ITP Glossary: Crack Sweep

Football is littered with specialized terminology. From dino stem to Tare Concept, commentators rarely get to explain everything you need to know before the next play. Inside The Pylon’s glossary was developed to give fans a deeper understanding of the game through clear explanations, as well as image and video examples. Please contact us with any terms or phrases you’d like to know more about.

Crack Sweep

The crack sweep is an offensive running scheme involving a crackback block typically executed by a player split out wide or in the slot.  The crackback blocker, if split out, will usually motion toward the formation just prior to the snap as he attempts to seal off the end man/defender on the line of scrimmage, giving the ball carrier an opportunity to turn the corner. The other blockers look to pin the defense to the inside, hopefully preventing or, at least, delaying backside pursuit. In addition, a textbook crack sweep will free up one or more offensive linemen to pull, providing lead blockers for the ball carrier.  By flooding the perimeter with blockers, an offense can often outsize a defense, pitting offensive lineman and tight ends against smaller cornerbacks and safeties at the second level.


The Arizona Cardinals execute a crack toss sweep by motioning flexed out tight end Darren Fells (#85) on the crackback block against defensive end William Hayes (#96):

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Fells delivers the crackback block on Hayes, eliminating the defender from the play. The block works in tandem with the frontside of the offensive line pulling upfield ahead of running back David Johnson. With wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (#11) fanning out to seal off safety ‒ and secondary force defender ‒ Mark Barron (#26), the ball carrier is able to turn the corner with a blocking cavalry consisting of left tackle Jared Veldheer (#68) and left guard Mike Iupati (#76) leading the way. Johnson picks up seven yards on the first down carry.

Raiders Double Crack Sweep

Facing 3rd and 2 on their own 28-yard line, the Oakland Raiders keep the drive alive on a toss sweep that utilizes two crackback blocks:

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Operating from a compressed formation ‒ a common tactic on crack sweeps ‒ with three receivers bunched to the left, wide receiver Andre Holmes (#18) slams down on San Diego Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget (#94), sealing the defender to the inside as running back Taiwan Jones takes the toss and presses wide.

As the play progresses, wide receiver Michael Crabtree (#15) walls off defensive back Patrick Robinson (#26), while the entire offensive line on the playside ‒ including tight end Lee Smith (#86) ‒ pull outside and upfield. Smith forces cornerback Adrian Phillips to the ground, securing just enough space for Jones to gain three yards and move the chains before outside linebacker Melvin Ingram (#54) tracks him down from behind.

49ers Empty Crack Sweep

Here is an example of a successful QB keeper/crack sweep out of an empty set, which the San Francisco 49ers used against the New Orleans Saints in the 2011 NFC Divisional game:

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First, the 49ers have a significant alignment advantage over the Saints overloaded defense to the right of QB Alex Smith, who runs the crack sweep left. The crackback block on the DE is efficient on the play, with the quickness of the freed up left tackle noticeable as he gets out and up on the pull.

Steelers Empty Crack Sweep

Out of an empty shotgun, the Pittsburgh Steelers deploy a personnel grouping consisting of two fullbacks aligned as tight ends, plus an eligible offensive lineman split wide right. Le’Veon Bell (#26) lines up in the left slot with tight end Heath Miller (#83) split wide on the same side.

The Baltimore Ravens counter the semi-spread formation by using a 4-4 defensive front and have both corners playing off-coverage with a single-high safety behind them. Defensive end / outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (#58) walks out to cover the slot receiver.

Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley calls the empty crack sweep to the left / weak side. Here’s a look at the design concept of this Michael Vick QB keeper:Empty Crack Sweep Design

The key to this play is the crackback block by Miller, who will come in motion just prior to the snap and seal off the unsuspecting DE (Kapron Lewis-Moore, #95) on the line of scrimmage. With Lewis-Moore accounted for by the crack block, left tackle Kelvin Beachum (#68) can pull frontside to lead the way on the QB sweep. The motion toward center by Miller should also cause cornerback Jimmy Smith (#22) to follow, potentially eliminating a defender in the target area of the run before the play even starts.

Cracking Down On The Empty Crack Sweep

But even good offensive theories can look really bad when a defense plays it right:

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Well-disciplined on the play, the Ravens defense sniffs out the QB sweep, with several defenders swarming to Vick for the takedown. Very little works well here for the Steelers as Vick can barely even make it back to the line of scrimmage. There are a few reasons why the plays fails so miserably, but it starts upfront:

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Off the snap, the left side of the offensive line all step laterally toward the sideline, like they would on a stretch play. Vick, too, receives the ball and immediately sweeps left. In turn, the Ravens, particularly at the second level, key off this movement and begin to flow to the play side in a controlled manner.

The motioning Miller does position himself for the crackback block on Lewis-Moore, but, in doing so, he also contacts the pull-blocking Beachum on the way by – delaying the left tackle’s ability to get out and upfield.

But it is the strong performance by Lewis-Moore that truly allows the Ravens defense to succeed. Despite facing both the oncoming backside block from Miller and left guard Ramon Foster (#73), the defensive end manages to bull his way into the backfield, resetting the line of scrimmage and forcing Vick to step back before turning the corner. These extra inches are precious as they equate to that much-needed extra split-second for the flowing linebackers to enhance their positioning.

With the defensive line winning at the point of attack, the second level defenders finish the job. First, Dumervil takes on the block from Bell and moves laterally toward the run action while engaged for about three steps. Behind him, Jimmy Smith, who did not overreact to Miller’s pre-snap motion and quickly pivoted back into position, shuffles toward the sideline to fill the outside running lane, using Dumervil as a shield. At the same time, ILB C.J. Mosley (#57) scrapes over to fill the inside running lane and shoots through the opening.

Bell peels off the his block on Dumervil to deliver a hard shoulder to Mosley, knocking him to the ground. But the Ravens still have the numbers in their favor. The pull-blocking Beachum – Vick’s last hope to clear some room – is unable to account for the flock of Ravens heading his way.

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Brian Filipiak wrote this entry. Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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