Lance Zierlein

The Smash Mouth

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Flavor of the Month

Friday, November 1, 2013

Running games around the league continue to take shape or fade away. In Oakland, Terrelle Pryor’s 93-yard touchdown run on the first play of last week's game featured an embarrassing display of defense by the Steelers, who looked ill-prepared to slow down the zone read.

You may remember that it was just this spring that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called the zone read the “flavor of the month”. I hope Tomlin ordered a waffle cone.

While the zone read has definitely been slowed down in general, we are still seeing signs of the continued importance of the ground game in a world where everyone loves the pass.

The New England Patriots have had to lean much more heavily on their running game while Tom Brady continues to struggle. The Atlanta Falcons neglected their offensive line (and thus their running game) for far too long and now it is catching up with them. The Kansas City Chiefs are riding their defense, Jamaal Charles, and the scrambling of Alex Smith to an 8-0 start. The Indianapolis Colts really meant it when they said they were going to try and impose their will with their running game.

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Moving the Sticks

* The Cincinnati Bengals are much more effective when they are running the ball right over power right guard Kevin Zeitler, who is a mauler and rarely gets pushed around. The area where Zeitler struggles is when the Bengals ask him to make his back-side blocks on outside zone runs to the left. On play-side zone plays, Zeitler is more than capable.

* When Kansas City Chiefs rookie right tackle Eric Fisher starts to trust his core strength and the techniques he is being taught in pass protection, he will become a much better tackle. Right now, Fisher does way too much bending and leaning into defenders, which is causing him to get off-balance and give up pressures and sacks. This season will be a big learning experience for Fisher, who is finally flashing signs of his potential.

* The Seattle Seahawks tackle play is so poor that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell is going to have to start addressing it through play-calling. Left tackle Paul McQuistan has given up at least one sack in five consecutive games and is overmatched at that position after having to slide over from guard for injured Russell Okung. If the talent isn’t good enough to hold up, then it becomes the play-caller’s duty to call more 3-step drops, and quarterback’s duty to get rid of the ball. Peyton Manning has lost both of his tackles as well, but he’s not getting pummeled each week like Russell Wilson.

* New York Jets right guard Willie Colon is quietly putting together a solid season after having injuries sideline him for much of the last three years. I always felt like Colon would have been best suited in Pittsburgh as a guard and he is handling his business at that position with the Jets. With Colon at one guard and rookie Brian Winters at left guard, the Jets will keep getting push up front with their phone-booth running game.

* The biggest enemy for any running game that relies on getting its guards or center up to the second level is defensive holding. Defensive coaches who employ a “2-gap” scheme want their defensive tackles to be able to occupy two offensive linemen for as long as they can so their linebackers can roam free. One of the most effective ways to do that is to hold the offensive lineman who is trying to climb to the second level. When you see a linebacker with a free run to the running back in the hole, run your DVR back and see if you can find a lineman being held. It is happening way more often than you think.

Putting Running Games Into Perspective

All running games are not created equally, and that can be due to the talent on the offensive line, the talent at running back, and/or especially the philosophy/scheme of the man calling the plays. Let’s take a look at three different ways of running the football and a couple of examples of teams who fit into those categories.

They do what they do

The San Francisco 49ers running game has gained 78.65 percent of its yardage against defenses playing with seven or more defenders in the box:

Men In BoxCarries Yards Avg
5 3   22   7.3
6 34   227   6.7
7 83   364   4.4
8 89   428   4.8
9 35   158   4.5

The Minnesota Vikings running game has gained 71.49 percent of its yardage against defenses playing with seven or more defenders in the box:

Men In BoxCarries Yards Avg
5 4   45   11.2
6 30   152   5.1
7 61   300   4.9
8 44   199   4.5
9 12   18   1.5

San Francisco 49ers:
Last year we saw the 49ers keep everyone off balance with their combination of power and then deception, with the introduction of zone-read and full-house backfield looks. Colin Kaepernick was able to get plenty of open wide receivers thanks to a play-action game that worked on the back of the 49ers' running game success.

This year, teams have come into the season with defensive schemes designed to attack the mesh-point (potential handoff between QB/RB) and force the ball out of Kaepernick’s hands. While Kaepernick hasn’t been running free as often as he did last year, the 49ers have benefited by allowing Frank Gore to do his thing behind gap and power schemes.

The 49ers' offensive line is built to maul with three first-rounders up front and a running game that is looking to put helmet on helmet and physically overwhelm the defensive front. Defenses continue to load up the box in order to slow down the 49ers running game, but San Francisco has still gained almost 80% of its yards against 7 or more men in the box and they are over 4.4 ypc against 7,8 and even 9 defenders!

Minnesota Vikings:
We all know that Minnesota isn’t running the ball like they did last year, but that is because teams are doing a better job of tackling Adrian Peterson, and they simply have no respect at all for the Vikings passing game.

While the 49ers are built around a bruising offensive line, the Vikings have spent their money on a bell-cow left tackle in Kalil, a road-grader at right tackle in Phil Loadholt and the best running back in the game. Make no mistake about it, Adrian Peterson makes this running game go. He did the same thing last year.

Over 71% of the Vikings rushing yardage (which is down substantially) has come against 7+ defenders in the box, but the Vikings also make things tough on Peterson by lining up in power formations an inordinate amount of time. It looks as though the Vikings are okay with a loaded box against them because they know that one missed tackle can mean a huge touchdown run.

Scheming the running game

The Green Bay Packers running game has gained 21.9 percent of its yardage against defenses with seven or more defenders in the box: 

Men In BoxCarries Yards Avg
5 8   54   6.8
6 115   727   6.3
7 43   125   2.9
8 22   81   3.7
9 6   11   1.8

The Philadelphia Eagles running game has gained 48.6 percent of its yardage against defenses playing with seven or more defenders in the box:

Men In BoxCarries Yards Avg
5 4   38   9.5
6 112   585   5.2
7 100   542   5.4
8 17   48   2.8
9 3   -1   -

Green Bay Packers:
The Packers should be a case-study for coaches on every level about how you make adjustments to get the most out of your running game. Mike McCarthy understands that his offensive line is a solid run-blocking unit, but they aren’t really powerful enough to run with consistent success against traditional fronts.

As you can see, the Packers are only averaging 2.9 ypc against a standard 7-man box while gaining 3.7 ypc against an 8-man front, but you’ll notice that just under 22% of the Packers' rushing yardage comes against 7+ defenders thanks to McCarthy’s formations and personnel groupings. And thanks to a healthy respect for the arm of Aaron Rodgers.

Green Bay has done a great job of creating 5- and 6-man boxes through 3- and 4-receiver sets, which allow the Packers to often just make one base block while Eddie Lacy bursts through the hole. The Packers have also done a nice job with their inside zone plays and toss plays. The additions of Lacy and left tackle David Bakhtiari have been huge, but McCarthy’s scheme and play-calling is an unsung key to the Packers' improvement in the running game.

Philadelphia Eagles:
While including the Eagles may not exactly seem timely since they’ve failed to rush for 100 yards in four straight games, it doesn’t change the fact that their running game is certainly designed around Chip Kelly’s scheme even though there is talent that is plugged into that scheme.

While McCarthy uses formations and personnel groupings to get matchups that he likes up front, Kelly’s offense relies on spreading defenses out, getting them flowing horizontally, and then countering off of those sweeps and inside handoffs with play-action passes and zone reads.

Because the counter is such an important element of this running game, it is substantially more effective when there is a quarterback who can keep the ball on zone read plays and force back-side defenders to stay at home and respect that run. Kelly’s offense is definitely built around the run, but the way he schemes it helps to give the Eagles plenty of looks at 6-man boxes rather than 7- and 8-man fronts like Washington, Kansas City, and Houston frequently see.

Lance Zierlein is sports talk show host on KMBE 790 AM in Houston, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @lancezierlein.
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