Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens: RB Ito Smith’s (Falcons) Diagnosis of a Cutback

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines a cutback by Falcons running back Ito Smith and the concept behind the decision. 

Continuing the conversation that we have an abundance of football analysis that oversimplifies the running back position when they refer to it as instinctive, and therefore easy, let’s examine this Ito Smith run against the Jets.

In order to create and exploit space as a runner, the back must understand the blocking scheme, how the defense is playing the scheme, and how to adjust. The three basic types of blocking are zone, gap, and man.

Zone plays are designed for the running back to run to a specific landmark close to the line of scrimmage and either continue straight ahead (cram), take the play outside that landmark (bounce), or work behind that landmark (cutback).

There are three basic types of zone blocking: Inside, outside, and off-tackle. Inside and outside zone plays initially ask the runner to work towards the strong side of the offensive line (towards the tight end). Off-tackle zone works to the weakside (away from the aligned tight end).

Below is an off-tackle zone that’s designed for Smith to work towards No.70 and then choose to cram, bounce, or cutback. Smith cuts back so early that he never even approaches his left tackle. We’re going to examine what Smith sees that warrant this decision.  Watch the play and the explanation and then continue reading for a place to freeze the tape and learn a little more.

Freeze the tape at 29 seconds. At this point, Smith has three indicators (keys) to read from the defense that determines his decision-making on the play.

  1. Before the snap (see the twitter picture above), Smith should be checking the defender alignment to see if the design of the blocking will go as planned. The defenders on the left of the line are aligned as dictates for a successful off-tackle zone run. Each is playing outside shoulder of the tackle (not visible in the picture above) and the guard.
  2. After the snap, look at the middle linebacker’s position to the left of the center, No.71. This lineman doesn’t reach this middle linebacker cleanly at this 29-second-mark as he comes off the combo block with the right guard. This helps the linebacker earn leverage to either maintain his spot in the crease to foil a cutback early or work further outside towards the left—the designed side of the run. This is the biggest indicator for Smith to execute an extreme cutback.
  3. Because this offensive alignment has two tight ends to the right side, Smith understands that there will be one tight end to wash down the backside defender into the line if he cuts back all the way to right end and a second tight end to cut off additional backside pursuit.

Smith reads all of this before he gets the ball. The execution is an efficient jump-cut to get downhill fast for a four-yard gain.

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