Perhaps no play is more divisive than the RB Draw series that Nebraska runs. Much of that is the play design itself. When it works, it results in a Nebraska back scampering into the open field with very little resistance. When it doesn’t, it tends to end up with a cavalcade of defenders in the Huskers’ backfield, guaranteeing a loss of yards and putting the offense behind the down-and-distance schedule.
What most miss is that the Huskers don’t just run Draw for the running game, but also package it with play action passes that are designed to create one on one match ups down the field for the Savage Professionals. It’s that passing element that makes Draw this week’s featured concept in Concept Wednesday.
What It Is
Draw is all about pure deception for the second level of the defense. Give an initial pass set look from the offensive line and the QB, both of which are designed to clear the LBs into pass drops. Then, at the last second hand the ball off to a back running into that open space where the linebackers once were.
Nebraska has run Draw a couple different ways in 2017. Below you see the Lead Draw, featuring 21 personnel (2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 RBs). “Lead” comes from the fullback’s role in the play. He leads up into the hole with a ISO block on the LB while an uncovered lineman clears up to block the other linebacker.
Lead Draw is the staple of Nebraska’s Draw series, with the Huskers running it 9 times already this year for 57 yards (6.33 YPC). Though Draw is classically thought of as a 3rd down play designed to take advantage of a defense expecting the pass, Nebraska features it mostly on 1st and 2nd down.
Why It Works
When talking about Lead Draw, or really any variant of the Draw, you must talk about personnel and how Draw fits into a bigger picture. Because of Luke McNitt’s versatility as a runner, blocker and pass catcher, Nebraska likes to get in 21 personnel about 15% of its plays. When you do that, though, you tip your hand a bit to the defense because 21 personnel is all about the run game. With a fullback into the game, you only have two wide receivers who can catch the ball. And why bring a fullback into the game if you’re not going to use him to run the damn ball, am I right Husker fans?
The defense knows that too, though, so you have to find ways to sell pass to protect your running game from 21 personnel. If not, you just get defenses coming down into the box pre-snap knowing run is coming when they see a fullback. That’s where Lead Draw factors in. It’s a way for Nebraska to initially show pass while still running the ball out of 21 personnel.
But even that becomes worn out if you’re not willing to throw out of 21 personnel. And that’s where you see Nebraska’s companion play, PA Lead Draw, come in. Everything looks like Lead Draw. Pass set from the offensive tackle, fullback with an ISO block, and the running back headed downhill to the line of scrimmage looking to take the ball. But instead, it’s play action, with Tanner Lee pulling the ball and looking either for the X receiver on a Dig route or the Z receiver running a Post over top of it from the other side of the field:
This is another great way to get athletes in space in situations where there are no support defenders to help tackle them. Indeed, as you see above, because the linebackers come down hard on the Lead Draw action, Nebraska gets Northern Illinois into a 2 on 3 situation off the play action. Morgan breaks free on the Dig route, running right into the space the linebackers vacated. Had the throw and catch been completed, there is only 1 defender to tackle him with the other two covering De’Mornay Pierson-El on the Post.
It’s also a great way to attack both middle of the field open (Cover 2/4) and middle of the field closed (Cover 1/3) secondary shells. Against Cover 2, you get the Dig route breaking underneath a safety and into open space vacated by the middle linebacker playing the Lead Draw. Against Cover 1 or 3, you get a high/low on the middle-of-field safety. If he chases the Dig, the Post breaks over the top of him with a one-on-one race to the end zone. If he plays the Post, the Dig opens underneath him.
Another benefit of Lead Draw. With the offensive line struggling in pass protection, Lead Draw Play Action is a “max” protect situation, with 8 players in on the protection (5 OL, 1 TE, 1 FB, 1 RB). In theory, this should give Lee time to make an accurate throw on either the Dig or the deeper Post because you have at least one more offensive player in the protection than the defense can possibly bring.
Finally, when you see Nebraska pop off a big Lead Draw play, look for Lead Draw Play Action shortly thereafter. As you can see from the time stamps above, offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf called both Lead Draw and Lead Draw Play Action within two plays of each other, both times creating favorable options. And that’s consistent with how he’s run it throughout his entire time in Lincoln.
Nebraska doesn’t just run Draw out of the Lead Draw look though. They’ve also started to use more of a Delayed Draw out of their 11 personnel and they incorporated this Pump Draw against Arkansas State for the first time while in Lincoln:
Pump Draw is less about protecting the run game as it is about protecting Nebraska’s Bubble Screen package. The initial fake from the QB is designed to sell Bubble and get the safety on that side of the field to react to it. Of course, when the Slot WR doesn’t run a Bubble route, the fake loses much of its value. No clue what happened there, but we haven’t seen the Pump Draw make another appearance in 2017. I like the play if it’s run properly, but that version above isn’t going to cut it.
That clip also gives you an idea of why Nebraska is struggling early in the year to run the ball with any consistency. Four offensive linemen do a great job hitting and sustaining their blocks. But Conrad works up to the linebacker, who strikes him back a yard into the RB’s path before tossing Conrad to make the tackle. If you look up the teams’ respective rosters, you’ll see that linebacker weighing in at a cool 231lbs while Conrad checks in at an even 300lbs. Do the math and you get a nearly 70lb advantage for the Huskers.
Yet on the field, it doesn’t play out like it. Why? Explosive hands from the Arkansas State player while Conrad shows anything but that. And until Nebraska’s offensive line starts doing that as a unit, the Huskers will struggle consistently running the ball.
Does It Work With Nebraska’s Personnel?
Short answer, pretty well. As I mentioned above, Nebraska is averaging 6.33 YPC on the Draw concept. Whenever you can get a core running concept to average over 6 yards per carry, it’s got a permanent spot in the playbook. That’s leveraged even more by the fact that play action off the Draw has been open all year long, frequently producing one if not two open wide receivers.
But how does Nebraska take it to the next level? A few different ways. One, Nebraska needs to get more explosive plays in the open field from its running backs. Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon have broken into the secondary untouched a few times already this season on the Draw concept, but they’ve been unable to shake the safety when they get there. If they ever do, Draw is a big play waiting to happen.
Two, Nebraska needs to get better play from its center position. Because Draw hits into the A gap straight up the field, the center is the most important linemen in the concept. Too often, that’s spelled trouble for Nebraska. Michael Decker gave Nebraska nice bump at that spot last game against Rutgers, and we’ll see if he gets a chance to continue that into Big 10 play. Oddly enough, Nebraska did not run Draw once against Rutgers, though Decker can certainly handle the play.
Finally, Nebraska needs to get better play from both Tanner Lee and his receivers to make play action off Lead Draw really pop. At times, Lee has been too fast with his ball fakes, taking away a bit of their deception. And he’s also missed Stanley Morgan breaking free over the middle on the Dig. But the Savage Professionals also need to hold up their end of the bargain. Lee hit Morgan on a picture-perfect Lead Draw Play Action against Northern Illinois and Morgan laid it on the turf:
That’s kind of the story of Nebraska’s season thus far too. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.
Nevertheless, against Illinois, keep an eye on the Draw series against an aggressive Illini defense. After not running it against Rutgers, I suspect it’ll make a heavy comeback under the Friday night lights in Champaign.