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  Pro Formations (Part 3) - by Ralph Hickok

Pro Formations (Part 3)
Originally Published by NFL ProWeb
Animations by Ken Crippen

Restoring the Power

The first thing you need to know about Vince Lombardi is that he played guard in the single wing at Fordham University, coached by "Sleepy Jim" Crowley, one of Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen. (Incidentally, before entering Notre Dame, Crowley played for Green Bay East High School, where his coach was none other than the Packers’ Curly Lambeau.)

Lombardi loved the power blocking principles of the single wing, especially as practiced by Jock Sutherland’s teams at Pittsburgh, a major Fordham rival at the time. He was especially enamored of the cutback play the way it was run, with great precision, by Pittsburgh.

After graduating in 1937, Lombardi coached and taught at the high school level for ten years, then became an assistant at Fordham. In 1949, he went to West Point as an assistant to Earl "Red" Blaik.

Blaik was developing a new system that combined zone blocking and option blocking. Other coaches gave linemen very specific assignments; e.g., the right tackle might be assigned to block the defensive left tackle to the inside on a given play against a certain defense. That became a problem if the defender happened to be lined up on his outside shoulder, or if the defender was slanting to the outside.

In Blaik’s system, a blocker was given an area, or zone, in which to block. For example, the right tackle might be told to block any defender to the inside if the defender was head-to-head or on his inside shoulder. If there was no defender in either of those positions, the tackle would be instructed to cross the line of scrimmage and seal to the inside--that is, take the first defender in front of him or to his left and block him to the left.

At the point of attack, the blocker was often given the option of taking the defender in whichever direction offered the easiest block. That was designed to deal with the growing problem of defensive slants. If the play was designed to go over the right tackle, for example, he would normally be expected to take the defensive tackle to the inside. But, if the defender slanted outside, then the tackle could take him in that direction, instead.

To go with option blocking, Blaik created option running. On that off-tackle play, the back would have to read the blocks in front of him and adjust to the hole. Lombardi made this idea famous with the slogan, "Run to Daylight."

After five years working with Blaik, primarily on offense, Lombardi joined the New York Giants. He was, in effect, offensive coordinator, although that title wasn’t used at the time. Head Coach Jim Lee Howell gave him total responsibility for designing the offense.

Lombardi drew on his single-wing background and on what he had learned from Blaik to create a new kind of T-formation offense. As designed by Clark Shaughnessy, the T depended primarily on speed. Under Lombardi, it became primarily a power formation, using pulling guards, double-team blocks, and cross-blocking.

The key play was the power sweep, which later became known as the "Lombardi sweep" or "Packer sweep," because it became famous after Lombardi took over as head coach of the Green Bay Packers and guided them to five NFL championships.


The Cutback Play Revisited

SweepThe power sweep was the old single-wing cutback play adapted for the T formation. As the diagrams show, there were only two really important differences: The halfback had to receive a handoff from the quarterback, rather than taking a direct snap from center as the single-wing tailback; and both guards pulled to lead the blocking, rather than the on-side guard and the quarterback.

CutbackThe Giants had a second-year halfback, Frank Gifford, who had been used primarily on defense as a rookie. Lombardi insisted that he had to be the starting left halfback on offense. An important reason for that shift was that Gifford had been a single-wing tailback at Southern California, and he’d run the cutback play very effectively.

Of course, as a tailback, Gifford had also been a passer in college, so Lombardi installed the halfback option--again, a variation of the single-wing’s option pass off the cutback. Although not used very often, the option was a dangerous weapon if defensive backs responded too quickly to try to stop the sweep. In 1954, Gifford completed four option passes for 155 yards and three touchdowns.

In the three-end set as developed by the Rams and adopted by other NFL teams, backs were rarely called upon to block, except to pick up blitzes, and the tight end did most of his blocking downfield, though he was sometimes responsible for a linebacker. But in Lombardi’s offense, as in the single wing, both running backs became key blockers, and the tight end often had to block down on the defensive end or even on the defensive tackle inside him.

This, too, was reflected in two personnel changes Lombardi made. In his first season, he replaced two veteran tight ends who were primarily receiver types with two bigger players who were much better blockers, rookie Ken MacAfee and second-year player Bob Schnelker, acquired from the Eagles.

Because Lombardi was unhappy with the blocking of fullback Eddie Price, the Giants in 1955 acquired 210-pound Alex Webster from the Canadian Football League and added 215-pound rookie Mel Triplett. Nominally a halfback, Webster was often used at fullback or as the second halfback in the split backs set, while Triplett replaced Price as the starting fullback.

The entire offense was based on the threat of the sweep, just as the standard single-wing offense had been based on the threat of the cutback play. Lombardi once wrote, "I never meant that teams could not stop the sweep, but to do so they had to make unusual adjustments. . . While there are many adjustments the defense can make, when they do they leave themselves open to other areas of attack."

Long TrapIf the defensive end charged aggressively and to the outside, hoping to break up the sweep before it could really get going, he was susceptible to the long trap, on which the offside guard pulled all away across the formation, as on the sweep, but took the end to the outside while the fullback (or sometimes the left halfback) slanted through the vacated spot.

If the defensive tackle began to penetrate quickly, through the area vacated by the onside guard, he could be hit by a quick trap block from the other guard, with the fullback or halfback carrying the ball right up the middle, off a reverse spin by the quarterback.

The bread-and-butter play of Clark Shaughnessy’s T-formation, the dive, had been pretty well solved by most defenses in the early 1950s, mainly because of the defenses that Shaughnessy had devised with the Bears. In the 5-3-3 and the 4-3, outside linebackers could move quickly to fill the guard-tackle holes as soon as the back got there. And the increasing use of line slants made the dive little more than a coin toss, rather than the almost sure thing it had been originally. Often, the halfback would take the handoff only to find that the defensive tackle, taking an inside slant, had the hole plugged up.

VeerLombardi redesigned the dive and called it the veer play. The fullback, running out of the split-back set, was usually the ballcarrier. Option blocking made it work. The guard at the point of attack keyed his block on the action of the defensive tackle. He could take the tackle head on and drive him back, or block him in either direction, if the tackle was slanting.




"Do-Dad" Blocking

The offside guard and the center worked what was called a "do-dad" block, keying on the offside defensive tackle and the middle linebacker. They would both initially engage the tackle. If the tackle was slanting toward the middle, the center would take him head on, while the guard would release and go after the middle linebacker. If the tackle was charging straight on or to the outside, the linebacker would have inside responsibility and would probably be keying on the fullback. In that case, the guard would continue blocking the tackle, while the center would release for the middle linebacker.

Meanwhile, the running back had to key on these blocks. His first step would be directly toward the offensive guard. He would then veer to either side of the guard, depending on where the hole seemed to be opening. If that second step took him toward the middle of the line, he would then read the center’s block. If the center was blocking the middle linebacker, he’d run behind that block. However, if the center was blocking the tackle, the runner would have to veer still farther, because the hole would actually be on the other side of the line.

In summary, the fullback could hit any of three holes, depending on how the blocking shaped up. That, of course, became known as the "run to daylight" principle.

The same principle was also used on the straight off-tackle play and on the counter plays set up by the sweep. The key counter plays were the inside belly, the slant, and the weakside sweep.

Inside BellyThe inside belly was a quick-hitting play designed to look like the veer. The quarterback would fake to the fullback, then do a quick reverse spin and hand to the halfback, driving toward the guard-tackle hole on the other side of the formation. Again, the running back would key the guard’s block to decide which hole to hit.

Fullback SlantOn the slant, usually run by the fullback to the weak side, there were two sets of option blocks. The center and guard were involved in a do-dad block, as in the veer, but the key to the play was do-dad blocking by the halfback and the offensive tackle. Both of them would initially head toward the defensive end. If the end was taking an outside charge, the halfback would take him to the outside while the tackle would release to block the outside linebacker. If the end was playing straight up or charging inside, the tackle would continue with his block, while the halfback would take the linebacker.

Weakside SweepThe weakside sweep was really the power sweep, but with a little less power. Lombardi liked to run it if the safeties were cheating to stop the power sweep. The fullback was usually the ball-carrier on the weakside sweep, and the two most important blockers were the halfback and the split end--players who were rarely expected to make key blocks in the T formation up to then. The halfback was responsible for taking the defensive end, first straight on and then using a hook block to keep him to the inside. The flanker would drive straight in at the outside linebacker and then take him in the direction he wanted to go. The fullback would key on that action, cutting inside if the flanker’s block was to the outside and turning the corner if the block was to the inside.

Quick TossOne other play, the quick toss, was a sort of counter play, even though it was usually run to the strong side. It was particularly effective against a defense that was reading and reacting, with the strongside linebacker holding up the tight end. Unlike the sweep, the toss was definitely designed to go outside, and it featured an unusual blocking scheme.

The strongside guard would begin to pull, as on the sweep, but he would then take on the defensive end. Meanwhile, the strongside tackle also pulled and went around the corner. The flanker and tight end were involved in a do-dad block. The tight end would try to take the linebacker inside. If he was successful, the flanker would go downfield for the safety man. But if the linebacker fought to protect the outside, the tight end would release to get the safety while the flanker hit the linebacker with a crackback block.

In one sense, option blocking made things easier by simplifying assignments. Instead of having to remember several different blocking schemes, one for each possible defense, a player simply had a rule to follow. As expressed by Lombardi, the rule for the onside guard might be something like this: "Man over you, take him in the direction he wants to go. No man over you, seal for the first inside linebacker."

On the other hand, the system required intelligent, split-second decision-making and perfect coordination among blockers. On a do-dad block, for example, if both blockers took the same defender, the poor running back would be gobbled up by the other.

Lombardi’s passing game was set up by the run. Except in obvious passing situations, play action was the rule. Although he favored the shorter, ball-control passes off play-action fakes, Lombardi was also very happy to go deep if the defensive backs began cheating toward the line of scrimmage to stop the running game.

Some of the veteran Giant players were skeptical about this new offense, but they quickly became converts. The Giants improved from 3-9-0 in 1953 to 7-5-0 in 1954. The rushing game, which had produced a woeful 2.6 yards per carry in 1953, leaped to a 3.9 average. Quarterback Charlie Conerly, the object of boos for throwing 25 interceptions and only 13 TDs in 1953, had 17 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions, and the team’s scoring increased by 64 percent, from 179 to 293 points..

In 1956, Lombardi’s third year of running the offense, the Giants won the Eastern Conference title and destroyed the Chicago Bears, 47-7, in the NFL championship. That victory, like the Bears’ 73-0 devastation of the Redskins in 1940, sent other NFL teams rushing to adopt the new style offense.

Even Paul Brown, the chief architect of the modern passing game, became a convert, although not quite by design. With Otto Graham retired, the Browns suffered their first losing season in 1956 and Brown hoped to pick quarterback Len Dawson in the NFL draft. However, Dawson was chosen by the Steelers, so Brown took a running back named Jimmy Brown from Syracuse and installed a running attack based largely on Lombardi’s principles.

Of course, his stint at New York was just the beginning for Lombardi. In 1959, he took over the Green Bay Packers, who had gone 1-10-1 the previous season, and he guided them to five NFL championships in the next nine seasons. With the Packers, Lombardi had even better personnel than he’d had with the Giants.

Halfback Paul Hornung, who had been a split-T quarterback at Notre Dame, was ideal for running the sweep and the halfback option. Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor were both outstanding blockers. Bart Starr was an intelligent and patient quarterback, adept at spotting and taking advantage of defensive adjustments and at throwing short, accurate ball-control passes to complement the running game. The 230-pound Ron Kramer was the prototype of the modern big tight end, capable of blocking defensive ends and tackles as well as linebackers. The linemen, led by tackle Forrest Gregg and guard Jerry Kramer, were gifted with the physical and mental ability to make option blocking work.

Mainly because of Lombardi’s influence, the watchword of the NFL became ball control and every team began running (or trying to run) the power sweep and its complementary plays, using the run to set up the pass.

An obscure but interesting (I think) statistic shows how Lombardi’s ideas took over the league. In 1959, his first year with the Packers, the average starting tight end weighed about 205 pounds. Lombardi had the two biggest, Kramer and the 220-pound Gary Knafelc. By 1967, Lombardi’s final season in Green Bay, the average was more than 230 pounds and there were a couple of giants at the position, Cleveland’s 250-pound Milt Morin and Washington’s 265-pound Dave Lince. (Lince was used primarily as a short-yardage blocker, but Morin was a full-time starter.)

That did not, by the way, reflect a general increase in size among NFL players. The average weight for linemen and linebackers increased very little during that eight-year period.


The Defense Answers

The flip side of the Lombardi-designed rushing offense was a new focus on defense. If a team was dedicated to chewing up yardage and time with a ball-control offense, it obviously made sense to complement the attack with a strong defense that could get the ball back quickly so it could be controlled even longer. Of course, the spread of the Lombardi offense made defensive changes necessary, anyway.

It’s difficult to sort out exactly who originated what, defensively. Coaches were borrowing (or stealing) ideas from one another between games, and it’s also likely that, at times, two or more defensive coaches came up with the same idea almost simultaneously but independently.

But it is clear that Clark Shaughnessy and Tom Landry were responsible for most of the defensive ideas of the late 1950s and the early 1960s.

With the Bears, Shaughnessy first developed the 5-3-3 defense, as we saw in the previous installment. That was designed primarily to stop the running offense that Shaughnessy himself had originally devised. In passing situations, Shaughnessy usually went to a 5-2-4, borrowed from Greasy Neale and the Philadelphia Eagles. This was the original nickel defense, in a sense, because an extra defensive back came in to replace a linebacker. The strongside defensive end usually made contact with the tight end, to keep him from releasing quickly to the inside. After that contact, the defender could either rush the passer or drop back into coverage.

Landry appears to have taken the next step, turning the 5-2-4 into a 4-3-4. He was in a doubly unique position with the New York Giants in 1954. First, although he was in charge of the defense, he was still playing defensive back. Second, he got a chance to see exactly how Lombardi’s offense was designed, since his defensive unit practiced against it all the time.

So, when other teams adopted the new offense, Landry was well prepared. The first step in creating the 4-3-3 was simply to replace the strongside defensive end with a defensive linebacker. The end then moved in over the tackle, the defensive tackle moved in over the guard, and the defensive middle guard was eliminated. On paper or chalkboard, the 4-3-3 looked almost exactly like 5-2-4. The main difference was that the main opposite the tight end was now standing up instead of being in a down stance.

But Landry’s approach to defense went far beyond simply making a rather small change in personnel to create a new alignment. He pioneered in having defenders read keys. In the first fifteen years or so of the modern T formation, linebackers and defensive backs generally watched the quarterback, so they were susceptible to fakes by a good ball-handler. Landry taught them to keep their eyes off the quarterback, for the most part.

For example, linebackers usually keyed on the guards (although, against certain teams or certain offensive sets, a linebacker might key on one of the running backs). If a guard pulled, it usually indicated which way a play was going, and linebackers were expected to flow in that direction.

Landry also gave defensive backs new run support responsibilities. The strong safety was particularly important in this respect. His key was usually the tight end. If the tight end blocked down, the safety would come up quickly to play the run. If the tight end showed pass, the safety was responsible for covering him.

In addition, Landry relieved some of the pressure on his defensive ends and linebackers by using defensive backs as force men on outside running plays, particularly the sweeps. The cornerback on the strong side would generally key on the flow of the backfield, and on the tackle and guard on his side of the field. If their actions indicated a run to the strong side, he would come up quickly, at an angle toward the area between the tight end and the flanker to force the play to the inside. The weakside corner, similarly, would key on the split end and the tackle and guard on that side of the line. As a change-up, Landry would sometimes use a safety force instead of the corner force on either side of the field.

Above all, Landry emphasized a read-and-react philosophy, which led to his flex defense after he became head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 1960. In the flex, the weakside defensive tackle and strongside defensive end played slightly off the line of scrimmage, giving them an extra split-second in which to read the play and begin moving toward the point of attack.

Run BlitzShaughnessy, on the other hand, believed in an attacking defense. One of his major developments with the Bears was the run blitz, on which all three linebackers attacked the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. Sometimes he even used the strong safety in the run blitz, which was almost like putting up an eight-man line.

4-3 OverHe also moved his defensive linemen and linebackers around a lot and used a variety of stunts, slants, and loops to confuse offensive blocking schemes. Shaughnessy developed the 4-3 over, in which the weakside defensive tackle played over the center, while the strongside tackle and end moved somewhat to the outside, and the 4-3 under, in which the weakside defensive tackle played opposite the center.

4-3 UnderBoth Landry and Shaughnessy pioneered the use of zone defenses against the pass, but again with different approaches. Landry favored a rather soft, two-deep zone, designed mainly to prevent the long pass. Shaughnessy, who liked to make things complicated, created a variety of rotating zone defenses that were meant to keep the quarterback off balance by putting defenders where he didn’t expect them to be, often resulting in sacks or interceptions.

Two-Deep ZoneYet another Shaughnessy invention was the combination (or combo) defense, which combines zone and man-to-man principles. It was, and is, often used when a team wants to double-cover a receiver.

Tight End InsideTo get double coverage on the flanker, for example, the combo defense would work something like this: The safeties key on the tight end. If the tight end comes inside, the free (weakside) safety picks him up, while the strong safety has deep coverage on the flanker. If the tight end goes outside, the strong safety covers him man to man, while the free safety covers the flanker deep.




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Copyright 1998 Ralph Hickok