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September 23, 2009 • Football

Game Planning vs. the Run

The prevailing goal among defensive coordinators is to make the opponent one-dimensional. Whether the offense is known as a throwing offense, running offense, or a 50/50 balanced offense, the defense’s first consideration should be to stop the run.

You may have heard the old saying that some teams can beat you through the air, but every team can beat you on the ground. Statistical analysis of the 2004 and 2005 BCS Bowl games reveal that the teams that had more rushes won three out of the four bowl games.

The 2004 NFL playoff games followed the same trend. Statistics reveal that the teams that had the most rushes won eight out 10 games.

The 2005 playoffs saw seven out of the 10 games won by the team with the most rushes. The only two 100-yard rushers in the 2005 playoffs were on the same winning team. Super Bowl XXXIX witnessed the Patriots out-rushing the Eagles 112 yards to an anemic 45 yards.

The New England Patriots had 19 more rushes than the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Further study divulges that teams with a 100-yard rusher won both games in BCS games and both NFL playoff games in 2004. Two other NFL playoff games had 100-yard rushers for both teams.

Even passing teams feel they must be able to run the ball to some extent to be successful. Bobby Bowden has been quoted as saying that to be successful defensively, a team must stop the opponent’s bread and butter running plays. He also contends that if you spend too much time stopping everything you will stop nothing.

Run defense, at its most rudimental level, involves finding the best runner and his best running play and stopping it. Make the offense beat you with other runs they aren’t as proficient at. Jon Gruden has been quoted as saying, “The game has changed. Guys are getting better at defending the run. here are more people around the line of scrimmage on early downs. Running the football is a very difficult thing to do.”

Another Gruden quote has him stating the reason for the success of his defense was its ability to make opponents one-dimensional: “When they [Tampa Bay’s defense] see a one-dimensional team it brings out the best in them,” he states in describing the NFL’s No.1 rated defense in 2002.

By the same token, teams that run the ball effectively have many peripheral advantages. CBS Commentator Dan Dierdorf touched upon one of them in a game between the Chiefs and the Chargers in 2003: “When teams run the ball effectively, their opponents find it hard to mount a pass rush when they throw the ball.”

Stopping an opponent’s run game can be done through physical dominance or a scheme that overpowers it with numbers. An added benefit or by-product of stalling your opponent’s run game is that it serves to nullify their play-action pass game. When this happens, the opposition is left with only a drop-back pass game. (Take the run away and force them to beat you with the pass.)

Psychologically, it is very important to prevent your opponent from running effectively with the ball. An offense that successfully runs the ball can control the clock, dictate the tempo, keep their defense fresh, and psychologically cripple not only the opposing defense but their offense as well.

An offense whose defense is giving up points and long drives feels added pressure to score each time it gets the ball.

Most offenses don’t like to be involved in a scoring battle. Teams that run the ball with great effect can impose their will on the opposition. The team that won the “time of possession” battle won three out of four 2004 BCS Bowl games and eight of 10 games in the 2004 NFL playoffs.

The Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII had the ball almost 18 more minutes than the Panthers because of their ability to run the ball more effectively. The time differential in Super Bowl XXXIX was not as pronounced, but it also favored New England.

It is evident that the best way to control the clock and wear down your opponent is through a highly effective run game.

Game planning begins with a discernment of your opponent’s basic philosophy of offense. Do they rely on a system, particularly talented players (quarterback – receiver – running back), or out-muscling an opponent to be successful?

How involved is the quarterback in the run game? Does he carry by design, i.e., sneak, option, draw, or are his carries out of necessity, i.e., broken plays and scrambles?

Do they present a balanced attack with a good ratio of both passes and runs or are they schematically one-dimensional?

No matter what kind of philosophical approach your opponent takes, most successful offenses will follow these basic tenents:

  • Formation variations – few plays with multiple formations.
  • Use of motion/shifts – force defensive adjustments.
  • Package running plays with play-action passes off these runs.
  • Use of gadget or special plays.
  • A numerical advantage at the point of attack.
  • Use of blocking angles.
  • Slow or block run support through shifts and/or motions.
  • Favorable physical match-ups.
  • Exploitation of defensive tendencies.
  • An effective audible system to get out of bad plays.
  • Attacking defensive weaknesses and avoiding defensive strength.

The basic question in game preparation is what type of run game does your opponent employ? A cursory film study will answer that basic question. It will readily discern whether you will face an option, power, Wing T, or pro style offense.

Further study may reveal some intrinsic details that are not so readily visible. Film study will allow the defensive coordinator to figure out a way to cheat the defense and take away what the offense likes to do by formation, down and distance, field zone, etc.

Game plans should start with basic adjustments that will defeat the offense’s best three runs. These run plays may have to be determined through a smoke screen of multiple formations, shifts, and motions.

A well-prepared defense can attack the offense through varying shades or line backer adjustments. Defenses must be flexible in order to expand or contract according to the tactical situation. Linemen and linebackers must possess the ability to adjust horizontally and vertically to be effective in stopping the run game.

The ability to move safeties in and out of the box will serve to enhance your chances of stopping the opposing running game.

Your recent history is of particular importance in game planning. Film exchange will enable your opponent to know where your last two or three opponents hurt you and where you are the weakest. Particular plays or points of attack have a habit of showing up if you have had problems with them in the past.

Correcting past problems must be an integral part of game preparation. Your opponent will scout and identify, from film study, the formations or situations that get a particular response from you and will seek to exploit that knowledge.

Unpredictability is a must in defensive game planning.

Paradoxically, defense against the run may depend upon pass coverage. How do your corners match up with their wide outs? Do you want your corners to match up well with the opposing receivers and cover them with little or no help.

A whole world of possibilities opens up on what you can do to stop the run. For example, safeties can be committed to the run and be inserted into the box.

After you develop a good feel for the type of offense you will face on game day, in-depth film study will reveal your adversary’s approach to run blocking. Most offenses can be labeled as one of the following: finesse, power, option, zone, or gun.

It should be understood that most offenses may utilize one or more of the above philosophies or there may be an extensive overlap of all. In truth, it may not be so easy to compartmentalize a certain offense as one thing or another.

Nevertheless, all successful offenses are known for something. There is a basic philosophy that guides them and gives them something to “hang their hat on.”

Finesse Offenses:

In many cases, this approach is adopted by smaller, quicker teams. The run game is characterized by angle blocks, pulling linemen, influences, and cross blocks. Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys used this style of offense with great effect.

Its success depends upon mobile linemen who can pull, lead, and trap.

Traps, whether of the short or long variety, are highly effective. The trap game may use both guard and tackle traps. Most recently, the Denver Broncos have had great success with this cerebral approach to blocking.

Power Offenses:

The antithesis of finesse blocking schemes is the more traditional base-blocking schemes. This is the preferred modus operandi of large, physical, and less mobile linemen. It is distinguished by a grind-it-out mentality that makes liberal use of drive, base, double, wedge, lead, and isolation type blocks.

Option Offenses:

Pure option teams are hard to find these days. Seldom do high school or college teams fully commit to the option game. Only two Division I-A teams, Air Force and Navy, are totally committed to the option.

Many teams, however, will have an option package in place as a change of pace. The lack of option familiarity makes such teams highly dangerous. For example, Navy led the nation in rushing offense in 2003 and went to their first bowl game since 1996.

2004 saw Navy finish third in rushing yardage.

Preparing to play option offenses may require radical adjustments by teams who haven’t laid the essential groundwork to face option teams.

Defenses must play assignment football when facing option football. Up field charges and unbridled pursuit can be detrimental to the defense.

Film study will reveal the type or types of option(s) to be faced. Game plans must take into account whether the opposition runs a double, triple, lead, or counter option game. In most cases an option offense will run a variety of option looks.

Is the option offense a one, two, or three back attack? This is a very crucial question that has to be asked when you prepare to face an option team. Option responsibilities have to be defined and assigned for each front or stunt. Assignments must be clearly defined and technique perfected in game planning and practice time during the week.

Zone Offenses:

Many zone running teams are pass-oriented. They seek to keep their run game simple, which, in turn, will allow more flexibility and quality in the pass game. Run schemes are usually simple in order to allow more practice time to be spent on the passing game.

Gun Offenses:

Some teams, like Northwestern and Missouri, have discovered that the shotgun is a great formation with which to run the ball effectively. These teams are able to take advantage of the up field pass rush mind-set of defenses. Options, shuffle passes, and misdirection with the quarterback as a running threat have been proven highly effective.

No matter what style of running game your opponent prefers, the key to defensive success is to stop it. Eliminate one of their options and force them to beat you with the pass.


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