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FLIPBOOK: WHAT'S WRONG WITH IOWA'S RUNNING GAME? PART ONE

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Iowa's finally acknowledged that its key running play has a problem. But the solution needs to be improved.

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Matthew Holst

Quarterback Jake Rudock is leading Iowa in rushing through two games.  He took the lead from wide receiver Tevaun Smith, who was the leading rusher after the first week of the season.  In neither game did Iowa amass huge yardage; through two games, Iowa has just 264 total yards on the ground.  And so the question is asked: How the hell did this offense, this Sherman tank through the second half of last season, get here?

Let's start from the basic premise of Iowa's running game: Specifically, that you only need four plays.  The mainstay of every Iowa offense since 1999 is the zone running play, a theory of run blocking made popular by Mike Shanahan in the late 1990s.  Every team runs a variation of a zone attack, but Iowa stays true to those pro-style roots.  In the absolute must-buy The Essential Smart Football, Chris Brown talks about its application by former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak and running game coordinator Alex Gibbs (who were both on Shanahan's Denver staffs) and gives the best one-paragraph explanation of the Kirk Ferentz run scheme I've ever seen:

The key to Gibbs' zone running game is that the foundational play is the outside zone (the "wide zone" in Gibbs's terminology), not the more common inside zone.  The inside zone is a vertical push play that aims to move the defense backward and have a running back carry the ball forward with a full head of steam to get yards.  The outside zone is about lateral movement.  Each blocker first steps to the side rather than forward (and many coaches teach their linemen to take their first step backward, a technique referred to as "losing ground to gain ground").  The blockers then try to pin defenders to the inside -- or if the can't do that, drive them to the sideline.  Sometimes on these plays, the running back runs around the edge on a traditional-looking sweep.  More often, the defense is stretched to its limit and the runner hits a crease and then sprints straight toward the end zone.  When executed correctly, it's extremely taxing on a defense, as all of their instincts -- aggressiveness to the ball carrier and fast pursuit -- work against them....

In the next paragraph, Brown explains why it isn't more ubiquitous (and why it's not working particularly well at the moment in Iowa's offense):

Gibbs's style of zone blocking requires total commitment by every offensive player -- linemen must be perfect technicians, not just fat guys who push each other around; runners must make reads and make one-cut-and-go rather than juke and tap dance like Barry Sanders; and quarterbacks and receivers can't treat runs as breaks because they're expected to execute assignments and make blocks....Gibbs will tell anyone willing to listen that if you want to be good at the wide zone and the tight zone, throw all all of your other run plays.  All those wonderful Power-O plays, counter trey plays, and whatever other fancy stuff you think you need -- get rid of it.  Instead, run two -- yes, two -- run plays, and run them against every defensive front you face until you get really good at them.

I've added the bold typeface above because SPOILER ALERT Iowa's not doing either of those particularly well at the moment.  I'll address the linemen in part two, but for today, let's focus on the halfbacks.

Since 2012, Mark Weisman has been Iowa's featured back.  As we have repeatedly discussed, Weisman excels in one particular type of outside zone (which we call the stretch, FYI): That rare circumstance when the running back runs around the edge on a traditional-looking sweep.  Give Weisman a solid seal block on a defensive end and outside linebacker coupled with a kickout on the cornerback (or a cornerback that wants nothing to do with tackling him) and he's a beast.  Have you ever noticed how Weisman's best runs are all the same, that burst from between the tackle and tight end or around the flank completely?  This is why.  And when an opponent plays Iowa straight-up, Iowa's line is fully capable of creating this circumstance. Look at Nebraska last year.  Look at Minnesota in 2012, the first time we discussed Weisman's ability in this offense.

Defenses have largely stopped playing this iteration of Iowa straight-up, though.  Starting in 2012 and continuing through most of last year, defenses began to slant Iowa in obvious running downs and formations, crashing defender after defender at the edge of Iowa's line until it broke.  The stretch -- really, offensive football in general -- is based on a basic calculation: Because there's a ballcarrier and, generally, a quarterback not really involved in blocking, most plays are eleven defenders on nine blockers.  So in order to be successful, either one guy has to block two in a couple of spots or defenders have to be pulled out of position to make a play.  Weisman's well-documented aversion to the cutback lane -- a crucial part of the entire zone running scheme -- took away the constraint already built into the running game to stop defenses from making it eleven-on-nine by throwing defenders at the line.  An offense with a one-cut halfback would punish an overpursuing defense by running an impromptu counter.  Iowa couldn't do that with Weisman.  Instead, it was once more unto the breach.

Last year, Ferentz and Davis didn't have much of an answer until they inserted Canzeri into the lineup.  But this year, Iowa is doing things that at least acknowledge the problem.  Some of them are kind of dumb: Iowa ran a counter with Weisman on the first play from scrimmage against Ball State, presumably to warn the Cardinals that it could be used at any time even though Mark Weisman is the least effective counter halfback in the history of football.

Counter

A counter play develops with that first false step to the strong side.  That step, combined with the pulling guard, makes it absolutely necessary that the back be ridiculously quick.  Mark Weisman is many things.  Ridiculously quick is not one of them.  And so the linebacker fills the hole left by the pulling guard and drags Weisman down in the backfield.

Greg Davis has shown a penchant for well-placed trickeration.  In 2012, it was the flea flicker, which is basically the mother of all play action passes; rather than faking the handoff and throwing the ball, the quarterback actually makes the handoff, then gets it back and throws the ball.  And it worked for Iowa, which was obliterating teams on the ground with Weisman (see the Minnesota post above).

Davis' latest bit of trickeration made its debut early against UNI: The end around with Jonathan Parker. On its face, it looks like a relatively simple play: Parker goes in motion before the snap and takes a quick handoff, with the tight end and receiver as blockers.  Basically, two things have to happen for it to work: Parker has to beat the defensive end, and the tight end has to get outside the outside linebacker and seal the edge.

There's something far more subtle going on, though. Watch the halfback and, more importantly, the offensive line.

Parker1looped

It's more obvious when you watch the same play from behind the formation against Ball State (ignore the fumble for the moment):

Parker2looped

When I first watched this play while preparing this post, I was half-ready to blame the eventual Ball State scoop & score on Brandon Scherff stepping the wrong way and leaving the defensive end unblocked. And then I realized that stepping the wrong way was exactly what Scherff was supposed to do.  The entire line "loses ground to gain ground" on the first step, a play fake toward a Weisman stretch run to the right. And if the defensive end and backside linebacker are crashing on the offensive line's zone run cues, Parker has a free path to the secondary.  This is a constraint play.  Again, from Smart Football:

The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see - the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under with out the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don't live in a perfect world: the "constraint" plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.

Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

Both the counter and the end around are constraint plays, designed to punish (and later prevent) defenses from crashing the line and blowing up Iowa's bread & butter play, the zone stretch.   Iowa has used them early in both games, both as an attempt to gain yardage but also a necessary constraint against backside defensive ends and outside linebackers crashing the zone stretch.  The counter was a mess, and not particularly effective to boot: It required a pulling guard, something that simply isn't part of Iowa's typical running play.  It's easily identifiable to defenders as something else before their cheat can be exploited.

But unlike that ill-advised counter play, this version of the end around is a perfect constraint play for Iowa's offense.  Remember the basic math of offensive football?  Now watch the play above and see how many possible tacklers Jonathan Parker would take away from the ball should Weisman get the carry.  And if run successfully -- by which, we mean that Parker holds the damn ball, regardless of the yardage gained or lost -- then Iowa can go back to the well over and over, whether through actually giving Parker the ball or running him on a motion fake, every time Ball State started cheating.  Remember how defenses identified Damond Powell after the Minnesota screen pass last season? Parker could become that guy, holding defenders at bay simply by being on the field.

Of course, the play wasn't successful in the second quarter against Ball State.  It was about as unsuccessful as it could have been, actually.  And after Parker later fumbled a kickoff and was relegated to the bench, the threat of the end around was effectively neutralized.  Which led to things like this third quarter run by Mark Weisman.

Parker3looped

That run cannot be successful.  It was blocked almost perfectly by the left side of the offensive line -- Scherff destroys his guy, Hamilton (#82) drives his man to the sideline and opens the hole, Welsh (#79) gets a solid block on the tackle before handing him off to Blythe and sealing off the linebacker -- and Weisman hit the hole with authority.  But Andrew Donnall (#78) cannot get from right tackle to the weakside defensive tackle when the weakside tackle's first step is in the direction of the play.  And while the end and outside linebacker from the bottom of the picture take a bad angle, they crash nearly unblocked to the play side.  It's the Michigan State problem all over again.  An effective backside threat keeps that at bay, but it no longer existed at this point.

Iowa has always been a constraint-based offense, but that constraint was always the play action pass: Defenders would cheat the run by adding a safety in support, and Iowa would hit them deep on the play fake.  This is a different level of constraint, though, a fake meant not to stop the defense from cheating the run with numbers but rather with technique.  At least they've acknowledged the problem.  Now Davis and Ferentz have to come up with a way to make their solution more effective.  The run game will return with it.