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I have much affection for the game of former Colts and Canes running back Edgerrin James. He’s one of the few running backs I’ve seen enter the NFL as a good pass protector. It’s a skill that engendered similar love for the games of Joseph Addai and DeMarco Murray when I watched them on passing downs at LSU and Oklahoma.
If Bryce Brown had any experience with pass protection during his one season with the University of Tennessee, the Eagles might have needed to spend a pick somewhere between the third and fifth rounds to nab him. If Brown develops these skills as a rookie, the Eagles might have the best 1-2 punch at running back in the NFL by 2013. If he doesn’t, he may rarely see the field.
That’s how important pass protection is in today’s NFL. Especially in a league where the Colts and Eagles led the offensive trend of single back sets (11 and 10 personnel), which requires the running back to have more responsibility with blocking adjustments based on presnap looks. In these styles of offenses, the running back has to understand which defender his teammates are leaving unblocked as well as diagnosing stunts and green dog blitzes.
There are numerous techniques that running backs have to master with the craft of pass protection. I separate them into these general categories:
- Diagnosis of the assignment
- Cut blocking technique
- Hand placement on stand-up blocks
- Delivering a punch on stand-up blocks
- Maintaining and/or dictating an angle of the opponent
Today, I’m going to show you a touchdown pass from the 2011 Independence Bowl where North Carolina redshirt (now sophomore) freshman running back Giovani Bernard does a fantastic job dictating an angle and then cut blocking an opponent. Bernard wasn’t statistically impressive in this contest versus Missouri, but I’ve seen enough to know he’s a quality prospect. This particular play encapsulates his FBI (football intelligence or what I call Football I.Q.) with the angles of the game.
This touchdown pass from Bryn Renner to Dwight Jones comes on a 3rd and 5 with 12:15 in the first quarter. The Tarheels are in a 10 personnel, 3×1 receiver shotgun set.
If you have read the Q&A of my Writers Project team, then you know I’m a fan of A-gap pressure. Even the best NFL quarterbacks have enormous difficulty dealing with this type of pass rush. What makes A-gap pressure an insidious evil is that offenses have to adjust its blocking schemes, which can generate confusion and/or mismatches in the defense’s favor.
On this play, the UNC offensive line adjusts its blocking scheme by shifting the left tackle, left guard, and center’s blocking assignment one man to the right. This is done to account for the possibility of both linebackers blitzing and it leaves two defenders free. One of them is the linebacker just behind the butt of the right defensive end. The other is the left defensive end.
There are a lot of devious things this defense could have done. Missouri could have blitzed just one of the linebackers while dropping the other into the shallow zone to account for any shallow crossing route that one of the trips receivers would likely run on this play. Meanwhile, the left defensive end could have dropped into coverage in the flat to handle a short curl or hitch and the linebacker over right defensive end could have blitzed. Doing these three things would have made this play a zone blitz from a 4-3 and completely foiled the Tarheel’s blocking scheme while accounting for the shallow zones and flats.
Another option could have been a double A-gap blitz of the linebackers while also sending the defensive end and third linebacker. This all-out blitz would have been too aggressive for the taste of many defensive coordinators in what was essentially a red zone situation. Former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville liked to run all-out blitzes in these situations in the 1980s. I remember the San Francisco 49ers burning Glanville on these attempts with enough frequency that I thought I was seeing a reenactment of Sherman burning Atlanta.
And yet another option would be dropping both A-gap linebackers, dropping the left defensive end, and blitzing the linebacker off the right side. This would have created a mismatch to to the right side if the running back doesn’t read the situation well. Highlighting just three of these possibilities illustrates what the line and the running back have to consider in the span of seconds.
The Tarheels coaches were able to eliminate enough of these possibilities by studying the Missouri Tigers’ tendencies and then coach its players to be prepared to account for the left defensive end. Although UNC did a good job preparing for this possibility, the fact that the Tigers can get its left defensive end matched one-on-one with a running backs is a winning situation on paper. Not only is there a physical mismatch, but the defensive end gets a free pass off the line of scrimmage while the runner has to slide across the formation to make a play. Any hesitation from the running back about his proper assignment and the quarterback is staring down the gun barrel.
Fortunately, Bernard shows no hesitation at the snap. He (and/or his teammates) recognize this defensive look and they make an accurate adjustment. Bernard turns his pads towards the left edge of the formation.
The common factors that we see writers and analysts highlight with pass protection are the punch, hand location, pad level, strength, and agility. However, establishing a position on the defender to dictate that opponent’s angle is essential in a situation like this play. Bernard has to assess the trajectory that the defensive end is taking and cut off the angle. He also has to do it in such a way that he can counter any adjustment the defender makes. This requires timing, footwork, and savvy. Bernard sets up the defender with this kind of savvy before he even crosses the left hash.
This photo already shows the defender dropping his hips and using his arms to change direction to the inside (click the photo for a close up). Without any contact, Bernard has funneled the defender to the inside.This is a small, but important demonstration of football I.Q.
Bernard’s next step reveals that he is setting up the defender. The still photo below shows that Bernard – much like a receiver when executes a hard break – drops his hips to make a sudden stop so he can change direction. Bernard doesn’t continue to charge towards the defender. His original angle outside bought him enough time to gauge his target.
As Bernard changes direction, he pivots his hips to position his body so he can execute a cut block to he’s aiming for the leg of the defender that is opposite the runner’s back foot. This angle creates a trajectory where Bernard’s entire body presents an obstacle that the defensive end must take into account. If Bernard just drops his head and shoots forward, the defender has less surface area to avoid and can hurdle the defender. The same thing is true if Bernard shoots for the outside leg.
Bernard’s original angle to force the defender inside was also good enough to establish significant cushion between his point of attack with the defender and the quarterback. His work went a long way towards providing a clean pocket.
This is critical when considering that this 3×1 receiver trips set drew man coverage on the single wide receiver split to the right – Dwight Jones. With this time and space that Bernard creates for Bryn Renner, the quarterback lofts a fade route that covers at least 35 yards of airspace to Jones in the back of the end zone for a touchdown.
This made the backside of the pocket clean enough for the QB to deliver a fade to his WR Jones in single coverage for the touchdown. This was perhaps one of the best examples of footwork and angles I can show despite the fact that Bernard doesn’t take the defensive end off his feet. As one can see, knocking the defender off his feet or backwards isn’t always as important as creating space and impeding an opponent’s progress.