NFL Lens: Reading Blocks (And People) w/David Johnson


A vivid illustration of what a running back should use to guide his decisions between the tackles.

Not until he was well into his tenure as a starter with the Green Bay Packers did Brett Favre even know what a nickel defense was. Jon Gruden credits Favre with inventing the RPO.

If there was a settings dial for Adrian Peterson’s patience between the tackles when he entered the league, there would have only been two listings: “Crotch Rocket Strapped to a Missile” and “Runaway Dump Truck.” If Tom Coughlin handled Peterson’s fumbles the way he handled David Wilson’s, who knows if Peterson would have had a productive career.

Good players develop. Great players transform. Their style and essence may remain the same as the first year they entered the league, but veterans of the NFL change and grow fast enough not to become former NFL players

David Johnson has grown. The former wide receiver had the obvious physical talent to become a top runner at this level.

He also possessed enough skill as a rookie to thrive on gap plays that required him to target one potential opening, hit it hard, and create once he passed the line of scrimmage or turned the corner. Zone plays that require the patience and line reading skills to make the most of the blocks were a different story.

Johnson showed promise with some of these runs, but the knowledge and experience weren’t there. It’s why Chris Johnson was the backup to Andre Ellington to begin 2015 and why Chris remained in the picture, at least until David demonstrated continued growth, throughout the spring and summer of 2016.

David credits Chris for helping him develop a deeper understanding of the running back position. The ability to learn is a massive component of a prospect’s profile. It’s one thing to learn concepts on a whiteboard, it’s entirely different to identify and act on them in live action.

I see this continually as I memorize plays on paper. Recently, I confused an ISO with an Off-Tackle Zone because the direction of the line blocks have similarities.

But one is a gap play and the other is a zone play. The differences between appropriate decisions with each are great.

I don’t mind telling you about my struggles with learning new material. I might have a few years ago.

But I’ve learned that I’m not alone. Players and coaches at the highest level of the game internalize the pressure to claim knowledge of concepts that they lack. They fear it could cost them an opportunity if they profess ignorance.

Competition will do that. It’s why the “fake it ’til you make it” philosophy can infiltrate many industries (I’ll figure it out when I get the job). NFL leadership is often guilty of this behavior when studying the character of prospects.

It also filters to the public sector of analysts. Those outside the NFL lack the resources to develop a strong character profile about a player.

Some media have occasional access to the investigations and interview data on specific players and from certain teams. Even so, the info can lack enough context or expertise to interpret accurately.

It can lead to speculative conclusions, armchair psychology, and ultimately drive bad analysis. This also happens in the NFL when leadership engages in this behavior rather than delegating the research, analysis, and access to information to trained experts.

Gauging athletic ability and technical skill is much easier than determining a player’s character and his potential to mature into a dedicated professional. It’s easy for an organization and the general public to identify prospects that say and do the wrong things.

It’s a lot harder to identify the players who know all the right things to say and do during an interview process, but are only going to do the minimum once they get the job. Reading people and gauging their potential for growth is far more nuanced than reading blocks.

Fortunately, David Johnson is by all accounts a top-notch professional in this respect. It means we can spend more time gauging his progress on the field.

This is a zone play against Washington. The line will slant to the left and Johnson will take the exchange from Carson Palmer over the gap between center and left guard.


It’s a pretty large gap, isn’t it? To the uninitiated, it would appear as the obvious choice for Johnson to hit.

But opting for that crease would ignore what’s actually happening and likely result in a short gain at best. Reading blocks involves noting the position of a defender’s helmet and/or hips in relation to the lineman engaged with him.

On this play, one defender has his helmet and hips to the left shoulder of the left guard. The other defender has his helmet and hips to the right shoulder of the left tackle.

It means the man on the left guard has easy access to that big crease Johnson sees wide open ahead as he takes the exchange. It also means that the man on the left tackle is getting moved to the right side.

These defenders will be moving in opposite directions with the help of the guard and tackle. The position of their helmets and/or hips indicate this to the runner.


I write “helmet and/or hips” because these reads happen fast. They often appear as a blur of color. You don’t have to pick up both body parts for a good read, it just has to be one.

Johnson reads the line and instead of forcing his way into the widest crease, he anticipates the crease that will open based on the position of the defenders. It’s why his stride doesn’t change as he approaches the line and, as if by magic, the once-closed crease opens as he reaches it.

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This is is a great example to share with those that still believe the myth that running the football is solely an instinctive task. Great runners have great instincts, but it’s also built upon layers of knowledge and experience with the craft.

To you and me, running towards a wide-open space appears instinctive. Running towards a 300-pound teammate at a healthy speed when a wide-open space seems available to his left does not.

To a great running back, the second scenario instantly appears more appealing than the first. It’s because his knowledge and training has made the positions of the two defenders on these two blockers look the way open grass does to us.

It’s still instinctive, it’s just operating with a more refined process. David Johnson has worked on refining his during the past year and this play is ample evidence.


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