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Decoding Langsdorf: The Nebraska Offense’s Favorite Short Yardage Play

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The Huskers’ favorite short yardage play pays homage to days gone by

Maryland v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Nebraska’s offensive line sputtered, coughed, and damn near screeched to a grinding halt for a stretch in the middle of the 2016 season. A multitude of issues, most notably the dire straits of talent deficiency, coupled with untimely injuries, forced the Huskers to work with offensive guards that were not exactly the dancing bears of the Pipeline. This was painfully evident on plays that required guards that can get out of their stance and pull.

The depth of Nebraska’s offensive line deficiencies reached its deepest depths in late October in games against Purdue and Wisconsin. Against Purdue, Nebraska had to slog through penetrating defensive linemen and plugging linebackers to post a measly 157 yards on 37 attempts, for an average of 4.2 YPC. Against Wisconsin, the numbers were similar to Purdue, with 152 yards on 44 attempts, an average of 3.5 YPC. Against Purdue, it was apparent that the Husker offensive line could not get any vertical displacement on their bread & butter Inside Zone series.

With Wisconsin the very next week, I can plainly recall lacking faith in the ability to run the ball inside on the Badgers’ stalwart front, coupled with the fact that Wisconsin’s defense sets a hard edge on the perimeter to prevent teams from sealing off the EMOL and gaining the corner on outside runs. Not exactly a confidence booster when the offensive line is struggling against the strength of an upcoming opponent.

The reason why I am taking you all on a walk down memory lane to revisit this stretch of last season, is because it was against Wisconsin that Nebraska unveiled a run play not used up until that point last season that helped Nebraska score the Huskers’ first touchdown of the game. This play is known as the Lead series.

The Lead series, G (Guard) or T (Tackle) Lead is conceptually defined as an off-tackle run designed to crease the D gap of the defensive surface. G/T Lead allows for an economy of concepts, combining a frontside down block and a frontside kick-out block with the rest of the offensive line executing reach blocks and base-reach, ‘breach’, blocks. Therefore, G/T Lead is a hybridization of gap and zone principles.

Because of time constraints, coaches regard this play as a “cheap install” because of the fact that only two “new” techniques need to be taught on the play, the frontside down block and the frontside pull-kick. For Nebraska, G/T Lead became a favorite play in short yardage situations late last season, especially so after the return of left guard Jerald Foster.

Against Wisconsin, or any defense that likes to set their primary force defenders on the line of scrimmage in short yardage situations or otherwise, it is very difficult for the frontside offensive line and/or tight end to force a hook block to allow the tailback to get the corner on the perimeter. To combat this, the Lead series is used. The Lead scheme looks to define one specific point of attack (POA) just inside of the primary force defender aligned tight to the LOS.

Based on defensive alignment, the puller can vary, as a White/Guard bubble will typically have the FSG pull, where as a Red/Tackle bubble will typically have the FST tackle pull. I use the word typically in this instance because the puller can be a matter of personal preference by the OC, a preference of who the better puller is, or can be game plan specific depending on the match-ups on the LOS in the trenches.

The puller will execute an open pull, with their hips and shoulders opening up toward the sideline, and will look to kick the primary force player, in an attempt to separate him from the rest of the defense and widen the hole. The logic behind this is binary. By having a force player that is difficult to reach, he is simultaneously easy to kick-out, as the primary force’s responsibility is to set the edge and force outside runs back inside. Because of this, the primary force’s instincts and assignment are used against him.

If the puller is able to widen, or "define" the hole and kick the primary force defender out, the fullback will fit inside of the block and work to block the secondary force player and/or the first unblocked defender he comes across. In the event that the EMOL or primary force squeeze on the play, the puller will log block him, while the fullback will fit outside of the block.

The tailback reads this play inside-out, first reading the down block of the FSTE and the pull-kick of the puller. If the man that the FSTE is responsible for happens to play over top of the down block (doubtful vs Bear fronts) than the tailback should take the ball through this C gap. If the FSTE pins the defender on the down block, then the tailback will simply continue to the outside and read the pull-kick for a defined D gap.

It is important to note that based off of defensive alignment, the fullback also has to be alert for a linebacker run-thru against an open B gap. If a run-thru occurs, the fullback will block the B gap linebacker instead.

Under Tom Osborne, Nebraska ran an off-tackle fullback trap with the same G blocking scheme, with the FSG executing a pull-kick on the primary force player in instances when the primary force eschewed the inside run to instead defend the perimeter from the option between the QB and I-Back. This play was called 38 Trap (going to the left) or 32 Trap (going to the right). Although the underlying pathology differs for the defense of why they’re hedging against the outside run, the plays from both the Osborne and Langsdorf playbooks are conceptually identical.

38/32 Trap from the 1996 Nebraska playbook

I believe that offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf designates the pullers on this play in terms of who is the better puller, the FSG or the FST, on a game plan specific basis. Against Wisconsin, you’ll see that Nebraska pulls RG Corey Whittaker to execute the kick-out block on the primary force, rather than RT David Knevel. Despite our lack of offensive guard mobility, Whittaker does enough to define the D gap and Devine Ozigbo bangs it on in there for a touchdown behind the lead block of fullback Luke McNitt.

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Against Maryland three weeks later, Nebraska again uses the Lead play against a 7-man surface in a Bear front that is setting a hard edge to defend against outside runs, while also using the numbers to clog the interior gaps. In this case, RT Cole Conrad is the puller, whereas RG Tanner Farmer executes a breach block on the 3 technique defensive tackle.

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Tailback Terrell Newby has to belly this play to the outside because of penetration by the nose guard. With center Dylan Utter climbing to the second level, it is Foster’s responsibility to execute a reach block on the nose guard. The penetration by the nose guard ultimately affects the block of RG Tanner Farmer, as the collision by the nose guard forces Farmer deeper into the back field. The primary force defender that Conrad is responsible for kicking out further takes himself wider to prevent the offense from gaining the corner, but by then the force defender had no chance at corralling Newby in the backfield.

Initially on the play, the D gap was defined by Conrad’s pull-kick, which subsequently led McNitt to fit inside of the block. Ultimately, the backside penetration by the nose guard turned this into a broken play that Nebraska was fortunate enough to score on. Ultimately, the primary force defender was more than willing to give up his inside shoulder on the kick-out block, so long as he kept his outside arm free as he is coached to do.

The final Lead play that we’ll discuss is another touchdown, this time with Nick Gates pulling to kick the force defender and Cethan Carter blocking down on the defensive end lined up on Gates. This tandem of Nebraska’s two best blockers in 2016 does not disappoint, as Gates is able to pull and soften the EMOL’s inside shoulder for a kick-out block, while Carter does a textbook job of blocking down on the defensive end, pinning him back inside. Immediately, you’ll see Carter stepping to get his feet into position while also shooting his inside hand across the defender’s chest plate to deny any inside penetration. While cutting off the defender’s penetration, Carter continues to move his feet while also working his playside hand strong on the defender’s backpad, applying pressure to prevent any over the top roll-out from the DE.

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Jerald Foster is supposed to execute a breach block on the 3 technique DT, but the DT shoots his hands into Foster’s chest and wins inside leverage on Foster. Winning inside leverage is crucial in one on one battles in the trenches. Ideally, Foster wins inside leverage, gets his feet in the ground, snaps his hips to generate upward lift on the defender, and finally, gains extension to keep the defender out of his chest plate. You win some and you lose some on the front lines, and in the relatively small sample size we saw of Jerald Foster last season, Foster wins ‘em more often than not.

Between the down block from Carter and the pull-kick from Gates, the D gap is well-defined on the play, allowing fullback Luke McNitt to fit inside of Gates’ block and block the secondary force defender to plow the road for Terrell Newby’s third touchdown of the day.

Going forward in 2017, I am excited to see this play utilized with guards and tackles that are much more adept at movement blocks like pull-kick. Although I wish we had another year of Cethan Carter’s angry blocking to marvel at, I believe that we have enough TE and H-Back type of athletes to pin defenders back inside and define the edge on G Lead and T Lead.