Great Offensive Line Play (Seriously) Has Some Teams Rediscovering the RunNovember 3, 2016
Old-fashioned, hard-nosed, slobber-knocker, ground-and-pound, insert-cliche-here, running-game oriented football is making a comeback.
The Cowboys, Bills and Titans all are averaging more than 150 rushing yards per game. Over the three previous seasons, only three total teams surpassed that mark: last year's Bills, the 2014 Seahawks and the 2013 Eagles.
Other teams are starting to generate eye-popping rushing statistics. The Dolphins are averaging five yards per rush and got back-to-back 200-yard rushing performances from Jay Ajayi. The Raiders are averaging 4.9 yards per rush with an unheralded backfield committee. And while some terrible offensive lines get a lot of attention (hello, Seahawks, Vikings, Cardinals, etc.) teams like the Redskins, Chiefs and Falcons, as well as the ones mentioned above, are using rock-solid line play to achieve real offensive balance.
Around the NFL, teams are doing what coaches always claim they want to do: establishing the run. "The teams that do it well are the ones that continually run the ball," said Geoff Schwartz, former NFL offensive lineman and co-host of the Block 'Em Up podcast.
Sounds simple. But there is more to establishing the run than "imposing your will upon your opponent" and other tough-guy stuff. "Let's say you run a zone play in the first quarter against a certain look, and it's blocked wrong or the back doesn't read the hole right," Schwartz explained. "That's easy to fix. But if you don't run it again, then what's the point of running it the first time? If you run it again, you can get it right the second time."
In other words, success breeds success on the offensive line as linemen establish rhythm against every alignment and front the defense throws at them. "Your staple runs have to be run over and over and over again," Schwartz said.
But that can make an offense predictable. So this year's best rushing teams disguise those staple runs with motion or spread formations, or use subtle changes to blocking schemes to fool the defense. "The teams that are best at their running game right now are creative in their formations or how they scheme for defenses," Schwartz said.
Let's look at how some of the NFL's most successful rushing teams are mixing creativity with execution and repetition to make the running game cool again.
Dallas Cowboys: On the Same Page
Drawing up a bunch of diagrams or quoting lots of playbook jargon to explain the Cowboys running game would be missing the point. They have a great offensive line and a great rookie running back in Ezekiel Elliott.
"They've got three first-rounders on there," Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox said before his battle with the Cowboys line last week. "Three All-Pros. They lean on those guys."
Cox added that the key to the Cowboys' rushing success goes beyond talent. "Those guys have been playing together for a while now, and they're all on the same page. Nobody is off beat. Even Ron Leary [a longtime backup now starting due to injuries], he's played with those guys before."
Cox got to meet Leary and see how in-step the Cowboys offensive line can be in the video above. It's a trap play midway through the first quarter. Zack Martin feints to block Cox but climbs out to the second level with right tackle Doug Free. Cox slips when he recognizes Martin's trap action, and Leary finishes him off while Martin and Free wallop linebackers. Ezekiel Elliott finds a wide gap and breezes for 15 yards.
That play only featured one of the Cowboys' three Pro Bowl linemen (Martin). Factor in left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick, and the Cowboys don't need to use many fancy trap blocks to free up Elliott. Watch a simple Cowboys outside zone run, and you will typically find two linemen crunching linebackers on the second level, tight ends and tackles blocking and Elliott taking maximum advantage of all the open space.
Not every team has Cowboys-level line talent, though the Dolphins and Raiders are among those coming close. Other teams need to balance creativity with brute force.
Wait, that sounds like exotic smashmouth.
Tennessee Titans: A 'G' Thing.
Many snickered when Titans head coach Mike Mularkey referred to his offensive concept as "exotic smashmouth" at the scouting combine. It turned out to be a fairly accurate assessment of a scheme that has made the Titans one of the most effective rushing teams in the NFL.
"They only run six or seven actual run plays, but they do a ton of stuff with it," Duke Manyweather, the offensive tackle scout for Bleacher Report's NFL1000, said. "They put a lot of window dressing on it."
One core Titans running play is usually called "G-Lead." It's a zone-blocking scheme on the back side of the play, with a power-blocking concept on the front side. "They want to get full flow on the back side and make it look like zone," Manyweather explained. That creates a false read for many of the defenders. "All of a sudden, they are out-angled on the play side."
The diagram shows the Titans running G late in the game against the Jaguars, when Derrick Henry (No. 22) replaced nicked-up DeMarco Murray. The left guard and left tackle cut-block their defenders. This makes the back-side defenders think it's a zone-stretch run, changing their angles of attack. But on the front side, Josh Kline (64) is pulling to the edge, with Jack Conklin (78) and Anthony Fasano (80) down-blocking, and fullback Jalston Fowler (45) leading Henry on a sweep.
Here's a video of the play:
The Titans ran this play twice in a row, once with Fasano and a receiver in motion to disguise the look, once without. The disguised formations and zone-man mix provide the "exotic" (as do the options and direct-snap plays the Titans mix into their game plans). The commitment to repetition provides the "smashmouth."
With all of these zone blocks, pull blocks and second-level blocks working together, strong offensive line play is essential. Manyweather noted that left tackle Taylor Lewan is playing outstanding football, center Ben Jones is underrated and the guards have done a fine job filling in for injuries.
As for the rookie right tackle: "Conklin is an absolute dog in the run game," Manyweather said. "He'll maul the hell out of you."
Sounds like the kind of linemen any coach would love. Especially Rex Ryan.
Bills: Power Pays Off
The Bills running game, like the Titans running game, has a little bit of everything: quarterback options, Wildcat-type plays, unbalanced lines and more. At its core, though, the Bills' rushing philosophy is primitive. "They just pound the ball," Schwartz said. "Over time, it wears teams down."
One of their most common plays is one your junior varsity coach may have taught you, called inside power. The Bills run it much the way you learned it: I formation, a double-team blocks on the play side, the back-side guard folds behind the center to join the fullback in leading the running back into the hole. Linebackers, beware.
Power is another one of those running plays that requires commitment. "If you run it 10 times, nine of them you'll get two or three yards," Schwartz explained. "But on the 10th you get a touchdown. It pays off at the end if you keep running it."
Rushing concepts like inside power used to be staples of every playbook from the prep level through the NFL. But I formation running has become rare in the NFL, where many teams don't even keep a true fullback on the roster. Former Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman repopularized this brand of football for the Jim Harbaugh 49ers before bringing it to Buffalo, where successor Anthony Lynn has proved even more run-oriented. It doesn't hurt to have LeSean McCoy (when healthy) and option threat Tyrod Taylor in the backfield, plus a rugged offensive line led by guard Richie Incognito and center Eric Wood.
But not every team emphasizes the run by lining up in a 1970s formation and sending a convoy down the middle linebacker's throat. Some teams have taken a more modern approach, hiding their run-oriented heart beneath shotgun-spread clothing.
Kansas City Chiefs: Outside Zone, Reimagined
The Chiefs' rushing statistics don't jump off the page: 106.3 yards per game and 4.2 yards per rush are both around the league average. But few teams are more diverse and creative in their running game. "They are really good at changing up their game plan week to week and finding a couple of runs that work really well for them," said Schwartz, whose brother Mitchell is the Chiefs' starting right tackle.
Chiefs running plays are always carefully engineered to fit within their offense, which features spread concepts (often with tight ends moonlighting as wide receivers), screen passes and misdirection to compensate for a weak deep-passing game. Even a basic play like an outside zone run gets a complete overhaul in Andy Reid's system, with everything from fake screens to a revamped blocking scheme added to the formula.
Here's a clip of the Chiefs running a version of outside zone that they used several times against the Saints. Watch carefully, because there is a lot going on. The receivers on the edge fake a screen. Alex Smith fakes an option. On the left side of the line, tackle Eric Fisher (No. 72) and tight end Travis Kelce (87) essentially trade blocking assignments, with Fisher engaging the defensive end on Kelce's shoulder while the tight end works downfield. Center Mitch Morse (61) also pulls to lead Spencer Ware (32) on the play instead of blocking laterally along the line.
The tiny wrinkle in this play is significant, according to Schwartz. Fisher keeps the defensive end from stacking up the play against the smaller Kelce. All of the subtle assignment changes create "over-under" seams, which are good for zone blocking. The spread formation and fakes take defenders away from the play and slow their pursuit, preventing anyone from chasing Ware from behind.
The Chiefs aren't the only team reinvigorating old-fashioned run concepts for the era of multi-receiver personnel groups and bunch formations. In Washington, the Redskins are getting gash runs by putting a fresh twist on a classic running play.
Redskins: The Bunch Crunch
Eagles coordinator Jim Schwartz was disappointed with the entire defense—including himself—after the team gave up 230 rushing yards to the Redskins three weeks ago. "There was a crack-toss, and one time we were short on it out of the blocks and it got our edge," Schwartz said. "Next time they ran a crack-toss, everyone overran it, overplaying for that, and the ball cut back on us."
Crack-toss, like power, is a bread-and-butter football staple: an outside pitch to the running back, a pulling lineman to eradicate the outside defender and a crack block by the wide receiver, who ventures toward the middle of the field to nail any pursuing linebackers.
Many of Washington's rushing concepts were imported from the Cowboys by offensive line coach Bill Callahan, so both teams frequently run crack-toss to throw off defenders expecting a steady diet of zones. But in keeping with the modern approach to running the ball, Washington adds wrinkles to the classic. "They don't just line up in a formation that tells you crack-toss," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins explained. "They'll motion to it. They'll do anything to disguise it, and next thing you know the ball is on the edge."
"Toss Bunch Crunch" is a common Redskins variation on crack-toss. As the next diagram shows, the "bunch" is the bundle of receivers and tight ends on the left. The "toss" is self-explanatory. The "crunch" is the pair of crack blocks by Jamison Crowder (No. 80) and Ryan Grant (14), combined with a kick-out block on the cornerback by tight end Niles Paul (84). Left tackle Trent Williams (71) gets in on the fun by pulling behind the crack blocks.
Because Washington has passing personnel on the field (three receivers, receiving back Chris Thompson), the Eagles are in nickel defense and thinking pass. Washington will also run zone plays from similar formations, and linebackers must attack zone plays much differently than a toss like this. No wonder the Eagles were slow to pursue the diagrammed play—which netted 10 yards for Thompson—then frustrated their coach by overcompensating on the same play later in the game.
The Rushing Evolution
Across the league, the run-pass ratio still hovers around 40-60, as it has for several years. There are still teams that cannot run the ball (Giants, Jaguars), teams that can but choose not to (the Packers, before all their backs got hurt), and teams that really want to run the ball but haven't caught up with the new/revised concepts we just covered (the poor Rams).
So we aren't talking about a running revolution. It's more of an evolution. As the NFL became a passing league in the 21st century, running games became an afterthought of inside-and-outside zones, delays and draws. Recent years have seen an uptick in running game creativity, one that has seeped down from the options-and-defense powerhouses of the NFC West a few years ago to teams that purposely build their offenses the old-fashioned way—from the ground game out.
Maybe "exotic smashmouth" isn't destined to catch on. But if the Cowboys keep winning with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, sensational running back, star-studded offensive line and a running game that makes life easier for the whole organization, you better believe that other organizations will warm up their copiers.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.