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No Glory in Blocking for Backs, but Much to Gain




Published: October 15, 2011

120x60_v2.gifEAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Eli Manning threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLII, the most important person involved in the play was neither Manning nor Burress.



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Watch the tape,” Giants General Manager Jerry Reese said recently. “Look at what Brandon Jacobs did.”


That seems an incongruous statement. Jacobs, a running back, does not take a handoff from Manning, and he ends up nowhere near the corner of the end zone where Burress gathers in his 13-yard reception. In fact, Jacobs barely makes contact with another player during the sequence.


But a closer look shows Jacobs, who began the play to Manning’s left, sliding in front of him and directly into the path of the blitzing New England safety Rodney Harrison, who leaps in a futile attempt to deflect the pass thrown in the opposite direction.


Even when the play is viewed in real time, the ramifications of Jacobs’s move are obvious: without his block, Manning goes down, the pass is never thrown and the celebration belongs to the Patriots instead of the Giants.


“What makes it even more interesting is that he had two responsibilities on that play, two players coming from two different directions,” Jerald Ingram, the Giants’ running backs coach, said of Jacobs. “If he makes the wrong choice, we lose.”


Not all blocking responsibilities are as important as they were in that situation, but Jacobs made a larger point.


“It’s supposed to be a passing league now, right?” Jacobs said. “Well, part of our job is to keep the quarterback clean.”


Blocking has always been the blue-collar part of a running back’s job — falling somewhere behind “run for touchdowns” and “get all the glory” in any aspiring back’s list of duties. But now, perhaps more than ever, blocking has become crucial. With defenses using more exotic blitz packages and N.F.L. teams passing in record numbers, every rookie running back hears the same lecture.


“It goes something like, ‘Son, if you can’t block, you can’t play,’ ” Ingram said.


He added that learning to block was the “single biggest challenge” for any N.F.L. back because most top college offensive game plans require little beyond typical ball-handling duties.


Ingram estimated that a college back might have to know only three or four pass-protection plans. In the N.F.L., that number might be 25 to 30. Although it may seem as if the running back’s job is simply to block any player who gets through the line, the reality is that “there are rules,” Manning said.


“Every play, it’s different,” running back Ahmad Bradshaw added. “You have assignments, depending on the call. You may have the linebacker or the safety. Or you may have both.”


Ingram, who was a fullback at Michigan and has coached backs for 25 years, said blocking had always been a focal point of his work, though identifying the best blocking backs statistically can be a murkier process. The Web site ProFootballFocus.com, however, created a Pass Blocking Efficiency statistic.


By that measure, Bradshaw ranked second in 2010 among N.F.L. backs with a minimum of 50 pass-blocking snaps. Fred Jackson of the Buffalo Bills, whom the Giants will face Sunday, was fourth.


From 2008 through 2010, Bradshaw also ranked second — to Clinton Portis, then with Washington — among those with a minimum of 150 pass-blocking snaps. Jacobs, who said he “didn’t block for nothing” when he was at Southern Illinois, placed eighth during that time.


Bradshaw’s three-year ranking, in particular, puts him in heady company. Portis was almost universally cited by players and coaches as the gold standard among “every-down” backs, or backs whose blocking ability allows them to remain in the game during passing situations.


“Guys would talk about trying anything to get past Portis,” Giants safety Antrel Rolle said.


“He just wanted to run you over,” safety Deon Grant added.


Joe Gibbs, who coached Portis with the Redskins, said that attitude — which is what separates all good blocking backs from the rest — set Portis apart. Any back can learn the protections, Gibbs said, but what happens when a 250-pound linebacker comes racing through the middle with a 10-step head of steam?


“You’ve got to be a tough guy, and Clinton wouldn’t wait —

,” Gibbs said. “We sold it to our team. In highlight packages, we’d show Clinton blocking instead of his runs. And sometimes we’d name him Tough Guy of the Week. How do you think the big guys on the team felt when a running back was named Tough Guy of the Week?”


Bradshaw’s success comes from a similar approach. A top cornerback prospect in high school, he said: “I love to hit. Most running backs I’ve talked to don’t like it, but I love the contact. Those are the times when we get to give the hit instead of get it.”


The technique of blocking is not so simple. Jacobs, who will not play Sunday because of a knee injury, summarized it as “either you cut the guy or you hit him in the mouth.” But there is nuance: on a rollout play, for example, when the quarterback is running behind the line of scrimmage, a back cannot use a cut block (in which he takes out a blitzer’s legs) because the opposing player may just get back up and chase the quarterback. On the other hand, on a pass play in the pocket, the back must push the rusher to the outside to free the quarterback to throw.


“During the week, blocking is mostly what I work on more than anything,” Bradshaw said. “There is so much to know.”


Even the best blockers have lapses. In 2009, Manning and Bradshawexchanged words on the sideline after Bradshaw, as Ingram said, “totally blanked out” on a blocking assignment against New Orleans.


And in the Giants’ Oct. 2 victory at Arizona, Jacobs — on the same field where he made the right decision to block Harrison in the Super Bowl — made the wrong call and went after a Cardinals linebacker instead of picking up nose tackle David Carter, who sacked Manning and forced a fumble.


Those kinds of plays may result in good-natured fines during the weekly running backs meeting, Ingram said, but the intent is not punitive; it is to continue highlighting a part of the job that is neither grand nor glorious, but is necessary all the same.


“No one becomes a running back because they like blocking,” Ingram said. “But if they want to stay one, they better learn.


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<br />And even if it wasnt Jacobs blocking just go back to that 4th and 1 run that Jacobs had.<br /><br />Clearly hit in the backfield, but was able to push forward for the first.<br />
<br /><br /><br />

Bradshaw can pick up a blitz as well.

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