By Nick Shook
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Offensive linemen are often complimented by being referred to as maulers, and while it’s a good quality, it’s also unfair.
This is because linemen are much more than grizzly bears, capable of nothing more than simply overpowering an adversary. The modern lineman is an elite-level athlete who’s tasked with many responsibilities and movements. Playing a tackle, guard or center position effectively is a work of art — if you know what to look for.
The league’s best units are strong individually and as a collective group of five — or for teams such as Pittsburgh and Oakland in certain situations, six — but the types of plays they run can be quite different. Let’s take a look at some differences below.
We begin with the hottest, trendiest running scheme in the game these days, which has actually been around for two decades.
Denver head coach Mike Shanahan built a ground game on the zone scheme foundation. Behind the league’s first effective zone blockers, Terrell Davis rushed to a 1998 NFL Most Valuable Player Award, the Broncos won two titles and Davis ended up part of the next class of Hall of Famers. The buck didn’t stop with Davis, though, as Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Clinton Portis all found success running in the scheme. The league took note, and now the concept is seen all over in one variation or another.
But how does it work? It begins with linemen ditching the traditional idea of individual assignments. No longer is a center blocking back while a guard pulls to the front side. Instead, the linemen work in unison, beginning with the first step, a lateral step in the direction of the play.
From there, the linemen follow similar paths, working upfield at an angle. The rule is simple: block the first man who crosses your face while continuing upfield. In some schemes, the backside tackle cuts down the backside defensive end, while other designs include a fullback who blocks against the flow of the play to the backside. Running backs run with the flow, looking for a breakdown in containment and the resulting cutback lane. Miami’s execution of this was a big part of Jay Ajayi‘s breakout 2016 season.
From the earliest days of football, the game has been a battle of wills. The power play takes the earliest virtues of the game (dominate the man across from you, for one) and implements it in play design.
It’s fairly simple. Front-side linemen block down (or back, depending on how you prefer to term it) on a down lineman and/or backside linebacker, a backside guard pulls down the line and through the hole as a lead blocker, and a blocking back seals the edge, creating an opening for the running back. The backside tackle steps inside and then hinges outside, protecting the backside from blowing up the play. The back then aims inside-out for room to run.
Fantastic football writer Chris B. Brown penned a great explanation of power responsibilities for Grantland in 2015. Buffalo used Richie Incognito, Jerome Felton and LeSean McCoy to execute this concept well in 2016.
(There’s a sticking point in pulling techniques with power plays. More advanced linemen will employ the more difficult skip pull, which requires deft footwork and the ability to avoid tripping over one’s own crossed legs. Lower levels will rely on the turn and run method, which feels better but isn’t as effective when trying to find the opening through which to lead. Think linemen aren’t athletic? You go try a skip pull. Then add 100-plus pounds, and equipment, block your peripheral vision by wearing a helmet and do it in front of 60,000-plus people. I know, you appreciate linemen more now.)
If you like to embody the locomotive coming down the tracks that’s stopping for absolutely no one, the counter play is for you.
Counter plays require linemen who can run, and also block with authority. The design is again fairly simple. Frontside linemen block down toward the backside, but instead of just a guard pulling, the tackle gets mobile, too.
The center blocks back to prevent inside penetration and the playside guard blocks down in either a double team on a nose or directly on a backside linebacker. The tackle follows suit, abandoning the front-side defensive end to block down, clearing out a three-technique (defensive tackle) and/or the nearest backer.
The backside linemen open their inside hip with a drop step and pull down the line, with the guard setting a big bullseye on the defensive end at the opposite end of the line. The guard’s job is simply to kick out the end, creating an outside seal. The tackle then wraps through the hole, inside the new seal, hellbent on flattening the next defender in his path.
This play also requires a tackle with good eyes and quick reaction, as he has to read the guard behind whom he’s pulling to determine his own course. If a defensive end stays home and doesn’t get deep into the backfield, the guard must adjust course upfield, forcing the tackle to stay tight on his hip with eyes up to find his own target.
The counter concept is also versatile and capable of being run out of many formations, with seemingly endless variations. Green Bay mixed a crossing, frontside block with a pulling T.J. Lang, who took a counter path to kick out a defensive end on this run.
Even this play has counter concepts in it. The frontside guard takes the responsiblity of a backside pulling guard, kicking out the end, while the backside guard gets moving with the usual responsibility of the backside tackle, leading through the hole. The result: a 42-yard Christine Michael touchdown.
Those are just a few of the basic run concepts, and how linemen can use an array of skills to open holes for backs. Some teams employ double pulls, center pulls, cut blocks — and on option plays — leave linemen completely unblocked, serving as the man for a quarterback to read in deciding to hand the ball off or pull it for a keeper. The possibilities extend well beyond what’s listed above, but most have origins in these basic staples.
Next time you turn a game on, watch the paths of these linemen. It’ll tell you a lot.