A criticism I read about a few college running backs this week was the tendency for some of them to run up the back of offensive linemen. Sometimes this is a fair criticism of a player. However, it’s also an observation that requires a strong frame of reference about the critic. It’s easy to evaluate a running back, see him run into a lineman’s back, and conclude that he lacks patience, agility, or good decision-making.
However, there are numerous examples of plays where a running back is not at fault for colliding with the backsides of his blockers. Considering the number of Tweets I saw this week where this conclusion was made about a back, I thought it might be helpful to provide examples of when this type of behavior is not the fault of the runner. I’m using South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore and his teammates as an example.
I just finished evaluating Lattimore’s season-opening performance against Vanderbilt. The junior running back, who is coming off an ACL tear to his left knee, fumbled away his first attempt, but made up for it with a 29-yard touchdown on his way to gaining 110 yards on 23 carries, scoring twice, and catching 3 passes for 21 yards. I found Lattimore to be a patient runner with a good understanding of how to set up his blockers, make the first defender miss, and gain yardage after contact. He’s not a burner, but he has enough burst to be a chain-moving NFL runner and the third down skills to develop into an every-down back.
However, these four plays are a more telling illustration of what happens to every runner during the course of his career. Plays where assessing blame on the running back would be misguided. Lattimore is in this case the victim rather than the perpetrator.
First-and-10 with 3:22 in the first quarter
This play begins from a 12 personnel, twin receiver set. The receivers are aligned to the right side of the formation and Lattimore is flanking the quarterback to the same side.
Lattimore tries to set up his path behind the left tackle working off the double-team with the guard and to the linebacker.
The inside penetration of the defensive end forces the tight end into the crease. The casual observer might say Lattimore ran up the back of his linemen.
I prefer to say that tight end backed into Lattimore’s crease. The other option Lattimore had was to cut outside the tight end, but the defensive end was spinning outside and the linebacker off the edge was coming free into the backfield. Lattimore made the correct choice, but the tight end could not execute his assignment because the defensive end out-played the tight end at the snap. Lattimore tripped over the feet of his tight end and fell forward to the line of scrimmage, resulting in a no-gainer.
First-and-10 with 6:51 in the half
Lattimore gains five yards from this 10 personnel, 2×2 receiver, shotgun set. The Gamecocks run power to right guard, which means Lattimore is following a pulling lineman to the gap off right guard. In this case the center is the pulling lineman.
If the rest of the offensive line does its job, Lattimore will have a huge hole well into the second level of the defense. Just after the South Carolina runner takes the exchange, the execution of the blocking scheme is going as planned, opening a nice hole in the middle of the line.
But the left guard’s next two steps signal the beginning of the end of this run. The guard is looking at the outside linebacker, but he stumbles during his next two steps and this eliminates his angle on the defender. The problem is that the guard is so hellbent on blocking his assigned man that he’s not seeing the play in full perspective. This is difficult to do in the moment, but if he could have seen that he’d be better off moving forward than throwing his body at the linebacker at an awkward angle Lattimore earns more than five yards on this play.
As Lattimore bursts through the line of scrimmage, the left guard stops running and turns back to the outside linebacker to attempt a cut block. This is where Lattimore runs into the back of the lineman or, as I said about the last play, the lineman backs into the running back.
The diagram below looks like a traffic jam ahead of Lattimore, but based on the frames listed before this still, the guard is the player that limits this play to five-yard gain.
Although the left guard would need to ignore the outside linebacker, Lattimore’s burst would have been good enough to beat this back side defender through the crease. If anything, the guard could have bent his angle towards the middle linebacker to help the center and Lattimore would still have a two-way go up the middle or a dip outside the center.
What happens is that Lattimore runs into the back of the guard, stumbles forward, and the outside linebacker now has a better opportunity to clean up the play.
A five-yard gain is still a nice play, but Lattimore already demonstrated a good enough burst to outrun the first and second level of the defense on the second attempt in this contest. This could have been another one of those plays.
First-and-10 with 6:02 in the third quarter
This running back-offensive lineman collision results in a loss of three yards. This shotgun play from a 20 personnel, 1×3 receiver set is designed to go inside the left tackle. The center pulls to the outside shoulder of the left guard, who takes on the left defensive tackle. The center helps double-down on that tackle before working down field to attack the outside linebacker. If the right side of the line can staunch the flow of the backside defenders working down the line, Lattimore should have a nice crease.
As the play develops after the snap, the left side of the line does its job and the pulling center is in position to come off the left defensive tackle and attack the outside linebacker. This will create a crease for Lattimore to reach the left flat if not for the right defensive tackle crossing the face of the right guard.
Lattimore has no other choice than to stop and attempt to spin or dip inside the right guard. If he continued running towards the gap between left tackle and center, the right defensive tackle wraps the running back’s legs and he’s dropped for a loss. Perhaps Lattimore should have tried to continue running towards the intended crease and hopefully break the tackle. But runners are taught to gauge the location of lineman’s helmets and this penetration is one of those times where a runner will see it as a key to change course. In this case, Lattimore loses his balance trying to spin inside the penetrating defensive tackle, who gets the runner’s ankles and the defensive end cleans up the play.
A smaller, quicker back can sometimes avoid situations like these, but South Carolina has designed and practice these plays with a back like Lattimore in mind. As I mentioned at the beginning of this analysis, Lattimore has repeatedly demonstrated good patience to press the intended lane to help set up his blocks. These plays aren’t examples of impatience as much as good plays by defenders that force offensive linemen into the path of the runner. When you see a runner collide into the back of a lineman, sometimes the play deserves a second look before reaching a conclusion about the ball carrier.
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