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Decoding Langsdorf: Charting The Nebraska Run Game vs. Arkansas State

You saw a lot of things on Saturday that the Huskers haven’t done in a while.

Arkansas State v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Each Tuesday this season, the Decoding Langsdorf series will expand a bit to include charting the running game to get a better idea of Nebraska’s core running concepts that I broke down over the summer. We will look at attempts, yardage totals, and average yards per carry (ypc), in addition to contextualizing some of the plays to see why they worked or why they didn’t. This won’t take away from the typical Decoding Langsdorf articles, which will continue to run on the Thursday of each week.

Over the summer, I broke down the Gap-Duo, Counter Trap, and G/T Lead plays which I had asserted the former two would be the core running game for the Husker offense this season. Against Arkansas State, we ran all three of those concepts, but the real bell cow was the Pin & Pull series, “Steeler” in Riley & Langsdorf’s parlance, which allowed Nebraska to utilize the Sweep component in the running game. Before we delve into the finer details of “Steeler”, let’s first take a look at the charts from Saturday night.

Gap-Duo: NU ran Gap-Duo out of Bunch and Zip to Bunch sets 9 times for 60 yards, an average of 6.6 ypc.

Pin & Pull: Pin & Pull was Nebraska’s bread & butter on Saturday, with 10 attempts netting 80 yards for an average of 8 ypc.

Counter: Counter was ran 4 times for 40 yards, for an average ypc of 10 yards. However, it is important to note that this ypc statistic is skewed, as outside of Tre Bryant’s 35 yard run on the first drive of the second half, NU ran for only -1, 5, and 1 yards on Counter plays.

Draw: NU utilized three different variants of the Draw play; the Lead Draw “Dallas”, the Pump-TB Draw, and a standard issue tailback draw out of the shotgun. On these three Draw concepts, NU officially gained 11 yards on 3 attempts. However, because of holding penalties on Draw plays against Nick Gates and Cole Conrad, NU unofficially had 5 attempts for 26 yards, at 5.2ypc.

Inside Zone: Offensive Coordinator Danny Langsdorf called only 6 Inside Zone plays, a stark difference from last season’s ultra-reliance on the concept. 15 yards were gained on those 6 attempts for an average ypc of 2.5. Specifically, the safety that Arkansas State forced on Tre Bryant was on an Inside Zone play, which was caused by a bust in communication on the right side of the offensive line.

Other run plays that do not fit within Nebraska’s core concepts will be tagged as ‘Ancillary Runs’ and will be charted accordingly.

Ancillary Runs: Nebraska ran one G Lead play for a 1 yard Tre Bryant touchdown. Other than that, we did not see another Lead play. We also had an ever popular sighting of a fullback run, with Luke McNitt carrying the ball on a Blast play. Unfortunately, the play netted 0 yards on the play preceding Bryant’s touchdown run on G Lead.

As for the metric of runs over 4 yards and runs under 4 yards that was discussed in the Guard-Center-Guard article from last Friday, Nebraska had 34 tailback (and fullback) rushing attempts in this game for 208 yards, with 7 of those attempts going for less than 4 yards. This was a noted improvement over last year’s attempts under 4 yards, especially against an opponent that led the nation in tackles for loss (TFL’s) per game at 9.6 in 2016. Arkansas State also ranked #6 nationally last season in 3.31 sacks per game, as evident by their ability to put some pressure on Lee, although that pressure was greatly exacerbated by a couple of miscommunications in pass protection.

Pin & Pull- ‘Steeler’

The Husker offensive line, which certainly will not be confused with the Pipeline this season, played at a very serviceable level on Saturday night against a defensive line that ranked tops in the nation in 2016 for TFL’s and sacks per game, led by defensive end Ja’von Rolland-Jones and defensive tackle Dee Liner. The upgraded OL paved the way for 234 yards rushing, paced by Tre Bryant’s 192 yard performance. As I spoke of in the series of run game breakdowns over the summer, NU appeared poised to be much more diverse in the run game after nearly exclusively being a pure Inside Zone/Outside Zone team in 2016. In 2016, Nebraska ran Pin & Pull only 5 times, with the scheme being an unfortunate casualty of the Guard-Center-Guard personnel last season; as it necessitates having a tackles, guards, and a center who can all pull. In 2015, Nebraska utilized Pin & Pull with much more regularity, running the play 7 times in one half against in Illinois in 2015. Against A State, Cole Conrad, Tanner Farmer, and David Knevel all looked much more explosive off the snap than last season, allowing for Steeler to be the staple scheme on Saturday night.

As referenced before the Husker offense ran ‘Steeler’ 10 times against the Red Wolves for 80 yards, with the majority of these attempts going to Tre Bryant. On Nebraska’s 4th drive of the game, Tre Bryant ripped off his second longest run of the night on Steeler, a 24 yarder off the right side that brought Nebraska down into the redzone. Two plays later, the Huskers scored off of Steeler, this time with Mikale Wilbon taking it in from 7 yards out. Today I’ll provide some background on the Pin & Pull concept before taking a look at these two plays to provide some context.

Pin & Pull is a gap-man hybrid blocking scheme that provides the offense with leverage at the point of attack, as well as more advantageous blocking angles back inside the tackle box. The concepts operates off of covered/uncovered principles for the frontside offensive line, where covered is defined as “having a head-up defender or a defender aligned in your inside gap;” whereas uncovered is defined as “not having a defender aligned head-up or in your inside gap away from the play.” If a frontside offensive linemen is covered, he will look to block down and pin his defender back to the inside. If a frontside offensive linemen is uncovered, he will pull and look to block the first unblocked defender that crosses his face. Most teams that run Pin & Pull define the frontside as from the center to the frontside tackle in terms of who the potential pullers are. Some NFL teams, like the Dallas Cowboys, will also utilize their backside guard as a puller. On the backside of the play, the backside offensive linemen will look to execute a running cut-off block in order to gain outside leverage on the defenders and allow for a potential cutback.

Pin & Pull works to prevent defensive linemen from anchoring against Outside Zone reach blocks. Anchoring works to prevent the blocker from gaining outside leverage on the defender, forcing the ball carrier outside where 2nd level force players are unblocked. Additionally, Pin & Pull works to distort linebacker reads, by not allowing them to read one key. Instead, linebackers will see either a pin by a covered linemen or a pull by an uncovered linemen, giving them a ‘cloudy’ read on play type and direction.

The uncovered offensive linemen that pull will look to block the first unblocked defender that crosses their face. Both pullers will look to force the defense back inside and seal them off. The first puller will pull and look to block the primary force defender while the second puller will typically execute a skip pull with their hips square to the LOS, to account for a possible run-thru from a linebacker.

If a more athletic primary force defender beats the first puller to the LOS, the first puller will look to kick the defender out to the sideline, while the second puller will wrap and seal. Not to be lost in the shuffle, one of the more important facets of running Pin & Pull is having a good blocking tight end to set the edge vs EMOL’s and to not allow a penetrating DE to disrupt the path of the pullers. The TE must try to pin his defender back inside of it’s a tightly aligned DE, or at the very least force a stalemate on the edge, allowing the pullers and the ballcarrier to fit off of his block.

Tre Bryant 24 yard run 11:18 2nd Quarter

Ace Trips ‘Steeler’

On Nebraska’s 4th drive, the Huskers come out in an Ace Trips set, forcing the defense to defend both inside gaps and the perimeter because of the larger blocking surface presented by the formation. On the play, A State aligns their DE’s head-up on the Husker TE’s, exposing the strongside B gap, but hedging against an Outside Zone blocked Sweep play. David Knevel and Tanner Farmer are both uncovered on the play, with Knevel executing an open pull, with his hips pointed toward the sideline, and Tanner Farmer executing a skip pull, with his hips square to the LOS after checking for a LB run-thru into the open B gap. TE Connor Ketter is able to get fitted into his block on the DE and the C gap is widened due to the defender’s alignment. Arkansas State has the Rover as the primary force player. Farmer fits inside of Ketter’s block to block a scraping linebacker, giving Bryant enough of an opening for the big play.

Mikale Wilbon 7 yard TD 10:05 2nd Q

Ace Trips ‘Steeler’
Mikale Wilbon TD

Two plays after Bryant’s 24 yard run off of ‘Steeler’, Nebraska comes out once again in the Ace Trips formation set to the field, with the intent to utilize Steeler once again. This time, however, Arkansas State aligns their nose guard in 2i position on Farmer’s inside shoulder, leaving center Cole Conrad uncovered to pull. Arkansas State moving their DT’s around is nothing new at this point, as they started the game moving their DT’s around pre-snap, having them stem from a 2i to a 3, and vice-versa before the snap. Because of the open B gap, Conrad pulls to into that gap, as the MIKE triggers down hard to line of scrimmage at the snap.

Knevel once again looks to kick the force defender out to the sideline, but Wilbon has to race to the corner and cannot fit inside of Knevel’s block because the DE that Ketter is blocking comes off of the block. Ideally, you’d like to see that block be sustained longer. The backside of the OL seals off backside pursuit, which may seem mundane, but bears mentioning, as through an admittedly small sample size of one game, I was pretty impressed with how much better the OL moved around. Namely, Jerald Foster and Nick Gates showed very quick first steps, while Tanner Farmer on the frontside looked much more light-footed than last season.

Although there were some miscommunications in pass protection that led to Lee not staying clean for the entire game and there was a miscommunication between Farmer and Knevel on the Inside Zone play that resulted in a safety, I thought that offensive line put together a good baseline performance from which they can build off of through the 2017 season. We’ll chart the progress that the offensive line makes along the way.

Looking ahead to Oregon, the interior Guard-Center-Guard area will get a good test against Oregon’s 330 lb. true freshman nose guard Jordon Scott. Because the Ducks run a 3-4 defense under first year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, Scott will be aligned directly over center Cole Conrad in a 0 technique position. The good news is that squaring off against a mountain of a 0 tech will be nothing new for Conrad, as he has squared off against teammates Mick Stoltenberg and Deontre Thomas through fall camp. I’ll refrain from posting my prediction until the weekly prediction article later in the week, but I foresee this being a high scoring affair.