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The Spread Offense Running Game

Daniel Shipman

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When people hear “spread" they think of the passing game. The truth is the spread running game can be lethal. A few years ago I coached at a school that made a run to the Texas high school state championship game. We put the spread in not because we thought we would dominate in the passing game but because we knew the team would be a great running team.

The spread has become the fastest growing offense at the high school level. I wonder how many truly understand all facets of the offense. When done properly it can be similar to a full court press in basketball and it will slowly wear the other team down. The running game is an integral part of becoming a complete offense. Coaches need to rep running as much or more than the passing game and few understand this.

There are three basic schemes for the offense line to learn inside zone, outside zone, and the counter trey. On some level this may seem simple. Unfortunately all three concepts are tremendously different and often offense lines will struggle to be good at all three.

In a typical doubles alignment there are four wide receivers and one running back. The running back usually is set away from playside. So for example if a team is running “2-Base" then the back will be aligned to the quarterback's left and will crossover and attack the 2 hole and is always looking for a cutback lane. The back should be thinking bend or bang and has to read on the run. Often the hole will develop backside and as result no player should think they can take a playoff. Many times a back may end up backside and if the inside receiver is not doing his job his guy will make a touchdown saving tackle!

The foundation of the spread's running game is the zone read. As the back crosses over the quarterback's eyes are on the backside end. If the end closes the quarterback will pull the ball and run out the back door. If the end stays disciplined or slow plays then it is an automatic give. In this article I will focus on the responsibilities of the quarterback and runners and I will talk about line play in a later article.

Again repetition is critical. Many quarterbacks will guess. They have to read on the run and react to what the defense is giving the offense. 2/3 base is the foundation running play for the spread offense. The quarterback counter trey works off of base and should be learned together with 2/3 base.

Quarterback counter trey will look like 2/3 base but there is no read. If the play call was 4 QB counter trey, then the back would align to the right cross over and fake 3 base. The quarterback does not need to ride the ball to back, just let him cross. Backside guard and tackle will pull. The guard will kick the playside end and the tackle will seal on the linebacker. Playside linemen will down block. Let me say here that head up “4" techniques are difficult to counter because it's tough to execute a down block.

One of the most common errors by the quarterback will be for him to try and run wide. This play is tight and will be from backside B gap to play side B gap. I promise this play will not work if the QB is not disciplined. He must trust his offense line and be patient. If 2/3 base have successful the QB counter will be successful too.

Now 4/5 counter can be run by the back as well. The QB can read this like he does 2/3 base. Often when the backside defensive end sees backside linemen pulling he will close and the QB will have an opportunity to pull the ball. If a team wants to be successful in the spread running game they must become efficient at the counter. It is a miss direction play that keeps the backside honest.

Often inside linebackers will cross key. Tendencies for most spread teams show that a majority of time if the back is away the running play is coming to you. One way to keep them honest is to mix up the running back's alignment. Align the back playside on counter some. This takes away the QB's read but break's the crossover tendency. But if your team runs counter well this will hurt them keying crossover tendencies.

The third running scheme is outside zone. There are three outside zone running plays and they involve the wide receiver, running back, and quarterback. Outside zone keeps defensive ends honest. And just as inside zone and counter work together so can counter and outside zone. Some teams won't widen the end but will use an outside linebacker to split the difference between an inside receiver and the tackle. (This is where the bubble is important).

Having success running outside zone will cause defensive ends to widen which makes them prime targets to be kicked by pulling guards when running counter. The most difficult type of outside zone play and the hardest to time is the jet sweep.

The QB will start the inside receiver in motion and just before he arrives at the QB ball will be snapped and handed to him running full speed. Once this play is perfected it opens up many other possibilities in both running game and passing game. Offensive linemen will cut backside and stretch playside. It is easy for offensive line coaches to over coach this. Teach your linemen to work to the playside arm pit and stay engaged! It is a fast play and penetration is about the only thing that can cause problems. Playside receivers play a large role in the success of this play.

If a team is running man coverage I would crack both playside receivers. As they attack the crack path they will block their men by running them out of the play. A cover 2 squat corner can difficult but the receiver must learn to occupy. Receivers need to learn the same concept as playside linemen, stay engaged. Let your back be a back!

The final outside zones are 8/9 zone and 8/9 QB zone. Offensive line has the same responsibility as jet sweep. 8/9 zone the back will cross over the QB will zone read. 8/9 zone the back will cross over and the QB will attack the perimeter.

I have talked about three schemes with many different looks out of one formation. That is the tremendous advantage of the spread. Good coaches will mix it up and stay away from tendencies. There are several pass plays that work off these run plays to keep defenses honest.

A good offensive coach puts himself on the defensive side and asks the question, “What would give me problems then implements it. " The beauty of the spread is that once you have run it a while you understand its simplicity.

It's my belief in high school football a coach could run five or six running plays out of the spread and five or six pass plays and be successful. That is dependent on play calling but most importantly on execution. Limit the number of plays and formations so you rep the core plays and become proficient! Often you will find out adding plays and formations to fool the defense will likely just fool your offense!

Daniel Shipman is a high school football coach and writer. and


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