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In the Trenches: Running and Defense

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Championship football teams run the ball and play defense. We hear that consistently. Our coaching staff preaches those two axioms even though the Cyclones are not good at either. The NFL, year after year, crowns a champion that is good at running the ball and playing defense.

Why? Because both are reliable and have a psychological effect on the opponent. Mistakes happen on offense when a team is searching for a way to solve a tough defense. The ball is thrown too early or late, assignments are missed, poor plays are called in an attempt to find something that can work (see ISU).

When a team cannot stop the running game, they are forced to take chances that open up opportunities to make plays down field. More than that, it is tiring and requires maximum effort to stop a good running game. Getting beat play after play in the run game creates a sense of hopelessness that is not easily overcome.

I believe you see that, in the negative, when you watch Iowa State. Run plays hit for 4 to 8 yards over and over. The team seems to give up, but it is more of a case where players take chances to try to do something to stop it and they lose discipline and create larger holes to be exploited. Iowa State struggles to run the ball and ends up bogging down when tough yards are needed. Further, it seems that the coaches are searching for a play when the team needs rhythmic execution.

How does this relate to Oklahoma? We still can’t run the ball, but the defense played well. The entire game I was thinking that ISU is so close to being able to get past this high level opponent.

But, why can’t they do it?

On last Thursday night, it wasn’t the defense that prevented victory. They played well. But, it was a lack of a running game. In other close games this year, the defense played poorly and failed to make needed stops — Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU, and UNI come to mind. However, in all of those games the offense bogged down when tough yards were needed and the coaching staff has yet to find a consistent source of tough yards in their playbook.

I won’t attempt to explain everything I am thinking. I am building a nice catalogue of off-season material and I will save much for then. But, I am going to focus on these two aspects of our team today.

The Running Game

Iowa State’s running success begins and ends with Joel Lanning. If Lanning cannot find holes in big spots, then the offense bogs down. The longest run by a running back is 20 yards on the year. 10 yard gains have been hard to come by. Using Lanning to gain tough third down and red zone yards has become our go-to because it is the most reliable option for this team as currently constructed.

The running plays ISU uses lack creativity. We use 5 basic run plays with a few variations. Inexplicably, we do not go back to the variations very often, instead opting for the same predictable plays that this team does not execute well or consistently.

ISU runs a QB lead power, a jet sweep, a pull sweep, a HB dive, and an HB power play with two pulling lineman. These are staples of a spread running attack. The QB lead power and the pull sweep have been our most successful plays, but the pull sweep will disappear from the play book in certain games. It was used successfully against SJSU and OSU. It did not appear in the Oklahoma game.

Ideally, a team will have 3 to 4 running plays that it executes at a high level and runs consistently. Then, additional plays will be folded in that are variations of those run plays. ISU does not do this because they can’t get started with their base plays. I want to show some video of some plays from the other night to illustrate our struggles, and successes in this area.

Here we see a QB power run by Lanning. The play gains 6 yards on 1st down and is a successful play. Why? Notice that the formation is spread out, but there is an extra blocker in the backfield. The play will be run to the right. The extra blocker influences the play by blocking outside. The center and left guard will pull one gap and lead through the hole.

Go back to the numbers game. The play utilizes the RB/TE as an extra blocker play side, giving ISU the advantage in the numbers game on the play side. We know that this creates opportunity and leads to successful run plays. The right tackle misses his block, but the pulling center is able to create enough interference to prevent a negative play. The pulling guard leads through the hole and Lanning is able to squeeze through for a nice gain.

Success is found in the numbers. This play is successful because it is schemed to provide an additional blocker to open space at the line. The problem is that there are more yards here if blocked properly. Remember, the center has to cover and hesitate to account for the missed block by the right tackle. This eliminates part of the advantage. Instead of having two players leading through the hole, we only get one and the second level defenders are able to fold in and make the tackle. If the right tackle block is held, there are two blocks at the second level and the play is now blocked for an 8 to 10 yard gain instead of a 4-6 yard gain.

This is a consistent failure of the ISU running game and bogs down the offense consistently.

4th and 2 and a chance to take a lead. ISU needs yards, so they go to their most reliable play. The result is a huge, explosive score. The success is the same as above. Motion creates an extra blocker that is used as influence on the right side. The RB is the second blocker through the hole on the play side and the right guard pulls to the play side. Again we will have a numbers advantage at the line.

Everyone makes their initial block and holds just long enough to get through the hole. It isn’t clean because the pulling guard has to clean up at the line, but because it is short yardage, the defense is caught up in the second level blocks, leaving an exposed secondary. Lanning picks his spot and explodes. It is his greatest strength — pick a hole and commit. The result is a big touchdown using extra blockers through the hole and a numbers advantage.

Now, I illustrate our problem in the running game. This is a quick-hitting HB dive. I advocate this play because the blocks do not have to be held for a long time. The RB gets to the hole quickly and there is a chance for a big play. There are even numbers at the snap and with a good initial block, the play can hit.

As it is, this is a 3 yard gain on 1st down. Not bad, but 2nd and long closes part of the playbook. 2nd and 5 opens up everything and forces the defense to play softer.

Watch the play side blocking. The right tackle actually gets his block, but the right guard checks and chips on his man to provide help at the line. This delays his progress to the second level where he should be. The linebackers are able to fill the hole and stop the play at 3 yards. If the right guard moves up to the second level instead of having to assist the right tackle, then a block is made at the second level and this becomes a 6 to 8 yard run, or even larger.

Essentially, our line has to go 2 for 1 at the line, leaving 2 for 1 for the defense at the runner. The play should be 1 on 1 on 1 where the runner has to account for one player with the assistance of the traffic from the 1 on 1 blocks at the first and second level.

The counter to the above. This is rarely seen in an Iowa State game. It shows a RB power play with a pulling guard through the hole. It is the spread equivalent of an I-formation lead play.

Here, the initial blocks are made and held. This allows the pulling guard to get to the second level and make the second level block that ISU did not make on the last play. Look at the difference.

The play is an 8 yard gain on first down. With a little better vision from the RB, this play hits for a first down plus. The first level blocks are made head up and the second level is reached by the back side guard to cut off pursuit and by the pulling guard to make a cut lane for the RB. Well executed.

I am focused on this because it shows a detail that illustrates how close ISU is to becoming a force in this league. If the offensive line is able to progress, through talent upgrades or experience, to the point where the first level block is held without help, then second level blocking will appear to open space in the running game without having to resort to a QB hybrid run.

Not that the QB hybrid run is bad, but if there are running options that eliminate the need for the switch or create multiple options in tough yardage situations, ISU will begin to move the ball in pressure situations and against higher level talent.

The signs are there, the details are small, the upgrade is probable, and success will come.

Blitz and Swarm

Iowa State does not have the talent available to play an entire game in straight up defense and be successful. The talent deficit means that you have to make up for deficiencies with scheme.

At times this year, the defensive scheme has rested on straight up play based on a conservative mindset, and we have seen the results. Against Oklahoma, that went out the window and we saw an ultra-aggressive scheme executed well that put pressure on a very good offensive team. Talent still won out, but the deficit was not large.

What was different? Pressure. We played our linebackers up. We blitzed from the edges and middle. We blitzed on delays. We showed blitz and dropped back. We played man coverage and forced OU to make great, accurate throws in order to move the ball.

Were there lapses? Yes, but the entire night there were multiple formations, the OU QB was on the run, and OU had to utilize its superior talent to win.

We see the LB’s on the line of scrimmage. They take a read step and delay blitz. This creates an immediate decision point for the QB, who pulls it down. After pulling it down, the defense swarms to the ball like we have not seen this year. Yes, we need more strength to tackle an undersized QB, but the point is made.

Here we have a base look with an overshift to the strong side by the LB’s. We run a base pass defense, but create pressure with 4 rushers. How refreshing. With Thomas on the inside, ISU has shown an ability to create disciplined penetration with 4 rushers. On this play, the pressure comes from Benton, who I think can play a little bit. The presence and flashes of skill shown by Benton and Bailey on the edges is very encouraging.

The important thing to note here is that the pressure comes in the lanes. Each lineman has a lane that goes from the initial alignment and ends up at the QB. When a DL jumps out of that lane, then gaps are opened that the offense sees and exploits. ISU has had trouble creating pressure in the lanes all year. Here we see progress.

The DL creates pressure and squeezes in the lanes. As the play breaks down, we again see a swarm to the ball that results in a short gain. Box and contain.

I believe the opportunity for ISU to create pressure in base defense is based on the blitz and swarm. The OL hesitates slightly to account for a delay blitz, which gives the DL an advantage in their pass rush. Occupying the OL’s brain with what is possible creates an opportunity for the under-skilled DL to gain an advantage in a base set. It worked on this play.

At first glance this play may look like a failure. Here, we blitz two linebackers and bring 6 rushers. We are playing zone behind it. OU adjusts and hits the hot route for a positive gain to third and short.

What is important here is the net effect of the pressure. It creates a need for a quick decision by the QB. He has to check down to a short receiver and cannot look downfield for coverage lapses.

You have probably noticed a theme the last two weeks in my discussion of defense. I have keyed on making the running back and the quarterback make quick decisions. This is important because if they commit early then the target for the defense is identified and the defenders are free to swarm. How often have we seen the RB be able to be patient and make a killer cut 3 yards past the line, or the QB sit and wait until coverage is exhausted and hit a wide open receiver.

On this play, the decision is made right now and no one has to cover very long. The play is successful because of the QB recognition, but in at least half of the circumstances a free blitzer will affect the play and have a chance for a turnover or a sack. This is a great example of the defense dictating to the offense instead of the other way around.

I loved this play. It is a big moment in the game. ISU had scored and then OU ran the kickoff back in to ISU territory. It is 3rd and 1 and ISU needs a play. This stop resulted in a missed FG and set the stage for ISU to take an oh-so-brief lead.

OU is running a read option — a play that ISU has trouble with consistently. Bailey plays this in the most effective way. He attacks as a free rusher. Typically, ISU defenders will penetrate and over pursue the play or stop and wait to get exploited. Bailey reads the play and attacks the mesh point.

Attacking the mesh point makes the QB make an early decision (see above). The safety has the QB and is attacking the play. The OLB folds to chase the RB. Most impressively, Bailey takes the block at the mesh point and plays off of it to make the tackle for a loss. Very well played, good instincts, and a solid display of talent.

The blitz and swarm scheme employed by ISU in this game was also used against SJSU. The energy on defense was at its highest level in those two games. In both, pressure was applied that slowed down the offense and created turnovers. ISU was still beaten at times, and that will happen, but this schematic philosophy gives them the best opportunity to be successful. I believe the players feed off of the aggressiveness and make energy plays when they are free to attack.

Just like in the run game, ISU is close to putting together a full game of solid defense. Talent upgrades in the defensive line rotation have afforded the coaches the opportunity to employ this scheme. Additional upgrades at LB and additional experience on the DL can provide a difficult defense to play against. Kids like to play in aggressive defenses and developing an identity as such will help recruiting.

If ISU continues to blitz and swarm, the corner will be turned sooner rather than later.

A Quick Look Ahead

KU is, well, KU. They will come out charged up and we will get their best effort because they have circled this game as the one they can win. Get ready for 60 minutes of extraordinary effort by the Jayhawks.

The problem for ISU will be matching the intensity of the game early. The longer they hang in the game, the more difficult it will be to overcome them. ISU needs to blitz and swarm on defense. KU will turn the ball over when under pressure and ISU needs to create the same pressure they created against OU.

On offense, ISU needs to attack aggressively by running to the corners and throwing over the top. Our receivers can beat their DB’s and we have to stretch them. If KU is able to zero in on short edge passes and slow developing runs, then the ISU offense is likely to experience the same bog downs it has all year. Instead, they need to be aggressive inside out and outside in.

A decisive win is the only win that counts in my opinion. If this team is as close as I think it is, KU will provide the opportunity to put it on display. It is imperative for recruiting and player defections for ISU to make a statement on Saturday. Announce that your presence at the bottom of the standings is an aberration and not a reflection of where you are. Set the stage for another win against Tech and an upset against a deflated WVU team. Do that, and the future will be bright.

I will not discuss the alternative because I do not believe it will happen. ISU should win this game in the 42-17 range and we will all feel a little better about football.