If you want to get the most out of your viewing of running back film, it’s a good idea to understand press and cut principles at work.
Why Fundamentals Matter to Scouting
Pressing the hole or a rushing lane is one of the most fundamental skills that a running back executes in his job. Anyone who wants to understand a running back’s game must understand how this concept works. Otherwise, there will be huge flaws in the analysis, including:
- Writing off the value of statistically unproductive plays.
- Making incorrect conclusions about a running back’s decision-making.
- Misdiagnosis of a prospect’s physical skills.
Analyzing a running back’s performance and not understanding how press-and-cut principles work is like reviewing a film or book and not understanding the basic principles of plot. There are also a lot of physical and conceptual skills that often come into play when a ballcarrier presses a crease: burst, footwork, lateral agility, understanding of his blocking scheme, and feel for the opposition’s tendencies.
You won’t understand the context of what you’re seeing if you don’t understand a basic principle like pressing a crease. It’s one of the more obvious reasons why two people can look at the same game and come away with wildly different takes.
What is “Pressing the Hole?”
While I have written that context is more important than technique, you have to understand technique enough to make this determination. If you’re new to the game or this term, the basic concept is for the runner to set up his blocks or manipulate open space by disguising his intended path for as long as possible.The way a runner does this is through his initial approach of an area.
As he approaches an opening–be it the line of scrimmage, blocker(s) in the open field, or an open lane–he disguises his intended path by taking an initial angle that isn’t directly aimed at the crease. The runner hopes to bait the opponent(s) into moving opposite of his true destination. This will widen the actual crease the runner wishes to exploit.
I’ve always wondered why the term isn’t better described as “stretching the hole,” because visually speaking, it might be a more accurate verb for what a ballcarrier is doing. But I’m not on the committee for the dictionary of football terms. Unless we’re resurrecting the likes of Landry, Lombardi, Brown, Noll, and Walsh to head it (and I can be a fly on the wall), I don’t really care what you call it.
The blocking scheme most often associated with pressing the hole is zone blocking. A zone scheme assigns linemen to block defenders approaching a specific area rather than a specific, man-to-man assignment seen with other types of blocking. The aim is to give the runner multiple choices based on what actually happens and not one static design. Gap schemes aren’t mentioned as much when it comes to pressing a hole, but there are still times where a press and cut is beneficial–especially in the open field.
What Pressing the Hole Reveals About the Runner’s Mental Game
How well a runner presses the hole is also a reflection of several qualities important to that prospect:
- How well he understands his strengths and weaknesses as a runner.
- His rapport with his teammates.
- His preparation for each game.
- How well he integrates all of these skills when the lights are on and the fans are screaming.
Sport is a performance, not science. Not that data analysis isn’t a tremendous asset, but ultimately you need players who are comfortable performing on the big stage. There are numerous examples of good practice players who don’t play well when it matters most or great athletes who lack enough understanding of the game that they fail when their athletic dominance no longer exists at a higher plane of competition.
When athleticism without the rudder of conceptual skill meets great competition the unfortunate result looks a lot like Sisyphus’ futile attempts at toting the rock. In contrast, a highly conceptual runner with baseline NFL athleticism can beat that athletic wonder straight-up for a roster spot–if a front office and coaching staff isn’t married to a big contract they offered the big-time athlete.
Jawon Chisholm won’t top many lists when it comes to running back prospects, but one of the Akron Zip’s performances against Michigan reveals how the physical (athleticism) and conceptual (patience) factor into the successful execution of press and cut principles. I’m not touting Chisholm as an NFL prospect, but his work allows me to highlight the presence and absence of press and cut principles without the sheen of readers getting caught up in the player’s name.
I’ve seen enough of Tevin Coleman enough that I’ll be writing about him in the coming weeks–and I have strong criticisms of his game. However, one of his plays is a clear example of a press and cut in space, which I’ll share below.
Chisholm: Press and Cut at the Line of Scrimmage
This 1st and 10 at the Michigan 44 from a 2×1 receiver, 11 personnel pistol uses a press and cut principle to transform a two-yard gain into a four-yard gain. It’s a good display of this concept at work.
The tight end winds back to block the inside linebacker outside the right guard as the right tackle and the inline tight end double team the edge. Chisholm presses towards the double team at the edge of the intended hole and then bends the run inside to the wind-back block up the left hash. He crosses the line of scrimmage and slides to his left, turning a two-yard play into a four-yard gain thanks to his initial approach of the blocks.
Here’s a press outside and cut inside on the linebacker at the edge of a run from a 2×1 receiver, 11-personnel pistol with the tight end working the right wing. Michigan once again plays a nickel with six in the box and its defenders evenly spaced, three left-three right of the ball. The Zips double team to the left with the center and left guard and the right guard and right tackle double team the defensive tackle to open a crease up the middle where there is an unblocked inside linebacker.
Chisholm will read this as well as the defensive end working across the face of the left tackle and he immediately bounces the play to left end. The linebacker at the edge meets Chisholm at the edge, but the runner does a sound job of pressing that edge and making a smart, one-step cut inside.
Smart run and good movement based on press and cut principles earns Chisholm the hole. A good attack with his pads earns him a five-yard gain.
Coleman: Press and Cut in Space
The Indiana runner earns a weak side pitch from a 2×1 receiver, 11-personnel pistol and he demonstrates press and cut principles in its simplest form. After the snap, the shallow slot defender inside the left hash works up the seam towards the backfield and delivers a strong punch on the slot receiver’s chest with inside leverage.
Coleman reads the position of the defender and presses the play 2-3 steps inside and towards that defender’s leverage to set up his dip outside. The running back demonstrates a conceptually sound strategy with this crease.
If you lack an understanding of press and cut principles, you might conclude Coleman was indecisive or didn’t think he was fast enough to hit the inside crease. These would be fatal errors of analysis. Coleman has excellent speed and he made a good decision, setting it up exactly as he should.
On the other hand, I think Coleman’s best fit is in a gap scheme where his press and cut principles are most often applied in space and not between the tackles. I’ll have more on this in subsequent posts, but hopefully this primer serves as a basic example of one of the most fundamental things you need to understand about running back play while watching them perform on film.
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