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Wolf: Run-down and Super Bowl 45

The best down-and-distances in the game of football are 1 & 10, 2 & 1-6, and 3 & 1. The reason for this is quite simple: they are all traditional run-down situations and run-down is fun-down.

Run-down, a situation teams are in more than any other, says there is a high percentage chance the offense will run the football – especially in Super Bowl 45. Of course, this percentage varies from team-to-team, coordinator-to-coordinator and head coach-to-head coach. Run-down means nothing to Mike Martz or Andy Reid and everything to Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy.

Most of the coaches whom fall into the latter build entire offenses around these down-and-distances, defining a style or brand of football they believe in – their signature if you will. Most of these coaches, by no coincidence, have also had great running backs and a great running game. Finally, most of these coaches would rather perform their version of “I’m a little tea-pot, short and stout” in front of tenth-graders before becoming predictable in these situations. They may indeed have a “handle” and “spout,” but only for getting a better grip to bash the Martz’ of the world over the head. These coaches believe in balance, the Yin, the Yang and multiple weapons, performing a three-part harmony: quarterback, running-back and wide-receiver.

But just because these are down-and-distances where running the ball is a viable option it does not guarantee or limit what an offense can do – no matter what team you’re watching or what “signature” is standing on the sideline. Hence, the drama, hence the strategy and hence, this fragment. Chess, anyone (and that one, too)?

In my opinion – other than 3rd down, converting on or having to punt the football – there is no other down-and-distance so vitally important to the success or failure of a team than how they fair in run-down situations. Run-down also affects the down-and-distance a team will be in on third-down, increasing their odds of converting or increasing their odds of punting.

No other situation in football carries so much diversity, drama and menace than run-down; it’s like opening Pandora’s Box, lifting the lid slowly, peeking in and discovering why Pandora was in so much trouble. Anything can happen in run-down.

Offenses can run the ball, use the power of play-action, come with a three-step-drop or take a shot down-the-field using a five or seven-step-drop – hoping to attack the defense with their hammer in a resting position. More accurately, they can use these weapons effectively in run-down, breaking tendencies and surprising defenses.

Not even the foul-mouthed guy sitting in the front row of section 119, wearing nacho-cheese in his beard, is surprised when a quarterback executes a five-step-drop on 3rd & 8. But if this same play was called during a run-down situation, his nachos might go airborne, infecting the first three-rows with jalapeños, corn-chips and profanity (assuming the pass was incomplete, of course).

Likewise, with rare exception, a team that runs the football in run-down surprises nobody; but if they were to line-up and run the “stretch-play” on 3rd & 9 while the game was still in question the fabric of the universe might tear in two.

Defenses, depending on game plan, may view run-down as an opportunity to play some mind games on the offense. Defensive coordinators – based on film-study, personnel and formation – might play seven in-the-box, eight in-the-box, blitz, show blitz and bail or walk the weak-side linebacker out over a slot-receiver and bring him off the edge.

A defense has multiple options at their disposal, deploying them as the coordinator pleases. The offense acts and the defense reacts. The offense initiates and the defense engages. And so it goes; the beauty of run-down turns…and careers are tested.

Many times, through personnel groups and formations, offenses try to disguise their true intentions, especially on run-down. Offensive personnel groups usually dictate the personnel deployment for the defense. If an offense brings three-receivers into a game (which I call Kings Personnel, indicating pass), the defense will usually counter with a nickel-back or go with dime-personnel, bringing a fifth or sixth defensive-back into the game. If an offense goes with two-backs and two-tight-ends (known as Pair Personnel to some, indicating run), the defense will typically play their base defense, walk the Strong-Safety down into the box and tighten up the weak-side Cornerback (depending on the formation).

These examples are ambiguous, intentionally splashed with a broad brush, demonstrating the diversity of run-down situations. And, it is also why I’m so fired up about Super Bowl 45 and the defenses of Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers.

My friends, when Sunday rolls around there is going to be a high stake game of Texas Hold ‘Em going on in Big D. How will the Packers stop the three-dimensional offense of Big Ben and the Steelers? And how will the Steelers shut down Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver?

Don’t slouch or lounge or worry about where the snacks are during the Super Bowl but like a child pressing his nose to a bakery window observe the reaction of both defensive coordinators defenses and what they do in run-down situations. Do they go nickel or stay regular people? If they stay regular people, their base personnel group, do they walk a linebacker out over a slot-receiver? Where are the safeties? Have they tightened down or loosened up? All of these machinations, offensively and defensively, are part of a well-thought-out game-plan or game-time adjustment, taking hours to prepare from the best minds in football.

The Packers must be able to run the ball effectively enough in run-down situations to keep the Steelers defense honest. Dick LeBeau could have a field day against Aaron Rodgers if the Packers become one-dimensional. LeBeau is a master of the Fire Zone Blitz, created by he and his colleague – the guy on the other side of the field – Dom Capers.

In order to commit to the run the Packers defense must keep the game close. Rodgers loves play-action and is a master with his play-action mechanics. If the game gets sideways on the Packers and they become a pass-happy team, Mike McCarthy will see a Raven perched over the Packers locker room door.

Quoth the raven, “Nevermore.”

The Steelers have weapons, my friends. In this situation (i.e. run-down), they have the potential to be extremely volatile, explosive, like playing “Jenga” with vials of nitroglycerin. To most defensive coordinators, Hines Ward in the slot is like Michael Myers at their front-door – jumpsuit and all. One breakdown in gap-discipline by the defense and Rashard Mendenhall might take-it-to-the-house; one error in judgment and Heath Miller is running loose in the secondary; one bad read by a safety and Mike Wallace is tapping toes in the end-zone.

Behold the power of flexibility – performed by some of the finest skill-players in the National Football League. And this is the difference, make no mistake; run-down possibilities without the talent to back it up is like bringing a pop-gun to a gun-fight. To be efficient in rundown a team must have players that, by their mere presence, put pressure on the defense. The Steelers and Packers are two teams built on being poly-dimensional. And nothing impacts a game more than being poly-dimensional – run, pass and play-act – like run-down situations.

Being good on third-down is often times a key to victory but this may not apply on Sunday. Super Bowl 45 may very well be won by the team that mitigates run-down most effectively – offensively and defensively. Both teams have the firepower to create big-plays down the field (plays of 20 or more yards). When looking at the stats after the game, other than turnovers, the most telling stat may be which defense gave up fewer big-plays in run-down situation.

“To the victor go the spoils,” indeed. Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau are legendary in spoiling victories for other teams. Sunday will be no different.

Remember, come Sunday, run-down is fun-down.