Anatomy of a Play
This is our first anatomy of a run this season, and it's about time.
Next to turnover differential, a team's rushing total is generally the stat most directly correlated to winning football games. The Giants, Falcons, Redskins and Titans have the NFL's top four rushing offenses, each averaging more than 150 yards per game, and the teams have a combined record of 20-5. They wear the "running team" badge with pride and make it their mission to be more physical than their opponent each and every week.
When a team is mired in a losing season, it's often a re-commitment to the run that settles them and brings their focus back to what is important on Sundays -- physical domination. That's what happened in St. Louis.
Heading into their Week 7 game with Dallas, the 1-4 Rams hadn't scored an offensive touchdown in three weeks, yet were able to score 34 points and rush for 180 yards against one of the best front sevens in the league. Steven Jackson had 56 of those yards on one touchdown run. The play was primarily a result of great physical execution, but was aided by some clever scheming.
It was early in the third quarter and St. Louis was leading 24-7. They had the ball on their own 44-yard line. The Rams broke the huddle with their typical base personnel package: Two backs, two wide receivers and a tight end. The formation, however, was different from anything the Rams had shown all game.
Left tackle Adam Goldberg lined up on the right, next to right tackle Alex Barron, in what essentially was a tight end position. Tight end Anthony Becht aligned next to the left guard, in what was more-or-less a left tackle position. It is known as an "unbalanced" line -- and if you add the weight on either side of the center, you can see that the name fits:
The call was "80 Stretch Boss," an outside zone run to the unbalanced side, with fullback Dan Kreider lead-blocking for Jackson. Normally the Cowboys' outside linebackers set the edge of their 3-4 defense, providing contain and preventing a stretch play from getting around them. But when Jackson took the handoff, he was able to immediately outflank Dallas.
The reason was that outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware was not the edge-setter on this defensive call. Rather, he stunted, slanting to the inside. That meant inside linebacker Zach Thomas was forced to scrape over the top and set the edge -- a particularly difficult assignment on a quick-hitting stretch play. What made Thomas' job even tougher was facing the unbalanced line, which meant he would be setting the edge against a tackle instead of a tight end.
When Ware slanted across Goldberg's face, Goldberg let him pass by, leaving him for Barron. Goldberg moved on and easily handled the scraping Thomas. The edge of Dallas defense was not set and Kreider got around the corner cleanly for his lead block on Bradie James.
Another key block was made by wide receiver Torry Holt, who sealed safety Ken Hamlin to the inside, completing the formation of Jackson's running lane. Jackson was in full stride and needed nothing more than a small stiff-arm to shrug off the last remaining tackler.
One cannot underestimate the element of surprise in playcalling. Using the unbalanced line for the first time kept Dallas from adjusting their defense and gave St. Louis an advantage. It was a play that epitomized the game. Dallas was outmaneuvered, and then physically beaten.