RB Pass Blocking: No Simple Answers

When it comes to a running back’s ability to block, grading the skill to an NFL standard isn’t simple. Photo by  Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Carson Palmer was supposed to experience a renaissance of production when the Cardinal acquired Adrian Peterson. However, it was Peterson’s confusion with a pass protection assignment that contributed to Palmer breaking his left arm.

I crafted my words carefully here. Some might have said Peterson’s confusion with a pass protection assignment “led to” or “caused” the injury and that’s not accurate. Palmer owns some responsibility for holding onto the ball in the pocket longer than anyone would recommend.

Still, there will be analysts and fans who want to cast direct blame on Peterson and make a sweeping statement about his acumen as a pass protector. Ultimately, Peterson owns a lot of responsibility, but it’s not so simple.

The same is true of assessing Kareem Hunt. They see a cut block or two and conclude he’s an excellent blocker, or they seek validation that he is one.

Hunt’s one or two pass-pro reps per game have been a recent (and small) uptick in his usage after an entire summer and month of the regular season where the only consistent work he did in this area was cut blocking.  It’s why he was confined to carrying the ball. When a back needed to protect Smith, Charcandrick West was usually in the lineup.

Pass protection is a physical, technical, and conceptual craft. It’s one of the most difficult parts of a running back’s duties and it’s often the skill that differentiates an early-round player from a mid-to-late draft pick.

We’re going to examine a variety of pass protection assignments from Week 7 of the 2017 NFL season. It’s not a singular or simple skill and it remains one of the most challenging aspects of running back play—even for veterans.

The NFL Is Not A Cookie-Cutter Situation


Many old-school football fans and draft analysts like to justify their lack of thought or attention to pass protection with the sweeping statement, “it’s something they’ll learn in the NFL.”  There’s just enough truth in the statement that it mollifies others. However, it doesn’t tell us who is or isn’t good at the craft when they’re entering the league and the potential challenges that await them.

There are also scenarios where pass protection—either by design or necessity—isn’t as significant a factor as others.

Now that the NFL is segmenting the workload for the position as well as spreading the field, we’re seeing some teams finding ways to avoid the problem altogether. While Hunt has been a fantastic performer, there’s a compelling argument that Hunt wouldn’t have seen such a productive volume of snaps this year if Spencer Ware—a competent pass blocker and excellent receiver—was healthy.

Although I’m speculating, it’s also likely that Ware’s injury led to the Chiefs opening up its offense without a back in the backfield on passing downs. Kansas City knew Hunt wouldn’t be competent early on. When Smith was asked about Hunt’s pass blocking early in the preseason, Smith said Hunt was doing a good job in practice but that the game environment was much different and implied that the Chiefs wouldn’t know the true nature of Hunt’s ability until he saw the conceptual and technical challenges in games that current practice methods do not incorporate.

Other than a great cut block that knocked out two Bengals on a single stroke, Hunt struggled as a stand-up pass protector against defensive backs. Even when the Chiefs used him as a backside blocker with Smith rolling to the opposite side of the field, Hunt couldn’t keep his opponent from applying pressure.

None of this makes Hunt a bad player or drastically limits his immediate future. However, if he were on another team that relied on its backs to pass protect and had healthy options with more skills, we might not have seen Hunt take the league by storm right away. If you think that’s crazy, you should think back to the number of times a player emerges from anonymity and we hear the routine exclamations, “How did we not know about this guy!” and “How were X, Y, and Z (high-profile prospects) better than THIS GUY?!”

Scheme fit often drives opportunity. In the Chiefs’ case, the loss of Ware likely forced the team to tweak the scheme to maximize its talent. Some teams aren’t that flexible; others don’t need to be.

Defining The Process: The Greatest Challenge

Before we begin, there are two types of blocks: cut blocks and stand-up blocks. A running back can be good at one and bad at the other. In order to become a reliable pass protector, they need to be good at both.

Unfortunately, there is no established percentage of blocks that a runner must complete to classify him as “good.” The runner’s size, the size of his opponent, the type of block, and the type of play are all factors that add context to the judgment of a running back’s performance.

It’s why two analysts can have differing views on a back’s pass protection skills—even if both use data to perform their analysis. It’s rooted in how they define their evaluation process.

For one organization, a successful block may be entirely results-dependent: Technique and conceptual understanding of their responsibilities take a backseat to the simple act of preventing a quarterback from taking a hit. It sounds straight-forward, but this results-dependent model would consistently give strong grades to backs with glaring technical and conceptual flaws.

Just because a running back got in the way of a linebacker or safety long enough to keep the defender from hitting the quarterback doesn’t mean it’s a good result. If back didn’t prevent the defender from pressuring the quarterback and/or rushing the release, then it’s a failing process.

Another organization’s process could account for hits and pressures but does not use an NFL standard for grading a back’s technique, the physical demands of taking on NFL defenders, or the conceptual challenges of NFL defenses. Sure, the back has a high score as a pass protector based on his work against Big Ten linebackers, safeties, and defensive ends but if the grading process is not well defined,  the back could have 2-3 technical or conceptual flaws that college defenders never exploited but NFL defenders will routinely capitalize until the back improves his craft.

Here are some of the guidelines I use when examining cut blocks:

  • Does the back establish a good angle of approach?
    • Does the angle force the opponent to a desirable path away from the quarterback?
    • Does the angle allow the back to execute an effective block?
  • Does the back keep his head up when he executes the block so he can see what he’s hitting?
  • Does the back work across the body to the opposite leg of the defender so his body crosses both legs and creates a full-body obstacle?
  • Does the back shoot across the body with enough height to take away the defender’s footing?
  • Does the back shoot through the body with enough depth to create force with the contact?

Here are some of the guidelines that I use when examining stand-up blocks:

  • Does the back understand his assignment? 
  • Does the back understand his primary and secondary assignments?
  • Does the back demonstrate awareness to abandon a primary assignment to handle an emergency situation?
  • Does the back establish a good angle of approach?
    • Does the angle force the opponent to a desirable path away from the quarterback?
    • Does the angle allow the back to execute an effective block?
  • Does the back keep his head up when he executes the block so he can see what he’s hitting?
  • Does the back set a balance stance so he can deliver a punch with leverage and force?
  • Does the back deliver a uppercut strike that will get his hands on the chest plate of the defender?
  • Does the back time his strike so he can roll his hips through the impact and generate force with the blow?
  • Does the back keep his feet moving after the first strike so he can either drive the defender in the desired direction or maintain a desirable angle on the defender to issue a second strike or shield his path from the quarterback?

Most of these skills become more difficult for backs as they transition from the college to pro game because defenders are quicker, savvier, stronger, and technically advanced performers. The NFL also places a higher expectation for backs to demonstrate a wider range of these skills. Even so, many NFL contributors and starters aren’t executing these guidelines in every situation because they are difficult tasks.

Basic Skills

Let’s begin with the cut block. We’ll use Hunt’s pickup of the Raiders safety on an assignment that affords Alex Smith time to hit Tyreek Hill deep for a touchdown. It begins with the assignment, which is a slide protection responsibility to the inside because the Chiefs line is sliding outside (to the right) from the center to the right tackle. Because the right tackle doesn’t have to pick up the outside linebacker who dropped into coverage from his pre-snap spot at the line of scrimmage, he can help out the guard.

Slide protection requires the back to work opposite the direction of the slide. Hunt understands his assignment and works to the appropriate gap to cover whoever works through it. Hunt’s approach is well-timed and he works across the defender with the outside leg as the back’s aiming point.

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Hunt’s approach is high enough to strike the thighs and knees of the defender and the depth fo the approach helps the back turn his body through the contact so the force of the strike carries Hunt past the point of his target. Think of Bruce Lee instructing his students to punch beyond the point of the target to generate force and you have the right idea about the depth of approach with a cut block.

Hunt also approaches with his helmet up so he’s able to see the target point from his approach through his strike. The fact that Hunt is handling the conceptual, technical, and physical aspects of his assignment well is a good sign for his future development. However, cut blocks are the easiest of the two blocks and regardless of his current use in Kansas City’s scheme, he’ll need to demonstrate better work with his stand-up game before he qualifies as a competent pass protector.

Peterson’s blitz pickup of Alec Ogletree is the first of a variety of stand-up assignments I’ll examine.  While this clip doesn’t reveal insight to the conceptual requirements of identifying the assignment, we see Peterson establish a good angle by jabbing into the inside and cutting off the linebacker’s direct path tot he dropping quarterback.

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The angle of approach on this play is a difficult one for any running back because the rate of the approaching defender does not allow the blocker to get an accurate punch off in time. Think of pass protection as boxing. Even great boxers don’t land a vast majority of their punches in every round of a championship-caliber fight. It’s a messy affair that doesn’t always appear as technically sound as it really is.

Peterson gets off his uppercut release into Ogletree and his stance is good enough to generate force even if his strike doesn’t land in time to avoid an equal strike from Ogletree. However, All Day’s size and strength help his decent technique delivered in a difficult situation.

The uppercut motion stands up Ogletree and negates the linebacker’s leverage, mitigating the force of impact to the point that Peterson isn’t forced to step backward despite the collision making him lean that way. The technique of the punch creates a good hand position as Peterson slides his hands up the linebackers frame and under the arms to stabilize his position and maintain a good yard of space between him and Palmer.

While the punch didn’t land in an optimal position due to the approach angle, Peterson’s good uppercut technique affords him an opportunity to work into a good position from a technically sound stance. Size and strength were a factor in Peterson handling this linebacker, but the technique was just as important because it created the leverage for Peterson to maintain his position throughout the collision.

Here’s another Peterson block that incorporates a good stance and uppercut punch. You can see the linebacker raise his forearm and duck his chin to his shoulder in reaction to Peterson’s position and impending punch. It’s because whatever the linebacker’s original plan, it wasn’t coming to fruition when he saw Peterson’s position and first-strike mentality.

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Although Peterson leans a little too much before the strike, the strike is a good one. A savvier defender in position to capitalize on Peterson’s lean (an overextension of his stance) could have used that position against Peterson either with his hands and/or movement.

If I were grading it, Peterson made an effective block. However, I would note that he has a tendency to overextend. A defender could use that knowledge to pull the back behind him for an easy win.

Basic Concepts, Difficult Matchups

A back striking first can make all the difference with a play. Here’s Giovanni Bernard with two reps against the Steelers. Although Bernard is a smaller back than Peterson, he has a longstanding track record of good work as a stand-up pass protector that goes back to his years as a North Carolina Tar Heel.

Bernard achieves a good result on this blitz from the defensive back during the first half but his process has flaws.

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Bernard leans into this contact and “catches” the collision rather than throwing a punch with the guidelines I mentioned above. Because Bernard has a low center of gravity and a good stance, he’s able to absorb the collision. The fact that he’s also at the edge of the pocket mitigates the potential for a bad outcome. Bernard’s position before the collision is also good enough that he can funnel the defender to the outside due to his position and leverage.

He also gets by with this technique because the defender is roughly his size. Against a larger defender, Bernard’s technique has to be sharper. This is why he fails with a similar effort against linebacker Vince Williams later in the game.

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Bernard has the position to deliver the punch and roll through his hips, but he isn’t confident in the technique holding up well against a bigger defender. Instead, he leans to meet the oncoming defender with the hope that a leaning punch will at least prevent the defender from gaining ground in the pocket long enough for Andy Dalton to release the ball.

If Bernard waits on Williams’ approach for 1-2 steps, delivers the first strike, and rolls his hips upward through that strike, he stands up Williams and stops the defender’s momentum immediately. He’d also remain in a good position to throw a second strike or mirror the defender’s redirect.

The issue with Bernard’s effort on this play has more to do with faith in his technique compensating for his size. It’s easy to feel this way. Most of you watching the video clip thought it was Bernard getting physically overmatched. Many of you will still disagree with my analysis that it wasn’t Bernard’s size. However, there are enough cases of smaller backs handling linebackers and defensive linemen with good technique that it counters the visceral reaction that size difference was the overriding factor.

Alvin Kamara’s attempt against defensive tackle Mike Daniels, an excellent lineman who is a difficult matchup for interior offensive linemen, is another good example. Kamara waits for Daniels to make the first contact and it’s all Daniel’s needs to win the play.

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This play also earns a visceral reaction that Kamara’s size was the only factor that mattered. However, if Kamara used his hands aggressively to strike Daniels, he could have controlled the big fella.

Daniels is reaching with a one-arm technique to gain leverage around Kamara’s inside shoulder. If Kamara strikes with a uppercut to the triceps and underarm region of Daniels, Kamara had the stance and position to knock Daniels’ hand above his shoulder and gain a leverage point. It was enough of a leverage point to knock Daniels off-balance to the left. Kamara would have still been in a position to drive Daniels to the inside and, as improbable as it may appear, possibly off his feet.

This would have been advanced work, but it demonstrates the depth of skill that backs must learn to master this facet of the game.

Advanced Concepts

Because a running back’s assignment diagnosis is a team concept that involves an understanding of what his lineman are supposed to do, a blown assignment by a lineman can put a running back in a difficult situation or make the back look like the inept blocker. Joe Mixon’s effort against Bud Dupree is a potential example.

I qualified this statement above because without knowing someone within the organization who understands the exact nature of the Bengals’ line protections, it’s possible I’m making an incorrect assumption. However, the way I’m diagnosing this scenario is realistic and still applies to the overall point of this segment.

The Bengals appear to be running a slide protection to the right as its plan against the Steelers’ 3-4 front. Dupree is the outside linebacker threatening the edge and the defensive end is aligned closer to the right tackle than the right guard. There’s also a large space between the nose tackle and the right defensive end.

The rule of slide protection is for the line to shift in tandem to one side to address the defenders on that side and the running back to work in the opposite direction to pick up the leftover defender. If the line slides inside, the back goes to the end. If the line slides outside, the back goes to the middle of the line.

Based on the video, the Bengals appear to be in a slide to the right:

  • The left tackle takes on the left end.
  • The left guard accounts for any blitzing defender working to his gap or helps the center with the nose tackle if the nose tackle works towards the guard’s area.
  • The center slides right to handle the nose tackle.
  • The guard slides right to handle the defensive end.
  • The tackle slides right to handle Dupree, the outside linebacker.

However, the tackle doesn’t slide right. He takes on the defensive tackle and that leaves the guard with no one to block and Dupree free to work the edge against Mixon.

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While possible that there’s another explanation why Dupree is Mixon’s primary assignment, the fact that the right guard has no one to block is an indication of a blown assignment and there is a good case for a slide protection here. This could have led to Mixon expecting to work inside and he’s a beat late to address Dupree because it wasn’t his assignment. It was a conceptual trip-up.

Another possibility includes the guard assigned to a blitzing linebacker up the middle that didn’t come. Midway through the video where I replay the pre-snap, you’ll notice the center turning to look at the guard and pointing downfield and, shortly after, making a sharp jabbing motion to his right. This could be the center trying to tell the guard to pick up a linebacker that didn’t blitz. Afterall, the guard never turned his head to the right which would have supported that he was supposed to slide and the tackle was at fault for taking the guard’s man.

The center also could have been switching the protection to a slide and neither the tackle nor the guard understood what the center was saying and it lead to the look we see that left Mixon conceptually tripped up and forced to address Dupree in an unplanned way.

Ultimately, Mixon should have handled Dupree better, but these types of mixups at the line of scrimmage can leave a back a step slower to handle assignments that originally weren’t intended for them.

This serves as a good backdrop for Peterson’s assignment that led to Carson Palmer breaking his arm.  On this play, I believe Peterson had two responsibilities. The primary job was to help the right tackle with the edge player. The secondary job was to see if the linebacker was green dogging in response to Peterson staying at the line of scrimmage to pass protect.

A Green Dog is a blitz directive for a defender when he’s assigned to a back or tight end. If that player runs a route, the defender covers. If the player remains at the line, he blitzes, hoping to trip-up the offensive player who has likely worked away from him to help a teammate with a blocking assignment.

Peterson initially works to the outside shoulder of the tackle to help with the edge defender and because the linebacker is initially working to the outside. While he’s doing that, he does a good job of monitoring the linebacker’s position. Peterson sees the defender moving inside towards the pocket and slides inside to pick up the blitz.

However, midway through his adjustment, Peterson sees the defender getting around the tackle. This is is arguably where Peterson makes a mistake but one that I understand the back’s logic.

Blockers expect quarterbacks to get rid of the ball within a short period of time. Because Peterson has already worked towards the tackle’s outside shoulder then crossed to the inside to address a linebacker still behind the line of scrimmage, Peterson anticipated that Palmer was getting rid of the ball any split-second. When he saw that defender getting free of the tackle, he doubled-back to help because he thought Palmer had a much better chance of getting hit by the edge man than the linebacker.

What he didn’t expect was Palmer climbing the pocket after this much time in the pocket. That’s when the disaster strikes.

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If I were to make a final call, Peterson should have stayed with the linebacker and let Palmer step up. However, I also understand the hesitation to peel back to his original spot based on the timing of the passing game.

Pass protection is a messy game within the game. Every assignment has various contexts that make it difficult to say a block is a block is a block.

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