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Charting The Nebraska Run Game vs. Northern Illinois

There is serviceable, then there is what the Huskers OL did last Saturday.

Northern Illinois v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Playing and coaching offensive line is relatively simple in theory, as most descriptions of the oft thankless position begin and end with “moving a defender from point A to point B against his will.” Clear and concise, although barely scratching the surface, this encapsulation underscores the complicated nature of offensive line play.

Offensive line play is by far the most unnatural phase of football; it requires patience and repetition in the development of a wide array of skills to become a player suitable for the starting line-up. Repetition is the way of life along the offensive line and this requires concentration, self-discipline, communication, and self-sacrifice.

These are the baseline traits necessary to develop the ‘fat guys’ into a technically sound, intelligent, and nasty unit that sets the tone for the rest of the offense. All of these traits are based on focus and preparation and correlate into the ability to spearhead the running game and protect the passer, forming an offensive unit that destroys the hopes and dreams of defenses.

Against Northern Illinois, the Husker offensive line was, to put it bluntly, lacking in many areas. Missed assignments (MA’s), a lack of technique, and a lack of energy were evident, stemming from an apparent lack of focus and preparation. These MA’s and losing one-on-one battles left Mikale Wilbon swamped in the backfield on Nebraska’s core runs; often dodging tacklers at the mesh point.

This is a function of a lack of focus, preparation, and in-game communication, where the failure to communicate results in unblocked defenders, like this one on the backside of a Mid-Zone play between Tanner Farmer and Matt Farniok.

No defense is going to align exactly the way they do on film. There will always be variations and those variations are accounted for on the fly with line calls, where the lineman making the call will alert his adjacent linemate of the change. Typically one word, these calls will communicate the defender alignment, if the lineman needs help on the block, and the technique in which they will execute the block.

Complete knowledge of line calls mentally prepares an offensive line, allowing them to play aggressively and confidently. This goes back to the common theme in this breakdown; a lack of focus and preparation.

Against NIU, there were lapses in assignment and technique, with defenders being left unblocked, offensive linemen coming off of double teams too soon, and a lack of physicality manifesting through a lack of focus and preparation.

The Huskers only mustered 102 yards on 27 tailback/fullback attempts, for a less than desirable 3.77 ypc. As usual, I’ve charted the Nebraska run game concepts for attempts, yardage, and average yards per carry.

Gap-Duo: The Huskers ran Gap-Duo 3 times for 21 yards, for an average ypc of 7.0, with runs of 7, 11, and 3 yards.

Counter: Nebraska did not run Counter against the Huskies. Likely this was a function of the penetration allowed against Oregon that drastically threw off the pullers, in addition to wanting to be Zone heavy for an NIU defense that got off the bus slanting and stunting.

Pin & Pull: Nebraska also did not run its Pin & Pull sweep play, ‘Steeler’ against the Huskies.

Inside Zone: Nebraska ran more Inside Zone than the previous two weeks, with 12 attempts netting 21 yards for an anemic 1.75 average ypc.

Draw: Draw, both Lead Draw and regular Draw, netted Nebraska 42 yards on 7 attempts, for an average ypc of 6.0. The Lead Draw, when charted by itself, netted 31 yards on 5 carries for an average of 5.16 ypc.

Iso: Nebraska busted out its Iso play from the short yardage T Formation, with 2 attempts netting 15 yards. The average ypc of 7.5 is drastically skewed here, as one attempt by Wilbon netted 13 yards, while the other netted 2 yards.

Ancillary Runs: G Lead was charted at 1 attempt for -2 yards, while the Blast play to fullback Luke McNitt gained 4 yards on one attempt. If you watch any of our Blast plays ran by McNitt closely, you’ll notice the tailback runs a pitch path opposite of the Blast. I’m fairly certain that the pitch fake is used on a game plan by game plan basis to account for the proclivities of the backside defensive end. Against really aggressive BSDEs who display a tendency to not stay home we’ll see the pitch out to the tailback following the fake to McNitt.

Furthermore, of 27 tailback/fullback attempts in the running game, 17 of them failed to gain at least 4 yards, a failure rate of 63%. Often times, the frontside of the Nebraska’s Gap-Duo and Inside Zone plays were swamped with penetrating defenders closing off the intended point of attack and forcing Wilbon to bounce outside or bend it all the way back against the grain of the play. Other times, when the frontside of Inside Zone was clogged, Wilbon was forced to bend the play backside where Nebraska’s tight ends failed to cut-off backside pursuit.

Early on, it appeared that Nebraska had a check at the line of scrimmage in place to run Inside Zone away from the formation strength/field if the defense overextended defending the strength. This was done through utilizing 12 personnel (1 back, 2 tight ends) in various formations, forcing the defense to declare gap integrity; allowing QB Tanner Lee to check in and out of plays based on the oft-referenced out-leveraging of the defense. This will be discussed in tomorrow’s Decoding Langsdorf.

Dallas Lead Draw

One of the run concepts that I’ve charted as being a part of Nebraska’s core running game, but have yet to break down, is Nebraska’s Lead Draw play. In the parlance of the Riley/Langsdorf offense, this play is known as ‘Dallas’. The name ‘Dallas’ for such a play is only appropriate, as the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990’s made a living off this play with tailback Emmitt Smith and fullback Daryl Johnston. It was at this time, that according to Mike Riley, he got the play from then Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

‘Dallas’ is conceptually defined as as an “Isolation Lead Draw to the TE Side.” Dallas is ran to the TE side to take advantage of a Tackle bubble, with a 3 technique aligned over the frontside guard. When ran to the offense’s right with a right-handed QB like Tanner Lee, Lee simply feigns his dropback and places the ball in the gut of the tailback. When ran to the offense’s left, Lee has to execute a turnback hand-off to get the ball to Mikale Wilbon. Despite its ties to the passing game, Dallas is a physical, downhill, nasty-ass run play.

On the play, the offensive line will feign pass protection before engaging their defender. The blocking scheme is based on man blocking principles, as starting from the center, the defender aligned over the center is Man 0, the defender over the FSG is Man 1, and the defender aligned over the FST is Man 2. Against Odd fronts, the FSG will work with the center on a ‘Slap’ call, as discussed in previous breakdowns.

The penultimate key to the play is the block of the fullback, in this case Luke McNitt. The fullback will show a slight pass set before getting downhill to block the MIKE, by reading the first covered lineman out from the center for the path to take. On this play, LG Jerald Foster fans the 3 tech to the outside, leaving the A gap open for McNitt to plow the road for Wilbon. Foster’s pass set fanned the 3 tech wide enough and defined the A gap for McNitt and Wilbon. With how aggressively NIU’s defensive line was playing, this was by far Nebraska’s most crisply executed play.

Defensively, NIU is spun into a single high coverage shell to the field and is using their strong safety as their force player in Sky Coverage. Because of his run responsibility, the Husky safety triggers down on the run, leaving a void in coverage. It is important to note this, because afterward OCDL began to utilize Nebraska’s playaction pass constraint of Dallas, with a Dig route from Stanley Morgan that was unfortunately dropped. It was again dialed up later in the same drive, but was incomplete intended for Stanley Morgan again. Another example of the endemic lack of focus on Saturday.

Dallas #2

In the 3rd quarter, Nebraska went to the Dallas Lead Draw out of the very same Pro Left formation, eliciting the same defensive alignment as the first time Dallas was called. However, this time the play result would be nowhere near as fortuitous to the Huskers. On this play, 2 crucial blocking failures occurred that, quite simply, cannot happen. There will be an addendum at the end of this breakdown discussing Nebraska’s offensive line woes and what has caused the blocking failures.

On the frontside of this play, Jerald Foster is the only blocker to execute his assignment, fanning the 3 tech out to define the A gap. Also on the left side, LT Nick Gates misses his block on the SAM, allowing the SAM to plug the A gap and blow up the play in the backfield. To make matters worse, TE Tyler Hoppes fails to sustain his block on the NIU defensive end after initially getting fitted into the block. This was caused by Hoppes’ feet going completely dead. Dead feet causes a poor blocking interval and allows the defender to disengage from the block. Keeping your feet moving through the block may sound elementary, but it is often the difference in making a key block to spring a big gain.

After Mikale Wilbon’s 25 and 7 yard runs off of the Dallas Lead Draw, the play failed to generate positive yardage, with runs of 0 and -1 yards thereafter. It was evident on the last two runs that NIU had no respect for Nebraska’s vertical passing game, as their linebackers triggered down hard on the run almost immediately.

An Addendum on Offensive Line Woes

Before the season, I had posted in a comments section on one of the Decoding Langsdorf articles where I stated that I thought the offensive line would be improved in 2017, as personnel upgrades in functional strength and overall ability would be had.

It is evident that the personnel is upgraded over the 2016 OL and I think that there is enough baseline talent to develop into a serviceable offensive line. However, it is startlingly apparent that this unit lacks focus on technique and assignment. Missed assignments have shown up in all three games, both in the run game and passing game. Eliminating these missed assignments requires players having a comprehensive understanding of the entire concept, not just “playing through a straw.” Missed assignments denote a lack of focus and preparation in the film room, where an opponent’s possible fronts, stunts, and blitzes are studied in context and prepared for. This must be addressed through increased film study as a unit, which then culminates into playing confidently and aggressively.

Poor technique also stems from a lack of focus and preparation. Not playing within the framework of the body cylinder (no tight elbows on the upward punch), dead feet, leaning into the block, and playing tentatively; all of these things go back to focus and preparation. An offensive linemen who is properly focused and prepared utilizes his knowledge from film study, his technique through repetition, and his energy and attitude to play confidently and aggressively.

As always, GBR!