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Give Your O-Line a Bullís-Eyeby: Rick Fox
Offensive Line and Special Teams Coach, Drake University
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As a young coach in the late ‘80’s, I was introduced to the article “The Eyes Lead the Body” by Blanton Collier. Little did I realize then how significant that article is for offensive line success. Later in my coaching career at Centre College in Danville, KY where, like most Division III schools, coaches often wear many hats. I served as a strength and conditioning coach in addition to offensive coordinator. In that role, I found I was often coaching posture in order for athletes to maximize their power output. In doing so, I was reminded again of the importance of the eyes. In my experience, I have realized that coaching the eyes is often overlooked, or at the very least, underemphasized.
Why Coaching the Eyes is Important
How many of us have heard the Little League coach yell to the young batter, “Keep your eye on the ball.” Or, not knowing what else to say to our kicker, we have told him to keep his head down and his eye on the ball. While these clichés are often used when we are not sure what else to say, they do illustrate the importance of the eyes for athletic success. Even when we are not sure what to say, we intuitively know that focusing our eyes on our target is critical. The simple truth of physical movement, as Coach Collier pointed out, is that the eyes do lead the body; where our eyes are focused the rest of the body will move in that direction. An offensive lineman who is expected to move a 280 pound man off of the line of scrimmage or pass protect against a more gifted athlete, will want to have his entire body working to his advantage. Proper coaching and use of the eyes will help him take advantage of all of his body’s abilities and achieve these difficult tasks.
Selecting a Bull’s-eye
The first step in making maximum use of the eyes is to identify a target on which the offensive lineman will focus. When selecting such a target, there are some principles to keep in mind:
• Small and Specific: Often when I hear coaches talk about targets for zone blocks they use terms like the playside number. The playside number of a defender is very large, which may result in decreasing the chance of success for the lineman. Hitting the top of that number may result in a loss of leverage when blocking a down defensive lineman aligned on an offensive lineman. On the other hand, hitting the inside edge of that number may result in not covering up the defender on the block. Either of these outcomes will likely result in the offensive lineman being defeated. Therefore, a very small target located at a spot that if hit will greatly increase the lineman’s chance for success and specific enough for the offensive lineman to clearly identify is a necessity. Consequently, at Drake, we do not use the word “target” but use the term “bull’s-eye” to identify a very specific attack point.
As a result, rather than using a target of the playside number for zone plays, we have a bull’s-eye that is a small portion of that playside number (See Diagram 1). For a 5-step pass, an effective bull’s-eye is the “V” in the jersey at the neck. If the “V” disappears due to a rip move, the bull’s-eye adapts to the tip of the defenders shoulder.
• The Bull’s-eye Must Provide a Mechanical Advantage to the Offensive Lineman: In addition to being small and specific, the bull’s-eye must be a spot on the defender that will provide the offensive lineman advantageous vertical leverage on the defender. Vertical leverage is the position that gives the lineman a mechanical advantage over the defender allowing him to lift and drive him back. The adage “the low man wins” is about vertical leverage. A bull’s-eye that is too high will result in the defender having the leverage advantage and the offensive lineman will unlikely win the battle. To achieve this leverage advantage, or low pad level, we use a bull’s-eye on the lower outside edge of the playside number when blocking a defender who is down in a stance and covering us (Diagram 1).
When the defender is not covering the offensive lineman (either a linebacker or a defensive lineman that is removed from him), we adjust the bull’s-eye to the upper outside edge of the playside number. When there is this separation between the lineman and the defender, the point of contact will elevate but he still must achieve lower leverage on the defender. The result of such a bull’s-eye is a very specific spot on which the lineman focuses that allows him to achieve low-pad leverage. With regards to vertical leverage, lower is not always better. A bull’s-eye that is so low that the offensive lineman cannot maintain good power-producing posture will prevent the lineman from taking advantage of his leverage advantage. This, of course, refers to a drive block. The bull’s-eye is obviously lower on a cut block when vertical or when lateral movement is not the objective.
• The Bull’s-eye Must Fit with the Strategy of the Play: When setting a bull’s-eye on a defender, it must not be done independent of the greater offensive scheme. For example, on a zone play the offense is attempting to stretch the defense in order to create a running lane. The bull’s-eye, therefore, must be in such a place that results in stretching the defender as the lineman executes his block. Therefore, the bull’s-eye should result in putting the offensive lineman on a track that is parallel with the path of the running back (See Diagram 2). As a result, the lineman will threaten the defender by matching the initial direction of the ball creating the desired stretch. The bull’s-eye must also allow the lineman to “cover-up” the defender so that blocker remains in control of the defender if the ball cuts up or back. Similarly, for pass protection, the bull’s-eye on the defender must be such that it places the offensive lineman on the line between the defender and the quarterback’s release point; “crossing the T” as Cincinnati Bengals coach Paul Alexander describes it. Therefore, location of the bull’s-eye must adjust as the quarterback’s release point changes for various pass protections.
Setting to the Target
Now that a proper bull’s-eye has been set, how do the eyes help in the actual execution of the block? First, consider a competitive shooter. Before he fires to hit a bull’s-eye, he first sets his body to the larger target. Similarly, an offensive lineman must first set his body to the target on the defender he is blocking, before focusing on and then attacking the bull’s-eye. The steps a lineman uses to set to the target are determined by the specific play and the position of the defender.
However, in order to take full advantage of the power of the eyes, it is important that the line coach provides a target to get the offensive lineman headed in the right direction. Some verbal cues we use to set to the target are “Pee on the Knee” for our zone plays and “Cross the T” for pass plays.
Attacking the Bull’s-eye - The Power of the Eyes
Once the bull’s-eye has been identified and the lineman has used his eyes to set his body to the target, how can they help him with the actual execution of the block? Examining a run block will best illustrate how the eyes help. When run blocking, movement of a defender is accomplished as the lineman applies force against the ground through his feet and the resulting opposite reaction that results is applied to the defender. Since the earliest days of football, offensive line coaches have focused on the importance of vertical leverage in order to maximize the effectiveness of this force in making a block. In recent decades, through the influence of Jim McNally and others, line coaches have emphasized foot placement (the well known “duck demeanor”) and hand position (thumbs up with hands inside) in order to increase the force applied to the defender. However, the focus of the eyes on a specific bull’s-eye is also extremely important in maximizing force application in the following two ways:
• Eye Focus and Power Producing Posture: Focus on a properly positioned bull’s-eye can help maximize an offensive lineman’s ability to apply force against the defender by improving posture. When we hear the word posture most of us think of sitting up straight at the table or standing at attention in an army review line. While these positions represent static posture and certainly illustrate basic principles of posture, the offensive lineman is not static when making a block. Linemen are moving three dimensionally as they block and their posture needs to adapt to these various positions in order to be most effective at executing the block. A functional definition of proper posture is the positioning of the body in such a way that maximizes its effectiveness at accomplishing a given task. Note that such an effective posture includes not only factors of power production but also agility and injury reduction. One of the ways that the body is such an amazing organism is that its most effective positions to create power are also its most stable positions. In order to affect such a functional posture, the eyes need to be focused at the target toward which the body is moving and to do so in a way that put the head/spine in stable power producing positions. The eyes up and fixed on a properly located bull’s-eye rather than looking at the ground helps put the spine in a more favorable power producing position as well as a safer position for the lineman.
• Concentration of Power: Attacking a Specific Point: Once the lineman has set his body to the target and locks in on the bull’s-eye, he begins to attack that bull’s-eye. The manner in which he attacks that bull’s-eye will vary depending on the type of play and his specific assignment. For example, attacking a bull’s-eye on a fourth and one fullback dive will be different than a first down inside zone or a pass block on third and long. Regardless of these technique differences, all of the lineman’s mental focus should now be on the specific bulls-eye. The resulting concentration of the lineman’s energy on such a specific spot will greatly enhance his likelihood of success by increasing the application of force to that bull’s-eye.
As Blanton Collier pointed out many years ago, the eyes do lead the body. I trust these coaching points on taking advantage of the power of the eyes will help your offensive linemen be more successful this season.
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