Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Flexbone-Coaching the Running Backs and Receivers

Running Backs
The running backs in the flexbone offense are quite unique in that the slot backs are part running back and part wide receiver, while the B back would probably be the one back in a spread offense or the tailback in a pro style of offense.  This mix of ability allows the flexbone coach to distribute the players in a unique manner when coaching the backfield of the flexbone offense. 
       When looking for B backs, the top item to look for is a good runner.  Would this guy be a tailback in a pro style offense?  Can this player carry the ball 20 to 25, even 30 times a game?  Durability and toughness are other attributes B backs must have, as these players are going to get hit constantly in this offense.  A B back that’s a good outside runner makes the offense that much better. 
       Slot backs are quite a unique breed of athlete.  They are part wide receiver, part tight end or H-back, and part running back.  To be quite honest, these are guys that aren’t B backs or quarterbacks or wide receivers.  They are basically the leftovers.  A lot of coaches want really fast good slot backs that can stretch the defense, horizontally and vertically, however this is by far, not necessary.  The top ability a coach should look for in a good slot back is the ability and willingness to block in space.  The slot has one of the toughest jobs in the offense, especially if being run in states or leagues that do not allow the use of below the waist blocking, commonly referred to as cut blocking.  The slot must be able to have good feet and quickness to block defensive backs, while having the strength and durability to block linebackers on occasion.  The blocks being asked of the slot are not devastating or long-lived, however they do need to be effective.  Small B backs or wide receivers, or even undersized tight ends make good slot backs.  If the slot can run and catch, that’s an even bigger plus for the offense, but it should not be the priority when selecting players to play the slot back position.  Slots do need to be able to run a variety of routes, and having the ability to catch a football is also very important.  The idea here is that the slot should be an unselfish, blocker first, runner second and receiver third.

Coaching the B Back
The B back has a variety of individual drills that they can do throughout a practice.  Stance and start are very key to the performance of the B back.  The stance of the B back is the exact same of that of a track sprinter.  The feet are shoulder width or narrower, depending on individual comfort, while the weight is completely forward on the down hand or hands.  The B back may utilize a three or four point stance, as shown in Figure 11-1.  The back should be flat, with the buttocks slightly above the head.  The head should be up, with the eyes forward and the neck bulled so that the B back can see from right tackle to left tackle. 

Figure 11-1 (B back stance)
       On all inside run plays the B back should use the same steps as an offensive lineman making a block.  The first step is a short, six-inch power step.  In this segment of exploding out of their stances, the back should remain flat, and the shoulders should not elevate at all.  The eyes should go to the aiming point in an attempt to read the defense, regardless of whether the B back is running the ball or blocking.  To drill the stance and start of the B back, the coach can do the stance and start drill similar to that of the offensive linemen.  The B backs can all align in front of the coach and work on getting in the proper stances.  Once this technique is mastered the start can be perfected.  The coach, should have the players take the proper steps with both the right and the left foot.  Again, first step should be a six-inch power step in the direction of the play.  The second step should be a step that gains ground.  The entire time the B back is coming out the stance, the pads should only slightly elevate.  A good way to keep the B backs low is to utilize the chutes, as shown in figure 11-2, or the gauntlet as shown in figure 11-3.  Both of these equipment items will go a long way in keeping the B backs low out of their stances.

Figure 11-2 (Chutes)

Figure 11-3 (Gauntlet)
       As with any running back in any offense, simple agility drills are extremely important.  These drills will not be discussed at length in this text because they can be found in any good coaching manual on coaching running backs.  The drills, however that are specific to the B back’s development within the flexbone offense will be discussed, and the first of those drills is the mesh drill.  The mesh drill is really a drill for both the quarterback and the B back, however early on in the teaching process of the offense, the running backs coach can play the role of quarterback.  In the mesh drill without the quarterback, the coach can simply have the B backs line up in their normal alignment behind the quarterback and take their normal steps for the various option runs such as midline, inside veer and outside veer.  The coach, or quarterback will take their proper steps and utilize the proper footwork and ball handling techniques in this drill.  This drill gives the B back a feel for when the ball is being given to them, or pulled on a keep read.  This is a very important skill to master in the flexbone offense because a large majority of the plays within the offense are option oriented.  The B back has a very simple rule on all option run plays that they are involved in.  If the ball is there when they get to it, they simply take it.  This simple rule keeps the B back and quarterback from having any exchange problems, and also facilitates in a young quarterback who may be having trouble reading a particular defender.
       Another item that can be added to the mesh drill is the V.  The V is two, two-by-six pieces of lumber bolted together (as shown in figure 11-4) that can be widened or narrowed to represent the path that the B back should take.  Another item that certainly will help is a fire hose with all the positions and gaps named on it, such as the one shown in figure 11-5.  These items are not needed, but are extremely useful teaching tool that will make the coach’s job that much easier.

Figure 11-4 ("V" drill)

Figure 11-5 (Firehose)
Coaching the Slot Backs
The slot backs are to the flexbone what the tight end is to the pro style offense.  These athletes are probably the  most versatile athlete on the field.  Slots need to be able to run, catch, and block in space as well as block defenders inside the box.  These job requirements require a unique type of athlete as well as a unique method of coaching.  It is recommended that the slots have training both with the running backs as well as with the receivers.  For this section, the running back drills for the slot backs will be discussed.
       As with any position in any sport, stance and start is a key element of properly training any athlete.  Slots, must learn to use the proper footwork and have a good stance when executing the plays they are associated with in the flexbone offense.  The stance, is a bit different than that of a typical running back.  The feet are narrower than shoulder width to no wider than shoulder width, with the inside foot in toe to heel relationship (see figure 11-6).  The elbows should rest on the thigh pads, with little to no weight on them.  If the slot gets lazy and puts weight on the thighs, this will cause them to false step.  The chin should be over the toes and there should be some slight forward body lean. 

Figure 11-6 (Slotback stance)
       The alignment of the slot varies with the assignment being asked.  The slots should have the flexibility to align based on their ability to get the task at hand performed.  For instance, if asked to run a vertical route, with an overhanging defensive end or outside linebacker the slot should have the freedom to widen their alignment so they may get into the route quicker and with less interruption from the defensive player.  If the slot is called on to be the pitch back on a option play, where there is a no motion call, or Nomo, call, then the slot should be able to tighten their alignment more than normal.  This flexibility based on ability is what makes the slot back position that more effective.  As a base rule, the slot should align, with their inside foot on the outside foot of the offensive tackle.  The slot should be close enough, that when they rock forward they can just touch the buttocks of the offensive tackle. 
       Motion is a key component to the job a slot back must do.  Since most motions are not called, the slot must learn when and how to properly execute these motions.  The first motion, is the two-step motion, which as the name implies, means the slot will take two steps toward their aiming point before the ball is snapped.  The aiming point is the heels of the B back, as shown in figure 11-7.  The cadence is a rhythmic cadence which allows for the slot to leave at a certain part of the cadence, which was discussed in Chapter three.  On two step motion, the slot, upon hearing the s in the word set should push off the outside foot, opening the inside foot to where the toe is pointing to the aiming point.  The inside arm should rip open, in a manner similar to a pulling lineman, so that the head, and shoulders rotate around so the slot can see their aiming point.  Once the first step is in the ground and the weight is transferred, the slot should gain ground with the second step in an attempt to get to full speed by the time the slot reaches the aiming point. 

Figure 11-7 (2-Step Motion Aiming Point)
       Tail motion is a deeper motion, that still has the same aiming point as two step, however the position the slot should be in has changed from being two steps to that of being behind the B back when the ball is snapped.  The slot should now leave on the r in the word ready of the cadence.  The slot uses the same mechanics as two step motion, however they continue to accelerate toward the aiming point, all the while gaining speed.  Once at the aiming point, the slot should run flat, with the shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage (as shown in figure 11-8). 

Figure 11-8 (Tail motion)
       Twirl motion is a called motion, that involves the play side slot going in motion, then returning in the direction of the motion to execute a blocking assignment or to run a pass route.  In twirl motion, the slot should leave on the e sound in the work ready.  As the slot opens toward the same aiming point as both tail and two step motions, the slot should not be attempting to gain speed, but yet be going at enough speed to fool the defense.  When the ball is snapped, the slot should plant off of the deepest foot, as shown in figure 11-9, and then turn back to the inside, as the slot heads off to wherever the particular assignment has them going. 

Figure 11-9 (Twirl motion)
       There are other called motions, but these are standard motions that do not involve the timing that twirl, two step and tail motions involve.  The coach should strive to make sure that the timing is consistent for the motion with all the slots.  Any error in timing can throw off the timing of the entire play in the flexbone offense.
       Once the motions have been drilled and installed, then the slot must learn to catch the pitch.  This one skill can make or break the power of the flexbone offense, as having slots that cannot catch the pitch can lead to turnovers, which in turn, generally lead to losses.  A good drill that will teach both motions and the skill to catch the pitch is to set up the fire hose (please note that the fire hose must contain accurate landmarks on it to represent the offensive linemen) with the proper landmarks such as the B back's heels marked with a dot or cone (see figure 11-10).  The coach can act as the quarterback for this drill, or the quarterbacks can be added to work on their timing and footwork as well.  Various plays within the offense can be called and have the slot execute their motion assignment and then work on receiving the pitch from the quarterback or coach.   As with any catching skill, the key is the receiver's eyes.  The eyes must see the football, and look the football in until the ball is secured. 

Figure 11-10 (Landmark drill)
Another drill, that you can use to mix up the monotony of everyday practice with the slots is to do the bad pitch drill.  The bad pitch drill is similar to the landmark drill, but instead of good, clean pitches, the coach will actually execute a bad pitch.  It is inevitable, when running this offense you are going to see a bad pitch.  Of course, you would love to see bad pitches kept to a minimum, however there is nothing wrong with being prepared for when something goes bad.  In this drill, the key coaching point is to be sure the backs understand, no matter what, do not attempt to pick up the football.  This point must be drilled because if not, this will only lead to turnovers.  The backs need to be concerned with one thing and one thing only, getting back possession of the football.  Both the Bad Pitch drill and the Landmark drill work on motions as well as other ball carrying skills the slots will need in the flexbone offense.

Coaching the Wide Receivers
When selecting wide receivers, look for larger players here.  Not all receivers are created alike, but if you can, choose larger players to play this position.  It's quite ok if the receivers you select might play tight end or H-back in other styles of offense.  The main key for the selection of your receivers needs to be the willingness to block first.  Obviously you are looking for players who can catch the football, but this is a skill that can be worked on through drills, so don't count out a guy, just because he can't catch.  The more versatile the wide receiver, the more you can do within the offense without having to substitute.

The wide receivers in the flexbone offense, are often the forgotten foot soldiers of the offense.  To be successful, this mantra must be discarded, as the wide receivers make the flexbone offense work, just as much as any other position on the field.  Flexbone receivers, must be able to block, and must be able to block in space.  In this regard, the slots and receivers can be coached together, because this is a skill that will be utilized by both positions.  In states where blocking below the waist is not allowed, it is imperative that the coach teach his skill position players proper open field blocking techniques.  The wide receiver, will have to execute three basic blocks, the stalk, the push-crack and the crack.

The Basics of Wide Receiver, Stance and Start
As with any position, in football, the stance and start are critical.  For the wide receiver, stance and start can be an everyday drill (EDD).  There have been countless articles written for both books and the Internet on coaching wide receivers.  There is no intent here to "reinvent the wheel", however, don't underestimate teaching proper, basic techniques to your receivers.  

The stance of a receiver, should be an elongated, two-point stance, with all of the receiver's weight on his front foot.  It is preferred that the receivers, if aligned as the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMOL), then they will put their inside foot up, whereas if aligned inside, and off of the football, the receiver will align with his outside foot up.  The foot stagger, helps to time up route running in the passing game, so that the receiver will be at the proper depth, when running his routes.  The chin of the receiver needs to be over the front toe t slightly ahead of the front toe.  The back foot is resting on the ball of the foot and has very little weight on it.

A basic drill when teaching stance and start is to align the receivers along a line with a coach placed in the middle of the group of receivers, as shown in Figure 11-11.  The receivers should look to the coach and get aligned in their stances.  Upon inspection, the coach can adjust any stances as he sees fit.  To further this drill, add in the start.  The first thing the coach should drill is the receiver's first step.  This step, which should be no longer than six to eight inches in length, is the receiver's power step.  This step allows the receiver to come to balance and be able to take on a defensive back (DB), if the DB was in a press alignment.  On this first step, the weight should transfer from the front leg, to a more balanced stance, now having 50 percent of the receiver's weight on the old front leg, and 50 percent on what was the old back leg (old meaning prior to the snap).  In the drill, the coach should get the receivers to all take their first step.  It will be easy to see who has taken too large of a step or too short of a step.  Correct accordingly and repeat this drill, working both feet.  As the receivers progress, don't have them go on a snap count, but have them go on the coach's movement.  The coach can utilize a ball on a stick much like that of a defensive line coach (as shown in Figure 11-12), or they can simply move their foot or arm to simulate the movement of the snap.  By doing teaching the receivers to look for movement, the coach is eliminating the chances of a false start.  Due to their proximity away from the football, receivers some times have difficulty hearing the snap count.  By utilizing movement on motion, the need for the receivers to know the snap count becomes a moot point.

Figure 11-11 (Stance/Start drill)

Figure 11-12 (Stance/Start ball)

The stance and start drill is a great EDD that can be worked to reinforce weight transfer, proper stance, proper route running and blocking technique.  It is recommended that this drill be utilized at least once a week during the regular season to keep the receivers sharp in their fundamentals.

Teaching the Stalk Block
Some coaches might see writing about this skill as a forgone conclusion, but this is not the case.  If you are reading this, do not gloss over this section, as mentioned above, if you cannot cut where you play, you had better invest in the teaching of open field blocking. 

Once stance and start have been mastered, then the coach can progress on to blocking.  Blocking for a receiver isn't much different than that of an offensive lineman, however, it is how the receiver gets to his block that is drastically different than that of the offensive line.  Receivers typically have to travel greater distances to get to their assignment than do their larger counterparts on the offensive line.  This increase in travel is due to the space in which the receivers must operate.  This space, and being able to block in it, will separate average receivers from good ones.  

A great drill to start off with, that teaches great body position, eye discipline and footwork for blocking in the open field is coined mirror drill.  The mirror drill is easily set up, as shown in Figure 11-13.  All that is needed is four cones and two players.  One player is the blocker, the other player is the defender.  In this drill, the receiver, must place his hands behind his back, and take a stance much like an offensive lineman would in pass protection.  The receiver wants his butt down, feet shoulder width or slightly wider, with the head and chin tucked back.  On command the receiver should start to foot fire (rapidly chopping the feet in place, or what some coaches refer to as shimmying).  The coach should let this foot fire segment last a second or two before giving the second command.  On the second command the defender will attempt to move side to side to gain leverage on the blocker.  The idea behind this drill is that once the blocker gets his leverage, he must move his feet to maintain this leverage.  Blocking leverage is critical in creating running lanes for the ball carrier.  The idea in mirror drill is simply to work the feet, which are the most critical part of the receiver when stalk blocking.  The feet must always be in motion.  The receiver should never quit buzzing his feet during the drill.  The feet should also stay at least shoulder width apart through the duration of the drill.  The feet are where most receivers lose blocks, or get holding penalties thrown on them.  Failure to move the feet or keep the feet properly spaced, result in the loss of leverage on the defender.

Figure 11-13 (Mirror drill)

As this drill progresses you can really ramp up the intensity with a drill named Escape from Bagdhad.  This drill is good for any offensive or defensive position as it teaches blocking in space as well as escaping from blocks.  The drill is set up, as shown in Figure 11-14 with a five yard by five yard box of cones.  In this set of cones will be three players.  One is coined the rabbit, or runner.  The rabbit is the ball carrier, or person who must not come in contact with the second player, the defender.  The defender's aim is simply to tag or touch the rabbit.  The third player is the blocker.  The blocker must keep the defender away from the rabbit.  The rabbit can move around within the box, but if he leaves the box at any time, it is counted in favor of the defender.  On command the defender will work to get around the blocker, while the rabbit works to keep the blocker between himself and the defender.  The blocker should use the mirror drill technique to stay in front of and keep leverage on the defender.  The drill is usually done for a four or five count at which time, coaching points can be made and new players rotated in.  This drill gets quite competitive and the players have a lot of fun with it.

Figure 11-14 (Escape from Bagdhad)

Teaching the Push Crack and Crack Blocks
These blocks are very similar in nature, as the only difference is the angle of attack.  A simple drill that works this technique is obviously called crack drill.  This drill can be done with only the receivers, or can be coupled in a group drill with the slots to mimic the offense blocking the perimeter of a defensive scheme.  However you choose to do it, some of the finer coaching points of the crack block are:

  • Head position.  This is a must, and will hurt you if you choose not to drill it.  The receiver must have his head in front of the defender at all times when crack blocking.
  • Feet.  Again, feet come into play, even on the crack block.  It is not enough for the receiver to make contact, especially if the defender is much more athletic, or larger than the receiver.  
  • Hands.  Positioning the hands should be no different than that of the stalk block.  
  • Eyes.  Pre-snap don't give away the intentions of the offensive scheme, but the receiver must locate his defender.  Once the ball is snapped the receiver should lock on to this defender and work to keep his eyes on the near number of the defender.
  • What to do if the defender gives you his back.  This is truly important.  Many coaches, I've been around do not drill this technique.  When this happens, the receiver must now become exactly like a basketball player setting a screen.  Basically put, the receiver should get in the way, but not get called for clipping.
The push crack is executed by the receiver by releasing vertically off the LOS as if to run either a vertical route or stalk block.  As the receiver does this, they will eye the near safety.  If the safety is in a backpedal, then the receiver will continue to push vertically down the field.  Once the safety stops the backpedal and transitions forward, the receiver will then break on an angle to intercept the the safety and block him with the correct technique as shown in Figure 11-15.  

Figure 11-15 (Push crack block)

When executing the crack block, there is very little to no vertical stem by the receiver, as illustrated in Figure 11-16.  Depending on the location of the defender being blocked, the receiver may actually have to step flat down the LOS to block this defender.  The receiver should push off the back foot, in order to get the shoulders turned down the LOS, while getting his eyes on the near number of the defender.  As the receiver approaches the defender, the receiver should look to strike the defender with the head in front of, and out of contact, of the block.  The upfield hand should look to pin the near arm of the defender, while the inside hand looks to make contact with the far breastplate of the defender.  The upfield arm is very important in making sure that the defender does not slide off the block and be able to get back into the play.

Figure 11-16 (Crack block)

There are many other receiver drills out there that coaches can use.  A good tool for receivers with catching the football is to throw tennis balls early on.  By doing so you require that the receiver use his fingers and hands, rather than allowing his body to come in contact with the ball.  Another concentration technique is to use paint to paint the numbers one through four and five through eight on the points of footballs.  Make the receiver call out what number is "up" when they catch the football.  Couple this with the concentration drill of having the receiver start out with his back to the coach and on command turn around to catch a football.  This drill requires the receiver to get their head around and find the football.  A good tip for this drill is to do it near a fence, backstop or wall.  If these items aren't available, then have the other receivers work as fielders for any missed balls.  By doing this you minimize the amount of time you have spent chasing footballs.  Some other drills are utilizing the two-man sled for blocking drills that work on foot drive, the one-handed fade drill that also works on receiver concentration, and the routes in traffic drill are ones that come to mind.  No matter the drill, the idea is to assure that the coach is working on the necessary skills the receiver needs to have to perform their task within the offense.

Slots, when not working on run plays that involve them as a runner may work with the receivers.  This division of practice time will be discussed in a later post, but it should be noted the slots will need to be drilled in most, if not all, of the receiver drills mentioned here.

It is imperative that throughout all of these drills that anywhere ball security can be drilled, it should be.  Ball security is something many coaches take way too lightly.  In any drill that involves the carrying of the football, coaches need to stress the little things such as "high and tight" and wrist above the elbow, and three points of pressure to ball carriers.  Don't just talk about these things, drill them.  There are several tools on the market today that do this, and so many ball security drills out there it would take weeks, or even months to write about all of them.  Whatever skill position you coach, make ball security a priority in your EDD's.