Analysis  

 

Passing league? Top NFL teams utilize power-running schemes

The NFL has taken to the air in recent years, with offensive coordinators exploiting favorable rules restricting defensive contact with receivers downfield. Although the risk of turning the ball over or having a negative play increases the more a quarterback drops back, the presence of a potent passing game has helped several teams become competitive in a shootout-heavy league. This pass-first approach coincided with the explosion of fantasy football in such a way that many observers have come to view the quarterback and passing game as the most important elements of a championship offense.

Now, I certainly believe having a big-time quarterback makes it easier to win games in the NFL, but a championship offense must be able to run the football -- and run it with force. This has been a winning formula throughout the years, and it remains part of the blueprint elite teams will use to chase the Lombardi Trophy in 2014.

Poring over statistics from the 2013 campaign, I found this interesting nugget: Nine of the top 12 teams in terms of rushing attempts made the postseason. That's telling, as proponents of old-school football have always preached attempts over yardage when it comes to the running game. Teams committed to the run will persistently pound the ball between the tackles in an effort to control the tempo of the game, wearing down the opposing defense with punishing attempts. Additionally, effective utilization of the ground attack can keep an offense out of long-yardage situations, reducing the risk of turnovers and negative plays through the air.

As I delved deeper into the All-22 Coaches Film of numerous games from the 2013 season, I discovered that championship-caliber teams not only pounded the rock with great regularity, they ran out of power-based sets to increase their chances of consistently winning games. Here's why:

1) Running from power sets establishes a physical offensive identity.

For all the talk about the NFL becoming a passing league, the game boils down to physicality and toughness. The team that out-hits its opponent routinely wins, particularly when imposing its will at the line of scrimmage. Looking at the increased utilization of "22" personnel packages (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR) and jumbo sets, I believe more coaches are scheming to make the game a street fight at the line. By putting big bodies in tight formations with minimal splits, the offense neutralizes the effectiveness of gap-control defenses, giving blockers better angles at the point of attack. Additionally, offensive coordinators can implement wedge-like blocking schemes to create a push at the line of scrimmage. With a physical back to carry the ball, such a power-based running scheme can wear out a defense over the course of a game.

That's why the playoffs provided a hint at a trend that's emerging in the NFL. Teams like the Patriots, Seahawks, Saints and 49ers used a variety of power-based formations to effectively move the ball. Most importantly, this approach allowed the respective coaches to control the tempo via complementary football strategies while keeping the defense rested and away from adverse situations. Given how these tactics significantly impacted postseason games, a return to power football makes sense for teams with strong defenses.

Studying tactics and schemes used by last season's top contenders, I couldn't help but notice the prevalence of power packages with "22" or jumbo personnel. While most squads jump into those groupings/formations in short-yardage and goal-line situations, a handful of teams now use power packages to change the tempo of the game. Offensive coordinators are looking to make the game a matter of toughness and physicality. The schemes certainly aren't revolutionary, but they put the onus on defenders to step up, take on blocks and make solid tackles against hard-nosed running backs.

Let's take a look at the X's and O's of power football:

INSIDE ZONE

The zone-based blocking scheme is the preferred approach of most teams in the league, with offensive linemen assigned to block the first defender that appears on their designated tracks. The unit moves in unison to the direction of the play call, leaving the running back a choice of seams to attack when defenders jump out of their assigned gaps.

In the following screengrab, taken from the 49ers' Week 14 win over the rival Seahawks, San Francisco has 22 personnel on the field in a tight I-formation. The Seahawks have nine defenders in the box, but the zone-blocking scheme can handle this defensive tactic:

At the snap, Frank Gore takes the ball heading to the left B-gap. The 49ers' offensive linemen do an excellent job of "getting a hat on a hat," leaving Gore with plenty of room to blow through the second level:

He weaves his way down the field for a 51-yard gain.

Click here for full video of the play.

In the next set of screengrabs, taken from the Patriots' Week 17 win over the Bills, New England is running an inside-zone play to the left out of 22 personnel. Anticipating a run, Buffalo has 10 defenders near the line of scrimmage:

The extra defenders don't matter, as LeGarrette Blount takes the handoff heading to the left behind his lead blocker. The Patriots build a wall at the point of attack, creating a huge seam in the B-gap for Blount to exploit:

Blount scoots down the boundary for a 35-yard score.

Click here for full video of the play.

WHAM BLOCK

The wham play features a unique blocking scheme typically utilized in run-heavy sets. The tactic requires a tight end or wingback to essentially trap an interior defender to create a seam in the middle. When executed correctly, this trap block leads to big gains from downhill runners.

In the screengrab below, taken from the 49ers' Week 4 rout of the Rams, San Francisco again is utilizing its 22 personnel, this time in a tight wing I-formation. The wingback is assigned to block the first defender past the center, with the fullback leading Gore through the hole. Notice how St. Louis is overshifted to the wingback, anticipating a run to the strong side:

The wingback pulls around and through the A-gap, with the fullback clearing a path for Gore:

The veteran back makes a nifty cut out the back door and rumbles for 27 yards.

Click here for full video of the play.

POWER

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Every offense in the NFL has the power in the playbook, because it is the one play that embodies the toughness and physicality that this league is all about. The play assigns the backside guard to pull around and kick out the defender on the end of the line or lead through the hole to pick up the fast-flowing defender from the backside. The running back takes a jab step in the opposite direction to buy time for the pulling guard and fullback to hit the gap. With two blockers providing a convoy for the ball carrier, the defense is outnumbered at the point of attack, and linebackers are challenged to step up aggressively in the alley to fill the hole. Given the paucity of college teams running power-based offenses, most linebackers' lack of experience in taking on blockers is exposed with the power.

In the set of screengrabs below, taken from the Patriots' divisional-round massacre of the Colts, New England is running the power. The Colts have 10 defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. The backside guard is assigned to pull around and kick out the first defender who shows up at the end of the line. Blount will take a jab step right before heading to the left:

Despite the crowd of defenders at the line, the Patriots effectively put hats on defenders at the point of attack, leaving a crease for Blount on the interior:

The hard-nosed running back slips to the outside and dashes for a 30-yard gain.

Click here for full video of the play.

COUNTER (JAB-O)

The counter and power are similar plays, but the footwork of the running back is a little more deliberate, to buy additional time for the pulling guard and fullback to create creases on the interior. The initial fake slows down the pursuit of linebackers, giving the guard and fullback better angles to kick out or seal (based on reactions) their assigned defenders. When executed properly, the combination of down blocks and pulls (or traps) creates huge seams in the middle of the defense. A patient runner with good vision and body control will attack those seams and churn out big gains -- even against a crowded box.

In the following screengrab, snatched from the Seahawks' Week 4 win over the Texans, Seattle breaks the huddle in 22 personnel, aligned in a strong I-wing formation to the right. The Texans have nine defenders in the box, with the safety crowding up on the tight end side anticipating a run to the strength of the formation:

Marshawn Lynch drifts to the right before heading left, behind fullback Derrick Coleman, through the B-gap:

Coleman stones the linebacker in the hole, creating a crease for Lynch on the inside:

The Pro Bowl back attacks the alley quickly and powers his way to a 17-yard gain on a perfectly blocked counter play.

Click here for full video of the play.

2) Playing in a phone booth curbs the potency of an eight-man front.

To effectively defend in the NFL, coaches must routinely craft strategies that add an additional player to the box as a method for stopping the run. In theory, this would put eight defenders in the box against two-back sets and seven defenders in the box against one-back formations. With the quarterback ignored as a runner, the extra defender is often the free hitter in the alley. Against jumbo sets, however, the numerical advantage is essentially nullified, with the split end or flanker replaced by an additional tight end or offensive tackle positioned at the end of the line. Part of this is due to the alignment of the wide receiver. Most defensive coordinators are reluctant to leave a cornerback on an island (without safety help) against a talented pass catcher; thus, at least one defender is pulled away from the box. In addition, the presence of an extra offensive lineman positioned at the tight end spot creates a significant size and weight advantage at the point of attack.

This subtle tactic was reserved for savvy offensive coordinators in years past, but more and more teams are incorporating quasi-unbalanced lines to create a physical and numerical advantage at the line of scrimmage. The simple maneuver should be easy to defend -- the defense can just bump over to the direction of the heavy side -- but a misalignment or botched assignment results in a huge crease in the middle.

Looking at the screengrab below, pulled from the Saints' Week 16 loss to the Panthers, New Orleans breaks the huddle with jumbo personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 1 WR, 6 OL) on the field. Tight end Ben Watson is aligned on the left, with the sixth offensive lineman positioned on the far right. The Panthers have eight defenders in the box, but safety Quintin Mikell, confused by the unbalanced alignment, is running across the field to match up with Watson:

With Mikell out of position due to the unbalanced line, the Saints successfully run the off-tackle play to the right against a vulnerable defensive front lacking a support safety:

As a result, Mark Ingram posts a 34-yard gain on a simple power play from a run-heavy formation.

Click here for full video of the play.

In the screengrab below, taken from the Saints' blowout win over the Cowboys in Week 10, New Orleans sends its jumbo personnel on the field in a tight I-formation. Coach Sean Payton has called an isolation run ("iso") to get his fullback isolated on the middle linebacker (Bruce Carter) in the hole:

Ingram takes the handoff and heads to the A-gap. He reads the block of the fullback to determine whether to cut left or right:

With Carter buried by the fullback's block, Ingram slips to the right for a 31-yard gain.

Click here for full video of the play.

In the next screengrab, snagged from the Seahawks' NFC Championship Game triumph over the 49ers, Seattle is aligned in tight trey formation with jumbo personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR and 6 OL). San Francisco puts eight defenders in the box to stop the run:

With an extra body at the line of scrimmage, the Seahawks are able to neutralize Patrick Willis in the middle:

This creates an alley for Lynch on the cutback run:

Lynch indeed makes a nifty cut to slip out the back door and rumble for a 40-yard touchdown.

Click here for full video of the play.

3) Undersized pass-rushing specialists leave NFL defenses vulnerable.

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Executives and coaches reacted to the philosophical shift of the NFL to a passing league by drafting a bevy of swift-but-undersized pass rushers adept at getting after the quarterback. While speed and quickness are needed to effectively counter the quick-rhythm passing games employed by several offenses, a lack of big-bodied edge players leaves a defense susceptible to power runs directed between the tackles. Offensive coordinators exploit this dearth of size along defensive lines by utilizing multiple-tight end sets and unbalanced lines with two running backs in the backfield.

It's simple: With offensive linemen and blocking tight ends tipping the scales at 275-plus pounds, power sets are advantageous against defenses featuring 250-pound athletes on the edges. The cumulative effect of fighting against bigger, stronger players on the perimeter overwhelms smallish defenders, leading to big gains on downhill running plays between the tackles. Factor in the poor tackling that plagues the NFL today and it's clear that a power-based offensive approach really presents problems for defenses across the league.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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