Lessons from AD
All hail the Lead Draw!
A couple of weeks ago, I fell down a rabbit hole of Adrian Peterson highlights. You know what’s really fucking fun? Watching highlights of Adrian Peterson.
Go ahead. Skip the next half-hour of work and do something that’s really meaningful:
Once you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor, have another watch. Does anything stick out?
Peterson was a once-in-a-lifetime talent. No player with that build has ever been able to bounce through the gears so quickly. He was a moving fire hydrant who could also stop on a dime, and then dart away from an encroaching secondary.
Peterson was a one-of-one. But there are lessons we can take from his MVP season — and the years prior — that can inform an offense of today. Nearly 40 percent of Peterson’s 2,000-odd yards in 2012 came from one concept: Lead Draw.
Rattle through any of this year’s preseason games and something will leap out. Teams are running Duo upon Duo upon Duo. It is the base rushing concept for the majority of offenses these days. In the crudest explanations, Duo is a run that acts as though it wants to penetrate the middle of the line of scrimmage, with a pair of double-teams slamming away inside. But the intent is to have the defense collapse inside and to have the running back bounce to the perimeter, getting a runner matched up with a DB one-on-one in space. Coaches want to test if opposing DBs — mostly corners — can fit the run and tackle.
The schematic battle of this era is pretty basic: Defenses have evolved to try to slow a particular style of offense – the wide-zone-then-boot oriented systems that re-emerged on the backs of Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and the like – and to get extra hats (and layers) into the coverage against pass-centric offenses.
Two-high shells (that then rotate at the snap) have become the norm across the league, with fresh front structures built to try to maintain balance versus the run. Savvy offensive coaches are finding new ways to attack both – switching up the concepts that work in the run-game while still focusing on the passing attack.
No matter what the data dorks say, running the ball still matters. Not so much because of the physicality of the sport or some odd aura of ‘toughness’. It’s about how that run game marries with your more valuable threats: throwing the ball and play-action. And how those running concepts match up against meta trends on defense.
Peterson ran all over a batch of defenses that based out of Tampa-2. Those defenses sat in their base personnel groupings, with linebackers reading the initial step of the offensive line to take their key. Teams would switch back and forth between their middle linebacker and weak linebacker “running the pole”, rolling into the middle of the defensive shell.
We’re back in a two-deep world. And we’re back in a Tampa-2 world, with teams finding ever more creative ways to get to the same shell with different defenders flying into that middle portion of the shell.
As teams have shifted to the Fangio world, teams are fitting the run in different ways. Even those running so-called ‘light boxes’ are arriving with the same number of hats in the run fit. It’s how they get to those fits that matter — and the overall mass arriving at the point-of-attack.
Teams are fast-fitting the A-gap with safeties. They’re sliding nickels into the box. And they’re sticking defenders into half-in, half-out positions in the box. The body types are changing, too: linebackers are smaller, built to fly around vs. the run. Teams would rather run with three hybrid safeties than stick a bigger linebacker-type on the field.
Most importantly, they’re setting up pre-snap to optimize the defensive shell vs. the pass before then fitting the run. They’re bringing just as many hats to the party, but they’re flowing from depth to put extra layers into the coverage, to disguise the coverage shell, and to buy an extra to react against play-action.
But the end result — the distribution of the players — can look the same: two deep safeties with seven men fitting the run. Only this time it’s smaller bodies trying to do the grunt work.
Offenses are finding ways to fight back. They’re putting different bodies into the backfield to mess with matchups. They’re motioning at the snap to create late overloads. They’re running quads sets, with four receivers to one side of the field to mess with the balance of the defense. They’re optioning everything, forcing defenses to pause and sticking them in no-win conflicts. And they’re switching up the target point of their run game, and the concepts they run, to hit weak points of the defense — and layering play-action shots on top of those running actions.
Defenses are steadfast in their commitment to two-deep-then-rotate systems. FangioBall is here to stay. The savviest offensive gurus are finding ways to punch back, be it through new elements in the passing games, betting on positionless football (like the Falcons and Niners), muddying matchups, cranking up the tempo, or rolling back the years. See: Jim Harbaugh and Michigan brutalizing opponents at the college level with some old-school power football.
The Seahawks, Niners, Raiders, Chiefs, Lions, Cowboys, and Ravens have lent into heavy personnel usage. As discussed on a recent podcast with Alberto Cantu on the state of offensive football, the key to the modern game – on offense, at least – is finding ways to get two-back football, and to staple two-back plays, without having to stick two-backs on the field. It’s no coincidence that the most lauded offenses in the game, run a steady dose of ‘two back’ sets with tight ends or receivers taking the place of a traditional ‘back’.
The Lions under Ben Johnson, the latest hot shot off the conveyor belt, have played under center more than any other offense in the league. Shane Waldron’s Waldroffense – I’m still trying to make that take-off, people! – bases a ton out of 13 personnel grouping. Kellen Moore has mixed and matched with multiple tight ends and extra offensive linemen. The Chiefs ran all over fools down the stretch last season, and pulverized everyone before them through the air when leaping into 12 and 13 personnel groupings.
The Niners and Ravens have cheat codes in their backfield. Kyle Juszczyk and Patrick Ricard are the secret sauces that stir the drink: they’re viable threats as tight ends or flexing across the formation who are also premium blockers in the run game when aligning as traditional fullbacks.
Baltimore and San Francisco have hit on the ideal formula (in the run game, at least) for getting to two-back sets without being pigeon-holed as such. With Juszczyk and Ricard on the field, they can get to anything they want on their menu, while always being able to motion or shift into a structure that winds up playing out as a two-back game.
Marrying old-school power concepts with new-fangled spread ideas is the formula every offense is looking for.
As we transition back to an era of two-deep defensive shells, albeit with more variety than in the old-school days, it’s time for a resurgence of Peterson’s favored tactic: The Lead Draw.
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