“Why do they continue run the ball into the middle of the pile?” a friend of mine once asked after watching a running back crash into the line for a two-yard loss. “If they are going to run, why don’t they run around the pile?”
As with any sports-related questions, the answer involves a number of variables, and specifics regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the respective players on the offense, from the abilities of the Running Back, to the ability of those on the offensive line to block for him. The offense also has to gauge the speed and ability of the defenders to beat them to the corner. Long story short, the offense would love to run around the corner. It would also love to gain a ton of yards up the middle. Even if it doesn’t, however, a run up the middle serves a purpose.
It may also sound elementary to suggest that the offense wants to have every single defensive player confused, but that is the purpose of the run up the middle. For those that love chess, even an unsuccessful run up the middle can be the equivalent to sacrificing a pawn to get the opponent to move themselves into a weak position.
If the offense attempts to run up the middle often enough, it hopes to create enough confusion in the minds of the defensive backfield that they make an erroneous first step up and in to stop that run. One erroneous step may be all that’s needed for the timing of the offense’s passing game. Creating confusion in the minds of the all of the defense is important, of course, but it is crucial to the success of the offense that those players that are positioned in what is called the defensive backfield –the linebackers (LBs), the free safety (FS), and the Strong Safety (SS) in the diagram above– be confused.
The players in the defensive backfield are unblocked on the line of scrimmage and they have free reign as to how they are going to approach the next play. If they are confused and they make an incorrect guess, holes in the defensive backfield will open up for the offense to exploit in the passing game.
The timing of most offenses require a successful running game, but even a less than successful running game can open up holes for a Quarterback to pass in, if the members of the defensive backfield are required to step up and in to assist the front four defenders (the defensive line) in their attempts to stop the run. So, the next time your team continues to make futile attempts to run the ball into the middle of the pile, wait for the next play before you kick that hole in the wall. If that Quarterback fakes the ball to the Running Back, (a play-action fake is what it’s called) and the Linebackers take a step up and in to stop that play, you’ll realize that the Offensive Coordinator (the coach that decides which plays the offense will run) made that previous call to set up this pass. For when that Linebacker steps up and in to stop that running play from going into the middle again, he opens up a *hole behind him that the Quarterback will pass the ball in. (*This hole is also called a lane and/or a window.)
The offense must keep the defense guessing whether the offense is going to run or pass. You may hear a broadcaster refer to this as “keeping pressure on the defense” or “keeping the defense on their heels.” They may also refer to the defense stepping up and in as “the defense cheating” or the defense “creeping”, and that the offense must have a better mix of run and pass to prevent that.
As a result, if an offense has a decent mix of running yards gained and passing yards gained, that team wins more often than not. Some offenses don’t need a perfect mixture, but most of them need just enough to establish a threat of something different to keep the defense guessing. Most of them will acknowledge that they are not going to achieve a perfect mix of yards gained, based on the defenses’ proficiency, or their own deficiencies, but they know that they will be required to have a number of attempts in one of these two strategies to establish the necessary threat. It is for this reason, that you often see networks provide graphics that suggest when a Running Back attempts to run the ball a certain number of times (regardless the amount of yards he gains) the percentage of victory for that team is high.
The chess match of play calling, and alignment, will often bear fruit in those seconds that occur just before, and immediately after, the snap. This is where you’ll hear the term “cheating” used most often. If members of the defensive backfield step back in the moments before a ball is snapped, or immediately after the snap, they are cheating back, believing that a pass will occur. The more common use of “cheating”, however, occurs when the members of the defensive backfield creep up and into the line of scrimmage, believing that a run will occur.
Therefore, when an offense continues to “waste” a play by running the ball up into the middle of the line, for a futile two-yard gain, and they continue to do it without much success, you can be sure that they are attempting to prevent the LB’s, the FS, and the SS from sliding back into the holes that the Quarterback wants to throw the ball into. To further this deception, a Quarterback may fake a hand-off to that Running Back to get a crucial one-to-two step creep, or cheat, up and in from the members of the defensive backfield.
“When are ‘we’ going to just admit that we can’t run the ball?” a novice fan may scream at the television.
Long story short, few teams can afford to just give up on the run. Most offenses are not so loaded with talent that they can succeed with a play that the defense knows is coming. Some are, of course, but what works for one team, will not work for the other, and vice-versa. It’s a chess match.
Football 201: Prevent Defense Prevents Victory
“The only thing the prevent defense prevents is victory,” one fan said, quoting color commentator John Madden’s oft used condemnation of this defensive alignment.
In week five of the 2015 season, the Atlanta Falcons allowed the Washington Redskins to march down the field, about forty-five yards in twenty-five seconds, to score a game-tying field goal. The prevent defense failed once again.
The message boards on various Atlanta Falcons’ sites blew up with people screaming at the Atlanta Falcons Defensive Coordinator Richard Smith for allowing this to happen by employing the “disastrous” prevent defense in the closing moments of regulation.
“Why do they keep trying this?” Another fan asked.
That question goes to the heart of the answer: It works … most of the times.
“If you’re winning a game,” John Madden once said to add to his complaint, “You’re winning, because of your defensive strategy. Why would you change that successful formula up in the closing moments of a game?”
John Madden was well known for speaking the language of the common man, and the common man has asked this question so often that it has earned an answer from a common man that has answered this question so often in his head that it’s percolated to a boil.
The Redskins had twenty-five seconds to get a field goal. They completed three passes to get their field goal kicker in place for a fifty-two-yard field goal. He made it. Game tied. The prevent defense failed, and Atlanta had to resort to an interception in overtime to defeat the Redskins.
It didn’t have to be that way, according to the common man, fan’s complaints on various Atlanta Falcons’ sites. If the Falcons had had the courage to stick with the defense that had bottled up the Redskin passing game for much of the game, they wouldn’t have had to cross their fingers with hope that something miraculous would happen in OT.
On any given play, in a game of evenly matched opponents, one long pass can change the dynamic of a game. Due to the nature of most offenses, they limit their attempts at such a pass to four-to-five times a game. The risk of attempting this pass is such one that most offenses prefer to stick with the package of plays they have designed for short yardage gains, as most offenses don’t operate well in the desperation of third and long.
When an offense takes the field, down three points and twenty-five seconds left, they enter the “nothing to lose” chapter of their playbook. We have nothing to lose now, so why don’t we try to throw the ball forty yards on every play. Why wouldn’t we take the risk, since the rewards of our normal package are gone now? We just need one of these plays to succeed. If this were a game of Russian roulette, and success was defined as shooting yourself, wouldn’t you increase the number of bullets in that gun if given the choice? You would have nothing to lose by doing so.
The Defensive Coordinator’s job at this point is to limit the chances of this one play succeeding. He’s willing to concede that the offense will succeed with a couple of passes over the middle, but he needs to do everything he can to prevent the possibilities of that one huge play succeeding. The answer to that is a prevent defense.
“I know all this, and everything you’ve just written is obvious,” some would say, “What’s also obvious is that the prevent defense never works.”
“If it never works, why do defensive coordinators around the country, and at all levels, keep using it?” Answer, it is successful … most of the times. A Defensive Coordinator would not put his job on the line, by placing his defense in a prevent alignment just ‘cuz, or just because others do it, or because it’s some sort of tradition. The difference between you, the fan, and a John Madden calling a coach out when it doesn’t work, is that the Defensive Coordinator knows his flow charts and algorithms, and he knows that the statistical probabilities suggest that in this situation the unpopular prevent defense is the right call.
The prevent defense may give up some passes over the middle, and that may have cause your heart to flutter, as your defense surrenders thirty yards, and the other team gets a little too close for comfort, but they need forty-five. They came up fifteen yards short, they lost. Your team won, and they do, more often than not, by employing the prevent defense in the closing moments of a game. That didn’t happen in the Atlanta vs. Washington game, but it does … most of the times.
If it had succeeded, as it often does, no one would’ve said a word, because the idea that a defense should be able to stop an offense from going forty-five yards in twenty-five seconds is not remarkable enough for commentary.