For the first part of this series, see The Stafford Offense: Power Game, 1 of 3.
75 RG Larry Warford is frequently held up as an example of how the Lions can find good offensive linemen on Day 2 in the draft. How ridiculously good was this selection? Warford was named PFF's 2013 Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Let that one sink in:
PFF picked an OFFENSIVE GUARD as rookie of the year.
The fact he was not selected to the Pro Bowl after that monster year started the talk: Is Larry Warford one of the NFL's most underrated players? Detroit has not been known for good offensive line play, but between Warford, 27 year old 71 LT Riley Reiff, 24 year old 64 C Travis Swanson, and 23 year old 72 LG Laken Tomlinson, there is a hope that a young athletic core is being formed for a dominant unit.
The athleticism starts with Larry Warford, who Laken Tomlinson actually said he models his playing style after. It's not just Tomlinson saying it - here's Mike Mayock from before the 2015 draft (emphasis added):
(Tim Twentyman for Lions Insider): You know the Lions are in the process of revamping their offensive line the last couple years. The team struck some day-two gold with Larry Warford a couple years back. If the team opts to keep infusing some youth into that unit with Rob Sims in free agency, who are maybe some of this class's day-two guards who project as immediate starters who fit what Detroit does blocking scheme-wise?
MAYOCK: Yeah, the (Larry) Warford kid was fun to watch coming out of college, and a guy that's similar to him that I like a lot, who I think is a second-round pick, some teams have third-round grades, I tend to like him more, his name is Laken Tomlinson from Duke.
This is a big, square, tough guy, smart as can be. Gets movement in the run game, surprisingly quick in short areas. I think he really helped himself at the Senior Bowl. I think a lot of the doubters as far as his athleticism and ability to pass block went, ooh, he's blocking some of the best defensive linemen in the country, so I think he's a really good player.
Why do we care about the athleticism so much? While guards will take on interior defensive linemen and need strength to be able to push back against big defensive tackles, they also need to be quick enough to get out of stance and fast enough in acceleration to get out in front of screen passes and to execute pulling blocks. As much as the upper body is important, a lot of what makes a great guard is from the waist down:
"I watch him a lot -- his technique and he has really good feet," Tomlinson said. "I try to model my game after him."
Warford's footwork is what has impressed Tomlinson the most. He described Detroit's 330-pound mauler as nimble and said he's worked hard to implement that skill into his own game.
"You can't be able to pick up quick defenders (without good footwork)," Tomlinson said. "If you don't have good feet, defeat."
When we think about what an ideal offensive guard is like, you would be hard pressed to come up with two better examples than John Hannah and Larry Allen. Anytime you look for material on either one of those Hall of Fame guards, you will find mention of their athleticism and ability to really move for big men. Whether it's explicitly about their effectiveness in pulling out in front to run block or running down a linebacker from behind to make a TD-saving tackle on an interception, what those guys could do with their feet made a huge difference.
The best guards need to be great mentally, in upper body strength, and in lower body agility and quickness; they need to be everything. This is what you get from Larry Warford:
And because of his constant hustle, one of Warford's strengths is running across or down the field on outside runs and screens.
In the offseason, Suh said his punch, patience and footwork were all immediately evident.
"You could see talent within the guy, especially going against him," Suh said.
Two Jobs: Kick Out and Lead
In Christopher Tomke's Things of that nature article in November, he provided Chris Brown's description of a gap power run: the backside guard pulls and kicks out an unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage as a "wrapper" and the fullback leads through the hole to trap the defense's plugger. This is one way to run a gap power play - the specific assignments are not actually important. What's important is that someone does each job, regardless of where they started the play lined up.
Sometimes teams will use the fullback to kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage and lead through the hole with the pulling backside guard. Other times, there may not even be a fullback on the field and instead the offense brings a tight end in motion or an H back to either take the EMLOS or lead through the hole. As long as both the unblocked EMLOS and the second level defender moving up to plug the hole are accounted for by the pulling guard and "someone else," we're good.
Here's an example of the assignments being reversed from Chris Brown's description:
Here, the fullback will kick out the end man on the line of scrimmage. The onside/playside/frontside offensive linemen are going to block down, away from the play direction. Suppose we have a play going to the right side, running toward the right C gap where the RT and TE are lined up. Everyone hits the guy to their left, leaving the last guy all the way to the right unblocked: that's the linebacker the fullback is assigned to pick up.
The pulling backside guard is instructed to turn up into the hole ("hold") and demolish the first unblocked defender he comes across. This is the lead block through the hole that the ballcarrier will read and make a cut off of. Here's how Norv Turner diagrammed the play to accompany his instructions in the 1996 Washington playbook:
You can see everyone blocking to the left with the fullback boxed in green kicking out the last guy to the right. The left guard who is filled in as a red dot pulls through and has an open "block anybody" assignment once he punches through the gap.
2014 at Chicago, 4Q (4:47), 2nd and 2 at Chicago 46.
The Lions on the road have a slim 17-14 lead and are trying to put the Bears away in the fourth quarter. Facing 2nd and short near midfield, Detroit calls Power O to the left to pick up the first down and keep the clock moving. Outside the picture to the left, 12 WR Jeremy Ross is going to crack back on 21 SS Ryan Mundy, who creeps up to the line for an 8 man front.
The Power O action has 45 FB Jed Collins kicking out the end man, who will be the cornerback that Ross abandons on the perimeter: 23 CB Kyle Fuller. 75 RG Larry Warford leads through the hole and will most likely take on 57 OLB Jonathan Bostic. 89 TE Kellen Davis, Ross, and the rest of the offensive line will block down to the right and try to wall off the rest of the Bears to the inside while 35 HB Joique Bell slams the ball off the left side C gap toward the sideline.
Everyone bounces outside, with Bell holding onto the back of Warford's jersey. Collins manages to wipe out Fuller, and when the dust clears, we have the entire Chicago defense bottled up inside to the right. If you look at the still above taken after the bounce, there are ten Chicago defenders in the blue box. The only guy outside the box is Fuller on the left, getting wiped out. Bell has nothing but green in front of him... except this guy in a #75 Detroit jersey on his right.
Let's see what happened:
Initially, Mundy gets to the line before Ross is able to get over and cut him off. This forces Collins to slow down and block him since now Mundy is effectively the unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage. Finally, Ross gets over and Collins releases outside to find the true EMLOS, Kyle Fuller. This all clogs everything behind - namely, Warford coming around... but it also means Bostic is clogged up on the defensive side as well.
If you want to see some serious hustle, watch the end of the play. Look at #75 finish the job down to the final whistle - he NEVER GIVES UP on the play. Joique Bell ran this ball 20 yards downfield. Look where Warford ends up! That kind of effort deserves a salute.
To the Left, to the Left...
In the old days, most teams would put their best run blockers on the right side of the line, usually declare the strong side on the right, and run the ball more often to the right. Balancing the amount of times running to the left, right, and middle can have benefits because it keeps the opponent guessing and can spring big plays.
Another reason to run to the left might be because your team is simply better at blocking the rushing plays in your playbook in that direction.
2014 at Green Bay, 2Q (9:20), 1st and 10 at the Detroit 31.
Detroit comes out in 22 personnel, in what should be an obvious run formation on first down. 89 TE Kellen Davis is on the left next to 71 LT Riley Reiff, while 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew is lined up on the right next to 77 RT Cornelius Lucas. This is a standard Power O play with 45 FB Jed Collins delivering the kick out to unblocked 52 LB Clay Matthews on the frontside edge. 75 RG Larry Warford leads through the hole against 42 SS Morgan Burnett, a fantastic mismatch favoring the Lions.
Notice the Packers are in a NINE man front. These formations are basically the Detroit Lions telling the Green Bay Packers the ball is going to be run (especially with the personnel on the field) and the Packers daring the Lions to try it.
After the handoff, Detroit sends 35 Joique Bell with the ball to the left behind Collins and Warford. Collins does a great job on Matthews, riding him deep and out of the play. The offensive line blocks down quite well, sealing off most of the defenders to the inside. At the second level, Warford (boxed in red) lines up Burnett (boxed in purple) and crushes him. This leaves just two players who are on the wrong side of the walled off pile of Packers to make the play.
From behind the defense, you can get a better feel for the reads Bell makes off the Van Gundy Wall. Reiff (he releases off the double team to seal off 50 LB A.J. Hawk at the second level) and Sims (throws 93 DT Josh Boyd to the mat) turn their guys, and Bell cuts behind them. Warford clears the last defender to the outside and Bell gets skinny and cuts upfield between Davis and Warford. Just like Bell on a straight ahead Iso play, he's more or less running on a straight track to a set hole but making small adjustments to stay behind the butts of his blockers.
Bell burst up behind Warford for 8 yards on this play to set up a very nice 2nd and 2.
2014 at Carolina, 3Q (1:22), 2nd and 4 at the Detroit 40.
Now for something a little different: the Lions run a counter play on 2nd and medium, showing the Panthers a heavy run set to the right side. 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew came in motion, stopped behind 67 LG Rob Sims, and turned around to re-set in an H back spot on the right. The backfield is aligned in a Strong I, so 45 FB Jed Collins is also near the perimeter in good position to block outside. Carolina's defense mirrors, putting five guys to the left of the center: 92 DT Dwan Edwards in a 1 technique over 51 C Dominic Raiola's shoulder with 59 MLB Luke Kuechly stacked directly behind him, 94 DE Kony Ealy wide of 77 RT Cornelius Lucas, 58 ROLB Thomas Davis way outside of Pettigrew, and 41 SS Roman Harper cheating up into the box for run support.
This counter variant has Collins locking down the backside against Davis, Warford pulling and taking the kick out block on 95 DE Charles Johnson (who is allowed to rush upfield unblocked), and Pettigrew actually leads through the hole. Both jobs - kick out and lead - are covered, but in a much different way than shown above in the last two plays.
Notice the run path for Bell is strange because he cuts it back inside instead of totally running the straight track through the B or C gap. The reason this happens is the Panthers overpursue the counter and run themselves to the outside. 56 A.J Klein gets blocked to the outside as expected by Pettigrew's lead through the hole, but 59 MLB Luke Kuechly slides over too far for 67 LG Rob Sims to bottle him up inside. Instead, Sims turns him outside and Bell makes the read off the second level blocks by Pettigrew and Sims. All of the defensive help has gotten pushed outside, and the middle is the clear lane, which he takes for six yards.
Next Time: Attacking the Perimeter
If you go back to 2014 and find the most effective rushing plays run by the Lions, you end up looking at a ton of gap blocked plays and a huge number of them involve Larry Warford pulling to lead the play. This is very interesting given Detroit's sad run game - if the average rushing performance and average yards per carry was terrible... that means this pile of really successful gap power plays was dragging up the average of a whole mess of downright putrid plays that went either nowhere or backwards.
Fast forward to 2015 and the Lions struggling to run the ball... AGAIN. Detroit averaging near the bottom of the league in rushing yards per game... AGAIN. Yielding miserable yards per carry... AGAIN. Remember what the run calls looked like under Lombardi? Almost exclusively zone. Hardly any gap blocked plays.
Now I want to point out something else you might not have noticed. Look at the first half of the season up until Joe Lombardi was fired as OC. Even among the few gap blocked plays that were called, how often do you see Larry Warford pulling and leading plays? I don't think I can remember seeing a single play where Warford was the pulling guard instead of Tomlinson. There may be one or two instances of it, but I honestly don't recall ever seeing it this year.
Look at Tomke's article on the changes that happened after Jim Bob took over. First play: Abdullah counter behind Warford pulling to the left. Third play: Bell from shotgun goes jab step counter left behind Warford pulling. Last two runs: Bell power left behind Warford pulling and Bell power left cutback inside behind Warford pulling.
How much of this was Larry Warford being injured during the first part of the season and how much was misuse of a great pulling guard? Maybe he couldn't move as well to start the year with the lingering ankle problem. Warford only really came back for the blowout win against the Bears, and still didn't think he was 100% healthy. Still, he's played in 9 games this season, and I don't remember us running Power O to the left behind Warford against the Chefs in London or in the home loss to the Vikings.
The Lions Larry Warford has a +7.1 run blocking grade over the last 4 weeks. He was at -5.1 through the first 11 weeks.— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 17, 2015
Laken Tomlinson's not quite there yet, but consider the possibilities of having two guys like this. Why would we not run a primarily gap blocked rushing offense if we have Warford, a guy like Warford, and Burton? Next time, we'll round out the gap blocked rushing package with some outside sweep plays and a bit of counter/inside trap. This should provide a nice base to play action from.