The O-Line is a Team within a Team - and Critical
Now, for the 2nd scenario we look at another common problem, and it’s one that you might not actually think would be tremendously problematic. An injury to an Offensive Lineman doesn’t seem like something too difficult to overcome, but it really can present some serious difficulties. It’s one of those rules that we often assert and few people really pay much attention to; the Offensive Line is 85% of the running game and 65% of the passing game. If you doubt that watch a team try to do either with a crippled up or under-performing offensive line – regardless of the superstar skill players- and then get back to us.
Let’s get one problem on the table and it is a true-ism of football that just never seems to be broken, ever. The Offensive Line is a unit. It’s the largest core and corps of any football team. It requires surprising amounts of strength, quickness, and above all communications. Blocking is not just throwing your body in front of the defender. There are techniques involved in maintaining certain leverage points. There are play flows that need to be protected, and knowledge of your position on the field in relation to the play, and what you are supposed to do in any given blocking situation is key. A lineman has to keep all of this in his head, along with the play called, the snap count, and what he might have to do to accomplish his task, and help a struggling teammate. Is it any wonder that Offensive Linemen are often the smartest players on the field?
Of course then there is that little thing that occurs just after the snap of the ball, and it’s been described as a 35 mile per hour car crash. It’s a Greco-Roman wrestling match performed nearly one hundred times a game. Frankly, it’s often a grudge ridden fist fight. Anyone who has played in a line knows the “unwritten rules” are often adjudicated “with prejudice”. Physical survival and success are absolutely dependent on teamwork that is often silent or minimally signaled. It takes time and repetition to get that sort of interaction down pat. A disruption can completely change the character of the offense. Here is a common scenario to help illustrate the problems with adjusting to a key injury in the interior of a line during a critical phase of the game.
The Major Injury to a Surprise Position
We join the game at 2nd down and six yards to go. You have moved the ball pretty well, especially off the right A/B gap boundary, either with a direct Slant, or a Counter from left to right. It’s been ‘schedule’ for the entire 1st quarter. You scored the first touchdown with a respectable march from the 20 after your opponent punted the ball into the end zone. It was a nice balance of runs and passes. Then your defense picked off a pass on the next drive, and ran it back for a touchdown. Offensively, the blocking was good, the line was running smoothly, and it looked like you would have a nice opportunity to control a modestly operated game into the half.
Who knows, maybe your’re a couple of scores up by the half? That’s solid news. Until your starting Right Guard is noticed on the field after that four yard series opener. The guy is screaming his head off, and grabbing his right knee. (Until you’ve seriously damaged something in your knee, or elbow don’t smirk… imagine a knife glowing white hot being shoved to hilt into your joint, then we’ll talk.) You’d have thought that someone had snapped his leg in half. (This emotion will ripple through the line, folks, trust me.) The refs call timeout, the trainers go out, and you start looking for your backup situation to get on the field after the timeout clears. Your #2 Guard has been a bit shaky on both sides of the line. Your Center is a better Guard, so you tell him he’s shifting to Right Guard, and pull up your #2 Center. He’s young, and a bit on the small side, but he’s snapping the ball well and has worked out with the starting line a few times when your starting center needed a break. You figure that you have the situation covered... the team heads from the sideline to the line of scrimmage. The play is wagged in; it’s a simple dive off the left side. Let’s get the cobwebs out on this one.
Well, the cobwebs are knocked out pretty quickly. The Nose Tackle is big, quick, and covers both sides of the A gap pretty well. The new center snaps the ball ok, but then is hammered into the ground like a rag doll. The running back slams into the resulting pile of a Mike and that Nose. The distance gained could have been measured in microns. If it wasn’t for a fortunate spot from the Referee the play was probably a net negative. The resulting 3rd and a bit more than 6, the snap hits the Quarterback in the knees, and that painful Nose forces him out of the pocket before the second read. The QB slides in about two yards short of the line to gain, and you set up to punt.
The defense holds the opponent to a field goal, but the offense again stalls out. The Mike and Nose tackle are shutting down the line of scrimmage between the backup center and the center playing guard. It’s really hit or miss out there. The center is playing hard, but the audibles aren’t smooth, and the blocks are sometimes late or even whiffed altogether. What looked like a relatively routine winning game turns into a slugging match.
You have already made the first adjustment. You understood that your backup Guard wasn’t as good a choice to just plug in, and it was better to move your starting Center to Right Guard, and sub in your backup Center. The problem is, that the result wasn’t what was expected. The backup Center is really struggling to control a Nose Tackle who is taking maximum advantage of things. That situation isn’t completely stopping the offense, but it is putting a serious crimp in the game plan, and it certainly has turned a potential cake walk into a mud stomp.
Cool Down and Assess
While your defense is on the field, you get on the horn to the O-Line coach and get his perspective on what’s going on from the field. Get some feed back from your starting Center (now Right Guard) and the backup Center. Get them talking and not huffing and puffing at each other. Grab the Left Guard as well. Get those three players back on the same page. Then get some GA’s in the “film room” to review the last two series and see what the heck is going on. It might be something as small as the line audibles are being missed or the signals are being read by the opposing line. Above all get them communicating the situation to you.
What Can Be Done, versus What You had Planned
It’s obvious that executing the original game plan is going to be problematic. The new line might be able, eventually, to pick up the pace. They still need to get better blocking accomplished. You worry if the defense can stay on the field long enough for the Offense to figure it out? Until this new configuration clicks, there are more than likely going to be a few more 3 and outs to endure. That’s brutal on any defense; but this is your defense.
The First Realization
Your offensive game plan is now officially shot. You are not moving the ball on the ground, at all, and the middle of your pocket is shaky for the pocket passing game. Start getting those GA’s active and pull known, practiced plays from the playbook to group together to get some offensive momentum up and move the ball. At this point, just eating clock and giving the defense a breather is a win.
No one likes saying it much, but it’s time to run away. That means it’s time to pull out the kinds of plays that keep the ball out of the range of that pesty NT and his buddy the equally painful Mike. It’s time to put the left guard in between him and the play, so go left through the ‘B’ Gap. If you need to balance off to the right then run some sweeps from the pistol, where the Right guard can pivot left and seal. Try some off tackle trapping where the Right Guard and Center can double team the NT and maybe get a shot at the H-Back chipping the Mike.
Go Over the Top
It’s not easy pass blocking when the line is struggling; but it can be done. This is time to pull out those rolling out pass plays from the shotgun. Have the Quarterback slide to the right and set up in the ‘B’ Gap to go up the right seam. It means that you are going to need keep someone around the line to help the Center, but rolling away from the trouble and hitting quick routes under the zone will help to move the ball and keep control of the game.
Your route packages for the 70/30 run to pass game that you normally use aren’t going to fit a 40/60 run to pass scheme. You have too few intermediate routes planned, and no 3 second plays that are guaranteed to grab schedule yards.
You do have some options, but you need time to go over things with the receivers. That’s something that has to be addressed at half time, and that’s fine, but you’re about to get the ball with nearly six minutes on the clock, staring at a long field, and, again the defense is absolutely blown. They put everything into getting this stop, and if it hadn’t been for an over thow on a deep flag route they’d have put seven on the board. Find something that you have that can be used.
Get to the half in One Piece with the Lead
So here is the big poll question for this one. Half-time adjustments can be put into place. Getting the new route packages set, and getting the receivers and mobile blockers (H-Backs, Running Backs) on the same page with you will be critical.
So how do you get to the half alive and with the score just where it is? None of these are wrong, which one do you like more?
This poll is closed
Get your receivers to bend up their shorter routes to no less than 5 yards beyond the line. You now expect a bubble screen to be pushed up to a flare pattern.
Get the Jet sweep and RPO fake off the Jet to work a couple of times. Get the ball outside the tackles and make them run.
Pull the deep routes out, and have the underneath receivers break it off at 10 to 15 yards instead of going deep. Give the QB multiple targets in the gaps.
Toss in a wheel out of the backfield to the H-Back on a roll out to the right. If you run this after a sweep, you might get the Safety and Corner to bite down, and free up the H-Back in the right flat.
Again, it’s not about right or wrong. It looks like the offense can get straightened up, but the everyone needs a break, and those intermediate route packages need to be pulled out and reviewed. You’ve made the best adjustments that you can with the missing starting Guard, but it’s a football century to go before you can get to your players.