I truly believe much of our offensive success has come from the attention given to this part of lineman play.

By Joshua Abell

Whenever I see an offensive lineman with bad feet, I am reminded of the ole idiom of: “That dog won’t hunt.”

Having great feet is an essential skill to being any kind of good lineman, especially within offenses that require the “hawgs” to be able to move – i.e., wing-T, jailbreak screens, etc. Being huge has plenty of natural advantages, but with the size and quickness of today’s defensive linemen, it’s also sometimes true that the bigger the boy, the bigger the liability.

Some of the best offensive linemen I have ever coached did not play Division I college ball nor were they prehistoric mammoths. They were short, stumpy, sometimes even fat kids who had active feet.

This was not by accident.

Part of my every day drills is a segment called Clockwork, where offensive linemen take steps in accordance to times on a clock, wherein each step is rehearsed several times from stance to start at a rapid pace. Some coaches choose to force their players to practice steps from right-handed and left-handed stances. Other coaches choose to extend this period with some degree of board work, duck walking, etc.

I truly believe much of our offensive success has come from the attention given to this part of lineman play.

Each step is a weapon the offensive lineman can use. Steps are consistent in that each step should only be six to eight inches long, and the general rule of leverage applies – contact is made when the follow-up step is made.

There is no formula or set standard in creating an arsenal of steps for offensive lineman to utilize. This is primarily dependent upon what the player will be doing majority of the time in that offense.

For example: In any zone or zone read scheme, covered and uncovered steps would be practiced daily, while in a Wing-T system, pulls and skip pulls would be the focus. This is decided by the line coach.

However, a key to success is ensuring that the number of steps in the offensive line’s arsenal is limited. No fewer than four and no more than six steps ensure your linemen have the weapons they need to be successful.

Choices for steps vary and are determined based on the style of offense in which they’ll be used. Here are some examples:

  • Base/drive. 11 to 1 o’clock. Used to drive defenders aligned overtop or slightly shaded
  • Gap/gap-down-backer/lead. Varies anywhere from 9 to 11 or 1 to 3 o’clock determined by the degree of the angle needed to block anyone down from the offensive linemen
  • Generally a lateral step at 2 to 3 or 10 to 11. Used when linemen are to “ride their train tracks”
  • Turn-Out/Kick-Out. Similar in the base or drive and characterized by the nature of the second step in trying to turn defenders outside
  • Varies but is similar to the zone step. Not gaining much ground. Utilized in combos and post-leads
  • Taken anywhere behind 3 or 9 o’clock. Designed to lose ground initially to allow defense to develop in front
  • Slide/reach. A lateral step used to ensure a gap is not penetrated
  • Fold/drop/bucket/pull. A step taken behind as far back as 6 o’clock so the lineman can move behind fellow linemen
  • Not on the clock. Aa skip step to quickly move the lineman across the line of scrimmage without requiring too many steps

Just as offensive line coaches have to determine what weapons to include in the arsenal, they also need to teach their players when the most appropriate time to use those weapons would be. In some offenses, line coaches teach their lineman the offense not by teaching them their blocking responsibilities but, instead, teaching them what step to use on each play.

This follows the Keep-It-Simple-Stupid (KISS) mentality in which so many coaches believe. As one coach I know says, After your step, whoever is there is yours to devour. Eat up!” The options on teaching your guys when to take each step are numerous.

False steps

As lineman become more developed and experienced in footwork, they can be taught how to use wrong steps or false steps to fool the defense. In order to understand this concept, a coach must understand two prior ideas of false steps and defensive read keys.

“False steps” have always been bad words. Anytime a player missteps or moves backward when they should be going forward, coaches reference that as a false step. Wasted movement matters on game days. A small, six-inch step backward could be the difference between a 3-yard loss and a 48-yard run for six points.

Read keys are the cues offensive players provide defensive players in reading what play the offense is running. For many linebackers and defensive lineman, read keys are movements by either the running back or, more predominantly, the offensive line.

Similarly, as an offensive line coach teaches his players how and when to use the steps, he can also teach them how and when to use the wrong steps.

Here is an example: Most defensive ends are required to keep contain and to ensure no blocker can reach or seal them to the inside. So, whenever a defensive lineman sees an offensive lineman reach, slide or zone stepping to their side, the immediate reaction is to force themselves to the offensive lineman’s outside and not get reached.

The illustration below shows a generic sweep or outside zone play where all offensive linemen are reaching or slide stepping to the play side.

In this play, the defense stops the offense when each defender forces the ball-carrier further outside. So, if the offense knows that is how the defense will play the reach step, why not use it to the offense’s advantage? If the play called is a power or iso play to the open B gap and the offensive line’s job is to kick out the nearest defender, instead of base or drive stepping, the lineman can now take a reach step and open this gap up wider. By the time the defensive lineman sees the run is actually going inside, he has no time to readjust.

The more creative you get, the more ways there are to incorporate right false steps, which will come naturally as the offense develops. Really sharp, intelligent offensive linemen will begin to make it work for them as well.

It creates another element to line play that not too many coaches or teams utilize.

Joshua Abell is the head coach at Louisville (Ky.) Fern Creek High School. Follow him on Twitter.

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Dan Guttenplan