Week 3’s Sunday Night Football game featured the Panthers hosting the Steelers. In the 3rd Quarter facing 2nd and 22, Le’Veon Bell ripped off a back breaking 81-yard run. In unbelievable fashion, this run happened without Carolina’s best two linebackers ever being blocked. (Defensive player of the year Luke Kuechely as well as Thomas Davis). How does this happen? The Steelers took advantage of a heavy set (3 Tight Ends, 1 Running Back, 1 Wide Receiver) and motion against the Panthers base 4-3 defense (4 D-lineman, 3 Linebackers, 2 Safeties, 2 Cornerbacks). Here is how the play looks before the motion; throughout the play the focus will be on the three highlighted Carolina Panthers: #59 Luke Kuechely, #58 Thomas Davis, and Carolina’s weakside Defensive End (#95).
The picture below shows each Carolina defender’s run game responsibility before the motion, represented by the lettered gaps. (A-D). Once again, Kuechly (59), Davis (58), and the weakside Defensive End (95) are the key defenders to focus on. It is important to note here that the Defensive End is playing in a “9-Technique”, or is lining up on the outside shoulder of the Tight End.
Now, the Steelers motion the weakside Tight End (or H-Back) across the formation going right. Kuechely and Davis immediately “pull the string” and shift towards the motion. This picture is shown below, with the gap responsibilities of the key 3 highlighted in red. The key to this huge run is the weakside Defensive End doesn’t change from his original 9-technique position, even though there is no player outside the Left Tackle for the Steelers. This could be a product of a couple things: Carolina could have been out-coached by the Steelers via game film, or the Defensive End should have “reduced” or come down closer to the line in a 7 or even 5-technique, which is on the outside shoulder of the tackle. Because he doesn’t move but the linebackers do, a natural bubble appears, which is also highlighted below.
How does 2 feet worth of misalignment make the difference between a 5-yard run and an 81-yard run? Let’s see how the play begins: the Steelers are running the ball to the right. However, almost immediately you can see what unfolds below: The Steelers get great vertical push via multiple double teams against the Panthers Defensive Tackles. To make things worse for the Panthers, #95 allows himself to be blocked outside, toward the D-Gap. The red bubble that existed in the previous picture has just become even bigger. Thomas Davis, #58, instinctively sees this gap and plants his left foot to go right and attempt to cover the bubble. Meanwhile, Kuechely (#59) reads the blocking scheme and anticipates a run to the right C gap.
This leads to a disastrous consequence for the Panthers. Kuechely (59) is playing a run to the Steelers’ right (his left), there is great push from the Steelers offensive line up the middle, (highlighted above) Thomas Davis (58) is worrying about the gap bubble, and #95 has worked too far outside. But the long run still wouldn’t happen without Running Back Le’Veon Bell setting it up. Below, Bell recognizes the gap and plants his right foot in the ground. This gives him the ability to either press straight up the middle or attack the bubble going left. Because of the great double teams, the crease straight up the middle is now huge by NFL standards. In the picture below, notice the Panthers’ Linebackers feet. Kuechely (59) is totally committed going to his left. Meanwhile, Thomas Davis (58) feet are frozen, as he has the impossible task of defending a huge crease to his left and a big gap bubble to his right.
Being a split second too late costs Davis, as in the next frame (below), you can see Kuechely (59) has been washed away to his left, and Davis (58) is too far right. Le’Veon Bell presents the threat of attacking the bubble, but presses the crease, plants his left foot, and attacks straight downhill up the middle. Davis’ decision to take a step to his right leaves the quicker Bell open to hit the opening for a monster gain.
This is a gigantic alley for any NFL Running Back. The video below shows the key parts of this play in slow motion to show the ripple effect of the Defensive End (95) lining up too wide.
And the full-speed clip below:
As you can see, NFL run play outcomes can be decided by the most subtle of factors. Keep in mind, all of this happened in about 2 seconds. It’s possible #95 was supposed to reduce and didn’t, its possible Carolina’s staff was exposed by the Steelers’ playcalling, and also possible Luke Kuechely (59) over pursued the play. Regardless, Le’Veon Bell took full advantage with a gashing run.