Cleveland Browns X's & O's - Anatomy of a Scoring Drive Play #2: The Pin-and-Pull

In the first installment of the OBR's ‘Anatomy of a Scoring Drive: A Play a Day’ series we analyzed the popular gap-blocked Counter OF. Today we move on to a zone-blocked concept that integrates gap-blocked principles via pulling linemen, the outside zone-variant ‘Pin-and-Pull’.

Before diving into the film let’s briefly reset the scene.

The Bengals lead the visiting Browns 7-3 with just under 11 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter. The offense has taken possession of the ball for the third time, scoring a touchdown on an eleven-play, 63-yard drive before going three-and-out to end the first quarter. After holding the Bengals’ Counter OF to one-yard and delivering a bone-crunching hit on Bengals’ tailback Giovanni Bernard , Browns’ defensive lineman Randy Starks has drawn a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, moving the ball to the 36-yard line and gifting the offense a first and ten.  


Play #1 Recap

Down/Distance – 1st and 10

Formation – Tank Wing Strong

Concept – Counter OF Left (run to weak side)


Play #2

Down/Distance – 1st and 10

Formation – Twins Right

Concept – Pin-and-Pull Left (run to strong side)

The Bengals will start the second play on the 36-yard line with the ball between the hashes, showing 11 personnel (one tailback and one tight end) with the strength of the formation set to the left- side. Like the play before there are equal numbers of skill players to each side of the ball (twin receivers to the right-side and a tight end/flanker to the left) so the defense has set its strength to the tight end’s side of the formation, as most teams show a run-tendency in that direction.

The defense is aligned in Pettine’s standard 3-4, five-man surface with the end, nose, and tackle playing 5, 1, and 3-techniques respectively. The SAM (#51) and rush linebacker are set one-yard outside the EMLOS (End Man on Line of Scrimmage) with the MIKE (#56) and WILL (#53) aligned over the right and left guard.

Notice the staggered depth by WILL Craig Robertson (#53) and MIKE Karlos Dansby (#56). Robertson’s depth is fairly shallow, with his heels sitting at four yards while Dansby sits at six. We’ll see why Robertson is so close to the line of the scrimmage momentarily.

Although the Browns often played a two-gap technique with their nose tackle, former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil adjusts the run fits (gap responsibilities) to counter an anticipated a run in this situation. With seven gaps to secure and seven defenders in the box, each player will start the play with a single gap assignment, although the run fits will change based on the blocks of the offensive line (reach block, down block, pull, etc.). Nose tackle Danny Shelton (#71) will play the strong side A-gap while Robertson run-blitzes the weak side A-gap (this is likely the primary reason Dansby and Robertson’s depth are dramatically staggered). With the WILL aggresively stuffing the A-gap Dansby will likely need to scrap overtop in pursuit of the ball. The extra distance gives him room to flow laterally and provides an extra split second to avoid a ‘scoop’ (climb to the second level to block a linebacker) from the left tackle or left guard.

The defensive alignment has created two interior run bubbles (like the previous play). We can see two large holes in the strong side B-gap and weak side A-gap. Good offensive coordinators will eventually attack these bubbles as the voids create large holes and set-up easy blocks for the offensive line )possible foreshadowing?).

In light of the offense’s success on the ground to date (nevermind the previous play) the Bengals choose to attack via the Pin-and-Pull, a Jackson run-game staple designed to attack the perimeter of the defense by winning the outside gap and placing the tailback in the alley.

Pin-and-Pull marries the best of both major run-blocking schemes (gap and zone), combining reach blocks (zone), down blocks (gap), and pullers (gap) to create blocking angles and numbers at the point of attack (POA). The concept is particularly effective against teams that run odd fronts using three interior lineman and two standup linebackers on each side of the formation. We’ll examine exactly why below.

The concept is a great call here due to the offense’s personnel grouping and the defense’s alignment and technique. Ryan Hewitt (#85) is a solid blocker as both an inline tight end and fullback and Giovanni Bernard (#25) has the speed, vision, and toughness to turn this play into an explosive gain if he can clear the line of scrimmage. From an X’s and O’s perspective, the play demonstrates why advanced film study, creativity, and an understanding of the how to attack schematic weakness within a defense are so crucial to executing successful plays.

The Blocks

The blocking assignments for the Pin-and-Pull will vary based on the defense’s front (covered vs. uncovered for example). The Browns are aligned in an odd front (three down linemen with five players on the line of scrimmage) with seven box defenders. We’ll look at the blocks moving from right-to-left

  • The right tackle and right guard will reach block the 3-technique and run-blitzing linebacker in order to prevent any leakage that could chase the play down from the backside. Each will take a lateral play-side step, attack the defender’s play-side number with the hands, and attempt to swing the hips towards the ball. If executed correctly, the blockers will place themselves between the defender and the ball, walling off any backside pursuit. This does not need to be a devastating block; the goal is to impede the defender’s progress. Note that the rush linebacker is unblocked. the quarterback will hold him to his spot by bootlegging after making the pitch. If he does aggressively chase the play from behind, the offense will eventually run a bootleg-based concept into the area he has vacated.
  • The center must make a tough block here due to the angle of the tilted 1-technique, requiring him make up ground with the first two steps as the nose tackle is already aligned to the play's direction. He will use a bucket step (play-side foot opens at 45 degrees) to turn the body towards his aiming point and work to the nose tackle’s outside shoulder. Like the right tackle and right guard, this block does not need to be a slobber-knocker. Get hands on the defender and wall him off from the ball.
  • The left guard and right tackle will execute the pull blocks. Each will look to attack the first threat to cross their face from the inside shoulder. If executed correctly, the left tackle will pick up the scrapping linebacker with the left guard blocking the alley defender (usually a safety).
  • The tight end will execute the ‘Pin’ block to “wall off” the 5-technique. Rather than utilizing a traditional down block, many teams will coach the pin player to stay square to the line of scrimmage, attack the play-side number, and work the defender vertically. This technique is used because the defender can escape overt the down block if the lineman does not get his head across the defender’s outside shoulder pad.
  • The running back will first secure the pitch and press the edge of the formation, pressing up-field as he follows his puller’s blocks. It is the ball carrier’s responsibility to read the pulling guard and tackle’s block and make the appropriate cut.

After examining the individual assignments we can see how the Pin-and-Pull concept creates favorable blocking angles by:

  1.  Using a pin block by the tight end on the 5-technique
  2.   Pulling the tackle to reach the SAM (Barkevious Mingo)
  3.   Pulling the guard to attack the first threat to cross his face from the inside or the alley defender

The blocking scheme is particularly effective against the Browns' front because it takes pressure off the tight end and left tackle to reach block the 5-technique and SAM, a difficult task based on their pre-snap alignment (each defender is closer to the targeted gap than their assigned blocker). After watching the blocks in action we'll look for coaching points and analyze technique.

Starting with the left-side of the offensive line we see the right tackle, right guard and center execute their reach blocks, slowing the lateral flow of the defensive line and cutting off the right side from the ball. Notice the right tackle attempt to cut the 3-technique, as he is unable to reach the defender’s outside shoulder. Although the block fails, the under tackle cannot affect the play due to the initial contact and cut attempt, so we’ll grade the block “good enough”.

Watching Danny Shelton in action is like deju vu all over again. Once again, the first round pick is easily handled by a single blocker due to a slow second step and poor pad level. Shelton needs to force his head and hips to the blocker’s outside shoulder and penetrate his run fit to widen the tailback’s path, as the sheer amount of distance the nose tackle must cover makes in very unlikely he will able to make a tackle in the backfield.

Moving to the tight end we can see the vertical displacement he creates by keeping his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. Watch how Hewitt rolls his hips into the D-gap, walling off the 5-technique before he is overpowered. This is a tough block to make against a defender with superior size and strength. Hewitt gets an A+ for holding his own at the point of attack long enough for the ball to hit outside, eliminating the defensive end from the play.

As analyzed in previous articles, smart teams exposed and attacked a schematic weakness within the Browns’ run fits early and often last season. We can see this defensive deficiency in effect by observing the tight end’s block and pulls by the left tackle and left guard.

Many readers likely questioned why Mingo shot inside at the snap, cutting off Dansby’s scrape to the ball and creating a huge alley running lane. The answer to this question can be found in both scheme and concept. In many defenses (including Pettine’s) run fits are not static, as the offense will have little trouble moving the ball if defender’s blindly crash their assigned gap regardless of play concept. Instead, defensive linemen and linebackers are taught to read the offensive linemen’s blocks and react accordingly. Pettine got into trouble because he took this idea to the nth degree, creating indecision and confusion at the line of scrimmage.

The OBR discussed this issue in an earlier X’s & O’s film study:

Edge defenders in Pettine’s run scheme are taught several different techniques to beat ‘reactionary blocks’. Each type of block (reach block, down block, bim, turnout, pullers) calls for a different technique, requiring the defender to identify the block type he is facing and then react. This is where much of the talk about disenchanted players being forced to “think” too much came from, as the defender must identify the block and mentally run through 7-8 different techniques in a split second. If he is just a hair slow, the probability of executing the correct technique plummets. It’s paralysis by analysis.

A look at Dick Lebeau’s playbook illustrates how run fits will change based on the type of block the offensive linemen utilize:

When Mingo reads the vertical block on the 5-technique, he is coached to use the ‘block down, step down’, or BDSD rule as a gap-blocked concept like Power or Counter are the most-likely play calls with this type of block. Both concepts will generally trap block Mingo with a fullback or a puller, so he must eliminate the blocker in order to let the interior linebackers make the tackle. The important point here is that Mingo must convert from a 'force' player to a 'spill' player on-the-fly.

BDSD technique starts with the defender attempting to get hands on the tight end to disrupt his block, and then following his hands inside and replace the tight end’s hips at the line of scrimmage to squeeze the gap. As Mingo squeezes the gap, he should take himself right into the path of the first puller coming his way. From here he will use a ‘wrong-arm’ technique in which he initiates contact with his outside shoulder into the blocker’s up-field shoulder, followed by a rip through the armpit of the blocker. By attacking the puller’s up-field shoulder the ball should be spilled outside where a scrapping linebacker exchanges gaps with Mingo to become the force man (push the ball inside to the pursuit). Here's how a good wrong-arm looks in action:

We can see Mingo submarine the pulling guard and H-back (trading two-for-on) while Dansby (#56) flows hard to the perimeter in order to replace Mingo as the force man. A great wrong-arm will trade two blockers for one defender. At the very least, the wrong-armer must create a train wreak in the backfield. The wrong-arm does not have to be pretty to be effective. If the defender can create a pile-up and force the ball wide (most gap plays are trying to win the C or B-gap) he has executed his assignment.

So what happens when Mingo reads "down block" by the tight end and steps to initiate his BDSD rule against a front-side pull?

Mingo follows his coaching by stepping down, but because the offense is pulling linemen from the front side of the play he has no chance to execute his wrong-arm before the pullers are past him. In a vacuum it is easy to question why Mingo did not see the tackle and guard pull, but via coaching his eyes should be exclusively focused on his run/pass key, the tight end. Jackson exploits this schematic weakness by “showing” Counter/Power with the tight end in order to force Mingo to follow his BDSD rule, effectively eliminating him from the play and reducing the number of defenders that must be blocked at the point of attack.

Dansby does a good job reading his key (the left guard) for run/pass and play direction, getting a good jump on the ball as he must replace Mingo in the D-gap. Unfortunately, he has too much distance to cover due to the front-side pull. The left side of the defense is now out-leveraged at the point of attack.

Bernard does a great job pressing the ball up-field and fitting off his blocks for a ten-yard gain. Dansby’s hustle prevents this play from hitting for more yards by fighting through the traffic to prevent the cut-back angle Bernard wanted to hit at the 35-yard line. Instead, he is forced to continue towards the sideline where Tramon Williams makes the tackle, mitigating the damage on what very well could have been an explosive play.

The net result of the play was a ten-yard gain, leading to another first down (the second in two plays) and the ball approaching the Browns’ side of the field. Jackson has now attacked the perimeter gaps (C and D-gap) with both play calls, looking to take advantage of the defense’s exterior run fits. In our third installment, we will watch Jackson switch things up by attacking the interior (remember the run bubbles?) using the old school, gap-blocked classic Iso.

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