What we’ll explain next is how they read the blockers in front of them to decide how to defend the gap they are assigned. We’ll treat MIKE as a single-gap player first and explain it from his perspective, since he is over an uncovered guard and can read his blocks easier than WILL can read his guard.
As we said in the last article, OL give the best reads, 6’3 300lb linemen can rarely trick you about where they’re going. Short 200lb backs that run 4.5 can.
There are dozens of words I’ve come across in what to call a particular type of block or block scheme over the years, but there are only so many directions an OL can go. The staff will drill around 8 different paths the OLman can take:
- Frontside Pull
- Backside Pull
Base Blocks – OG heads straight ahead.
Easy to read and diagnose. The MLB can spot this one and attack the blocker from the outside-in, that’s why he plays 30, so he has outside leverage on the snap. He heads into him with his inside shoulder, keeping the outside arm free. It should be easy to set his base properly here. He should expect the ball to come towards him and when it goes to his outer half he pushes off the OG. He has help to the inside and behind him inside (WLB and the S), so its critical he not let the RB get outside of him.
Reach Blocks – OG tries to get outside of you, his first step will be to try to get an outside angle on the defender to seal off your pursuit of an outside running play.
The first thing the MLB does is shuffle-step outwards to stay on the outside half of the guard, then attack. You do not want him to hit you square in the chest or hit/grab your outside half. You want him to hit your inner half and you need to push him backwards into the A-gap (called squeezing), with your outside arm in the B-gap, just like the base block. The running back is likely going outside and the OG can seal you off completely if he gets outside leverage.
There is more to notice here in how the opponent executes their reach blocks than just how to attack it. Teams that like to run tight inside zone plays will run the OG tighter, closer to the Center, while still being a reach block. The teams that like to run wide stretch plays will send the OG wider. So, if on film the opponent runs their guards downfield wider, you can align the MLB a step or half-step wider. If they run it tight, you can align him a step inside. Or you can just teach the MLB this information in film study and he can adjust his attack without changing his 30 alignment at all. I prefer the latter.
One thing you cannot do is attack the reach without getting wide enough. This is also why you put the MLB in a 30. If he’s inexperienced that outside shoulder alignment helps him greatly. He may not remember to shuffle step once and keep his outside leverage. He may decide to just run into the B-gap, which will get him flattened if he can’t take on the OG.
A WLB in an Under front doesn’t need to work on the reach quite as much, but SAM’s toughest block to take on is the reach from the OT or TE. In an Over defense all 3 can face it, so the WILL needs to work on it. In practice they all work on it together. When SAM reacts to this block it is imperative he not run away from it, he must get his leverage and his base set, but not step too far out to set them. If he does the ball will go right between the T and TE.
Frontside Pull – when the Guard to your side of the formation pulls out and heads outside to your side.
Whenever a LB sees a frontside pull, the first thing that should come to mind is "it’s a sweep". It immediately says that the RB is not coming into the B-gap frontside, but is headed outside beyond the OT/TE behind the pulling OG. The only way the back would come into the B-gap is on cutback, and that is the responsibility of the backside LB.
On frontside pull, the MLB scrapes around behind the DE to search for the first opening he can find and presses it.
If the pulling guard isn’t great at blocking in open space, he may cutblock the LB. In this case it is SAM, but could easily be WILL (if run weakside) or MIKE (if he presses an opening, OL are taught to hit the first threat). The LBs must be aware of it. In a confined area such as this one, it is just as legal for the LB to cutblock the guard and can be a good option of attack. Cutting the guard’s legs out may make him take a step back; where the backside guard will likely be running (sweeps usually involve both guards pulling). The LB could take out both or slow the back down enough that pursuit makes the tackle.
Backside Pull – When the guard to your side of the formation goes away.
Backside pulls are incorporated into counters, traps, and power plays. Usually where the guard goes, the ball will be following, therefore you are the cutback man. The ball is headed away from your assigned gap, so you do not need to press the B-gap any longer unless you know it will get you to the ballcarrier. The assignment is to scrape over the NG and hit the first open hole without ever crossing the RB’s face.
If the LB crosses his face, he has opened up a cutback lane…and the biggest plays in football go where the cutback man was supposed to be standing.
If the guard pulls and takes a pass set (bootleg play) the LB does the same thing initially but once he reads pass he drops into his coverage and picks up his assigned receiver/zone.
Pass/Draw – Guard key backs up and takes a shows a passing play.
Pass is rather easy, but the draw makes it tricky. When the guard backs up for a pass, the linebacker takes his assignment in coverage, but cannot lose sight of the guard immediately. Offenses that like to run the draw play will have their linemen take a pass set for only an instant, then the ball has to be handed off. A linebacker has to be trained to notice the difference in how the guard sets. Pass plays bring the shoulders higher, for instance.
Once the LB recognizes a draw, he immediately yells it out to his teammates and retraces his steps to his initial alignment. His object will be to force the ballcarrier to stay in the middle, where his help is, by attacking the blocker’s outside shoulder. He wants to force the RB towards the other LB or the safeties if he cannot make the tackle. Usually the backside LB will end up completely unblocked on the play and can make the tackle if the RB is forced to him.
Down-angle – In general any block where the angle is towards the Center is a down block. Usually it means someone up front is getting double-teamed.
When the guard down blocks on the NG and the B-gap is open, you press your gap immediately. It indicates an inside zone, Iso, or Power O play. On Power and Iso, someone is coming into that open B-gap to hit you as a lead blocker. The goal is to take out the blocker and force the RB wide or backwards.
If the lead blocker is a FB (e.g., Iso), you run through him at full speed with outside leverage (meaning you hit him with your inside shoulder). The LB should be able to handle him, then get a hand on the RB.
If the lead blocker is the backside OG (Power) you set your base with outside leverage and squeeze the inside gap. This is called being "over the load (block)". You have to keep your outside arm free. If the offense runs the Power play "tight" like this, the RB is probably meant to follow that OG right into you. You want to force the ballcarrier wider here if you cannot get free.
Note that the frontside LB, MIKE as I've drawn this one up, is not watching the backside OG, he's basing his read only off the frontside OG. He doesn't need to know if the backside guard is coming or not, he has to get into that gap either way. If he sees him pulling out of the corner of his eye, great, but he's not supposed to key that guy.
If the Guard blocks down and the gap closes, it is likely a Veer but could be a Power O play run "wide" where the OT pushes the 5-tech DE down the line. A wide Power can go up the C or D gap, and it really depends on how athletic their guards are. If the Power is run wide, its likely the FB or first lead blocker will kick out SAM; it would be SAM's job to not be moved at all. If that happens and MIKE recognizes it is Power, he has to get around the 5 and SAM to hit the OG with his outside shoulder, called being "under the load", and a DB has the outside gap.
Veer – The veer block is a down block, but involves both the frontside G and T. It is the basis for most option plays and counters, but can be used on long traps and power as well. Guards and Tackles in veer schemes will usually take a slightly wider split.
If the LB recognizes a veer block, he shuffles outside the veering OT and is responsible for the C-gap. He must know that the ball is coming to this side of the field.
Veer blocks are one big reason why the veer offense and veer-based schemes and most modern spread option schemes pose problems. If you creep up to the line after reading the down block of the guard, you get earholed by the tackle. This is why the DE is taught to attack veer blocks and interrupt the path of the tackle – to protect the LB(s) behind him. The DE has to chuck him and give the linebacker time to see the OT coming and read veer. After that the DE steps down, towards the Center, along the line (block-down step down rule). The DE becomes responsible for the vacated B-gap and the LB now has C-gap responsibility. This is essentially the scrape exchange method of attacking the zone read.
Scoop – its difficult to differentiate this one from the down block, but it is the opposite of the reach block. He takes a step slightly back and laterally. The guard wants to get underneath a NG lined up on the Center for a double-team, but be able to hit him in the chest and become the primary blocker. This is a common backside block, so the ball is going away.
The Center will probably release quickly to attack the LB and seal off the backside pursuit.
This one is hard to spot and attack. With most linemen the down and scoop block look exactly the same for a defender. This is one spot where playing 2-gap vs 1-gap LB play differs. 2-gap LBs have to run full speed on the snap even if the ball goes away, you have to be able to read the block correctly to know what is happening. In that case, WILL would probably be aligned further over, as in some Nickel fronts. MIKE must maintain gap coverage of the opposite A-gap, and this is where he will lead into the Center with his opposite shoulder.
Single gap coverage means you attack your gap on flow-to, and shuffle on flow-away so its not as imperative you read the scoop block correctly. He still will be looking into that A-gap, but his job is to find the first gap he thinks can get him to the ballcarrier.
Now within this framework you can see how linebackers read the blocks of the OLinemen no matter what front we're playing. This stuff applies just the same for a 46 defense as it would an Over or even an old Six One defense. I have only drawn it for the Under. Everything here applies for all 3 linebacker positions in general, but in defensive fronts where the OLBs are lined up on the line, the outside guys spend less time on scoops and more on reach blocks.