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MHR University - Understanding "Run Contain"


Thank God that the run contain system is behind us. It proved to be a disaster in Denver, and Denver fans will forever say the words "Jim Bates" with just a little snarl when the subject comes u

However, as football scholars, we should understand the system before we discard it as being a "bad" system. While I care little for the system, I have to acknowledge that it is a pretty good approach to defense. The key is to have the right players in place, and we didn't. Because we will be discussing the system for years to come whenever the "terrible '07 season" is brought up, I thought we should understand what it is we are talking about.

The system itself is popular at the middle school and even some HS levels (particularly in 4-4 formations). The complexity is obviously dumbed down, but it is a great system against run heavy teams. Bates took the system to a new level in Miami after tinkering with it in Dallas. Let's take a deeper look.

Read on...

From birth, football fans are taught that there are two types of coverages for a defense. One is "man coverage", which involves a player being assigned to cover another player. The other is "zone coverage", which involves a player beng responsible for an area. Welcome to the third way.

Contain is a system that is based on the idea of "vectoring" an opposing player into an area of the defense's choosing. The OLBs are responsible for herding running plays to the center of the field, where the MLB makes the tackles. It's a pretty complex concept, but one that is deadly when performed well.

The theory behind the system goes like this. No runner is allowed to go out of bounds. This means that he can only take a finite number of approaches towards the endzone. In zone or man coverages, we take chances with one-on-one tackles, but what if we could change the dynamics so that the lane the opposing player takes always leads towards the center of the field? In other words, back towards ten other defensive players?

The DTs must be big, and able to hold the center of the line (not penetrate). Because the opposition will be forced to run the center as the game goes on, the DTs are critical for stopping the run. They are also responsible for protecting the MLB, who will take out any runners being vectored from the edges. For this reason, the DTs ignore most pass situations and simply hold the center.

The OLBs have the strangest job. It involves not tackling an opposing player unless that player takes a cut back towards the center of the field. This means that the OLB must run alongside the runner as the runner heads towards a sideline to keep him from reaching the edge and tearing down the field along that sideline. When the runner realizes he can't get past the defender, he'll have to cut back. When he does so, he faces the other ten defenders (heading towards him) as well as the "container", who is now allowed to make the tackle.


Here, the runner tried to sweep right. When he realized he couldn't beat the SAM linebacker to the corner, he cuts back. He faces a swarm from the SAM, the #1 CB, as well as the MLB and SAFs. In the diagram, the MLB is still in the original position for simplification; in a real play, he is much closer to the runner because he has already taking an angle on the pursuit. He is the most likely defender to get the tackle if the OLB can't pivot quickly enough.

Most often, the MLB makes the tackle. Note that DJ Williams had the second most tackles in the NFL in '07 (even with the system only employed for part of the year).

Denver probably liked the system because it matched well in the AFC West. oakland uses the Zone Block system for running, and the Contain system is a terrific counter for two reasons. One, the DTs aren't making one gap moves, and aren't crashing to either side (making the blocks much more difficult). The other reason is that the "one cut" move by the runner plays into the hands of the defense's system (movement back towards the center of the field). SD also faced match up problems, as the system would have been a check on LT's agile running. Best of all, Denver was eager to take away the run game of any opponent, and force teams to throw towards CBs Bailey and Bly. The thought had to make the coaching staff salivate!

Alas, the DTs and OLBs (the hearts of the system) failed. The DTs weren't capable of holding the line (though Williams compensated well), and the OLBs were caught overpursuing and failing to anticipate the cutbacks. The tackling was poor all around.

System Advantages:

  1. Takes away the outside run.
  2. Meets the inside run with DTs and a MLB dedicated to run stopping assignments on most every play.
  3. Swarm type defense creates multiple fumble recovery possibilities.
  4. Speed is the emphasis for the DEs and OLBs, and this allows for effective blitzing in the pass game.
  5. In general, takes away the run and forces teams to pass.


  1. If the runner beats the defender to the sideline and turns upfield, it's a bad, bad day.
  2. Requires the DTs to be above average 2 gappers, big, and patient.
  3. Requires the OLBs to be fast, but also very intelligent and patient.
  4. Sacrifices the thought of using the DTs in a pass rush.
  5. Steep learning curve for the players.
  6. In general, requires a perfect set of player types for the system to run well.

Like Travis Henry, perhaps we won't have to discuss this much in the future.


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