This is the first in a series of posts will feature a film study session I had with former NIU RB Chad Spann, 2010’s Division-I leader in rushing TDs and the Mid-American Conference’s Most Valuable Player.
If you don’t know about Chad Spann, you’re probably not alone. He wasn’t drafted in April. However, that doesn’t make him an unworthy pro prospect. He’s a smart and tough runner who began his career practically begging for a shot from any Division-I team. He began the summer of his freshman year as the ninth RB on the NIU depth chart, but by the end of August he was the No.2 RB. After a strong college career, he’s once again in a similar situation as the underdog. If there is a player who is could follow a career trajectory similar to Priest Holmes, Spann has the skills to potentially do it.
I had the opportunity to interview Spann for the New York Times Fifth Down Blog last spring. In addition to the interview, Spann generously agreed to spend a couple of hours with me over the phone to break down one of his games. He chose his three-touchdown performance against Toledo – a game where he played a significant part of the contest with a hip pointer – as the one for us to review. A few days before our meeting I emailed Spann a list of plays from the game that I wanted to discuss and when the time came, we sat in our respect homes and queued play after play.
If Spann shows the same kind of patience on the field in a training camp that he showed with me during our call, he’s going to be a find for an NFL team with enough foresight to give him a camp invite. Most impressive was the way in which Spann communicated his role, the responsibilities of his teammates, and the actions and reactions of the defense both pre- and post-snap. Spann was instructive, insightful, and his knowledge demonstrated a good counterpoint to the overstated generalization that the running back position is mostly instinctive. There are enough analytical requirements of a good runner that it is a fallacy to imply that the position doesn’t require thought or preparation.
The initial post is a Q&A discussion of two plays from the first series of the contest. Note Spann’s ability to describe his teammate’s assignments, what he’s trying to read from specific defenders, and what he’s doing very early in the run to set up his teammates so they can return the favor and set him up for a nice gain. This is something that will become more evident with future posts.
What this session reinforced for me is that few running plays ever work exactly as designed.
1st and 10 14:55 1st quarter – One-yard gain
Spann: This is our first play from offense. We have a two-receiver set with both receivers to the left in “21” personnel [2 backs, 1 tight end].
The fullback lines up on the wing almost as if he was an H-back. We’re running a zone play to the weak side (away from the tight end). This is actually a variation of our inside zone play. Instead of our fullback blocking back side he’s going to stay front side and he’s going to lead up on the ‘backer…
Waldman: This play didn’t work out as drawn up. Will you explain what was supposed to happen?
Spann: What is supposed to happen ideally is that we’re working a lot of double teams. My pre-snap read is to look at what the A-gap defender is doing in terms of his technique. On this play he is play side. That is the first thing that I look at. Now I look at that because we’re going to double team him with the play side guard and center. We’re always going to double team the A-gap player. They are going to double team him to the middle linebacker (No.32) (below).
Now in this front where we have both receivers to our left the defense adjusted what they were doing and bumped the receivers over. Instead of going corners over they brought the corner down into the box as if he was a linebacker. What should happen is that our line should adjust and make the cornerback the backside linebacker (the FS drops before the snap), No.42 the MIKE linebacker and No.32 the play side backer – or the WILL.
That’s how it should happen, but we had a miscommunication upfront where No.42 – now the MIKE linebacker -was unblocked. That’s why the play wasn’t that big of a gain. The front side guard should have been double-teaming up to No.42…
[Author's Note Instead, the guard stumbled out of his double-team and this freed the linebacker (No.42) to make the play on Spann who tried to hit the hole between center and right guard.]
Waldman: So at what point do you see that you’re going to have to make an adjustment? Is it at the point of the exchange or even before that with the cornerback moving into the box?
Spann: What we’re taught is that we have an initial read and a primary read as we’re running zone. My initial read on this play is the front side defensive tackle, which in this case is the A-gap player – the one-technique. My primary read on inside zone plays is also the one-technique/A-gap player. So in this case, he’s both my initial and primary read and he’s going to tell me which way the play is going to go. If [this defensive tackle] tries to cross the guard’s face then the play is going to hit up the middle where the center is going to come off the tackle and get the MIKE linebacker (as diagrammed above).
If the defensive tackle says where he’s at the double team should push him back the other direction and I should be able to hit it play side B-gap where it is supposed to hit (below).
So that’s what I know going into the play and when I see [the defensive tackle/one-technique] at the beginning of the play. So when the ball is snapped, I’m reacting to either the one-technique going outside the B-Gap or staying where he’s at…that’s the first thing I’m looking at.
I already know what could happen so that gives me the ability to look at the next level a little bit earlier. Now I know exactly what is going to happen to that A-gap player so I keep the ball play side. But he drives back into the hole and I have to make the cut back. Since we didn’t block it correctly…
Waldman: …The result is a short gain.
1st and 10 13:14 1st Quarter
Waldman: This is a run to right end from a two-TE Pistol formation where you follow your pulling guard to the flat.
Spann: This is “12” personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends). We’re in the pistol with two receivers to the right. This is our bounce play. It’s set up to look a lot like our power play. We run it mostly out of “12” or “21” personnel.
It’s supposed to look identical to Power except we’re either pulling a guard and a center or a tackle and the center. My steps on this play are identical to Power if we were just running Power Right, except I’m going to take two steps in and then I’m going to start rolling with the pulling tackle and center on this play (below).
Waldman: Tell me about the importance of these first two steps to begin the play. I’d imagine it helps you set up a good distance to follow your pulling linemen, but does it also help set up the defense?
Spann: Absolutely. If you watch Nos. 32 and 42 – the two ‘backers on this play – the whole point of me taking those two steps is to bring them into the line of scrimmage as close as possible. So now when I make this cut – the cut outside on No.32 – he’s out of position to make that play (below).
Now he’s chasing me rather than being there to make the play. It’s supposed to suck them inside so they get caught up in line and they have to weave through the center and the guard to get to me. I’m going to follow this center’s block. Usually the tackle who is pulling is going to kick out and I’m supposed to follow the center who is pulling up field and usually that cut will be between the two. Sometimes the tackle will get up field and cut somebody inside and I can get to the outside. Normally both linemen split and I make that cut in between them.
Waldman: When the center makes a diving cut to the linebacker’s feet, you accelerate, charge forward to the line of scrimmage, and then leap over the linebacker’s diving attempt to hit you. For the defender it’s either dive at you or fall from the cut block. You land two yards ahead of the line of scrimmage with a backside defender wrapping your waist while quickly lowering your pads and ducking under the oncoming safety for one more yard (a gain of three).
Spann: We’ve run it better – watch the Minnesota highlights and we were hitting this play very well.
In Part II we study a zone read and a shotgun play that appears very similar presnap but for a small difference in the RB’s stance. We’ll also talk more about pressing the hole, the thought process behind ball security, and concepts behind gaining yards after contact – plus some love for RB Edgerrin James.