Understanding the NFL Running Game


Running Concepts

Just like with the passing concepts in the NFL the running concepts themselves are fairly limited in number.  That is not to say that all the running plays in the NFL are the same, instead just a few concepts are hidden throughout a wide amount of formations and personnel groupings.

To understand my descriptions of the running concepts it is first necessary to understanding the gap lettering along the offensive line.  The gaps are lettered as follows:  the gaps between the center and the guards are the A gaps, the gaps between the guards and the tackles are the B gaps, and the gaps between the tackles and the tight ends are the C gaps.  Below is a diagram:




I will begin with the basic Inside and Outside Zone runs, and then cover the Power run play, the counter run play, and the draw.  In a separate and shorter post I will cover the Wildcat (this post should come sometime before Friday afternoon.


Inside and Outside Zone Runs:

Perhaps the two most common running plays in the NFL right now are the Inside and Outside Zone runs.  To understand how these plays work it is necessary to first understand how zone blocking works.  The fundamentals of zone blocking are not very complex, however since these two plays (inside and outside zone runs) are used so commonly there are literally books dedicated to how to properly zone block.  I will give a simple explanation of zone blocking and leave any further research up to you.

Zone blocking can most simply be described by saying that an offensive line is responsible for a specific zone instead of a specific man (as he would be in a man blocking scheme).  The offensive lineman is told that he must read covered or uncovered.  This means is there a defender directly over him (covered) or is there no one directly in front of him(uncovered).

If the offensive lineman is covered than there is no zone blocking.   Instead the offensive lineman simply blocks the man directly over him with one simple difference; the covered offensive lineman takes a short and quick step sideways.  This quick sidestep allows the offensive lineman to block the defender from any angle and puts the defender in a position where he can be blocked out of the play due to the advantage in leverage the offensive lineman has.

When the offensive lineman reads uncovered then zone blocking is implemented.  The uncovered offensive lineman will first block "playside" and help the covered offensive lineman withn his blocking assignment.  The uncovered offensive lineman will drive toward the defender’s inside leg initially is(this is the defender who is covering  the "playside" offensive lineman).  Once the offensive lineman has reached where the defender’s inside leg initially was he will then either continue his double team of the defender or, in most cases, head up field to block a linebacker.  This should take only two steps, one to reach the back leg and one to continue the double team or head up field.  The offensive lineman will help with the double team as long as possible before attempting to head up field to block a linebacker.  Below is a video of this being run to perfection by the Detroit Lions.


While the majority of the time in a zone blocking scheme the tailback will follow the design of the play occasionally the tailback will perform a cutback and change the direction of his run.  The cutback made by the tailback exaggerates the advantages of the zone blocking scheme.  The tailback makes a cutback when he changes direction and runs away from where the linebackers are flowing (the tailback can only do this once and must not hesitate).  The defenders are forced to change the direction of their pursuit which allows the offensive lineman to block them out of the play.  The offensive linemen will not be standing between the defenders and the tailback; this creates a seal or a hole for the tailback to run through.  Further, once the cutback is made inside the tackle opposite of the cutback knows that he can leave his defender and head up field and instead block an outside linebacker.  The tackle can safely leave the defensive lineman because the defensive lineman whom he was blocking previously is now facing the opposite direction of the play and therefore would have to turn completely around and chase down a much faster tailback to make a play on the run.

The cutback run is particularly effective once the linebackers begin to over pursue the outside run.  Once the linebackers begin to spring towards the sideline they are running away from the direction of the play.  This makes them particularly easy for the offensive linemen to block.  However, essential to making the cutback work is that the tailback aims for where the hole will be and does not hesitate.  The cutback hole does not exist as soon at the tailback makes his cut because the offensive linemen still nee to head up field to block and turn the linebackers.  This is particularly hard for tailbacks new to a zone blocking scheme because they must see the hole before it exists in have complete trust in their offensive linemen. 

Here are some clips of USC running the outside zone run with a great example of a cutback at 1:10.


Now that we have described zone blocking for runs we can cover the two basic zone runs, the inside and outside zone runs.  As mentioned above most teams will seek to first establish the outside zone, so that the cutback is more readily available.  Therefore I will first explain the outside zone run (watch the video of USC above to see some outside zone runs in action).

The outside zone run, as its name suggests, is a run play where the tailback aims at just outside the tightend or the D gap.  The offensive linemen will attempt to get themselves positioned between the defenders and the sideline, by doing this they are hoping to seal off a lane to the outside for the tailback.  The offensive linemen attempting to get themselves outside of the defenders will in some cases allow the offensive linemen to actually do the opposite of what they intended, which is to block the defenders to the sideline opening up a cutback lane for the tailback.  Below is what the outside zone run looks like drawn up on the chalkboard.




After the defense begins to over pursue the outside zone the coach will typically call the inside zone run.  The tailback will often aim straight for the B gap between the guard and the tackle.  The same covered and uncovered rules apply, with the same fundamental idea of the uncovered offensive lineman aiming for the defender’s back foot and then heading upfield.  The offensive linemen really don’t block any differently.  The offensive linemen will all take their initial sidestep to get a better angle on the defender and then they will all block "playside".  The blocking "playside" is even more important during an inside zone run than outside zone run.  On an inside zone run the uncovered offensive linemen blocking the linebackers will have a large effect on the play even when there is not a cutback by the tailback.  Here is how the inside zone run looks diagramed on the chalkboard.



Here is the Inside Zone run shown again and again in a high school film room:


inside zone @ Yahoo! Video


The tailback also still has the option for the cutback during an inside zone run.  If the linebackers all crash down towards the center and the guard then the tailback can decide to cut outside.  In this case the tightend will block the outside linebacker inside and the tackle will block the defensive lineman inside (this is assuming a typical 4-3 alignment from the defense).  The video below shows USC running the inside zone and there is a good cutback at 1:40.


Power and Counter Runs:

This is my favorite running concept, admittedly mainly for its name.  The power run play is not very complicated, but is probably the most used running play in the NFL right now.  Here is a diagram of the play as the San Diego Chargers occasionally run it.




The blocking of this play is pretty simple.  The "playside" offensive linemen will block "down" meaning they will block the defender to their inside.  This means the "playside" guard and center will block the outside shoulder of the defenders over them and the "playside" tackle will block the defender to his inside.  Often the "playside" tackle while blocking the inside defender will used the technique of aiming for the back foot that was described above for zone blocking runs, this will allow the tackle to head up field and block a linebacker after double teaming the defender over the guard.  However, keep in mind that by blocking down the "playside" tackle is letting his man, the outside defender, run free.

Just like the advantage gained by offensive linemen who take a sidestep in zone running plays blocking "down" allows offensive linemen to get great leverage on their assigned defender.  The advantage the offensive linemen have in leverage should allow them to literally block their defenders out of the play.  The "down" blocking done by the offensive linemen also allows double teams right at the point of attack (where the tailback is running).  The "down" blocking effectively seals off the backside of the Power run.

The only reason that the tackle can allow his defender to go free is that he has help, often from a fullback or an h-back.  This fullback or h-back uses a "kick out block" meaning that he blocks the defender while facing towards the sideline.   This "kick out block" just creates yet another seal, the fullback or h-back is blocking the defender so that the fullback or h-backs body is between the defender and the tailback.  The tailback is therefore presented with a very clear running lane.  When done properly it should appear as a tunnel or railroad tracks with blockers lining either side.

The last part of the blocking involved in the Power run is done by the pulling guard (or a very athletic pulling tackle).  This player will lead the tailback through the gap and block the first defender he sees; often this defender is a linebacker.  The tailback following the guard ensures that there is no way (short of whiffing his block) that the guard can make the wrong block.  The tailback will adjust his running angle in such a way that the guard will be blocking the defender away from him.  Below is film of the San Diego Chargers running the Power run play with LaDanian Tomlinson.


The perfect complement to the Power run is the Counter run.  Just like the Power run the Counter run has a pretty self explanatory name.  In a Counter play the tailback will take a quick step to the opposite side of the field from where he plans to run.  This will hopefully cause the linebackers to flow to the wrong side of the field making the blocking even simpler for the offensive linemen.  Below is a diagram out of the old Nebraska playbook of the Counter play being run in a singleback set.




As I implied above, the blocking of a Counter play is fundamentally the same as a Power play.  The linemen will block "down" gaining the same advantages as mentioned above.  The offensive linemen will have good leverage against the defenders allowing the offensive linemen to seal the defenders out of the play and the "playside" tackle will be able to initially double a defender and then go up field and block a linebacker because he is letting the "playside" outside defender run free.  However, in most traditional two back sets the benefit of the pulling guard is amplified even further in the counter play.  The fullback will block the outside defender on the side that the tailback makes his initial (and misleading) step towards.  This allows not only the guard, but also the tackle to pull "playside" (the defender the tackle was responsible for is being blocked by the full-back).  Below is a diagram from an old Nebraska playbook of the Counter play out of a two back set.




Lastly, here is some low quality video (my apologies) of the Counter play being run out of many different formations.


The Draw:

The draw is to running what the play action pass is to passing.  The offense will fake the pass to let the linebackers and safeties drop up field and then will hand off the ball to the tailback.  Here is the play diagramed below:




This play is very simple in how it must be executed.  Every player has a very simple job, but if they do not do their job the play will be stopped for a loss.

The quarterback must complete a five step drop just as he would for a typical pass play before he hands the ball off to the tailback.  The receivers also must react as if they were running routes for a passing play.  This is essential as it pulls the defenders further away from the play giving the tailback more space to run.  If the quarterback and the receivers properly deceiver the defense most defenders will be ten to fifteen yards from the line of scrimmage when the ball is given to the tailback.  The offensive lineman (and sometimes the tightend and fullback) must also first take a step back as if they were pass blocking.  As soon as the defenders begin to rush the quarterback the offensive linemen then begin their run blocking.  The tackles attempt to turn the outside defenders even further to the outside.  By doing this the tackles cause the defenders to run right past the tailback right as the tailback receives the handoff.  The interior offensive linemen (the guards and center) will block just as they would in a zone play.  They read covered or uncovered.  Typically one of the guards and the center will be covered, the other guard will aim for the back leg of the defender over the center and then head up field to block a linebacker.  If the draw is run out a two back set the fullback can also head up field to block a linebacker.  The tailback will then either run into the hole left by the defender who rushed off the outside (who was turned outside by the offensive tackle) or will follow the fullback.  If the tailback runs into the hole left by the outside rusher there should be no defenders except for a single outside linebacker between the tailback and the defensive backfield.  This linebacker can be blocked by the fullback or if there is a tightend the tightend can take the outside rusher further outside while the tackle blocks the linebacker.  If the tailback follows the fullback he can ensure that the fullbacks block is correct, this is the same theory as with the pulling guard in the power play.  The tailback takes an angle with his run that ensures the fullback is between him and the defender.

Here is some video of Michigan running the draw.


Thanks again for reading.  A post on the Wilcat is coming shortly.

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