Running the ball is much easier said than done. Coaches at every level talk about the importance of running the ball, but frequently end up in charge of teams where they, for example, throw the ball 47 times with a 2nd round rookie quarterback who clearly isn’t ready to carry such a load. Why? You’ve probably heard the phrase “run to daylight,” but in the NFL there typically isn’t a lot of “daylight” available. If you really want to commit to the run, sometimes you have to run it despite “darkness.”
Simple arithmetic tells us that if the defense has more players in the box than the offense has blockers, the defense has an extra man to tackle the ball carrier. If defenses consistently bring this extra player into the box, offenses have a choice to make: they can abandon the run and become predictable, or they can choose to run it anyway.
If the offense does somehow find a way to run the ball despite a numbers disadvantage, they’ve helped themselves achieve meaningful balance. The defense can’t walk into an 8 man front and know a pass is coming, and therefore can’t play as aggressively to stop one phase of the game.
Despite seeing a lot of these types of boxes this year, the Browns have the 3rd most rushing yards in the league and are 7th in the league in yards per rushing attempt. So how are they running the ball when they can’t block everyone? Let’s look at three different approaches the Browns have taken this year, starting with the most traditional.
1. Motion someone in to block
The Browns typically use this plan of attack on inside runs, and it is my least favorite way to deal with an extra defender. The logic behind this approach isn’t bad: if they bring an extra guy, we bring an extra guy to block him. We also make sure we get the matchups we want (e.g. don’t use an offensive lineman to block a safety).
There are a few issues with this approach. The first is that when we add another receiver into the box, the defense doesn’t just leave their corner out wide: the CB comes with him. The thinking is that corners are bad tacklers (which is a stereotype based in reality) and that our RBs should be able to break their tackles or drag them forward for a decent gain.
Another issue with this approach is that it takes away from the concept of giving the ball to “athletes in space”. By bringing all of these extra players into the box and then handing the ball off, we are giving the ball to an athlete in a sea of humanity. All it takes is for that unblocked corner to slow the RB down for a split second and his help can arrive and make the tackle.
A third problem with this approach is that it really telegraphs to a defense that a run is coming. We almost always run the ball when we use that motion. If there was any doubt in the defense’s mind that a run was coming, this motion usually erases it. That is not a recipe for good offense.
On a 2nd and 11 against the Ravens, we saw these issues come to a head. After seeing S Tony Jefferson walk into the box, QB Baker Mayfield motions WR Rishard Higgins into the box to block Jefferson.
On the snap the Browns have 8 blockers for 9 defenders in the box, leaving CB Marlon Humphrey unblocked.
As the play evolves, RB Carlos Hyde has no running lanes and is forced to bounce the run. Humphrey is there waiting and slows Hyde down long enough for help to arrive.
The play resulted in a 2 yard loss and a 3rd and 13 deep in the Browns’ territory.
2. Leave the EMOLS unblocked and control him with bootlegs
This is another traditional tactic for dealing with an extra player in the box. Browns fans should be familiar with it dating back to at least the Kyle Shannahan days, when the Browns ran a ton of outside zone plays and experienced a lot of success using it.
The idea is to leave the defender furthest from the direction of the run (End Man on Line of Scrimmage, or EMOLS) unblocked and to try to influence him with a bootleg from the quarterback. All the quarterback needs to do is hold that defender for a split second and the run play should be able to succeed on the frontside.
The issue with this tactic is that even if the offense has great run/pass balance, the playcaller is purely guessing what the EMOLS will do. And while the EMOLS might be guessing as to who has the ball, he can still guess right.
Against the Oakland Raiders, the Browns deployed this approach. And as you will see, Oakland did a lot of “guessing right”.
First, we look at a zone play to the left. The Browns have 6 blockers against Oakland’s 7 in the box. The offensive line and TE Orson Charles will block the 6 defenders to the left, leaving the backside end as Baker Mayfield’s responsibility to control with the bootleg.
On the snap, you can see that the offensive line has established their blocks, and is on their way to their targets. Charles will block the OLB to the left, and OL will come off of double teams to get the other linebackers. LG Joel Bitonio will get the MLB, and RG Kevin Zeitler will block the OLB to the right.
You can also see at this point that DE Marquel Lee is not even paying attention to the threat of Mayfield’s bootleg. He comes screaming down the line of scrimmage, ready to tackle Hyde. In the following screenshot, you can see that the play should be cut back between Bitonio and C JC Tretter (all zone runs give the back his choice of running lanes), but Lee is in the way and a cutback is not an option.
Hyde eventually bounces the run for a gain, but the play is called back because of a holding penalty. It is hard to blame the OL for holding when the run should never have bounced, and it is hard to blame Hyde for bouncing the run when his alternative was to get lit up by a defensive lineman.
When the defensive end is chasing the back inside as Lee was above, the traditional thinking is that he’s primed for a bootleg play action pass. The problem is that if the end guesses right, you still look like a fool.
After seeing Lee play the run so hard earlier in the game, the Browns used a play action bootleg fake against the Raiders. As you can see, DE Bruce Irvin (the EMOLS here) will have choice between taking a hard path to get the runner or playing the pass.
After the fake, we can see Irvin bearing down on Mayfield while his passing options are blanketed. Irvin guessed right, and Todd Haley guessed wrong.
3. Read the Extra Defnder
Plays like the two above led to offensive coordinators everywhere wishing they could be sure of what the end would do instead of guessing. Enter the read option, and more recently the Run Pass Option. The idea with this tactic is to put the quarterback in shotgun and let him read a player in order to make the defense wrong every time.
Against the Raiders, the Browns also utilized this approach to dealing with a numbers disadvantage in the box. This is a called sweep to the right, with an option for Baker Mayfield to pull the ball and throw a slant to WR Jarvis Landry to the left. The Raiders drop their strong safety into the box to give them enough players to stop the run.
On the snap RT Chris Hubbard and C JC Tretter pull. The pullers and TE David Njoku are responsible for the linebackers, which makes QB Baker Mayfield responsible for the safeties.
With the strong safety in the box, the Browns don’t have the numbers to block the run. But with the backside of the play wide open, Mayfield can punish the Raiders for bringing those numbers to stop the run. The play ends up as an easy 8 yards on 1st and 10.
These types of plays might not show up in the box score as runs, but they should be viewed as a substantial part of the Browns’ rushing attack that has been effective this year.
The advantage of this method of controlling the additional player in the box is obvious: by reading this player you can make him wrong every time. The disadvantages are that you need to trust your quarterback to execute both the read and the throw. By running RPOs you also have to be content with the defense dictating where the ball is going: you won’t be force-feeding your running back and you might end up throwing it even when you call for a run.
In my opinion these tradeoffs are more than worth it with Baker Mayfield in control of this Browns offense. The Browns can’t rely on RPOs to control the additional man in the box every play, and will need to continue to blend each of these strategies into the gameplan. But I hope to see the Browns rely more and more on Mayfield’s quick decision making as the season moves forward.