JIM'S O-LINE PRIMER, PT. 2: RUN-BLOCKING

Jim returns with Part 2 of his opus on the art of offensive line play. Another outstanding piece of work, Jim, and further evidence that o-line play is as complex an endeavor as attempting to play a game living chess with a herd of grumpy moose. To catch up, read part one if you missed it. Enjoy it, and be sure to tell Jim what a badass job he did below.

I’m back for more! Thank you for your great responses and questions to Part 1, and for actually reading it. And, No, I would never consider coaching Michigan’s offensive line, because I don’t want to take a pay cut and work 80 hours a week… I’ve never sat down and tried to put into words what a lineman does, and I can tell you that it’s a lot harder than it sounds. I hope I’m hitting the mark and giving you something that not only makes sense to the average fan, but also does justice to the artwork that is playing on the offensive line.

Part 2 is going to cover run blocking. Run blocking is a much different animal than pass blocking, and I consider it a “natural” action. You see, in my warped, cluttered mind, I divide football into “natural” and “unnatural” actions and tasks players are required to perform. “Natural” is synonymous with athletic; therefore, a natural task or action on the football field is an athletic action that most people perform at an early age with very little intervention or coaching. For example, drive by any field where kids are playing football and you will see them execute the “natural” actions of throwing (QB), catching (receivers), tackling (defense), and sometime blocking (offensive line) the opposing players. Now, understand by blocking I refer to it in its most rudimentary form; i.e. getting in the way of another person and pushing them backwards toward their goal line. But, I consider it to be as natural as throwing and catching, just with a lot more technique, size, and strength required from the big boys up front. The “natural” actions of run blocking are where it diverges from the “unnatural” actions of pass blocking. Pass blocking is based on some pretty simple logic, but it requires a lot of work and technique to execute properly, and is something I consider to be learned, rather than innate. I will get into more detail about pass blocking next week, but you won’t see a guy squatting, with his head back, butt down, and arms extended in front of a pass rusher in any pickup game in America. Guaranteed! (Whew! I guess this is my way of answering the question of whether run blocking or pass blocking is easier… It’s definitely run blocking!) Below, I’ll discuss footwork, helmet, hand and shoulder position, as well as a variety of blocking techniques commonly used.


Orlando Pace on the loose. Mmm, pancakes.

Run blocking technique

The Drive block

We’ll start with the most basic block; the drive block. A drive block is the technique used to move a defender who’s lined up directly in front of you, or who may be shading to the left or right.

Footwork

As I covered in Part 1, footwork is the single most important predictor of success for a blocker. It puts the lineman in a position of advantage, and allows him to control the defender. It’s very important that the first two steps gain ground up the field, and put the blocker in a position to be successful against the defender. There are some cases, however, when it may be necessary for the first or second steps to be lateral, instead of up the field. But, as a general rule, when run blocking the first two steps are up the field. First, think of a center, who’s covered by a nose tackle close enough to smell his rancid breath, and hear his labored mouth-breathing. If the NT is playing “heads-up”, meaning

directly in front of the blocker and not shading to the left or right, then the technique for the blocker is to take a 12-18” step with the play side foot, at about a 60-70º angle up the field. The second step with the backside foot should be the same distance and angle as the first step, and should happen immediately after the play side foot makes contact with the ground.

Helmet position

Where the head goes, the body will follow. Therefore, the position of the blocker’s helmet is very important in determining the success of a block.

The blocker’s helmet must be on or slightly above the play side shoulder of the defender, making the defender “fight head pressure”. The blocker needs to be able to maintain this helmet position, while keeping his shoulders square and driving the defender back.

Delivering a “Punch”

After the initial contact, the lineman’s hands and strength come into play. Many coaches speak of making contact with the “triangle”; that is, the facemask and the two hands of the blocker. After colliding into the defender, the blocker needs to deliver a violent “punch” to the defender’s chest, and extend his arms to “steer” and control the defender. The defender is also attempting to steer and control the blocker; therefore, it becomes a race to see who can gain inside position with their hands and control the opposing player first. In order to steer the defender, the blocker’s hands need to grab the outside of the defender’s chest plate (extension from the shoulder pads), extend his arms by bench pressing the defender, and drive his feet and the defender onto his back. This all happens within a split second, and requires timing, practice and drilling. Note, that if the blocker’s hands are inside the defender’s body and grabbing jersey, it is NOT considered holding. The minute the defender moves to one side of the blocker, outside the frame of the blocker’s body, while the blocker is still holding jersey, then it IS considered holding, and a penalty may be called.

Square Shoulders

With the introduction of the “stretch” running play concept (think Emmitt Smith), the emphasis became coaching the blockers to keep their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. The stretch concept gave freedom to the running back to pick and choose where they wanted to run, and put the linemen in a position of advantage to attack the defenders squarely, rather than trying to turn the defenders away from the hole. Square shoulders allow the running back to pick the hole or opening that he thinks is best, even if it’s backside to where the play is called.

The Reach Block

A reach block is required when a defender is aligned on the blocker’s shoulder, filling the play side gap. The reach block technique is pretty much the same as the drive block, but the blocker needs to take an almost flat first and second step while engaging the defender and work to get to the defender’s play side shoulder, while keeping his shoulders square. It’s important that by the third step, the blocker gains ground up the field. This technique requires quickness, not 40-yard dash speed. Leave the speed to the pretty boys… In a perfect world, this is how a reach block would work, but as you are probably aware, the world’s not perfect. Often, the best technique is to bust your ass to get your helmet play side, and run the defender all the way to the sideline if necessary, effectively screening the defender from the runner. What’s also important here is that the blocker, while engaged and running, not attempt to turn the defender away from the hole. In order to turn the defender, the blocker would need to plant his play side foot for leverage, and try to muscle the 300 lbs defender away from the play. 99.9% of the time, the blocker is unsuccessful, because the moment the blocker plants his play side foot, the defender crosses his face, sheds the block and blows up the play.

Pulling

Trap and Counter plays

As a former guard, I used to love pulling. It’s great when you give 295 lbs guard a running start at a smaller linebacker or defensive back. If you play golf, I can describe the feeling like puring your 5-iron. When you connect with the sweet spot of the club, you don’t even feel the ball leave it, it’s just buttery smooth and tasty. Well, wiping out a 240 lbs linebacker or defensive end feels about the same way. They’re used to knocking over smaller running backs, but not playing with the big boys.

Pulling starts with great footwork. In the illustration above, the left guard is pulling to the right side of the formation and blocking the defensive end. Again, the first step is always with the play side foot; in this case, the right foot. The first step with his right foot is a 12-inch, 90º drop step. It’s not a pivot step; instead it’s a drop step that gains ground towards the play side. It’s very important the first step is precise, quick, and gains ground. The drop step provides enough depth to clear the other blockers, and gives the pulling guard a downhill, inside-out angle of attack on the defender. At the point of attack, the pulling guard must have his head in the hole (inside shoulder of the defender), blocking with his pulling shoulder (think pull right, block with right shoulder; pull left, block with left shoulder).

Jump pulling

This technique is a little different than the previous. Jump pulling is simply replacing assignments with another lineman because of a superior angle to the defender. In the illustration below, the center has a great angle to attack the defensive tackle to his left, aligned in the ‘A’ gap. The guard simply drop steps with his right foot, without moving his left foot, allows the center to clear, then steps forward with his right foot and widens his base to block the linebacker. This requires very quick footwork, and the guard needs to be aware that the linebacker is taught to meet the runner in the hole, so he better be ready to block a linebacker coming full speed up the field.

Cut blocking

This might be the most controversial, and least understood of all the blocking techniques. A properly executed cut block is not intended to injure an opposing player, but rather to get the defender to the ground and stop his pursuit. It is completely legal, although not always ethical, to execute a cut block between the tackles on the line of scrimmage (Rule 9-1-2-III). The technique that is taught should be to step with the play side foot, and aim your helmet at the play side thigh of the defender. Once you make contact, continue to drive your feet and work to the play side and cut off the defender’s pursuit. This will usually result in cutting the defender down without injury or rule violation.

Tandem blocking diagrams

The game within the game for linemen is blocking assignments. For each play called, there can be as many as eight different defensive alignments the defense might throw at you. In an instant, the offensive linemen must know the defensive alignment and who they are assigned to block. Depending on alignment, there are many ways to take advantage of angles and double teams to get the best push and create the best running lanes. Many times what works best are tandem blocks. There are a variety of tandem blocks, and I’ll cover a couple of them here, but please note, the blocking terminology changes from team to team.

Scoop block

The center and right guard are responsible for blocking the defensive tackle (DT) and middle linebacker. At the point of contact on the line of scrimmage (LOS), the block is initiated as a double team, and then the following two scenarios can occur:

1. The center leaves the DT on his way to the linebacker, while the right guard takes over the double team and performs a reach block.

2. The center maintains his block on the DT, as the DT attempts to cross the center’s face. The right guard, on his way to the double team on the DT, takes his first step and looks at the hip of the DT. If the guard sees the hip of the DT run away towards the play side and stay engaged with the center, the guard immediately turns up field and looks to the next level to block the linebacker.

Over block

The left guard and tackle are responsible for blocking the defensive tackle (DT) and middle linebacker. At the point of attack on the line of scrimmage (LOS), the block is initiated as a double team, and then the following two scenarios can occur:

1. The left tackle leaves the DT on his way to the linebacker, while the left guard takes over the double team and performs a reach block.

2. The left tackle maintains his block on the DT, as the DT attempts to cross his face. The left guard, on his way to the double team on the DT, takes his first step and looks at the hip of the DT. If the guard sees the hip of the DT run away towards the play side and stay engaged with the tackle, the guard immediately turns up field and looks to the next level to block the linebacker.

TEAM block

The right tackle and tight end are responsible for blocking the defensive tackle (DT) and middle linebacker. At the point of contact on the line of scrimmage (LOS), the block is initiated as a double team, and then the following two scenarios can occur:

1. The right tackle leaves the DT on his way to the linebacker, while the tight end maintains the double team and continues to block down and collapse the DT.

2. The right tackle maintains his block on the DT, as the DT attempts to cross his face. The tight end, on his way to the double team on the DT, takes his first step and looks at the hip of the DT. If he sees the hip of the DT collapse and stay engaged with the tackle, the tight end immediately turns up field and looks to the next level to block the linebacker.

Putting it all together

In the example “stretch” play below, there are three different types of blocks being performed; the Scoop block by the backside (left) guard and center, who are responsible for blocking the right DT and “Will” linebacker, the Reach block by the play side (right) guard, and the double team block between the right tackle and tight end, who are responsible for the left DE and “Mike” linebacker. The center is responsible for making the “Scoop” call and blocking the backside “Will” linebacker. The backside tackle (left tackle) chips the defensive end, and then works up field looking for someone to block.

Obviously, I’ve only covered a tiny portion of what a lineman needs to know entering into a game, and the techniques required to be successful. Every opposing team is different; therefore, not all plays are run against all defenses and personnel. Each week the playbook is pared down to only those plays the coaching staff thinks will be successful against that team, so the number of plays, as well as defensive alignments, are somewhat limited.

My last installment is going to cover the art of pass blocking. For many, it’s the most difficult skill to master, and requires repetition, attention to detail, and above all, a willingness to learn and be coached. Everyone gets beat; it’s a cruel fact of life, but those who learn from their mistakes and make a commitment to improvement go on to become good pass blockers. Until then, Cheers!

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