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5 Staples of Every NFL Playbook

Stephen WhiteFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2012

5 Staples of Every NFL Playbook

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    Every offensive playbook in the NFL tends to have some overlap.

    These are base plays that teams practice so much that they can run them in their sleep and still get positive yards. There are definitely other, fancier plays that get most of the attention, but they're the chocolate cake; the base plays are the meat and potatoes.

    The better you are at the base plays, the more likely everything else works as well.

    Here are five plays that you will find in some form or fashion in every NFL playbook.

Power-O Strong

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    One of my favorite running plays ever is the Power-O. That might be because it was one of my least favorite plays to face as a player.

    The Power-O is what I like to call an attitude play. You are telling the defense, "We are about to take this ball and shove it down your throat, and if you don't like it, then just try to stop it!" I don't think I've ever met an offensive lineman that didn't like blocking up a Power-O. I've also never seen a really good running team without it in the arsenal. 

    The general premise is this: You want a mass of humanity getting a running start to help block the defenders on the side of the center where the tight end lines up.

    To accomplish this, you have to design the right blocking scheme. To begin, you want to double-team the front-side (where you want to run the ball) interior defensive lineman. One of the offensive linemen on that double-team, preferably the one furthest from the center, continues up to the middle linebacker with his outside shoulder as an aiming point.

    The reason is you don't want to allow the middle linebacker to get outside the block and blow up the play.

    The tight end avoids the perimeter defensive lineman to his side and continues on up the field to block the outside linebacker. His outside shoulder is the blocking target as well.

    The guard on the opposite side of the center from the tight end—commonly referred to as the backside guard—pulls down the line in the direction of the tight end to kick out the perimeter defensive lineman. And let me just say from personal experience that when a 300-pound lineman gets a three-yard running start, the collision should involve pain.

    The center blocks back on the interior lineman to the side of the pulling guard and prevents him from getting penetration, sealing him off from getting to the play. The backside tackle wedges down on the same interior defensive lineman to help prevent penetration; he then blocks back on the backside perimeter defensive lineman.

    The fullback takes a track just behind the pulling guard, and he either helps with the perimeter defensive lineman if necessary or optimally leads up inside of the pulling guard's block, locking up the outside linebacker or the safety.

    The tailback takes a step backside to get the linebackers and any secondary player that might be in the box moving that way initially. The tailback then takes a track front-side, takes the handoff and follows the fullback through the hole.

    Should the defenders to the tight-end side blow up the pulling guard and/or fullback, the tailback always has the option of cutting back behind the double-team block. 

    This is a downhill running play, meaning the running back should, for the most part, be able to run straight ahead and get good yardage after he takes the handoff. There shouldn't be a lot of shake-and-bake moves or any hesitance in the backfield. The running back also shouldn't be looking to bounce it outside.

    You hit the hole hard and get the most out of whatever is there. 

    That's also the beauty of the play. You run it enough times correctly, and you wear the defense down. What's "there" might only be three or four yards at first, but eventually it will be five yards, and then maybe 10 yards and so on and so forth.

    Every single team has some form of this play in the playbook; some of them just don't run it enough, in my opinion.

Iso Weak

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    The Iso Weak is a basic running play where the fullback lead-blocks into a hole and the tailback follows him and makes a cut off his block. This is another attitude play, and I don't mind telling you that in the run game I love attitude plays.

    I realize that many teams have been successful running wide to the perimeter, but I would much prefer they tried running in between the tackles, right at the defense, and forcing someone to try to make a tackle while reacting to the blocks in front of them in a split second.

    It may not work on the first run or the second run, but as the game goes on, at some point the dam will break if you just keep punching. 

    The offensive line double-teams both interior defensive linemen up to the middle linebacker and the strong-side outside linebacker. The weak-side offensive tackle blocks the perimeter defensive lineman to his side. The tight end blocks the perimeter defensive lineman to his side.

    The wide receiver blocks the safety to his side if he is in the box. If not, he blocks the cornerback in front of him. The strong-side wide receiver blocks the corner to his side, while the fullback leads up on the outside linebacker on the weak-side.

    The tailback takes a track right behind the fullback, grabs the handoff and hits the hole inside of the weak-side offensive tackle and the weak-side offensive guard. He makes his cut off the fullback's block and tries to stay north and south.

    There isn't anything fancy about this play. While simple, it's also very effective, and it's an essential running play for an offensive coordinator's playbook.

Cover-2 Beater

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    When a defense lines up in Cover-2, each safety is responsible for a deep half of the field. It's a very effective coverage in keeping the offense from completing deep passes.

    However, if you can get those safeties to feel threatened deep towards the sideline, the deep middle of the field can be open for a well-thrown seam pass. If a team runs Tampa-2, the middle linebacker helps with that deep middle of the field. If you have a middle linebacker who can run with a slot receiver or a fast tight end, then you don't have much to worry about, but they don't grow on trees.

    So the key to running a good Cover-2 beater is to have route combinations that force the safeties to split and then have your tight end or slot receiver run a skinny post and get deep behind the middle linebacker.

    This enables you to still have the ability to take a shot down the field even against a team that runs a lot of Cover-2 or Tampa-2.

    In the diagram above, the blue wide receiver stems outside and runs a go route. The brown slot receiver runs a 10-yard out. This brown receiver is meant to attract the attention of the corner. In Cover-2, the corners are taught to sink with any verticals but break up on any routes to the flat after the ball is thrown.

    Having that kind of discipline, however, is rare.

    Many times, once the corner sees that out route, he turns the vertical over to the safety. Because the blue receiver has taken an outside route, the safety to his side has to come off the hash to defend the deep ball.

    On the other side of the formation, the green receiver stems inside to attract the corner's attention early, runs vertical and then cuts diagonally towards the sideline for a corner route. On paper, the corner should continue to sink with this route the whole way through, but the tailback in yellow also goes out on a swing route to the flat.

    This is, again, simply to attract his attention.

    The safety to that side, seeing that the corner has to make a decision, understands that he has to cover his back over the top of that corner route.

    Now that you have forced the safeties to split to defend the deep ball, the slot receiver in red has to make sure to run a good route and get past the depth of the middle linebacker before he breaks the route off inside for a skinny post. That's because that slot receiver wants to force the middle linebacker to have to turn his hips and run with him rather than continue to backpedal.

    If the middle linebacker has to turn and run, he loses vision of the quarterback and has a hard time knowing when the ball is coming until he sees it sailing over his head into the slot receiver's hands.

    The great thing about this play is that if the safeties don't cooperate and keep eyes on the skinny post, then more than likely one of the deep routes is open. If not, that means the corners have sunk with the deep routes to the point where the brown slot receiver or the yellow tailback is wide open in the flat.

    Now you just have to have a quarterback who is smart enough to understand what the defense is giving him and accurate enough to get the ball to the open guy.

    It sounds easy, but of course, it's not.

    It's hard to predict when a defense will line up in Cover-2, and it's even harder at times to predict how the secondary will react to the route combinations. Then you have the matter of whether or not the pass protection holds up in front of the quarterback because you are sending five guys out on routes.

    When everything falls into place, however, this play can really exploit the teams that run Cover-2 a lot, especially those teams that have slower middle linebackers.

Halfback Screen Right

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    Many defenses pride themselves on being able to get pressure on the quarterback with just four down linemen. This helps the the rest of the defense because if you don't have to blitz to get pressure, then you can drop seven guys into coverage.

    If your offensive line is having a hard time keeping the quarterback clean, a good halfback screen can help to take advantage of that pass rush and even slow it down if you run it successfully enough times.

    Everyone has an important role to play on a screen pass, and several of the players have to be good actors. There is only one receiving option on the play, and that's the tailback.

    The reason for this is if the running back falls down or is covered, then the timing of the play is thrown off.

    The offensive linemen are taught to get down the field to block for the tailback, so if the quarterback tries to complete a pass to someone else, there is a high likelihood the offense will draw an illegal-man-downfield penalty.

    The receivers have to accept that while they won't have a shot at catching a pass, they still have to run good routes to draw defenders down the field. If they don't, then the screen won't have much of a shot of being successful.

    The green wide receiver to the side of the screen has to try his best to get the corner to follow him deep down the field. He should run outside at the snap and run a great go route as if the play was drawn up for him.

    The yellow slot receiver should get up the field for a skinny post, but at the top of the route, he should be looking for a safety to block. The backside brown and blue receivers just want to try to keep their defenders backside, so they run a short corner route and go route respectively. 

    The offensive tackle and offensive guard to the side of the screen have to pass-set real wide and invite the defensive linemen inside, almost as if they are zone run-blocking. This allows the quarterback to really sell the screen without someone getting right in his face or getting in the passing lane between himself and the tailback.

    The center needs to also emulate zone blocking towards the side of the screen. The backside offensive guard and offensive tackle have to set inside hard to prevent an inside move from the defensive linemen in front of them. Then, as best they can, they should try to hinge back out and force the defensive linemen out wide.

    The tailback has to take a track as if he will be getting the handoff for a zone running play. This action should cause the linebackers to take a step up into the line. When they see the quarterback fake the handoff and continue to drop back to pass, what you hope is that they are most concerned with recovering from their false steps towards the line of scrimmage, forcing them to turn and run to get to their coverage responsibilities.

    This would preclude them from noticing the tailback hanging out behind the offensive line, waiting to turn around and catch the screen pass.

    The quarterback has to put on an Oscar-winning performance and be fearless because more than likely he is going to get hit on this play.

    After faking the handoff, he continues into his regular pass drop. He has to pause just for a second and then continue backward as if he is just reacting to the defensive linemen coming to sack him. He can't be too obvious, however, because some defensive linemen are smart enough to know they are being set up and will run back to try to tackle the running back or just stop and try to jump and knock the pass down.

    After getting the linemen to continue their chase, the quarterback has to throw an accurate pass high enough to sail over their heads but hard enough to get to the running back quickly; he can then turn around and run at the earliest possible moment.

    One of the most important coaching points for the offensive linemen who will be leading the way for the tailback is that they can't be concerned with what is going on with the quarterback and tailback. They have to trust that those guys will do their job, because if they turn around to see what's happening, they will lose sight of the defenders they have to block downfield.

    It's already going to be hard enough as a big guy trying to spring 10 yards down the field and block a little corner or safety that is trying to put a juke move on them; there's no reason to make it harder by losing track of where they are.

    If all else fails, an athletic quarterback can try to break to the outside and throw the ball away.

    All in all, this is a low-risk, very high-reward play that cannot only positively affect field position but also affect the opposing team's pass-rush plan.

Zone-Weak, Bootleg-Strong

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    If your team is proficient at running the ball with zone blocking-schemes, then the perfect complement to that play is the bootleg.

    A bootleg, especially with an athletic quarterback, can put a lot of stress on the perimeter defensive end to the side of the tight end. Defensive players, in general, are taught to get to the ball on every play. When that defensive end sees run action away from him, his first instinct will be to take off after the tailback and try to make the play from behind.

    That will give the quarterback a great opportunity to get to the edge of the defense and make a play either with his arms or his legs.

    The green wide receiver is once again a decoy. His job is to attract the cornerback in front of him and run a deep route to get him to sink down the field.

    The red tight end slams the perimeter defensive end inside off the snap, as if he is run-blocking him. He then sneaks out to the flat and makes himself available as a receiver right away.

    The brown wide receiver sprints inside, as if he is trying to crack-block on the linebacker; he then continues on across the field on a shallow crossing route. The backside blue wide receiver stems inside like he is stalk-blocking the safety and then runs a true post route.

    The tailback runs a track like he is going to run zone-weak. After faking taking the handoff, he continues on the same track and looks for any blitzes off the edge, looking to protect the quarterback's back side.

    The entire offensive line simulates zone blocking away from the tight end, making sure not to go farther than five yards down the field.

    The quarterback carries out the handoff fake and then reverses out on a bowed track to get him away from the line of scrimmage in the direction of the tight end. Now the quarterback has the option of throwing the ball right away to the tight end in the flat if the corner is out of the picture, hitting the brown receiver on the shallow crosser if the corner stays up or running the ball if both routes are covered.

    He could also, in theory, try to hit the blue wide receiver on the post route, but it's a very risky throw and not recommended.

    With so many options, there should be an opportunity one way or another to get positive yards on this play. For that reason, if no other, you will find it in every team's playbook.

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