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God's play: The modern power run game

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Power is still one of the favored plays in football and has been evolved to work for a variety of different teams and personnel.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the prevalence of the passing game in modern football, if you ask most coaches across the country what their favorite play is you'll often hear back "power" which is often just referred to as "God's play." The play is ideal for how it offers a physical, hammering answer for any defensive problem while also setting up the best play-action opportunities of any running scheme in the game.

Systems that make power a foundational part of their offense and do it well are often rewarded with tags like "manball," "power-coast," or "smashmouth spread."

While inside zone can be a physical scheme when it emphasizes double teams on DL and lead runs like "Iso" have their value in making linebackers decide if they're about that "blow up the block" life. Power usually has both features, a double team at the point of attack meant to drive a DL off the ball and then a lead blocker coming around looking to blow up a linebacker. Every coach that wants to base their run game around a non-power scheme will undoubtedly start by justifying how he can do so while still bringing a physical approach.

The way in which power creates new gaps at the point of attack and the physical nature in which that occurs both tend to trigger defenses to respond in a knee-jerk fashion, which is why power is probably the best scheme in football for setting up play-action deep shots.

Here's how it works and the different takes you tend to see of the scheme around college football:

Classic power

Power has three main elements that define the scheme: A double team at the point of attack, a kick out block of the EMOL (end man on the line of scrimmage, either a DE or an OLB in a 3-4), and a lead block through the resulting hole.

It's a great play from the I-formation where the roles of the play were originally drawn up. Here's how it looks in its purest form:

Classic Power

Against this look, the play-side tackle and guard block down on the 3-technique and look to drive him both laterally and vertically before climbing up to the backside linebacker. The backside guard is pulling across to lead into the hole that the double team's displacement should create.

The play of the two running backs is crucial for this play, particularly for dealing with the way defenses prefer to stop this scheme. Opponents usually follow "block down, step down" rules and when the DE sees everyone crashing inside he'll look to step inside as well so there won't be a gaping hole for the guard to lead through. That means the battle for this play is often fought and lost with the attempted kick-out block by the fullback.

He's got to connect on that DE and either hold him while the double team opens a huge hole or else drive him away. This is why some teams just prefer to run "counter" which is the exact same scheme but with the pulling guard kicking out the DE and the fullback (or a H-back or even offensive tackle) leading through the hole.

One response from power teams is to teach the kick-out blocker that if he can't drive the DE wide to instead try to seal him inside, which means the pulling lead blocker then has to adjust his path and go wide around the edge. Now your kick-out blocker has an easier role but the lead blocker has to be quick-thinking and quick-moving.

The play of the RB is crucial in that the more cuts he can see and execute the fewer options the defense has for stopping the play. Ideally he can hit the cutback lane if he sees the backside linebacker scrape over too hard, he can plunge through the hole with power and burst, or he can bounce the run outside and win the edge if the DE succeeds in spilling the ball wide.

There's no better example of a team that runs the classic variety of this play than the North Dakota State Bison. What really stands out from their usage of the play is how they'll run it to the weakside, and their insistence on actually kicking out the DE. They won't try to wrap around and seal the EMOL, they're looking to bash skulls and run the ball down mainstreet. Many of their best runs end up looking like a big moving pile with the RB finding an opening five yards down the field and exploding out of it for a huge gain.

You see in this example they have two fullbacks, one to kick out the DE and the other to be an additional lead blocker at the point of attack. He's quickly joined by the pulling guard, who in the Bison version of this play is always looking to get upfield quickly and isn't asked to try and get wide on the perimeter very often. They focus first on smashing the line of scrimmage sideways to make room for all of the lead blockers, then smashing the hole. The backs are always patient to wait behind the moving pile of flesh and pads before darting through an opening.

Since Craig Bohl took over at ND St in 2003 and instituted their power-based offense the Bison have had 16 one-thousand yard rushers in 13 seasons. They've never failed to see at least one runner reach 1k yards, that runner has averaged fewer than five yards per carry only once (feature back Kyle Steffes averaged 4.4 in 2005), and they had three consecutive seasons from 2011-2013 in which two different backs ran for 1k yards.

There are lots of power-run based offenses in college football but ND St is the golden standard.

Power in the spread offense

Thanks to the rise of the smashmouth spread and "power-read" play, power has really taken off as a spread-friendly concept. However, because there are fewer blockers available in the box for a spread formation, some of the variety is diminished. Even worse, you can't position your 2nd back directly behind the center in a shotgun formation (or he'd disrupt the snap) so teams that want to run the classic version of the scheme need guards and a TE/H-back/fullback who can all execute both the kick-out and the lead block.

If a team has the players for it, the power run in the smashmouth spread usually looks like this:

Smashmouth spread power

Teams usually run a bubble to the field to hold the nickel/sam and control the weakside safety either by blocking him or perhaps having the single side WR run some kind of route.

The counter usually looks something like this:

Smashmouth spread counter

Counter is often the more devastating play in the smashmouth spread because the guards are usually better at the kick-out/seal blocks on the DEs than are the H-backs and because spread teams are usually running on Over fronts like above. Against the Over front the offense can run at the weakside and get an easy angle for the double team on the nose tackle.

The bubble option outside and the play-action opportunities make this play really nasty for defenses to handle because the offense is creating new gaps to one area of the field while presenting the threat of a quick pass and easy gain from the screen pass on the other far end of the field. As a defense how do you get numbers to both areas? There's no better way to emphasize the stress that spreading out an opponent creates than with these types of schemes.

For the defense the only hope is to either man up the receivers or to be very good at beating that kick out block and stringing the play out so help has time to arrive.

For the offense, ideally both guards and the fullback/H-back player can all execute all the blocks with a measure of competence or else the offense becomes much more predictable and manageable.

Justin Fuente's cheat code for running spread power

There's another brand of power and counter though for spread teams that struggle to execute the kick out block, which is undoubtedly the hardest part of executing the scheme. That's to use the QB as a runner and option-off the unblocked end.

This variety is typically called "power-read" or "inverted-veer" and it seemed to originate with Fuente at TCU but has now evolved and for a time was particularly popular in the Gus Malzahn and Urban Meyer schools of smashmouth spread as well.

I've diagrammed this play before but one newer way that it's being run is with a 2nd level read on the linebacker by the QB while the DE is initially unblocked before being picked off by the pulling guard:

Power-read of 2nd level

The unblocked DE is usually frozen up for a moment by the option and then the pulling guard comes in and can either kick him out or just get a body on him and make life hard. The QB is reading the middle linebacker here to see if he runs wide to stop the sweep or stays in the box. If he doesn't, the QB hands off but if the linebacker gets too wide he pulls the ball and runs inside.

Another major plus to the power-read version of the play besides allowing the offense to handle the DE more easily is that now the offense can put another good receiver on the field and run four vertical routes.

The future of power football

With RPOs and true dual-threat QBs all the rage now what's becoming even more popular for teams with good running QBs is to eliminate the option reads and simply run normal power with the QB as the featured runner. With a fullback/h-back in the backfield with the QB and then four good receivers out wide the defense is put under maximal space and stress.

There's also been some innovation from teams that want the pulling action and down block angles of power but don't have good enough guard play to execute it properly. That's been seen in plays like "dart" or newer schemes that combine man and zone blocking while pulling the center.

Dart is very popular in the Big 12 where teams usually don't recruit shorter OL that would be good pulling on power/counter because they're primarily focused on snatching up tall, wide OL that are hard to move around in pass protection. These teams are often happy if they have one really good athlete to play left tackle and dart is a good way to use him to bolster the run game as well:

Dart-bubble

The play can be run with the pulling tackle kicking out the end or the playside tackle kicking out the end and the pulling tackle leading through the hole based on which angles are most favorable.

You can see similar strategies from teams that have a good center they like to pull, like Stanford,Toledo, or soon Iowa State under Matt Campbell.

With the center pull play the tackles will execute outside zone-esque kick-out/reach blocks while the guards block down inside. The center will then pull inside or outside of the play-side tackle:

C-lead RPO

You don't get double teams with this scheme but the angles on the DL are all usually quite favorable. When you are running a spread with pass options on the outside it just becomes a matter of blocking five with five in whatever fashion comes most easily for a given OL against a given front.

In essence what's happening here is that spread teams are learning how to run power no matter what kind of line they have or whether they have good ancillary blockers at fullback or tight end or not. With that kind of timeless, universal application it's easy to see why this is God's play.