Labriola On

Tomlin on running, fullbacks, game plans

Q. I’d like to start today with a little bit of Football 101 on the subject of running the football. When you review a running play on video, what would you consider to be a good job by the blocking?
A. Winning the line of scrimmage. I talk to our team about this often: In the NFL or at any level of football, often times we talk about run efficiency, and on first-and-10 that’s generally defined as 4 yards. In an effort to get a 4-yard gain, you have to win the line of scrimmage and the running back has to fall forward. If you do those things, you’re going to have an efficient running game, and that 4-yard gain can be described as an efficient run or an efficient running game. Offensive line efficiency is defined by winning the line of scrimmage, particularly at the point of attack, and that’s just gaining grass. The rest of it is on the back, and then when you start talking about explosion runs, which are generally defined as 10-yard runs or longer, that includes the back making people miss on the second level and good wide receiver or perimeter blocking.
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Q. What would constitute a good job by the running back?
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A. Making sure his pile consistently falls forward, his ability to make people miss on the second and third levels, and his finishing ability. Those are the unique things that a particular runner brings to a running game.

Q. So then based on part of what you said in answering the first question, on a typical running play, even if everybody does his job, it’s not necessarily designed to go for a touchdown?
A. No, it’s not. Not in today’s game, not in today’s NFL. They have 11. We have 11. One of your 11 is a quarterback and a non-blocker. That’s one of the advantages of quarterback mobility. When you’re playing a team like Baltimore that has Lamar Jackson at quarterback, he may not be blocking someone, but his play-fake pulls a defender because of his running ability. So you level the playing field and it’s essentially even numbers. But generally when you have a quarterback who’s a non-mobile quarterback or not a threat in that way, it’s really 11-on-10 in regards to the running game. So by virtue of that, no, each play is not designed to score.

Q. You mentioned that run efficiency is defined as a 4-yard gain on first down. How does that change as you get into other down-and-distance situations?
A. I’ve been around people who have defined it differently. Whenever it’s a possession down, it’s the line to gain, whatever that may be. If it’s third-and-1, and you gain one-and-a-half yards, it’s an efficient run. If it’s third-and-2, and you gain one-and-a-half yards, it’s not an efficient run. A lot of it is defined by situation, and so that’s why I used first-and-10.

Q. Does the use of a fullback telegraph for the defense where a running play is going?
A. No. What specifically the use of a fullback does is create another gap. By offensive play design, a runner can follow the fullback or he cannot follow the fullback. Some plays start full-flow and then they end up split-flow. Some plays start split-flow and end up full-flow. So where the fullback goes doesn’t dictate anything other than there’s an additional gap that has to be defended that has been created by his entry.

Q. “Run To Daylight” is the title of a book by Vince Lombardi, and it also was his philosophy on running the football. Is that pretty much standard in the NFL where backs look for openings wherever they might be, or are there plays where the back is supposed to go where the play is designed with no exceptions and trust that the hole will be there when they arrive?
A. Per the defensive structure you’re looking at, it’s really prescribed in today’s game where that daylight is. It’s not a blanket term where the running back is looking D-gap-to D-Gap and finding daylight. Based on the week’s preparation and scouting and game plan development, the running back has a pretty good idea where that daylight is going to be. And defenses have stunts and they change fronts, and thus is the chess match of finding the daylight. But it’s not a hide-and-seek type of thing. There’s some preparation involved. If you’re good and experienced, you have a pretty good understanding of where it is and how to hit it.

Q. Has the way teams run the football changed since you started in the NFL as an assistant coach in 2001?
A. It has, but it also goes through cycles. Things are in vogue for a while and are new and trendy and other things disappear, but over time those things reappear, and a lot of it has to do with what the opposing side of the ball is doing or not doing. It’s just the reality of it.

Q. What’s in vogue now?
A. Being able to defend quarterback mobility. For a while there, when I first came into the league in the early 2000s, people had evolved away from the 3-4 defensive scheme and into the 4-3 defensive scheme. As passing became more prevalent, that one-gap penetrating vertical rush associated with four down linemen became prevalent. In the last 5-10 years, you’ve seen a resurgence of 3-4 schemes because offenses are so multiple with all of the perimeter running and jet-sweeps and quarterback mobility, it provides an edge for a defense to have people on the end of your line in a two-point stance, with better peripheral vision and giving you more ability to adjust because they’re standup people, as opposed to having four down linemen in the game, as an example.

Q. When you and the coaching staff are preparing the game plan for an upcoming opponent, is all of that work done on a particular day, say Tuesday, for a normal Sunday game?
A. We have a certain work schedule for certain days, and then we review that work and look at other areas. Tuesday is a significant day, but that’s just base game-planning, our stuff vs. their stuff, critical matchups, our high-volume stuff vs. their high-volume stuff. But then you get into more minutiae as the week goes on. Wednesday is about possession downs. Thursday is about red zone, short yardage, goal-line. Friday is about two-minute. All the things you need to cover have a regular scheduled approach in terms of covering it. The stuff that’s done early in the week is the stuff that comprises a lot of the snaps of the game. Your high-volume stuff, their high-volume stuff, critical matchup things, first and second-down football.

Q. So it’s not a situation where the players show up on Wednesday morning and are handed a game plan that essentially serves as the bible for the week’s preparation?
A. The game plan is in development right up until kickoff in today’s game. That’s just the reality of it.

Q. I understand that certain things are covered on certain days, but do you ever revisit something that was or wasn’t in the game plan and change it later in the week?
A. Absolutely. And it might be because of a variety of variables. Maybe something might be an attractive thing that we want to explore because we’ve seen other people do it to the opponent. But if we practice for a couple of days and we don’t like our execution of it, whatever it might be, then we take it out. Or we may think something is less important, but as the week goes on it becomes evident it’s more important that we originally thought and it needs to be addressed. So that’s why whatever “it” is is continually tweaked and worked right up until kickoff.

Q. A victory over the Colts today would make your team 4-4 at the midway point. Understanding that you’d rather be 8-0, what would getting to 4-4 tell you about this team based on the circumstances it has faced to this point?
A. That we have a chance to be relevant, and that’s what you ask for at the turn. But sidebar: we’ve probably been through more than most who have a chance to be relevant, and hopefully that’s an asset to us. The scarring, the hardening, the things associated with our journey is an asset to us as we proceed.

Q. Is that real, or is it something people just like to talk about? Can a team really benefit from what it has overcome earlier to help it later?
A. It’s like a boxer who has a chin and he knows it. You’re not knocking him out. I’m a big combat sports fan, an MMA fan. There are some guys you’re going to beat by out-pointing them, because you’re not going to knock them out. And it’s because they have a general aptitude in that area, but they also have a knowledge of their strengths. When you’ve been through something and you consistently come through the other side, it strengthens you for the similar challenges that lie ahead. That’s just the reality of sport competition.

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