A couple steps to the play side, a right foot screwed into the ground and then an explosion of speed back to the daylight on the left. It's a simple idea at its core, yet one that has persisted in football, especially as the zone-run play has become even more prevalent in so many offensive forms.
Cutting back is simply the act of going from one direction to another to pick up additional yardage. It is not always about the total reversal of the field, although that will help make the highlights, but rather, it is about stopping play-side momentum to go against the grain.
Where cuts are concerned, people tend to look at the running backs. Scouts eyeball the acceleration, deceleration and re-acceleration of a player into and out of the cut. Coaches drool over the guys who can stick one foot in the ground and go another direction in a hurry.
Cutbacks are made possible by two things: defense and blockers.
"Speed kills" is a saying in football that goes a long way. Usually, it refers to receivers and running backs outrunning defenders. Sometimes, especially in the case of the SEC, it references defensive linemen moving after the quarterback.
However, in the cutback game, speed kills in a different way. It puts too many bodies in front of the football, leaving space for the running back to get out of the gate. When linebackers flow too fast through the wash, it creates holes for backs to exploit.
Kansas State has six-on-six in the box, giving Baylor a numbers advantage before the play even starts. To succeed here, the Wildcats need someone to defeat a block and make a play.
As the play starts, the right tackle pulls, but Kansas State is in decent shape, provided it can fill each respective gap. The left defensive tackle is being double-teamed, swallowing up play-side A-gap. The right defensive tackle has his outside arm free, giving him leverage to backside B-gap. Linebackers have to defeat a block and make the play.
The play-side linebacker fills the hole, as he should, hammering the play to his fellow linebacker. Unfortunately, the linebacker responsible for the "backside A" is across the face of the running back and has effectively taken himself out of the play.
If the defense does its job, takes good angles and maintains gap integrity, the possibility of the cutback is reduced tremendously. However, linemen getting hat-on-hat also plays a major role in the running room. Smaller, quicker linemen play to shield backside players from getting to cutback lanes. Other teams cut the defenders on the backside of plays. Some teams just drive bodies out of the way.
All of those techniques work. When linemen are willing to work on the backside of a play and push to the second level, running backs can make big gains.
On this play, Oregon and Oregon State have a zone designed to go to the right side of the field. Notice the linebacker sitting, waiting in the cutback lane.
The tackle, aided by the threat of the quarterback keeping the ball, gets a block that pushes the defensive end wide.
The tackle then turns his attention down the field, pushing to the second level and forcing the linebacker to wait on the cutback. The center, No. 55, has also come off his combo block of the defensive tackle and is pushing to the patient, front-side linebacker who recognizes what's coming.
Here the hole is opening, as De'Anthony Thomas looks to get upfield. When linemen work hard on the backside and get to the linebacker level, even good, patient defenses fall victim to the cutback.
In both instances, Seastrunk and Thomas get some help. Seastrunk has a linebacker flow too fast that enables him to make the big play. Thomas takes advantage of a hard-working offensive line to get loose. Then, both players benefit from tremendous speed.
Players like Seastrunk, Thomas and Miami's Duke Johnson are burners who epitomize the acceleration, deceleration and re-acceleration that make cuts across the defense's face such big plays. These guys make it look easy. A quick change of direction and slight shake are all they need to move left to right or across the field to down the field.
The art of the cutback is really about taking advantage of bad defense, good blocking and using speed to exploit both on the field.