The common question asked during a football game is why running backs run the football right up the middle, seamlessly into a pile of bodies. Why don’t they just run to the outside where there are fewer players?
Running backs run up the middle because it’s the shortest path to the end zone. Plays are often designed to move defensive players out of the way so the running back can run straight as fast as he can. The defense does a great job of getting off blocks or disrupting the running back’s path and creating a pile more often than not.
In this article, we will break down why teams run up the middle and the reason behind it.
Running Plays That Go Up The Middle
When a run play hits up the middle clean, it’s a thing of beauty. A player traveling in a straight line running as fast as he possibly can without being touched is rarely seen, but the crowd goes crazy when it happens.
Here’s a clip of Adrian Peterson during college to demonstrate what it should look like during college, in which he had many of these runs.
As you can see from these highlights, most of these plays are designed to be run directly up the middle. The coach hopes everyone can be blocked up; the running back can make a person miss and ultimately end up in the end zone.
However, as mentioned, the defense does a great job stopping the running back more often than not. Most teams run some 3, 4, or 5 down lineman defense.
Meaning, the offensive line has to make 5 perfect blocks and block the 2 or 3 extra linemen perfectly for a play to hit clean.
With the odds being so low, more times than not, we’re going to see a running back run directly into a pile, where he gains 1 or maybe 2 yards.
Benefits Of Running Up The Middle In Football
Believe it or not, there are actually benefits to running the ball up the middle, even if the person running it doesn’t gain a yard.
Play action is often the next play that teams run. Play action is when the running back does the same thing. He would run up the middle, only this time they fake it to him and throw it to a wide receiver.
If you run the football enough times up the middle, linebackers and defensive backs will start to run toward the line of scrimmage. This is the perfect opportunity to throw the ball over their heads or in vacated areas.
So although teams may not get big yards by running directly up the middle, it does help in the long run of keeping linebackers and defensive backs honest in their positions.
Negatives About Running Backs Running Up The Middle
There are a few negatives from running the football directly up the middle of the field. Besides yelling at your TV, a few other things come with smashing the football in between the tackles.
Limit Big Play Potential
As mentioned, gaining one or two yards can be good for play-action purposes, but it isn’t good for moving the football down the field along with the obvious.
2nd and long or 3rd and long situations are offensive coordinator’s nightmares. It causes them to call plays they necessarily don’t want to, and if they’re a run team, it forces them to throw the football to avoid 4th down.
If you can make the appropriate blocks one early down and gain an average of 3-4 yards per down, it will help you gain a first down in later downs.
Injury From Big Pile Ups
Of course, the injury discussion must come into play whenever we see a pile of people falling and being landed on. Oftentimes bodies and limbs will get landed on when these big piles happen.
Football has turned into a more finesse game, but it used to be a ground and pound game for tough guys, as you can see here from back in the day. As the term “smash-mouth football” was coined, teams ran power formation to out-tough their opponents.
Here is a great example of one of the most dominant running backs in NFL history, Hershel Walker, annihilating teams with his forceful running style.
Nowadays, teams are using spread formations where they’ll have 4-5 receivers out in the formation at a time. This causes fewer piles and allows the runners to attain more big plays, as they only have to beat 1-2 defenders downfield, not 5-7 defenders in the box.
Innovating & Not Running Up The Middle
Innovators to the football game include Chip Kelly and Kyle Shannahan, who use a less impactful offense and use both speed and leverage to beat teams.
This allows smaller offensive linemen to have a chance against bigger defensive tackles.
Essentially, the new spread philosophy is either “make him wrong” or leverage against him.
In making him wrong, teams will use the read-option play or some read-play for the defensive end to guess wrong. This allows the offense to get to the perimeter and avoid these piles and avoid the injuries.
Teams also use “outside” zone or wide zone players to help their running backs use all 53.3 yards of width to get them in space. This is how teams use leverage and get on their inside hip and push them outwards to create space.
This doesn’t require strength, only speed, and hand placement. It’s helped in innovating the game of football and ultimately making it safer.
Running backs run up the middle in hopes of breaking away from the pile that is created. Often we can’t see the complete picture because of the camera angle, but it’s not just a large pile of bodies they’re running into. Often it’s 1-2 players that disrupt the play, then all of the other players rally to the football.
Teams will continue to run the football up the middle to establish the run and keep the defense honest where it’s a run or pass.
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