One of the things I love about football is how the game requires both physical and intellectual elements for success. The physical part is pretty obvious. The team with the best athletes usually wins. The intellectual element is less obvious, but equally important. Think about even the most basic run play in a Division 1 playbook. Before the play gets into the playbook, coaches will spend hours designing it and making sure it has multiple permeations to address the myriad of potential defensive looks the opposition will provide. Once it is in the playbook, coaches spend even more time ensuring the players understand the play and the various ways it can evolve based on what the defense does. On the practice field, drills are designed to teach the skills necessary to execute the play. Once the necessary skills are in place, the play is practiced over and over again until it is perfected.

On game day intellectual components have to be in place for the play to have a reasonable chance of success. For example, the offensive coordinator must call the play at the correct time and in the correct situation. The play then has to be communicated to the players so they know what to do. The players must understand their individual responsibilities (and often the responsibilities of others) and be able to adjust those responsibilities at a moment’s notice if the defense changes. Of course, even if you call the right play and everyone knows what to do, you still have to execute the play. That’s where the physical component comes in. 

We’re going to step into the 18 Stripes film room to take a look at a play from 2015 where design, execution and physical ability were successfully integrated to create a big play for the Fighting Irish. Let’s take a look at the film and I’ll show you what I mean.

ss 1 pre snap - highlighted

In many ways this is a pretty standard run play. Josh Adams (# 33, red star) will get the ball and follow the red arrow. Most of the blockers will take on the nearest defender (blue lines). Quenton Nelson (# 56) and Nic Weishar (# 82) will pull across the formation and become lead blockers (blue circles, blue lines). One additional twist, Torii Hunter Jr. (# 16) will motion across the formation and fake the sweep in the opposite direction.


ss 2 - players faked - highlighted

This is a great example of the impact good play design can have. At this point, the fake sweep by Torii Hunter Jr. (yellow circle), has occupied 3 defenders (yellow stars). Although the fake won’t hold them for the entire play, it forces the defenders to hesitate (this will be important later). As a side note, take a look at the defensive end (yellow arrow). At this point he is headed in the direction of the play and is actually in decent position. That won’t last long.


ss 3 additional players faked

The defensive end (yellow star, yellow arrow), has stopped pursuing the ball carrier and has been pulled in the wrong direction. At this point he seems to be looking at quarterback Deshone Kizer (# 14). That’s 4 defenders pulled away from the ball carrier by play design. Pretty darn good.


ss 3 - adams stretches - highlighted

Adams has been coached to stretch the play towards the sidelines before he makes a cut (red arrow). If done properly, this “stretching” creates seams in the defense which the ball carrier can exploit. The key from a running back perspective is to keep your shoulders facing the sidelines (red line) until a seam opens up. 

This stretching also helps the offensive linemen. At this point Quenton Nelson (blue arrow) is in a stalemate position with the linebacker. Because Adams is threatening the perimeter, the linebacker will have to move to the outside (yellow arrow), which should allow Nelson to get the advantage.


ss 4 adams squares up - highlighted

The line has done a nice job of sealing the inside pursuit (blue line), so Adams can turn up field (red star, red arrow). On the perimeter, Nelson now has the advantage and is in excellent position to wall off the defender (blue arrow).


ss 4 - adams waits

Obviously, there is a lot of space to the left of Adams (red star). The natural tendency would be to run towards that open space immediately, following the green line. In high school this likely would have worked because Adams was so advanced physically. However, you aren’t going to “out” athlete a quality opponent like Stanford. If Adams follows the green arrow, the safety (yellow star) will be able to take a direct line to make the tackle (green line). This would be a pretty easy tackle for a Division 1 safety.  

Instead Adams is going to use his intellect and be patient. He will follow the black line and wait until the last possible moment to make the cut. By taking this approach, the safety will have to continue moving forward (black line). Once Adams does make his cut, the safety must take a less direct “flat” angle to make the tackle (second part of the black line).


ss 5 adams waits and makes the break - highlighted

You can see how close Adams is to the blocker (red lines). Even more impressive is that Adams hasn’t yet fully told the defense which direction he is going; his shoulders are still relatively square (blue line). This puts the safety in a very difficult position as he is unsure which direction Adams is heading (yellow box). As a result, the safety has pretty much stopped his feet in anticipation of a change of direction, while Adams is almost in a full sprint. Advantage Notre Dame. 


ss 6 game of inches - highlighted

This screen shot represents the confluence of the intellectual and physical elements. Smart running by Adams meant that the safety (labelled 1.) had to wait to figure out which way the play was going. This hesitation provides a little extra breathing room (yellow line). Remember the outside linebacker that initially stayed home for the sweep before pursuing? Well there he is (labelled 2.) The hesitation created by careful play design provides Adams with a little more room (yellow line) on the other side. Finally, if you like a little brawn to go along with your brains, check out Nic Weishar and Quenton Nelson (blue arrows, labelled 3). Weishar is pancaking his man while Nelson is busy driving his man into the next zip code.


ss 7 speed highlighted

Now it’s time for the physical element. Josh Adams (red circle) is about to out run everyone. It’s nice to have good athletes.



Adams Stanford

Final Thoughts

This play demonstrates how physical and intellectual elements intersect to create success on the field. From an intellectual perspective, the play was called at the right time, against the right defense. More importantly, the design of the play pulled four defenders away from the ball carrier which created an opening that could be exploited as the play developed. The running back resisted the temptation to rely solely on his athletic ability. Instead he used his brain and was patient. This allowed his blockers to get into position and forced a potential tackler to slow down, which created a seam he could exploit. Finally, the Notre Dame players won the physical battles. The blockers made their blocks and the running back out ran the tacklers.

It really is a beautiful thing when the intellectual and physical elements combine on the field. Hopefully we see a lot of this combination in 2016.