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Manning’s Interception

In Sunday night’s game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots Peyton Manning was credited with two interceptions, however, only one of the interceptions can be blamed on Manning. The deep ball to Pierre Garcon came out of Peyton’s hand incorrectly and the ball fluttered well short of his intended target, this can be put on Manning. The second interception was a bad read by Reggie Wayne. The original play call had Wayne running a post pattern, It looked something like this:

Here the Patriots are playing a man cover 1 and they have walked the strong safety down to play man coverage on tight end Dallas Clark. Manning sees this and sees that the free safety is cheating over to the two wide receiver side. He waves just before the snap to tell Wayne to run an outside release fade instead of his original post. This way Manning can keep Wayne away from the free safety. The play starts with a play fake so Manning has to trust that Wayne will be there when he comes out of the play fake. Manning lifts up from the play fake, releases the ball to outside of the numbers where he expects Wayne to be, instead Wayne runs his original post route and allows the corner to drift back and make the interception. Had Wayne run the route that Manning audibled to, the play would have most likely resulted in a big gain since Wayne would have been in a one-on-one situation with a very accurate quarterback. Because of Wayne’s misunderstanding Manning is credited with an interception.

Since Peyton Manning has come into the league the Indianapolis Colts have made a living off of play action passes. Manning uses the play fake better than anyone else to strategically move the linebackers out of position and create holes in the defense to throw to. Tight end Dallas Clark benefits the most from the run game and play fakes. The play action is so effective because the run play and the pass predicated off of the same play are almost indistinguishable from the snap until the time Manning pulls the ball back to throw.

Here is a play action series the Colts use all the time. The Colts love to run an inside read play. This means the O-line will kick out the defensive ends, and combo block the defensive tackles and linebackers, the back gets the hand off, finds the hole, then makes a cut and gets up field.

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The second play is the play action pass off of the zone read play; notice how similar the blocking assignments look. This is a max protection scheme where the tight end and back stay in to block. When the ball is snapped the defense believes they are simply seeing the same zone read play out of a flipped formation. The linebackers read this and attack the line of scrimmage. When Manning pulls the ball back the linebacker has vacated his zone in the standard cover 2 defense. The safeties will both go with the outside receivers because they have deep coverage responsibilities, as soon as Manning gets the ball ready and Dallas Clark (the slot receiver on the left side) clears the linebacker, Manning will hit him right in the seem of the coverage (red circle), typically resulting in a big gain.

The Colts also like to use the play action in goal line or short yardage situations because the defense anticipates, and sets up to stop, the run. Below is a goal line play the Colts use when Manning sees the defense committing to the run.

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Here the linebackers and strong safety are going to attack the run and vacate their pass responsibilities. Anticipating this, the Colts had called a play action in the huddle. The Colts are only going to send 2 receivers into routes on this play and leave the rest to block because the play action takes a little longer to develop, and the defense has 11 players attacking the line of scrimmage. Clark (the tight end) is going to release like he is trying to block the linebacker, as the linebacker fights past him and toward the line Clark will get to the back of the end zone, behind everyone else, and the work to the outside, away from the defenders.

The play action pass can be an outstanding offensive tool. If the run game is going well holes in the secondary will be greatly exaggerated and will be easy for the offense to exploit. A decent run game, and good play action game, will give the defense a catch-22 that can be almost impossible to handle.

Jags Power Run Game

I have stated before on here that the key to a successful running attack is giving the blockers great angles on the defense. The Jacksonville Jaguars have perhaps the most prolific rushing attack year after year. This is because they have a good O-line, tight ends that can block (which is becoming rarer in today’s NFL) and they do a great job clearing out lanes to get their backs into space. The line and blocking schemes have made Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor into household names.

The first play I want to look at is the Singleback Counter Trey the Jags run. This was a concept popular in the Joe Gibbs power running game. Gibbs loved to pull both the backside guard and tackle, from a two back set, send one back to fill for the missing linemen and the other on a counter step then take the handoff through the hole. The guard would kick out the outermost defender in the box and the tackle would lead up into the hole. The Jags like to run this play out of a singleback formation though, this means that there is no fullback to fill for the missing backside of the line, a quick DE or DT could make the tackle. So instead, the Jags pull both their backside and playside guards. The only reason they can do this is because their TE, Mercedes Lewis, is an above average blocker for a tight end.

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On this play, the defense was in a 4-4 front with only one safety, they are concerned with stopping the run game of the Jags. However, having a tight end that can handle a DE one-on-one is a great advantage. The center is going to chuck the backside DT to make sure he doesn’t make the play then he is going to try to get to the next level and stop the backside linebacker’s pursuit. The playside tackle will crash down on the other defensive tackle while the tight end will reach the defensive end. It should be noted that if the defensive end had been playing a true outside 9 technique  and the outside linebacker had lined up off the ball, the TE would most likely have gone straight to the middle linebacker and left the DE to be kicked out. The advantage to kicking out the outermost defender is, the outside defender has contain responsibilities, so he must come upfield for at least a few steps, this makes the angle on the kick out much easier.

The fun game comes with the two guards. The playside guard kicks out the outside defender and the backside guard leads up into the hole. The beauty of this play was the way the formation helped the play. Since the defense had taken a safety out for an extra linebacker, a linebacker must cheat over to cover up the slot receiver. This means both of the middle linebackers take a step or two towards the slot to compensate, this gives the backside guard the slight edge he needs to seal off the playside middle linebacker.

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This is the same basic kick-out, fill the hole concept as the other play. The difference here is that this is a much more direct sprint play, so they don’t want Maurice Jones-Drew counter stepping in the backfield and having to wait for the blocks to develop. Instead, the Jags are going to cross block with the playside tackle and the tight end to effectively form the kick-out block (making the angles easier on both players), then they will pull the center to lead on the linebacker instead of making Jones-Drew wait to for the guard to make it through the hole and read the block.

Another play the Jags use very well is the inside draw. The basic concept behind the draw is to show pass, freeze the linebackers, then get upfield and let your linemen get on their linebackers. If you can get your back behind your bigs 3-4 yards down field then you are in great shape.

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The key to this play is to get both defensive tackles moved out of the middle. The center will help give a shot to the defensive tackle to help the left guard move him, while the right guard and tackle will take the other defensive tackle. The tight end must get an outside release on the defensive end here. That tells the defensive end that it is a pass and will lure him into a pass rush, it will also freeze the linebackers. As they see the quarterback raise the ball and the tight end with an outside release they will start to drop into their zones. Once the linebackers start their drops the center can easily get his block on the middle linebacker and the tight end has a much better angle on the outside linebacker. Fred Taylor can then get through the defensive line, read the blocks on the linebackers and he is one-on-one with the playside safety, a good situation for the offense.

The Jacksonville Jaguars do an unbelievable job of controlling the line of scrimmage against their opponents, allowing them to run the game and control the clock. When you play in the same division as the Indianapolis Colts, keeping your offense on the field and their offense off the field is the best way to win.

The offense has some great advantages in football. The offense dictates much of how the defense will line up (by determining the strong side of the field and where the eligible receivers are lined up), the offense dictates when the play starts, and the offense tries to dictate where the play will go. The New Orleans Saints do an excellent job of using their formations, alignments and personnel to force the defense into mismatches. They do this most commonly by passing out of running formations. The defense substitutes while the offense is in the huddle. They substitute based on who the offense has brought into the game and the down, yardage situation. If the defense sees the offense bring in a 4 wide receiver set, the defense will substitute their nickel package into the game to counteract that. When the offense keeps their running formation in the game, the defense has to leave their run stoppers (defensive tackles and linebackers) in the game, unless it is an obvious passing situation. If the offense can force the defense to keep players in the game that are less competent in pass coverage, they can create, and then exploit favorable matchups.

Here is an example of the New Orleans Saints creating, recognizing, and taking advantage of bad matchups. They use this play to get Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas into space and allow them to use their speed to make plays. This is an I-formation RB Swing Pass.

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As soon as Drew Brees gets to the line on this play, he knows he will be throwing the ball to running back Pierre Thomas. The defense is in a man cover 2 defense, with three linebackers in the game to stop the run. Both the cornerbacks are on the offense’s right side man-to-man with the receivers. There is an outside linebacker in man coverage on the tight-end and linebackers in man on both backs. The receivers on the right side of the formation are going to run a fly-post combination, mainly to clear out the sideline and take the safety down field. The right tackle will chip the defensive end, but will leave him basically unblocked. This leaves the right tackle free to get out into the flats and block the linebacker that is in man-to-man on Thomas. The matchup this play creates is putting a linebacker in a foot race to the sideline with a speed back like Pierre Thomas or Reggie Bush.

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Here is what the play looks like when it develops. The defensive end is left unblocked (red circle), but gets big eyes and starts thinking sack, effectively running himself out of the play. The linebacker covering Thomas knows he is in a foot race with Thomas, so he takes off toward the sideline. Here Thomas was able to beat him to the sideline initially, but as the defender began to over pursue, Thomas cut right off the right tackle and set up a great block on the linebacker. Since the receivers had run off the safety and cornerbacks Thomas is able to run free for about 13 yards before anyone even gets close to him.

Throwing the ball out of traditionally run formations keeps the defense on its toes and allows the offense to take advantage of poor coverage players having to play the pass. If the offense is successful throwing out of these formations and the defense tries to substitute a more traditional pass package (nickel or dime defenses), the offense can audible and run the ball on a now much smaller defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the most innovative defensive minds in the National Football League. He is credited with the invention of the zone blitz, a concept that has become common place in today’s NFL and upper tier of college programs. He is consistently able to confuse quarterbacks and offensive lines, resulting in the Steelers having the best defense in the league this year. His defense will constantly crowd the line of scrimmage making the offense guess as to who will be rushing the passer and who will be dropping into pass coverage. The defense is also in constant movement before the ball is snapped. Linebackers walk to the line, back up, jump over two gaps, anything to keep the offense on their toes. They don’t stand still until right before the ball is snapped making it very difficult for an offensive line to adjust their blocking schemes to account for all the potential rushers. Here is a modified example of a zone blitz the Steelers used against Cincinnati last week. Here the cornerback will blitz from the outside through a designed gap in the offensive line:

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The idea behind this play is to confuse the offensive line, and overload one side. Since the offensive left tackle has a defensive end outside of him, he has to be ready to drop back in his pass blocking steps. The left guard sees the linebacker up on the line, ready to blitz, and has to be ready to pick him up. The center is responsible for blocking the nose guard. The defense will show blitz with the inside linebacker over the right guard. This means the guard has to pick up the blitzing linebacker and the right tackle is responsible for the defensive end over his face. Here, the nose guard is going to go to the A gap on the center’s left side, and the linebacker will blitz the A gap on the center’s right. The offensive line believes that there will be a five man rush, which they should be able to handle with five offensive linemen. The running backs can chip block rushers on the ends and get into the flats.

The defensive end on the offense’s right side is going to make sure he comes with a speed rush up field, getting on the outside shoulder of the tackle; this will do two things. First, it will cause the tackle to go up field with him and start to clear a lane for the blitzing cornerback. Second, if he does the speed rush effectively, the running back will feel he has to help block the defensive end slowing down the running back’s route and leaving a great lane for the corner to make the sack, untouched.

Since the corner back is going to be blitzing, the safety will take a few steps closer to the line and take the wide receiver in man coverage. The defensive end on the offensive left side is going to drop back into pass coverage and will have the hook-to-curl zone along with the middle linebacker that stayed back in pass coverage. Since the left tackle was accounting for the defensive end in front of him to rush the passer, the tackle has dropped back in pass blocking steps but has found himself standing alone. For a defense, an offensive lineman that is not blocking anyone is a great scenario because he is effectively occupied by no one. This play practically gives the defense six pass rushers (since the left tackle is standing alone and occupied by a phantom defender) and six men in pass coverage, twelve on eleven is a great matchup anytime you can get it.

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This is the play as it develops. It shows the lane that is created for the cornerback to fly untouched at the quarterback. The linebacker and defensive end are sitting in pass coverage, and once they see their corner come through this lane, their attention is going to focus on the running backs coming out of the backfield because the running backs are the quarterback’s check down options for when he gets in trouble. The defensive end that dropped back will be a little more hesitant to abandon his zone because he has a slot receiver coming though, but once he sees the quarterback panic he will come up to take away the check down. On this play, Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t even able to get the ball up ready to throw before he was taken down by the cornerback.

The Steelers do not always have to bring five rushers to get pressure on the quarterback. Here they will bring four pass rushers and still get a quick sack. They will do this by creating favorable match-ups. On this play the Steelers have a nickel package in the game (5 defensive backs). The defense will be playing a Nickel Cover 2 Man Under OLB Blitz with a Spy.

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The nickel back on this play is going to start in the inside linebacker position lined up over the right guard. But, he is going to switch places with the actual inside linebacker just before the play starts. A defensive back on the slot receiver is a much more effective matchup for the defense than a linebacker on the slot receiver. The Steelers are, instead, going to put a linebacker man-to-man on a tight end, this is still an advantage for the offense but it is less of an advantage. At first glance, the offensive line should be able to handle this blitz. Ideally, the center would account for the nose guard, even though he is not going to rush, the left guard will block the defensive end and the left tackle will take the blitzing outside linebacker. However, the inside linebacker over the guard is going to show blitz, this means that the guard has to account for him. When he drops back to cover the tight end the guard will be left blocking air, once again an advantage for the defense. This means that the running back will be responsible for picking up the blitzing outside linebacker, a huge advantage for the defense. There are only a few running backs in the league that can handle a blitzing linebacker on their own. It is even more difficult when the linebacker comes off the edge and is untouched before he gets to the running back.

On the other side the defense is going to create a favorable matchup by putting their best rush linebacker up against the offensive right tackle. For a right-handed quarterback, the best offensive lineman is put at left tackle to protect the quarterbacks blind side. This means the defense has their best rush linebacker against, at best, the offense’s second best lineman. Since the running back is occupied on the other side and the inside linebacker is blitzing over the guard, the tackle has the blitzing linebacker man-on-man with no help. Because this play is designed to get a quick up field rush, the nose guard is going to sit back and spy the backfield watching for a screen pass (since that is typically how you beat blitz happy defenses).

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Here is the situation as the play develops. The offense is running a post, vertical combination on the right side. They want the safety on their right(in cover 2) to pick a receiver to help on and leave the other receiver in man coverage. The problem is it takes a few seconds to develop, that gives the Steelers enough time to get to the quarterback. The quarterback’s pre-snap reads should have told him to make the tight end a priority since he is man-to-man with a linebacker (green circle). The problem is the quarterback doesn’t know until the snap if the outside linebacker or middle linebacker will be covering the tight end. If he tries to guess and guesses wrong, an interception is very likely. The match-ups the defense has created are circled in red. These represent the running back trying to handle an untouched outside linebacker and the right tackle trying to handle the linebacker’s speed rush on the other side. In this play, against the Ravens, the two linebackers easily blew past their blockers and hit the quarterback from either side at the same time.


Cornerbacks are at a natural disadvantage when in man-to-man coverage. They must react to the wide receivers, and try to predict which route they will run. In order to compensate for that, corners will often sit back, anywhere from 7-12 yards off the line of scrimmage. When that cushion starts to reach the 10 yard mark, coaches try to throw quick hitter passes with the idea that their receiver can catch the ball, make the defender miss an open field tackle, and get down the field for a good gain. The problem is that many coaches, especially at lower levels, will try to throw a short hitch route (2-3 yards down field). However, rarely do high school and small college teams have quarterbacks with the arm strength to be able to get the ball to the receiver in time for him to make a move before the corner can close the gap.

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If you really want to run a hitch route effectively you have to get the cornerback to turn his back to the line of scrimmage. The only way to do this with a big cushion like this is for the receiver to drive past the corner, selling a deeper route, then plant a foot in the ground and come back. The ball needs to hit the receiver right after makes his change of direction. This is the only way to get the corner turned around and out of position. If you throw a hitch in front of a corner like this the corner has the receiver in front of him the whole time and can read the play easily.

Instead of trying to throw the ball to a receiver while a corner closes from the other side, the wide receiver screen allows the receiver to back track and create more space, and it makes the throw a shorter, easier throw for the quarterback. Here is a sample wide receiver screen pass from a single back doubles left formation against a 3-5-3 defense with the outside linebackers up on the line (really it looks more like a 5-3 because the outside linebackers have containment responsibilities, this is a popular defense among high school and small college teams). A team may also bring the defensive tackle further inside and put the outside linebacker up on the ball, a step outside the tackle, this should not change any assignments.

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In this example, the quarterback will drop back to try and draw the outside linebacker and defensive tackle up field, then throw the ball where they were. The slot receiver will start out on the ball to give him a shorter route to the cornerback, and the outside receiver will start off the ball to make sure that the pass is easily caught behind the line of scrimmage (so the linemen can get down field legally). The tackle will get down field after showing pass to block to draw the outside linebacker up field on a pass rush. The tackle will block the defender that had the slot receiver in man coverage. This block should be made easier by the fact that the defender on the slot has his eyes glued to the slot receiver; as soon as he sees pass he will take a few steps in coverage toward the sideline. The guard will have the toughest block on this play because he is trying to seal off the linebacker who is lined up over his face. Hopefully, the linebacker will take a few steps back into pass coverage and the guard can at least get in front of the defender if he can’t manage to turn his butt to the sideline. The tight end running a vertical route will hopefully make the safety take a few steps to his left (offenses right) and should give the wide receiver a better gap to get through (the red lines). Then the receiver can make a catch running towards the quarterback, behind the line of scrimmage, and have a full head of steam to turn up field and start reading blocks. This gives the receiver an advantage over the hitch where he has to make the catch, turn, and make a move from a dead stop on a corner that has a full head of steam.

An interesting variation on this play would be to swing the running back out to the side of the screen pass. This would give you an effective option read on the outside linebacker who has contain responsibilities and is probably in charge of covering anyone who crosses his face into the flats. If the outside linebacker started to figure this play out and sit on the screen route then the swing pass would be open and the running back would be able to read the same blocks, simply catching the ball headed toward the sideline. Arm strength is not a factor because the quarterback is simply floating the pass out about 10-12 yards to his left.

The quick slant is another great way to take advantage of the big corner cushion, and give the quarterback an easy read and throw. This play is a single back trips left formation to help clear out the middle of the field for the receiver on the right side. This should help move the linebackers out of the way, keeping this a simple read for the quarterback. The defense here is the same 5-3 look from the play above (although, as stated above, the defense may bring the defensive tackle down to a 3 technique and put the outside linebacker/defensive end outside the tackle in a 5 technique, it just depends on the defense).
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This play is going to be designed as a quick 1-step or at most 3-step drop for the quarterback. The right guard and tackle will cut their defenders to keep their hands down and help create a passing lane for the quarterback.  Because the cut blocks are quick blocks, the quarterback will have to deliver the ball on the slant, maybe check to the back on the left, or throw the ball into the third row on the left side (the deep verticals will give him a receiver in the area to avoid intentional grounding). The two verticals on the left are used to draw the safety away from the slant.  The big cushion the corner is giving the receiver allows for the receiver to get a free release. Here, the receiver is on the ball so he will take one step down field, with his eyes down field to freeze the corner, then, as soon as he breaks inside the ball should be on its way. The pass should not be completed more than 4-5 yards down field, or else the cornerback will have a chance to get back in and become a factor.

There are some easy variations on this play as well. Once again, if the outside linebacker starts to read the cut block and begins to interrupt the slant lanes, swing the running back out to the other side to give the quarterback an easy check down and only requires him to read one side of the field. I started this play sending the running back away from the slant to keep the middle linebacker from moving with the back and getting in the way of the passing lane. Also, the inside vertical can be changed to a post, and the cut blocks can be turned into regular pass blocks if the quarterback wants to stretch the field to the left side. This will allow the quarterback to read the safety, if he picks to help on the post; the quarterback has a 1-on-1 on the outside, and vice versa. If both deep routes are covered, the quarterback can check down to the mid-range out, then check down to the running back in the flats, probably covered by an outside linebacker.

These are a few of the offensive concepts that can be used to counter moves made by an opposing defense. After the big cushion is beaten a few times with these easy throws, the defense may decide to play bump and run coverage, or switch to a zone defense, there are plenty of ways to counter these moves as well. Football is often described as a violent chess match; this is an example of some of the strategy involved.

Adrian Peterson made one of the smoothest transitions to the NFL of any running back in recent memory. He immediately stepped into the league, and rushed for 1,341 yards. He also set the single game rushing record (296 yards) against one of the leagues best defenses, the San Diego Chargers with Shawn Merriman. He was able to do this so easily because he had already learned the skill that keeps most rookie running backs from thriving immediately, patience. Patience is not standing in the backfield until the play develops, it is the ability to figure out, before the play, how the play may develop and then, go through a block reading progression to decide which hole to cut through. Here is a play the Vikings used in 2007 against San Diego, it resulted in a big gain for Peterson (but on that day, most of his runs were big gains):

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This is a common NFL play. It is an all reach stretch read play from a single back formation. Basically, the entire line is going to try and reach the man to their left. The key to run blocking is giving the line easy angles on the defenders, hard angles need to have options to make them easier for the linemen. The hardest reach blocks will be the tight end trying to reach the outside linebacker, and the left tackle trying to get turned on the defensive end. Therefore, these lineman are given a decision to make. They will take their two steps outside and if they are still inside their man and cannot get the reach block, they simply turn their butts inside and drive their men to the sideline. This gives them a great advantage, they simply take the defender wherever the defender wants to go. As soon as the butts turn Peterson can go through his block read progression.

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Here is the play when Peterson makes his cut. The blocks in the blue circles are his first priority reads. If the tight end and tackle can reach the defenders then Peterson will stretch to the sideline, but if the defenders are aggressively pursuing up field, as in this play, Peterson will cut inside his blocks, which are now effectively kick out blocks. As soon as Peterson makes this decision his eyes go inside to the blocks in the green circles. These reach blocks are easier because they have more effective angles (down field, not just straight down the line). The left guard is going to make sure that the defensive tackle lined up over him does not cross his face, then the guard will try to get to the linebacker. By making sure the defensive tackle doesn’t cross his face (forcing the tackle to go behind him) the defensive tackle has run himself out of the play, the Vikings bet that Peterson can outrun a defensive tackle when given a head start. The center is going to get to the second level and decide which linebacker is the biggest threat. Here the backside linebacker came up field first and then started to pursue, allowing the right tackle to tie him up. So, the center will read this and help with a double team on the play side linebacker. Once Peterson cuts through the hole he is in a foot race with the safety, make the safety miss and it is a touchdown (the safety ended up catching him 20+ yards down the field).

Peterson perfected this ability to read blocks by running a similar offense at Oklahoma. Here is a closely related play that Peterson scored on while at Oklahoma:

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This is an I formation with two tight ends left (after the motion) off tackle lead. This play has a couple of combination blocks that Peterson will have to read. The key block here is both of the tight ends on the defensive end. The end does not have contain responsibilities, the outside linebacker will have that responsibility, so the end is a little more unpredictable. If the offense is lucky enough for the defensive end to stunt inside this will be a touchdown. The tight end off the ball will hit the defensive end until the tight end on the ball can turn his butt to the sideline, once this block is locked the outside tight end will come off the block and look for the inside linebacker on the play side.  The tackle and guard will be playing the same game, they are responsible for the defensive tackle and weak side inside linebacker. The center and weak side guard will be doing a cross block, once again because the guard will have a flatter angle and a better chance at cutting off the weak side linebacker. He does this because if the strong side linebacker hesitates and the left tackle thinks he can make it, the left tackle will go after the strong side linebacker since he is a bigger threat to the play. This gives the offense a double team on the biggest obstacle to this play. Finally, the fun block here is the fullback kicking out the outside linebacker. This will be an easy, fun block because the outside linebacker has contain responsibilities so he is going to move up field unblocked. As soon as he crosses the line he will get met by the fullback going full speed, this is an easy angle for the fullback.

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Here is the read progression once again for Peterson. Here he only going to have one initial block to read The fullback will have the outer most defender. Once the fullback hits the defender and makes it obvious that he will kick out the defender Peterson cuts up and starts reading his secondary progression. When Peterson sees that both of these blocks have successfully sealed their defenders to the inside he makes a break through the hole and to the sideline, once again in a foot race with the safety (since it is college, Peterson easily outruns the safety).

Peterson’s  above average acceleration ability gave him a tool to be more successful, sooner, than most backs. However, backs come into the league every year with great acceleration. Peterson’s ability to go through block read progressions made his transition to the NFL much smoother than most back’s.

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