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By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs

First off, we’d like to congratulate all coaches for putting in countless time and sometimes thankless energy into another successful season.  Regardless of our win/loss record (we all know there are too many variables that can account for that), we’ve spend another three months motivating and influencing the lives of our players.  We all know how straining the duration of a football season can be, both physically and emotionally.  So, now that the off-season is officially here, it’s time to get back to researching  what worked this season and evaluating why things didn’t work.  Sure, taking a hiatus from football may sound appealing, but if you’re anything like us you’re motivated to get better each off-season and there’s no better way to spend downtime than to continue to learn.

Which is why for our first research report of this off-season, we wanted to focus on an ageless offensive scheme - the isolation play.  Chances are you run it, and if you didn’t run it, there was a reason why you got away from it.  We’re hoping that after your comb through our research you’ll find a way to implement it back into your package.  After conducting our research before the season started, we found that for the majority of coaches, 37.7 percent, the isolation run scheme consists of 10-25 percent of their run game.  We also found that many coaches were "banging their head against the wall" trying to run the old fashioned isolation play into an eight or nine man front.   But, we’ve also found evidence of a good deal of coaches that still utilize the concept of the isolation play as a staple of their offense.  The truth is 80.6 percent of coaches feel that the isolation scheme is a productive play for any situation and any circumstance on the field.  We’re going to detail how these coaches are successful in running the play in any situations.  Factors such as B gap bubbles in the defense, numbers advantages on the line of scrimmage, and techniques of the insert blockers all factor into the equation of how you can run the play with a good deal of success.

Case 1: The Strong Side Isolation (Using Tight End or Closed Formations) By definition, an "isolation" play is just as it says, typically a man blocking scheme where an offense will insert their second level player onto a defensive second level player at the point of attack.  Where you bring that second level player could come from anywhere, and we’ll show you examples.  But in most cases, that second level player will come from the backfield.  Even with the advent and perpetual evolvement of the spread run game, 56.6 percent of coaches still run the isolation play out of 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) and 62.2 percent of those coaches use the fullback as the lead blocker.   Later in the report, we will detail the fundamentals needed for the insert blocker, for now we’ll focus on running the scheme to the tight end side.  It seems the tight end, or three man surface; creates the numbers advantage needed to run the scheme, because aside from the three blockers you have at the line of scrimmage, the insert blocker (or fullback) equals four players at the point of attack.

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Where you insert that fullback is clearly open to interpretation, but many of the coaches we surveyed like to insert him in the first open gap to the play side of the scheme, which typically is an A or B gap bubble.  Of course, this may change depending on the front.  Against odd fronts (those most susceptible to inside isolation schemes) the open gap is the play side B gap which is where the fullback will insert (diagram 1).  But against, four down front (4-3/4-4 teams) the question is not only where you insert the fullback but how you block the front.

We were curious to find out how most coaches handle a closed B gap on the line of scrimmage and still run the isolation play, so we surveyed coaches on how they would block the isolation against a four down front.  Of the various fronts we presented in our surveys such as an Over 4-3, an Under 4-3, 50 Stack, 3-4 Front or 3-3 Front, 43.7 percent of coaches prefer to run the scheme to an over 4-3 front.  Despite their preference, there usually is an issue not only handling a dominating three-technique defender (which most four down fronts have) but also cutting off a 7-technqiue defensive end that is sitting in the C gap.   We figured you have two options here, either base block the three-technique with the guard, and fan out the tackle and the tight end on the defensive end and the play side linebacker or base block the defensive end with the tight end and double team the three-technique with the play side guard and tackle.  Apparently, 54.2 percent said that they will base block the three-technique with the guard and fan out the tackle and tight end (Diagram 2) sending the insert blocker or fullback on the Mike linebacker.

Jeff Metheny, the head coach at Bethel High School (PA) is one of the coaches who chooses to run the scheme by fanning the tackle on the defensive end and the tight end on the outside linebacker, which forces a single block by the tackle on the defensive end, and can cloudy the read for a read safety in quarters coverage.  The trouble is a possible mismatch between the play side guard and three-technique defensive tackle.  "When we get a three-technique to the play side, our guard’s rule is to reach the three-technique," said Metheny.  "We teach a reach step, which often causes that defensive tackle to stretch or widen.  If he does that, we will hit the play up inside.  If we can reach him, that’s great, but if he flies outside, we just wheel on him and turn him out.  It creates a big seam where he left.  The fullback will read the block on that defensive tackle.  If we reach him, he inserts into the B gap.  If we turn him out the fullback inserts in the A gap."

According to Metheny, the issue of "fanning" the tackle and tight end could present a problem if that outside linebacker could come downhill and become a factor on the play which can be the case in 4-4 or eight man front schemes.  So, instead Metheny will "zone the stack" as he calls it.  "If that defensive end is not in ‘fanable positions’ we will double the defensive end and then play the two men as they come," says Metheny (diagram 3).  "If the outside linebacker comes outside, the tight end will break off on him and if he comes underneath, the tackle will block him."

Case 2: The Weak Side Isolation (Using Open or No Tight End Formations) According to the coaches surveyed, in order to maintain offensive run balance, it’s important to be able to run the isolation scheme to both the tight end and split end surface.  While, our research does support that most coaches prefer to run the scheme to the tight end, because of a numbers advantage, there are two main issues that may hinder some coaches from running the play away from the tight end:

  1. Running the play to a B-gap first level defender (like a defensive tackle in Under fronts)
  2. Not having another player to block four weak defenders off the edge
We consulted a number of coaches to ask them about the first scenario.  What we’ve found is that the majority of coaches, 44.9 percent, prefer to execute a fan technique when blocking a three-technique and five-technique defensive lineman to the play side.  This is similar to what Coach Pat Hill at Fresno State University calls his "B.O.B." play which stands for "Back on Backer (Linebacker).  Against a two-high defense where the numbers are equal, it is the responsibility of the tailback to move the play side linebacker (diagram 4).  "The reason the tailback stretches the weak side linebacker is to give the center and back-side guard a chance to build a wall on the back-side," says Hill.  "If the tailback goes too fast, there is no time to build the wall.  When the guard is covered, the tailback reads the defender over the guard. He can’t cutback unless he’s forced that way."

According to Hill, the key to blocking the play is handling that three-technique down lineman play side.  "The play side guard must work to widen that tackle.   He puts his outside hand and helmet on the defender’s play side number and tries to get him to widen," said Hill.  "He is NOT trying to knock the defender off the line of scrimmage.  If the guard continues to press the outside gap by widening, than the defender will continue to widen.  He’ll continue to press with his outside arm until he starts to lose him.  If he starts to lose inside leverage, he takes his inside arm and throws the defender to the sideline."

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Although Hill teaches more of a zone blocking principle for the weak side isolation, there is an option of man blocking it, which a lot of option and Wing T coaches subscribe to.  While only 17.3 percent of coaches do it, the offensive guard and tackle can execute a cross or "X" block by switching their man blocking responsibilities. It’s a technique that Rod Stallbaumer, the head coach at Lyndon High School (KS) believes in.  Stallbaumer’s base schemes both the midline and veer option, but he’s had some terrific success running the isolation because of its similarity in picture to the midline option.  Stallbaumer’s base formation is out of double slot, so a tight end is not a factor.  But when he sees a three-technique and five-technique to the same side he will cross block those two defenders (diagram 5).   "The tackle will go first with the down block on the three-technique and the guard will kick out the defensive end," said Stallbaumer.  "We will often cheat our slot back a step because it may take an extra second for that to develop."

Case 3: Isolation Out of Spread/One Back Personnel Almost sounds like football blasphemy, but we’ve found you can still be productive running a downhill, smash mouth isolation scheme in no tight end/spread formations.   In fact, 19.5 percent of coaches will still run the isolation play out of 11 or 10 personnel.   One of those coaches is Erick Struck, an assistant at Sioux Falls Washington HS (SD), a runner up for the state title this year.  Sioux Falls Washington HS operates mainly out of 2x2 sets, but will motion the Z receiver in to isolate on the front side linebacker.  One of Sioux Falls’ go-to calls is "Right Bolt Zip 34" (diagram 6) which tells the Z to start in the slot, 6 yards from the near tackle, and iso block the front side linebacker.  Struck tells us that he zone blocks the play and like, Hill, tells his guard to stretch that three technique as much as possible so the ball can cut into the A gap.  But, because of the spread scheme that Sioux Falls Washington High School employs, it’s effective against all the odd front that they see each year.  "We use man on, man over blocking," he says.  "We put our best lineman at center so he can handle the nose one on one so that we can send our play side guard on the front side linebacker.  If he can’t, then the Z will block the play side linebacker.  It’s like inside zone for the back, who will start away from the call side.  We tell him as soon as he gets the hand off to plant the outside foot and get downhill, we can’t run it outside because of the outside linebacker’s presence there."

We’ve found that changing the entry point of the insert blocker is also an effective way of running the isolation scheme.  By nature, the isolation scheme is a tight flow, downhill play, so anything that distorts the vision of linebackers can be productive.  Stallbaumer’s isolation scheme out of his double slot formation pits his A back on the Mike linebacker who can’t see him pre-snap, "he’s got him beat by his angle," says Stallbaumer.  Another method is running the scheme out of tight bunch sets (diagram 7) like Boise State does from time to time.  Whomever you choose to use as the inside slot, this player will lead up on the front side linebacker post-snap without him ever being seen.

One of the more prominent ways to run the isolation out of one-back sets is what’s commonly known as, "the QB Wrap concept" (diagram 8), which is a man blocking scheme that now changes the insert blocker to the back-side tackle.  Dan Mullen, the head coach at Mississippi State University, chooses to use the QB as the ball carrier and prefers to run it to the shade technique in four-down fronts.  The play side tackle will block the defensive end, the center and play side guard will handle the nose, the back-side guard will block the three-technique and the running back will "get in the way" of the back-side defensive end.  The back-side tackle skip pulls and leads on the front side linebacker.  "We need to run this to the shade because of the presence of the three-technique," said Mullen last year at a clinic. "If you don’t have the open B gap away from the back then we simply flop the back to the other side to get what we want."

Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.

Concluding Report:

As mentioned previously, our goal with this report (as with all of our reports) is to provide research based on a concept with the purpose of generating some thought of how you can implement these schemes into your program. The number one objective of implementing any scheme is to "believe in the scheme first," and we’ve found that the isolation concept can be a productive scheme for any offense, as long as you can find ways to tweak it to fit your personnel.

Again, what makes X&O Labs effective is your feedback.  Please continue to let us know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it: on offense, defense and special teams.  Our goal is to make this off-season as valuable as possible for our coaches and to continue to develop this learning process to make us more productive as coaches.

Questions or Comments? X&O Labs’ Mike Kuchar will be available to answer your questions. Please post your questions or comments in the "Comments" section below and Mike Kuchar will respond shortly.

Copyright 2011 X&O Labs



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