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The importance of stopping the run

Yes, even in the Big 12, stopping the run must be a priority

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Texas Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 is a conference known for its tempo-based, no huddle spread offensive play. From the outside looking in, many people believe that this conference is based on prolific passing attacks. This may lead some to believe that defenses within the conference like the Texas Longhorns should focus more on stopping the pass in order to limit the effectiveness of their opposing offenses.

Well, that is simply not the case. The fact is, if you want to be successful on defense and win football games, you must stop the run. Even the offense in the conference that relies most heavily on the pass, Texas Tech, will beat you on the ground if they are given the opportunity. What could prove this point more than the 2015 Texas Tech game in which Texas gave up 293 yards rushing and five touchdowns?

The reason for this is simple physics. Many outside forces are working against an offense when they attempt to complete a pass. The line has to protect. The quarterback has to make the proper mental assessments of the play. The quarterback has to physically throw the ball at the right time, with the proper trajectory and accuracy. Timing by the quarterback and receiver have to be in sync. The receiver has to physically complete the act of catching the ball.

All of those things are relatively difficult tasks to do. Fans are spoiled by watching high-level athletes who complete these tasks hundreds of times per week perform them with little effort, and they forget just how difficult it is to consistently complete a pass. Notice to this point, we haven’t even mentioned the fact that there are 11 highly-trained elite athletes on the other side of the ball with the very intent of making each of the previously mentioned tasks even more difficult.

On the other hand, while running the football isn’t easy at the Division I level, it is a much more simple task than completing a pass. A hand off is a relatively simple task that even the youngest of youth football teams can learn to execute consistently in a matter of a few weeks. Hand offs are developed skills, that must be learned and refined, but there are not nearly as many moving parts to a hand off as there are to a pass.

The line has to block properly to run the football, but they also have to block to pass. In my personal opinion, run blocking is an easier technique to execute than pass blocking. The kinetics involved in run blocking are just more natural human movements compared to those involved in pass blocking.

The only other task required to run the ball is for the ball carrier to see the hole and get through it. While this isn’t exactly an easy task, the ball carrier has an idea of where the hole will be simply based on the play call. Many plays are designed where a ball carrier can get a better idea of the precise location of the hole based on pre-snap reads and defensive alignment. Defensive players do move after the snap, but ball carriers have the entire field in front of them to see this, where many times pass receivers do not, giving a ball carrier a distinct advantage in this area as well.

The bottom line is that there are many things working against completing a pass that are difficult for the offense to control. The same is not true on the run. The offense can control virtually every part of any run play. All they have to do is execute properly.

If defenses can keep an offense from executing the run game properly, it forces the offense to use low-percentage passes in order to achieve their goal. Okay, so now it’s time to get philosophical for just a moment. What is an offense’s goal in football? Most would say to score touchdowns.

Sure, every offense is designed to score a touchdown on every drive, so that is the ultimate goal, but anyone with experience in goal setting knows that proper goal setting requires strategic planning between the start and the finish line. The touchdown is the finish line.

How does an offense reach that goal? They go 10 yards in four plays. Each time they complete that task, they do it again, until their reach the finish line. So it’s pretty simple — the goal is to go 10 yards in four plays repeatedly until they reach their goal.

If the offense can go eight yards in two plays running the football, their odds of completing two yards in two plays are astronomically better than if they are only able to go, say, four yards on those same two plays. A 3rd and 2 offense has a much better arsenal at its disposal, both running and throwing the ball, than a 3rd and 6 or or more offense. Obviously, as the third=down yardage to gain gets larger, the lower the offense’s probabilities of completing the pass become.

What exactly contributes to pass-completion probabilities? There are three major contributions to the probability of a pass being completed.

The first is contributing factor is how long it takes to get the pass out of the quarterback’s hand from the time the center begins the play. The longer a quarterback holds the ball, the more time defensive players have to execute their techniques and put themselves in the position to make a play.

Obviously, this is true for defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers, who wish to affect the quarterback’s ability to throw an accurate pass, with the ultimate prize being a sack, which keeps the quarterback from throwing the pass at all. The same applies, however, to coverage defenders, who have more time to read the routes of receivers and react the longer the quarterback holds the ball.

The second contributing factor to pass-completion probabilities is how long the ball is in the air. This is also related to defensive abilities to see the ball and react to its trajectory, providing them the ability to make a play on the ball. Many may think this is directly related to a deep ball versus a short-yardage pass. That is not the case. Many times, a short out route can require a throw of 30 or more yards to complete, while a deep post may only be a 25 yard throw. Which one is a higher percentage pass absent the presence of defenders? The deep post.

Another reason the deep post is an easier reception than the out route is the direction the receiver is traveling relative to the quarterback. If a receiver is traveling toward the quarterback, he can see and track the ball much better than if traveling away from the quarterback. The receiver also has a better ability to adjust their body position to the direction of the throw moving toward the quarterback than when moving away from the quarterback. The quarterback can also gauge the trajectory of his throw more easily when the receiver is moving toward him versus away.

This is why I personally firmly believe in inside coverage techniques for defenders, despite the fact that many defensive coaches may disagree. By taking away the inside release, the defense can prevent high-percentage passes, which are both shorter throws and have the receiver moving toward the quarterback, like a slant route.

Even though they are virtually the same route, a seam route is a much easier completion than a deep go because on the go the ball is in the air for a longer time and the receiver is moving away from the quarterback. On a seam, the receiver is actually moving ever so slightly toward the quarterback, making it a higher-percentage completion.

This technique also places a defender in between the quarterback and the receiver, putting them in better position to make an break on the ball and forcing a higher trajectory on any throw to a receiver. Therefore, the ball spends more time in the air, providing the other defenders time to react to the throw and make a play on the ball, or a tackle, limiting the yardage on the completion.

By stopping the run on first and second down, the defense can force the offense into making longer throws, which both take more time to develop and are in the air for longer, resulting in a lower completion percentage. That directly affects the offenses ability to complete their goal of achieving 10 yards in four plays. Having these lower probability situations also provides more possibilities for turnovers, based both on physics and on the psychology of the offensive players and coaches, who experience higher pressure on third-and-long situations, resulting in a higher probability of making a mistake.

Sacks are also more likely on third-and-long situations. This is partially true because the third-and-long plays require more time to develop than a third and short play. It is also true because the defense can run schemes specifically designed to get pressure on the quarterback in this situation, which put players in positions that are not ideal for run defense. A sack for a five-yard loss is a field-position gain of five percent. While it seems mundane, there is a major advantage in starting at the 30-yard line versus the 25-yard line. Furthermore, a 10-yard sack is a 10 percent change in field position, the difference between the 25 and 35.

The concept is pretty simple — stopping the run forces offenses to adjust into plays with lower probabilities of success. It also puts the offense behind the chains, forcing high-pressure situations which can result in turnovers and sacks, both of which change the field position battle. Better field position created by those explosive defensive plays results in a higher probability of success for the offense.

Based on that, we can conclude that stopping the run not only gives the defense a higher probability of success, it provides higher probabilities of success for the friendly offense as well. It seems to me that the only logical conclusion that can be drawn from this is that stopping the run gives a football team a higher probability of success. That, my friends is why stopping the run is a fundamental part of a winning football team.

From watching film, I believe that both Tom Herman and Todd Orlando understand this philosophy. While they may not agree with each and every concept that has been pointed to in this post, they understand the overall philosophy and use it in their game plans. This is yet another reason why it is reasonable to expect that both will be successful in their coaching careers at Texas.