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The NFL’s hot new trend? Backside pulling guards!

NFL defenses are getting more diabolical every week. An NFL offensive lineman explains how teams are using leaner, more agile offensive guards as counter weapons.

Washington Redskins v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The NFL is a copycat league. Remember the Wildcat? Teams still run it, but when Miami (it was actually started in Carolina) got a hold of it and ran wild, the rest of the NFL tried to copy it even when teams didn’t have the personnel to run it properly. Why not try? It was working for Miami. If you see something unique on film succeed one week, it is bound to get repeated until someone stops it.

Well as the offensive line nerd I am, I’ve noticed a hot new trend in the run game: The backside guard pulling on outside zone plays.

Pulling backside guards has normally been reserved for gap plays — i.e., power and counter-ish plays. On those plays, the guard typically pulls up inside the line of scrimmage to block the middle linebacker. If you watch football on Sundays, you should be familiar with this type of block

The new trend of pulling a backside guard on zone plays might look like a power or counter, but it’s not. The backside guard is pulling to get around the mess and find his linebacker. This new scheme often creates a defined running lane and better leverage on linebackers. It’s a thing of beauty.

There are three reasons the backside guard is pulling more often on zone plays.

1) Defenses play much more 2I technique than they used to. When I first got into the league, the standard front when teams were in a 4-3 (or 4-2-5 nickel) alignment, even on passing downs was: Two defensive ends in six, seven or nine techniques, one three-technique defensive tackle, and one defensive tackle in a shade.

Over the years, defenses have moved from that shade technique to a 2I, which puts the defensive tackle on the inside shoulder of the guard and not touching the center. For this player, getting up the field is often the goal.

Defensive line gaps and techniques

This is a tough alignment to run outside zone against because it leverages the guard on zone plays. The 2I is perfect for splitting a double team on the front side of a zone play. The guard has to be perfect in his footwork. He needs to step play side, but not too far, because he has to get a piece of the 2I defensive tackle to allow the center to take over the block.

It’s hard to put into words how difficult that truly is. As a guard, that was the toughest block I had. I hated it. Your first instinct is to false step: Step backwards in order to maintain some power when you hit the 2I. When you false step, you give up on getting to the linebacker. And because you’re thinking about getting a shot on the 2I, you’re often too slow getting to the linebacker. The 2I can thus hold both players, the guard and center.

2) Guards are way more agile now. They’re quicker and smaller in weight. Gone are the days of the 330-pound guard. This is a product of better nutrition at the college level — every school has a nutritionist. It’s also a product of the spread offense, which is played at such a fast tempo that offensive linemen can’t carry extra weight if they want to keep up.

3) The pulling backside guard messes with linebackers and actually creates better angles for blocking. It makes the linebacker hesitate just the tiniest bit because the play initially looks like power. It can be the difference between getting your man blocked and the linebacker running over the top and making a play.

Teams aren’t just going to stop running plays against a 2I alignment. They have adapted by incorporating the pin-and-pull technique into zone plays to handle the pesky 2I defensive tackle.

The pin-and-pull technique is when you block down on the front side of a play — the pin — and then pull around the edge. It’s often called a ‘G’ play. This is a man block scheme and it’s excellent for “cutting” the defense. It gives a defined read for the back by cutting off the defense starting with the down block. Here is the pin and pull scheme in its simplest form.

pin and pull scheme

The trickiest block on a pin-and-pull scheme is the backside getting to his linebacker. In this scheme, the backside player must take a wider path off the line of scrimmage to give himself a chance. This path often runs directly into that down block. That’s why you might hear coaches teaching the down blocker to “block, not kill” that player to allow their buddy to work his way up.

Here are the Bengals running a pin-and-pull run to perfection Sunday. It’s eerily similar to the famous Packers Sweep. The tight end starts the play with an excellent down block on the defensive end. The right tackle pins the defensive tackle. The pullers, the right guard and left guard, both get out in space quickly and lay crushing blocks.

Note that when linebackers are running sideways, it’s important to take them where they want to go. If you try squaring them up, you often put yourself off balance, or the they can throw you one direction. Linemen have to trust that the running back will make them right. The left tackle makes the key block on this run, getting to the backside linebacker and opening the touchdown.

Let’s take this pin-and-pull concept to outside zone runs. When you are a coach facing that tough 2I technique and you still want to run the ball outside, you can pin the 2I and pull everyone around. That includes the backside guard now.

Here are the Chiefs running an outside zone strong. The Chiefs and Eagles both use this technique to fold back on the front side against a nine-technique defensive end. It allows for stretch on the front side. The left guard down blocks on the 2I, and the center and right guard pull around. To do this, it’s imperative to have a tackle who’s able to reach the backside three-technique defensive tackle, and Mitchell Schwartz does a great job of that.

One last example. This is the Buccaneers and Panthers on Monday Night Football in Week 5. There isn’t a 2I on this play. The defensive tackle is playing a tilt technique, and in some offenses that gets treated as a 2I for offensive line run-blocking calls. In this alignment, it seems rather obvious the guard has a free release to the linebacker, but the fold block on the tilt creates a massive hole for the running back. The left guard caves down the tilt, the center and right guard come pouring through the hole, and the Bucs get a massive gain. Awesome.

Throwing in the wrinkle of a pin-and-pull technique on zone-blocking plays and pulling backside guards can have excellent results. As someone who watches film every week, I love seeing when coaching staffs adapt, add new wrinkles in the run game, and put their offense in a position to succeed.