Adding Multiplicity with a Flexible Run Scheme – The Counter Play

A play that seems to get very little press today with the popularity of the zone schemes is the counter play. Popularized in the 1980’s by Joe Gibbs of the Washington Redskins, it’s a play that remains a staple in many offenses, but just doesn’t seem to be talked about as much. Regardless, it still is a great football play.

Here it is in Super Bowl XXII being run to perfection for a touchdown:

Our use of the counter began heavily in 2010 when we started using more tight ends and h-backs in our offense. Power was already in our offense as part of our base run game, so utilizing the counter was pretty simple; the basic scheme was already in place. The combinations, calls, even the read for the running back were very consistent with what we were doing with power, so the counter was a logical addition to our running game.

The counter for many people refers to a play that starts in one direction and comes back to the other side. We don’t necessarily look at it as something that confuses a linebacker’s key because we don’t take traditional counter steps unless we are running it off of our orbit sweep play. The backfield action for us from the Pistol starts exactly like power with the quarterback reversing out off of the mid-line and the running back taking his drop step and coming downhill on the mid-line. After receiving the hand off, the running back simply bends it back behind his pullers who are going in the other direction.

Defense’s today do a great job at schooling their linebackers on reading keys. While we start the play out as Power, we don’t necessarily feel that the backfield action is necessarily going to displace a linebacker too far. We might get a step out of an undisciplined linebacker, but the key is his initial displacement from our combination block. On our combo, we are looking for a good vertical push.

Many of today’s spread offense’s predicate the running game on numbers in the box. This is a sound principle and one that we also use in our offense. The beauty of the counter play is that it puts more blockers at the point of attack than the defense has defenders. For example, in this diagram against an over front, the offense not only has angles created by down blocks, but pullers added to the play side creates a number advantage for the offense.

The defense will rely on the linebackers to react and negate the numbers advantage, but the angles that the offense has allows us to build a wall. The combination block and the center’s block back create the wall. The offensive line combinations and the pullers’ kick out blocks create the running lane for the back.

The biggest key for us in making the decision to make the counter a part of our base running game was the flexibility it gives us with our personnel and formations. This is evident as the counter can be found in many offensive systems like the wing-t, double wing, I-formation, and spread. As we used counter more and more we realized that it was a more flexible play for us that our power play. Because the second puller can be a tackle, tight end, wing, slot, fullback or even the tailback, we have found ways to fit this into many formations. The scheme is also flexible enough to be run to and away from the tight end.

The play can take on different personalities based on who is becoming the second puller. A key to making this part of our game plan each week is to find the formations and the alignments we expect from the defense to create the numbers and angles advantage.

The examples below show the multiplicity of this play. Note, you will see different footwork in the backfield as some of these examples are prior to changing our footwork for the quarterback as a reverse out.

In this first example, we use the guard and tackle from a one back set.

In the next example, the tight end becomes the second puller. His alignment off the ball provides him a good path and vision on his way to his kick out block.

Next, we motion in a blocker from a spread 3 x 1 formation. The formation spreads the defense out and takes defender’s out of the box.

Bunch has been an effective alignment in spreading out the defense as well. The bunch set creates extra gaps and forces the defense to spread their defenders out and align to defend the extra gaps. With six gaps to defend to the strength of the formation, the defense will align more defenders to the bunch side. This gives the angles needed to run the counter away from the bunch, and the fullback aligned as #3 in the bunch becomes the second puller.

The fullback and tight end create a great running surface and give a look in which we use our two back power. The fullback becomes the second puller.

We create heavy misdirection with the receiver coming behind the quarterback on the sweep path, and add a third puller with the wing coming back to the other side.

These examples show how the counter play can be very effective from a number of different formations and personnel groups. If you already have power in your running game, the counter can be a great addition because the blocking scheme is basically the same. While the examples show many different variations, the offensive line remains consistent in their assignments and execution. It doesn’t matter to them what is happening behind them in the backfield. They just do the same things over and over.

Hopefully these examples provide you some ideas for how you might evolve your offense in 2013. Happy New Year!

Articles that relate to this topic:

AFM Offense
Protecting the Split-Side Running Game
by: Steve Canter
Quarterbacks Coach, Norfolk State University
© July 2012

Gashing the Odd Stack with the Gap Scheme
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AFM Defense
What, as a Defensive Coach, Gives You the Most Trouble?
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© July 2012

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