The power run play has been a part of football since Teddy Roosevelt forced the first rule changes in the name of player safety. Ted Nguyen looks at the three power run schemes used these days, and breaks down what makes them work.
Chris Brown of Smart Football does a detailed breakdown of the power run here, explaining that the power run is more than just an approach to the game. Executing the power run hinges on the offensive line walling off the defensive front with double teams and down blocks. The backside guard then pulls to the playside and becomes the lead blocker. The outside contain player on the run side is typically left unblocked by the offensive line and is accounted for by a fullback, or is read by the quarterback, depending upon the style of offense.
Because coaches can adapt the system to fit their team, the physicality and attitude of the offensive personnel are what makes this play successful, not the scheme. Below are three approaches used in today’s game implementing the power run play.
Team: Stanford Cardinal
Personnel: Physical, deep offensive line and tight ends, talented running back corps
Jim Harbaugh arrived at Stanford in 2007 and, over the course of four seasons, completely turned around a team that went 1-11 the year before his arrival, in large part by establishing an attitude of physical dominance. In his final season in Palo Alto, Harbaugh went 12-1 and trounced Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl and David Shaw, Stanford’s current coach has continued to succeed with that same philosophy.
The type of athletes Stanford successfully recruits are not the fastest or the flashiest, but they are intelligent and have strong work ethics. Targeting these types of players has led to Stanford having many outstanding linemen and tight ends, a strength of which they take full advantage by frequently implementing unbalanced sets with up to eight linemen:
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Here, Stanford lines up with seven offensive linemen, including a four-man surface on the left. Lining up unbalanced can create pre-snap confusion amongst defenders, which the Cardinal pair with a quick count, forcing defenders to adjust quickly. UCLA is caught with just two defensive linemen, one linebacker, and a corner facing four linemen on the left side. The unbalanced line easily builds a wall ‒ nearly triple-teaming the playside defensive tackle ‒ for star running back Christian McCaffrey (#5) who bursts through the hole untouched for a 28-yard touchdown run.
Team: Carolina Panthers
System: Spread to run
Personnel: Strong, physical offensive line, mobile quarterback who runs north-south, thin at wide receiver.
In 2013 Carolina head coach Ron Rivera acknowledged, “…we have a library of all of [quarterback] Cam [Newton]’s plays from college… [offensive coordinator Mike Shula] took three or four things that [Newton] did really well and we’ve incorporated that and put that into what we do as an offense.” Two years later, Shula and the Carolina offense haven’t just taken three or four concepts from Newton’s Auburn career: They have adopted that system whole-heartedly by making zone reads, split zone, power-reads, and run/pass options staples of the Panthers’ offense. None of these concepts are new, but the Panthers’ volume of spread concepts and their success using them appears to be a step in the NFL game’s progress towards a more scheme-diverse league than it has been in the past.
The Panthers’ rush concepts utilize their quarterback in a way that nullifies opposing defenses’ usual numerical advantage. Newton’s unique talents make this scheme possible. The league has never seen a quarterback quite like Newton before. Not only is he elusive enough to evade defenders, his 6’5”, 240-pound frame size allows him to take and deliver hits, making him durable enough to lead all quarterback in carries (132) without missing a game this season. Gus Malzahn at Auburn and now Shula have both taken advantage of Newton’s north-south running style – and ability – by using him as a runner in shotgun power:
The Panthers often have a tailback or H-back next to Newton when running power, similar to a broken i-formation, with the fullback or H-back blocking the contain defender. With the quarterback carrying the ball, the offense can spread the defense out with a lone running back and one tight end, along with three wide receivers:
The Panthers also run power out of the shotgun by lining up the running back on the backside and having him sweep playside with Newton reading the contain player. In the first play above, the contain defender plays the sweep and Newton keeps the ball, running the power concept. In the second play, the contain player crashes down and Newton hands the ball off to running back Jonathan Stewart (#28), who is able to get outside and break a couple tackles for a nice gain. The power read allows the offense to leave a good defensive end unblocked while forcing the defense to respect the sweep, demonstrating the possibilities that come with negating the defense’s usual numerical advantage.
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A running back here doesn’t take the handoff at full speed running downhill as in traditional power, which would be a drawback for most shotgun power runs. Newton’s size and power, however, have made this an effective concept. Also, forcing defenses to place extra men in the box to account for Newton – coupled with the aforementioned negation of the defense’s numerical advantage – opens up options in the secondary, and the play-action pass becomes a dangerous weapon.
Team: California Golden Bears
System: Spread to pass
Personnel: Small offensive line, quarterback with great arm talent and ability to identify and read defenses, talented and deep wide receiver corps
In 2015, California faced issues different than did Carolina when running power out of the spread because they didn’t have a quarterback they wanted running the ball down after down. The Golden Bears had the potential top overall pick in this year’s draft in Jared Goff, a thin pocket passer who made a name for himself throwing the ball, not running it. Cal’s offensive line wasn’t particularly big or talented either, so gaining a numerical advantage was imperative for the power run scheme to be successful. Accordingly, they integrated their dynamic receivers into their power concept.
Coach Sonny Dykes combines the power run with a run/pass option (RPO), which is uncommon. Combining power with a pass concept is more difficult than combining a zone run with a passing concept, as zone blocking does not get linemen downfield the way power does, which reduces the chance of drawing an illegal man downfield penalty. But the Cal Bears have effectively combined these schemes without constantly getting flagged by making specific adaptations to their power blocking scheme and because of Goff’s precise footwork and quick release.
The main difference between Cal’s variation of power from traditional power is that, in Cal’s power, the playside tackle and tight end double-team the playside linebacker rather than the weakside linebacker. Since the playside backer is accounted for, the pulling guard is free to kick out to the contain defender. Goff’s read, then, is the weakside linebacker.
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The Bears have 11 personnel with a pro formation and a slot receiver to the right. The defense is in a 3-4 over front with quarters coverage. The weakside inside linebacker has run responsibility and has to wall off any inside breaking route from the slot receiver. He sees the guard pulling, signaling a potential handoff and steps up, leaving the safety – playing with outside leverage – giving up too much space inside. Goff reads the linebacker and is easily able to hit the slot receiver on a skinny post while maintaining precise footwork and throwing mechanics.
These examples of different power schemes illustrate two football truisms: First – physicality wins football games, which is why the power concept has endured the test of time; Second – great coaches are able to adapt their scheme to put their personnel in position to be successful.
Seeing a marriage of the two is a thing of beauty.
Follow Ted on Twitter @RaidersAnalysis
Ted Nguyen is a former player and coach who has written about the Raiders run/pass packages, the Patriots use of formations to get favorable matchups, and the spread passing game.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.