Inside the Playbook: Why Run to the Short Side of the Field

 It’s a question regularly asked, “Why is my favoriteteamconstantlyrunning to the short side of the field?” Peoplereallydo not enjoyjetsweeptotheshortside. In almost every sport you are taught the concept of using the sideline as an extra defender, and in football it is no different. And in the current era of football, the idea of space is emphasized as much as it has ever been: you have extra wide WR splits, you have light personnel groupings, stretch the field not just horizontally but laterally. So then why does it always feel like the runs aren’t utilizing that space?

Space is a fundamental source of success in modern football, but it is not only the offense that controls space and how it can be used; defense also plays a role. Space is also only a single fundamental facet, others include leverage and numbers. And when you take all those traits into account, that will explain why runs into the boundary are run as often as they are. Let’s take a look.

The Hashes

The first thing we have to talk about is the field dimensions. How and why you run to the short side changes based on the width of the hashes. In the NFL, there is hardly a noticeable difference between wide side and short side due to how narrow the hashes are (70.75' compared to 89.25').

Sports Know How

A college football starts to really show significant distance differences due to the hashes (60' to 100'), but it's important to note that 20 yards is still significant space.

Sports Know How

Then in high school football (in most places) (53.33' to 106.67')

Fun fact, there used to not be hash marks and the ball was just placed where it was downed (including extra points!). So it was possible you were literally pushed right up to the sideline, and you had to find a way to run away from it. Take a look here for some cool pictures and the history of hash marks

A History of Complaints

Frankly, I'm not as old as some of you guys. But I am old enough to know that a) Tom Osborne is one of the most successful college football coaches of all time; and b) that fans regularly complained about him running to the short side of the field.

Complaints about running to the short side aren't new. Many casual fans were likely, at one time, high school football players. Historically what is consistent at lower levels is having a dominant players, sticking him at RB, and running him to the wide side of the field where there is space for him to dodge less talented players. That's all well and good (and tactically makes sense, which we'll get to later), but as you step up a level, where athletic mismatches are less pronounced, you have to start looking at other aspects. 

So here, we are, late in the Osborne era, and Nebraska is hitting Tennessee with Load Option into the boundary. "But the sideline is a 12th defender!" someone is screaming. But let's look at the picture:

Before I mark it up, look how Tennessee is aligned on defense. As I noted at the top of the article, the defense has a say in what "spacing" means as much as the offense. Here, the slot defender has outside leverage (making it very difficult to stretch a run outside the slot WR), that is the defense limiting the lateral space to the field. Additionally, the defense has two box defenders aligned outside the offensive EMOL, so even if you read one of those defenders, it will be very difficult getting outside both. Even if you manage to get outside, the MIKE is aligned in a 10 technique to the field, protected by the 3T and the 5T to the field. 

So when you talk space, it isn't difficult to box this in to the field. When you talk numbers, Tennessee has the pre-snap numbers advantage. When you talk leverage, it is extremely difficult for Nebraska to find a way to leverage the defense in a way that they can tactically threaten that side of the formation.

But let's look at the short side of the field, instead. Space, from a field standpoint, is more limited. But from a defensive perspective, they only have one defender outside the offensive EMOL, and from a box style defense, you can read that EMOL and get outside. From a numbers standpoint, Tennessee has to trust the FS can buzz down in an effort to equate numbers without the QB run threat (C, RG, RT, WR, FB, TB vs Shade, WDE, WILL, MIKE, CB, FS). With the QB run threat, you are blocked to the FS.

So let's look at the Load Option diagrammed for how it will actually be run, and you'll see, just how the sideline will open up if Nebraska fully takes advantage of their numbers and leverage advantage.

And it's probably important to note that Nebraska doesn't block this well. The RT fires out too down hill and misses the WILL, who is able to scrape (and force the FB to block him). The QB doesn't successfully force the WDE to commit, and he is able to force the ball laterally. The cut by the Center only slows the Nose, but doesn't get him to the ground. And still, despite a missed assignment, despite a minus on the backside, Nebraska manages to get two blockers out on the MIKE and blocks the box successfully, and manages 4 yards. 

That's not great for an offense, but to get there it required marginal offensive execution combined with the WILL and FS attacking mostly at the snap. It's not difficult to see how this ends up a significantly longer gain.

But never the less, it doesn't, but it shows another short side vulnerability, one that Nebraska immediately takes advantage of later that drive. The defense is scraping and buzzing hard to account for their numbers and leverage disadvantage, and Nebraska comes right back with 32 trap off the option look.

A Modern Era
In 2019, Notre Dame faced the same dilemma when they faced off against Michigan. Here they are actively trying to dissuade the boundary side run by aligning heavy in that direction pre-snap, only to slant post snap. These slants improve the LB leverage because they are scraping quickly opposite the slant, and still Michigan has the box blocked and an additional blocker looking for work.

Again, Michigan has blocked the box with the WILL bailing on a tare motion not seen above. The above gets down blocks on the front side, a OG blocking a CB to really widen the hole, and really the only leverage disadvantage is the C vs the MIKE, but even that should be sufficiently wide by blasting out the CB and the down block on the End (especially with the Center having the advantage of knowing he's pulling pre-snap). So now you're asking a safety to buzz down and limit the damage in space. Alas, he can't (and if 74 keeps going down field, there is no one between the RB and the End Zone):

So, of course, the defense responds. They cover the 3 short side gaps. The shade the MIKE. The backside is screaming toward the boundary after they've been repeatedly burned there. 

Modern era, similar response. It's a trap:

What About Stretch
Yup, it works with stretch too. Look at these angles for blocks, I don't even need to draw the picture

But I did draw it up, albeit, for pin and pull.

The nice benefit of stretch is that it naturally sets up the vertical cut once the defense over pursues, so you can play off the defensive action and simply take advantage of the numbers and leverage.

And from gun too, blocked all the way to the safety vs Cloud force


What About Jet Sweep
It's all the same. Numbers, leverage, space. Minnesota spokes down to the motion threat, that man gets kicked out on the arc, and there is a clear alley down the sideline (notice they don't have to block the end here because of the interior run threat and they can successfully block up to the safety).

In general, where you are gaining a leverage advantage with a threat away from the boundary (i.e. with an arc-type block), running short side makes it easier to identify those blocks and limits the numbers (i.e. defensive games) that can hold the play down, because second and third level players are limited, and where they exist, they aren't in a position to utilize those schemes.

Defensive Alignment
So to circle back, space is important, but numbers and leverage can help establish schematic advantage to the short side of the field. Let's look at Alabama aligned in a 2-high look. There is nothing particularly special about this, but look at the boundary side safety aligned on the hash. His angle to fill the alley to the boundary is much harder than either the slot defender to the field or the field safety. 

And as more teams utilize spread formations, defenses counter with "Apex" defenders, typically to the field (based on offensive formation). But when talking "space", that Apex defender (combined with the safety leverage over the top) often effectively "limits" that space for the run game.

USA Football

Furthermore, because the defensive response often requires the defense re-gaining numbers to the short side, it often forces defensive rotation, which then sets up play action passing to the field

SB Nation

But It's a Balance

I'm not advocating that all runs should be to the short side. Certainly, the wide side has advantages of space as far as the field is concerned. And if you are the more athletic team it may make sense to focus on getting guys in space rather than relying on executing blocking assignments. Similarly, if you are the weaker team overall but have one guy you really like from a match up perspective, maybe your best bet is in space. And certainly, as defenses start respecting the short side run, they adjust their alignment to become more balanced, and attacking the field becomes favorable again.

To this, you can find ways to further your advantage to the field, by utilizing your RB as a lead blocker on jet sweep (i.e. adding blockers to regain numbers), by running unbalanced formations (seen above), or running Formation into Boundary (FIB) to increase the space to the field (i.e. reducing space to create space).

But traditionally, on a chalk board, into the boundary will likely give you better numbers and leverage. I asked Coach Alexander if he thought spill defenses changed the equation compared to traditional box defenses when it comes to running into the short side of the field. His response "It's still about leverage. If you spill, you need an immediate force or it becomes a soft edge." As Coach James added, "Why wouldn't you attack outside when your box/force/lever player is either a corner or safety playing 8-10 yards deep? It's either not a run fitter doing the job or a guy who has a ways to go to get in the fit." Coach A did added that spill may make it more challenging for a pin and pull type scheme, and I still believe a spill type defense may be a little weaker to the field (the scraping defenders have further to go to keep up with your athlete). But I tend to agree with both that it doesn't drastically change the equation.

Again, it's a balance. There are certainly benefits to the wide side of the field, space among them and allowing your athletes to make plays in space. But at the end of the day, when you add together space, numbers and leverage, it is often the short side of the field that is preferable. And that's why your favorite team is running there.