tackle and turned into his pulling teammate, center Samson Satele.
With Satele delayed on the pull block and a clear path into the backfield created by the pulling play-side tackle, Hightower shoots the gap to bring down the ball carrier for a 5-yard loss.
While Hightower displays good anticipation and a quick burst, it’s Siliga’s disruption that clears the linebacker from any potential obstacle in his pursuit to the running back. The boxscore won’t show it, but Siliga is just as pivotal as Hightower to the defensive stop and yardage loss.
The play highlighted above demonstrates how one failed block in a zone-blocking scheme can lead to a disastrous chain reaction. In most man-blocking schemes, the ball carrier must rely on a series of well-executed blocks in order to find running room. This often difficult task can be aided by run concepts that utilize misdirection and running backs that sell it well.
Patriots: The Line Up
On 1st and 10 with the Patriots approaching midfield in the third quarter, quarterback Tom Brady is under center with running back Jonas Gray as the lone back. Using 12 personnel, New England aligns tight end Rob Gronkowski in the backfield between tackle and guard. The Dolphins counter the two-tight-end set with their nickel personnel in a 4-2 alignment.
The Patriots call a counter play in which the handoff and Gray’s initial steps work to show the defense a run to the weak-side:
By first pressing outside, Gray forces the defenders to commit. Center Bryan Stork ‒ careful not to completely open the gate ‒ angles defensive tackle Earl Mitchell (#90) into the initial direction of Gray. With Stork working the one-on-one block, left guard Dan Connolly is free to engage the second-level defender in linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (#97).
On the backside (but actual run-side), right guard Ryan Wendell holds his block on defensive tackle Jared Odrick (#98). The true point of attack created between the blocks of Wendell and Stork is capped off by the lead block from Gronkowski on linebacker Philip Wheeler (#52). With Wheeler reacting to Gray’s initial step and caught slightly out of position, Gronkowski needs only to nudge the linebacker out of the way, clearing the lane for the running back.
Gray does the rest, planting his outside foot to cut to the inside of Gronkowski’s block and then upfield through the enormous hole for a 14-yard gain on the well-executed counter run.
Return to the Drawing Board
Every run design has a series of moving parts (the handoff, a ball carrier’s first few steps, the blocking action) working together to create running lanes. And every one of these moving parts forces a defender to read and react. Many of the individual battles along the trenches can be won or lost before they even start; a slight misstep here, or the perfect read there, can flip leverage and disrupt the best laid run schemes.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.
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