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Summer School: Dalvin Tomlinson And Stuffing The Run

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What does it take to stop NFL running attacks?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the New York Giants would be drafting a defensive tackle at some point in the 2017 NFL Draft. And based on their trends, it shouldn’t be surprising that it was in the second round, or that it Dalvin Tomlinson out of Alabama.

With each of their NFC East rivals sporting a talented offensive line, the Giants could not afford to ignore the defensive tackle position, which forms the bedrock of a defense. When Johnathan Hankins departed via free agency, they had to bolster the depth in the middle of their line.

Teams have to build to win their divisions, and the division champs are still the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys themselves are built on a punishing rushing attack, and the running games of the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins should both be respected.

Tomlinson comes in to the NFL with the reputation of an excellent run stuffer, praised for his efforts by his Alabama teammates.

He projects as a mid-round pick, but Tomlinson’s teammates insist he’ll outplay his draft position. He could be a three-technique in a 4–3 defensive front or an end in a 3–4, but no matter how he is deployed, Tomlinson’s fellow Crimson Tide defenders believe he’ll do exactly what he did in Tuscaloosa: Clog whatever gap needs clogging and free up linebackers to make plays. “You have to be selfless to take on double teams,” [Jonathan] Allen says of Tomlinson. “You know you’re not going to get the numbers you want, but you’re helping the team more than anyone.”

Tomlinson will join Damon Harrison in the middle of the Giants’ defensive line, and hopefully maintain what was one of the stiffest run defenses in the league.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at how a defense goes about defending the run.

Outside Zone Runs

Outside zone runs have become the basis of many running games in the NFL. The outside zone takes advantage of the athletic linemen that colleges are producing and and can be an effective way of producing multiple lanes for a running back to exploit.

Rather than try to move the line of scrimmage vertically down the field -- as in a “power” run scheme, linemen blocking for an outside zone run look to get the defense flowing horizontally along the field.

When the offense is successful, it is very difficult to maintain gap integrity against an outside zone. The stress created along the line of scrimmage tends to naturally create a running lane and a cutback lane that the back can use if necessary.

However, while it is an effective play, that doesn’t mean it is impossible to stop.

There are several methods for dealing with an outside zone run. Shading the nose tackle to the 2i technique, over the guard’s inside shoulder, is becoming a popular counter to outside zone runs. As former Giant Geoff Schwartz explains, that alignment makes linemen’s blocks much more difficult and requires essentially perfect technique and teamwork. But, as he also explains, adding a pulling guard helps to counter the defensive alignment.

Ultimately, the best way to stop an outside zone run is to get penetration into the backfield.

The Giants start the play above lined up in a classic 4-3, with Harrison lined up as the 1-technique off the center’s right shoulder and Hankins lined up as the 3-technique. Olivier Vernon is lined up at the 9-technique outside of the left tackle and is basically left unblocked. He cleans up the play, but the real work is done inside by the defensive tackles.

At the snap of the ball, Harrison jacks up the center (Travis Frederick), controlling the block and pushing him into the backfield. By not allowing Frederick to control the block, Harrison prevents a hole from opening to his right, where the left guard has released to the second level to block a linebacker.

To Harrison’s left, Zack Martin gets a chip block on Jason Pierre-Paul before releasing up to the second level. Jonathan Casillas meets his block, and while he doesn’t shed him manages to control it and prevent a hole from opening, forcing Elliott to run to the left.

Next to Harrison, Hankins gets low and runs through Tyron Smith’s block, effectively forcing the All-Pro left tackle to whiff.

The push from Harrison and penetration from Hankins slams the door on the run, while Vernon makes sure Elliott can’t somehow escape the tackle.

Inside Zone And Man-Gap Runs

As we previously covered, inside zone and inside man runs are similar. The biggest differences between them is that where Man-Gap blocking targets specific players and looks to open a hole in a specific gap, zone runs block areas of the field and (like outside zone) can create natural cut-back lanes.

Ultimately, both runs are defended similarly as well, and it all starts up front.

Here we have an off-tackle run with a man blocking scheme. Defending both “power” run concepts (man and zone) starts up front with stout play from the defensive line.

The primary goal of the defensive line on these plays is to keep the linebackers clean — that is, keep the offensive linemen in front of them and keep them from reaching the second level. That affords the linebackers the ability to be patient, flow to the ball, and fill their gaps correctly, especially when the play goes inside.

In this case, the goal is to keep stringing the run outside, toward the sideline. Outside runs do their damage when the running back can turn the corner and get up-field, and as long as they are running horizontally, they aren’t doing any damage.

In the above play, while Vernon makes a great play off the tight end to get the stop, Hankins is the key.

First he takes on the block from the left tackle, keeping the blocker in front of him and preventing a clean hole from opening. As the play unfolds, his one-on-one turns in to a double-team when the pulling center gets to them. Hankins can’t stop the blockers cold, but he does control the double team long enough to slow down Elliott as he tries to turn up-field.

At the second level, both linebackers in the tackle box (Devon Kennard motioned out of the box to cover the second running back) are clean and in position to make the stop — exactly as they should be. But it isn’t necessary

Vernon does a terrific job of stacking and shedding the tight end’s block, coming off it to make the tackle just as Elliott stops his feet to make a cut. On the back-side of the play, Damon Harrison does a terrific job of defeating the attempted cut block by the right guard, pushing him to the ground and just going over him to lend his considerable force to the stop.

Final Thoughts

The Giants go into 2017 with a void in what was one of the league’s best run defenses in 2016. They are hoping that Jay Bromley, Robert Thomas, and Tomlinson will join Harrison in re-solidifying that defensive front. While Tomlinson hasn’t done it yet at the NFL level, he absolutely has done it at the collegiate level, as the rock in the middle of the best defense in the country.

Defending the run isn’t nearly as glamorous as rushing the passer or making a play in the secondary. Broadcasts generally aren’t going to show an instant replay of a defensive tackle standing up a double-team, even if it is a great and vital play. Defending the run is under-appreciated and it’s hard, dirty work.

It demands discipline and unselfish teamwork as well as strength, determination, and measured aggression.

It’s also absolutely vital to a defense’s success.