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The wishbone formation. A throwback to days of football when 3 yards and a cloud of dust was far better than the dreaded… forward pass. The San Diego Chargers and second year running back Melvin Gordon used a variation of the wishbone, the inverted wishbone (also known as a diamond formation) to run all over the Denver Broncos in Week 8, using the same formation and two very similar run plays to dominate the Broncos front seven. I’ve charted every Melvin Gordon run from the 2016 season, and the five times the Chargers ran their counter run from the wishbone against the Broncos were the first times they’ve shown that formation or play design all year.
The inverted wishbone differs slightly from the traditional wishbone formation, with the fullbacks (or “upbacks”) positions being switched, as seen below.
The Chargers ran all five of their inverted wishbone plays from 22 personnel, which has been Gordon’s most successful personnel package to run out of, averaging 5.55 yards per carry through eight weeks. On his five counter runs from the inverted wishbone Gordon ran for gains of: 11 yards, 5 yards, 5 yards, 20 yards, and 17 yards, for a whopping average of 11.6 yards per carry.
The Chargers basic formation for these runs is an inverted wishbone with Gordon as the halfback and a fullback and tight end as the upbacks, a receiver split to one side of the field and an inline tight end to the opposite side of the field. On all five of the plays the tight end in the upback position motioned there from the slot.
In total, they ran just two play designs from this formation, a counter to the weak side of the formation and a counter to the strong side of the formation. They pulled both the offensive guard and the upback from the non-play side of the formation to lead block for Gordon.
Counter to the Weak Side
The Chargers began their use of the inverted wishbone formation with a counter run to the weak side of the formation. They run this play with 4:37 remaining in the second quarter, facing a 1st and 10 from their own 16-yard line. The Broncos have their base 3-4 defense on the field, with safety T.J. Ward (#43) in the box to create an 8 man defensive front. The Chargers run their counter to the offensive left (weak) side of the formation, using a variety of blocking schemes within the play to open a lane for Gordon. Left tackle King Dunlap (#77) and left guard Orlando Franklin (#74) combo block 3-technique defensive end Jared Crick (#93).
With the combo block on Crick, the right side of the running lane is cleared for Gordon, which leaves the left side to still be cleared. Since both the LT and LG are occupied with Crick, outside linebacker Shane Ray is left unblocked on the edge. The left upback – rookie tight end Hunter Henry (#86) – takes two steps at Ray, forcing Ray to pause and collect himself to take on the block.
However, it’s actually a fake from Henry, as he slides outside of Ray and moves to the second level. Meanwhile right guard D.J. Fluker (#76), comes in on a trap block, hitting Ray from the side and creating the left wall of a running lane for Gordon.
With the combo and trap blocks executed, the last piece of the puzzle for the Chargers is a lead block from right upback Derek Watt (#34). He takes on the play side inside linebacker Corey Nelson (#52) who steps up to fill the hole created by the combo and trap block. Watt comes across the formation, blocks Nelson, and opens the lane for Gordon.
After all this variation in blocking up front for the Chargers, Gordon takes advantage for a big gain. He takes a jab step to the right to sell the counter, then comes back to the left, following Fluker and Watt up the hole for a gain of 11 yards.
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San Diego ran this counter to the weak side of this formation for their first two rush attempts out of it. With solid gains on both attempts, they looked to further confuse the Broncos by switching to the strong side.
Counter to the Strong Side
When the Chargers run their counter to the strong side of the formation, the blocking assignments differ slightly. This example comes with 4:31 remaining in the game, from the same personnel and formation (just with the tight end on the left instead of right).
Rather than the left tackle and guard combo blocking the 3-technique like the last example, this time the inline tight end and the left tackle executes an ACE block on the 5-technique (Crick) and backside inside linebacker (Nelson).
TE Sean McGrath (#84) helps Dunlap secure the block on Crick, before flowing to the second level and sealing off Nelson from the play.
Additionally, instead of the playside upback going to the second level, his responsibility is now to take on the unblocked edge player straight up. Watt, therefore, is tasked with taking on Ray and turning him outside to create the interior running lane for Gordon.
Fluker once again pulls to the left of the formation, but rather than trap blocking he turns upfield and takes on the strong side ILB Todd Davis (#51) in the hole. Davis sees the running lane develop immediately and flies downhill to fill the gap. However, Fluker makes contact with inside leverage and seals the lane off.
Additionally, Henry, the weak side upback, follows Fluker across the formation and into the hole. While he trips over Fluker’s feet, he ends up interfering just enough with S Darian Stewart (#26) to keep the lane open for Gordon.
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The Chargers had great success on the ground in Week 8 against the Denver Broncos, and a large part of it was thanks to their use of counter runs out of an inverted wishbone formation. It was such an unexpected formation, given they had not run a single rushing play from it all year with Gordon, that it clearly took Denver by surprise. With the emergence of Melvin Gordon and a diverse and creative rushing scheme, the Chargers run game looks primed to take off.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @DBRyan_Dukarm. Check out the rest of his work, including covering the UCLA Bruins’ use of Spot Concept, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ end around rush, and Buffalo’s double track block scheme and deep passing game.
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All film courtesy of the NFL GamePass.