In Part I of the Grinding Tape Series, Mid American Conference MVP Chad Spann explained the concepts behind plays that require a running back to understand blocking schemes, defensive tendencies, and reading keys. This week, he reveals how quickly a runner needs to be able to process information to choose a hole, ball security protocol, and the importance of minimizing surface area to become a strong, after-contact runner.
2nd and 7 12:43 1st Quarter
Waldman: Describe the next play for us.
Spann: This is “11” personnel [1 back and 1 tight end]. We’ve got two receivers out to the left, we have a tight end to the left, and we’ve got another receiver on the bottom. We’re in the Pistol.
Basically this is our Power. We generally run Power out of our 21 personnel.
However, our slot receivers have beaten a lot of guys deep and we’ve decided as an adjustment to line up with three receivers, hopefully pulling the linebacker out of the box with that third receiver and still run a power.
Now the guy that is being pulled out of the box is the SAM linebacker and [if we were running the play from 21 personnel rather than 11 personnel] he would be the fullback’s guy.
Since the fullback’s not in we’re hoping that the SAM has the slot receiver in man coverage so we can use our same blocking scheme up front to take on the two linebackers that are still in the box.
Waldman: So what actually happens here?
Spann: On this particular play the safety gets down into the box and we don’t have anyone to block him. Our guy who usually goes to block the safety is that slot receiver, but now he’s man-up on the linebacker (Above).
Spann: …who sets the edge (below) and the linebacker cuts the pulling guard, which jumbles up the whole play.
Waldman: Otherwise, the tight end and left tackle do a nice job of sealing the defensive end inside and you were decisive. You didn’t try to bounce the play outside; you lowered your pads into the crease and drove forward for a yard rather than risk a loss.
How tempting is it for a running back to want to bounce a run outside? You have to have a good feeling here that you’re not going to get much taking it through a small crease that’s well defended. But if you just could beat that one guy to the edge it’s a big gain. I see college runners try to do this all the time and when they get to the pros they struggle.
Spann: One thing we’re always taught as runners is that the easiest way to be brought down is by running sideways (east west). That’s the easiest tackle for a defender. You won’t see me, or any running back on this team, running east west a lot and making cutbacks that way because we know we would be making things a lot easier for a defender to tackle us. And there’s always a chance somebody misses a tackle when you’re heading north south and because you’re heading downhill you’re in good shape to make a positive play.
3rd and 6, 12:06 1st Quarter
Waldman: You gain 12 yards on this play on a very decisive run, bouncing it to left end from a three-receiver set.
Spann: This is our zone read play. I essentially have the same rules on this play as I would for our inside zone play. I’m going to take my steps while looking at the A-gap player who is going to be double-teamed back to the MIKE linebacker [by the right guard and right tackle]. As I’m getting the handoff and running through the play I’m watching where the A-gap player goes. That player is going to set the hole for me.
What kills zone plays is penetration and that’s what they get on this play. I have a hole when the A-gap player goes to the right; it is between the center and the tackle blocking down.
Spann: We’re going to work a lot of double teams on this. We’re running to the left and [as I mentioned above ] the center and guard on the front side are going to double team the A-gap player – the one-technique player –to the linebacker (No. 45).
Now the backside guard and tackle are going to double team that three-technique up to the other linebacker (No.32) who is in the box (below).
Spann: So the play side tackle (the left tackle) is going to block the defensive end. The tight end on the backside is going to go to the next linebacker (who is outside the box and listed as “OLB” to the right of the TE). The tight end is going to seal the linebacker off.
The holes that I usually see are off of that center-guard double team (above). If the one-technique tries to go outside the guard then the center is going to come off the block and get to the linebacker. If the one-technique goes the other way or stays where he is then usually the guard will come off the block and get to the linebacker.
Waldman: In essence, you’re explaining the blocks that should open lanes for you to get to the second level if they are successful. With the zone-read play, there is a key player, correct?
Spann: We’re reading the backside tackle on this play. The quarterback is reading to see if the backside tackle comes straight up the field. If so, he’s giving me the ball. If the backside tackle is keying me then the quarterback is going to keep it.
Waldman: Let’s now see how the play actually develops after the snap and not just in theory.
Waldman: There are a lot of things happening here on the line. Let’s start with the one-technique/A-gap player you’re watching.
Spann: In this case the one-technique tries to go across the guard’s face because the line is executing a stunt [the left defensive end is looping inside of the one-technique/A-gap defensive tackle].
It wasn’t that [well executed because] where they stunted with the defensive end, it opened up the left side of the line.
When the defensive end came around the offensive line stayed on the same course. The stunt caused the left tackle to pick up the linebacker (No.45). And where the play was designed for the center to take No.45, now he’s picking up the defensive end.
Waldman: When I first watched the play it appeared as if it was originally designed for you to run off left tackle. So its pretty eye-opening to see that the play design was an inside run. When did you know you were taking this play outside?
Spann: When I see our left tackle take the linebacker (N0.45) and our backside (right) tackle getting pushed back into the hole due to penetration, which kills all zone plays.
Waldman: So you take the run further outside…
Spann: I take it a little bit further to one more hole. When I do, the tackle knows where I’m at and I cut inside of him as he pushes the linebacker outside.
Waldman: And this is where you press the hole. Can you explain that concept?
Spann: I set the block up by sticking my foot into the ground outside of the tackle to make that linebacker come up and put the tackle in a better position to make this block as I cut inside of him. As I do that it makes the hole bigger.
Waldman: When you spot your left tackle coming outside to seal the edge you take it to that one hole over and make a decisive cut inside the tackle. That press and cut also ruins the corner’s angle on you. You then burst through the hole and up the line of scrimmage for a 12-yard gain.
Waldman: Let’s talk a little bit about ball security. I always hear that the basic rule is to carry the ball under the outside arm. On this play you run the ball up the left hash and have the ball under your right arm for most of the play. Can you clarify the protocol for ball security on a play like this one?
Spann: You always want the ball in your outside hand but as you look at this play, you’re going to naturally have the ball in your inside hand because you are coming across the quarterback during the exchange. If you want to have a proper hand off on this play, it’s going to end up in your right arm.
Now if I hit this play normally where I would have hit it, I would hit right inside the backside (right) tackle. This would have kept me on the right side of the play and I would have the ball in my right hand.
But because the defender got penetration and I had to bounce the play out to the next hole. I had already made the decision to keep it in my right hand and I hadn’t changed hands yet because I don’t know exactly where I’m going and I’m still in a crowd of people.
You’ll never want to change hands in a crowd of people, but if you watch at the very last second before I get tackled, I’m switching hands and trying to use my inside hand to stiff arm this guy but I couldn’t get it off in time. My first available time to switch the ball was when I cleared that tackle’s block and that’s when the defender came up.
3rd and 1 10:24 1st Quarter
Waldman: This formation looks a lot like the zone-read we just watched.
Spann:It looks a lot like the play we looked at a second ago – a zone-read – but it’s a completely different play. This play is 11 personnel with two receivers to the right side and another receiver to the left and I’m in the shotgun to the right.
The subtle difference is that if you look at my stance in this play (below) and you look at it on the other play, I’m a lot tighter to the quarterback on this play. I was a yard deeper than the quarterback who was five yards deep on the last play. On this play, I’m right on his toes. I also lined up in the B-gap on the previous play, but now I’m over the tackle.
Spann: The reason why we do this is because the last play was like an inside zone play where we use double teams to get up to the linebackers. This play is a full zone and while I’m going to read it the exact same way as the other play, the blocking up front is going to be different. Everyone is going to be moving on their path to the left and get up to the second level.
Waldman: Once again, we see the defensive end on the play side (left) stunt to the inside. You head to the left, dip outside of No.32 in the hole and pick up the first down. After what you explained to me with the last play, I’m left wondering if this was the intended direction of the play or another read and react situation.
Spann: There really is no place where this is supposed to hit. It hits outside a lot if that three-technique to the play side (the LDT) comes downhill. If everyone on the defensive line is fanning to the left it’s going to cut back and be more of a downhill play. So there’s many places where this play can hit unlike the last one and I’m just supposed to find a hole and get into it.
Waldman: So what do you remember thinking or reacting to on this play?
Spann: So you see me coming through the mesh. It’s not a read any more; the quarterback is going to give it me and I’m looking the whole time where I’m going, which was actually the same for the last zone read play.
But as soon as that hole presents itself I have to get through it as fast as I can. It’s third and one and we have to get the first down so I’m not trying to pick up a whole lot of yards. I see this hole where I can get one yard and I’m going to get it right now – that’s my mindset on this play.
That’s how we approach this play. We started running this play against Western Michigan this year and we actually ran it a lot my sophomore year, but we got away from it. It hits well. It hits play side a lot more than the [zone-read] play might. The zone read play might hit backside more where the quarterback keeps it.
Waldman: It’s interesting to see that when you get close to the first down marker on this play you make a move away from No.32 who jumps into your path. One thing I often see good short yardage runners do is when they are about to face contact head-on they are able to turn away or get sideways and pull that player down hill – almost backing their way down field. Is that more of an instinctive move or is it something you’ve watched other backs do?
Spann: It is kind of instinctive, but it is also something that can be worked on as well. We’ll go through bag drills before practice starts and we’ll run over the bags forward with our coach standing at the goal line and he’ll be a yard between the goal line and the boundary and we have to duck our shoulder to get into the end zone.
One thing that they stress is to take your numbers away from the defender so they can’t hit me square. So being able to keep them from hitting me square gives me an advantage.
Think about when a linebacker blitzes and a running back has to pick him up. A linebacker is going to lower his shoulder where the running back has to stay square to take it on. It’s exactly like that.
But this time the linebacker is going to try to tackle me square and I’m going to lower my shoulder so I have the advantage because he has less [surface] area to hit so I can run through it or I can deflect it or drag him forward because my momentum is going one direction at a sharper angle than his.
Waldman: When I watch runners who are good “after-contact” ball carriers, it seems like they are trying to give a defender as little surface area as possible to tackle.
And when they attack a defender, they do so with the idea of forcing the defender to grab one point with a lot of force behind it. When a back is moving like this, it must be like trying to tackle the front of a spear or a club for the defender. It’s harder to tackle one point than several points of contact.
Spann: Exactly. When I can lower my shoulder and put it into your chest, I’m going to hit you first. As I mentioned in the Q&A we did, you either hit or be hit.
So when I turn my shoulders and dip my shoulder into somebody, I plan on hitting him first. He’s not going to be able to react fast enough because he’s thinking he’s about to lay out and hit me.
But while he’s laying out, I’ve already decided that I’m going to hit him while he’s suspended in the air. It becomes hard from them to react after that and still remember to wrap up because I made contact with them before they were ready.
Waldman: In addition to the pad level, it’s also the hips that factor into getting your pads under a defender’s pads. A player I saw do this for years and years and loved watching was Edgerrin James. It seemed he always got lower than the guy he was taking on. You thought he was going to get taken down or stopped at the point of a collision, but he’d always find a way to get another yard, two, or three yards on the play.
Spann: Absolutely. I’m from Indianapolis, and I grew up watching Edgerrin James. I love Edgerrin James. He’s one of the backs that I grew to admire. I even wore No.32 for a year during my career.
He’s one of the guys that I emulated as well as Emmitt Smith. I watched a lot of Emmitt Smith and he used his off-arm very well. It’s weird because he carried the ball religiously in his left hand, but he was still able to use that right hand so well. It was those little things that I picked up on.
In the third part of this Grinding Tape Series with Chad Spann, we’ll learn what a runner is watching to determine his path between the tackles and the differences with a runners pre snap location in zone and zone-read shotgun plays.