One of two key ingredients to the smashmouth spread is the ability to utilize a downhill run game. While many of the practitioners of this school of offense are actually pass-first offenses, looking to throw and score first with the run game as a constraint if teams don’t play them over the top, first you be able to suck in defenders with the threat of the downhill run game.
Now “power” is one of the classic ways to run the ball with authority between the tackles, but it’s falling out of favor as a primary strategy for spread teams for a number of reasons. They include:
-The backside reach block in the B-gap.
Here’s your prototypical power run from a spread set.
Problem area #1 is making sure that the nose tackle or defensive end here doesn’t shoot into the backfield through the vacated gap left by the guard. That’s always an issue for power runs but it can be exacerbated by the kinds of athletic DEs you see in today’s game and the lack of blocking help on the weak side in spread sets.
-The kick-out block to the play side.
The H-back really needs to be able to drive that DE out so that the pulling guard and back can both run behind the double team. This is problem area #2. Once again, the modern athletic DE who’s often well trained on handling these types of blocks can be pretty hard to root out.
What tends to happen instead is that he steps down and the H-back needs to be able to seal him inside while the pulling guard adjusts his path to what he sees and “wraps” around him to hopefully find the linebacker around the edge. But now you aren’t moving downhill with the same authority and the nickel or safety whom you were otherwise holding out of the play with the threat of the bubble screen or quick pass is now closing on the ball.
It’s still fairly useful for play-action but the vertical nature of the OL blocks and the familiarity defenses have with it can make it trickier for RPOs.
-The need to utilize the QB to make the scheme work from a 10 personnel package.
If an offense is in 10 personnel with no H-back, tight end, or fullback on the field than the QB has to handle that play side DE with an option read. That can be easier than trying to kick him out, but you now have to involve your QB regularly on your base “downhill” run play anytime you’re in a four-wide spread set.
This is generally less of an issue for teams than the previous two factors but it’s still one more reason that power’s place as THE downhill run scheme for smashmouth spread teams is vulnerable.
For those reasons, you just don’t see as many teams teams using power as their main scheme for running over opponents. But perhaps an even more signifiant factor is the alternatives.
Classic iso from the smashmouth spread
Many teams find that counter is an easier way to get the same “double team at the point of attack + lead block” effect. I’ve noted this before and Oklahoma’s GT counter scheme is one of the best options today for spread teams that want to go north and south. We’ve also discussed how other teams are going even more old school and arriving at that destination with classic iso schemes.
Here’s how iso works from the a formation like you see above.
You still get the double team on the play side tackle up to the backside linebacker but the ends are being handled by offensive tackles on base blocks and the H-back is leading up to the middle linebacker.
The value of pairing a spread passing game with two-back running plays is that it makes life hard for defenses at the most fundamental level of choosing personnel. Defending the spread requires prioritizing speed to avoid getting burned with big plays but the two-back run game then simultaneously challenges them with the threat of getting run over all day long if their LBs aren’t about that “blow up the fullback!” life. It has to be insanely rewarding for offensive coordinators to send walk-on H-backs out there to go blow up track star, blue chip LBs.
This also pairs nicely with the kinds of OL that a spread passing team is predisposed to recruit, big, tall guys that are at their best when just getting in someone’s way. The same guy who's solid in pass protection is probably going to find iso blocks, where he’s just securing a DL in place or else engaging in the good sport of double teaming someone into the backfield, to be an eminently approachable task.
It’s also nice for the athletic TE/H-back who’s on the field for his receiving ability. Penn State ran a good deal of power-read last year but they also mixed in a healthy heaping of iso, which was easier on uber-athlete Mike Gesicki.
Speaking of tight ends, this scheme is also malleable to singleback spread sets:
The TE has to be able to contain the backside of the play, which can run into the same sorts of troubles as the backside B-gap on power BUT you’re one gap over in the C-gap now and the TE is on him immediately. The offense can also flex out the tight end and read the the backside end if they are willing to run the QB.
As far as the lead blocker, now you’re using a tackle which is potentially even better than leading with a fullback or H-back because your tackle is probably your best athlete up front and much bigger and more powerful than a skill player.
Most iso teams run both of these versions of the play. As it happens, many of the teams that love iso use it as a complement to power and other run schemes and they use it while running their QB regularly. For instance, this version of the play by Wake Forest:
Wake Forest running QB Dart with a Lead Swing Pass Option— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) June 13, 2018
When the LB reacts to the pulling Tackle the QB flips the ball out to the RB.
I love the H-Back Arch Releasing to lead out in front! pic.twitter.com/dOr5kv4ZDu
Or K-States varieties of the play in which they replace the RB with a FB and run it directly for their QB. There’s some untapped potential though for this play as a primary scheme for a team that wants to use a pocket passer at QB and avoid asking him to run the ball regularly.
Overall the smashmouth spread is evolving at multiple programs to become a generally “spread-iso” philosophy. Spread em out, find the weak spot, and hammer them mercilessly and with plays that can result in scores. Classic iso runs have become a favorite way to do exactly that.