Friends, we must humbly ask you for your help. Film Room seeks your expert assistance with NCAA Rule identification and interpretation.
Who, if anyone, can make a legal crackback block? Are these still legal inside that +/- 3 yards of trench warfare?
If you’re older than dirt, like Film Room is, then you’ll fondly recall the ol’ crackback block - the offense’s chance to smear a defender when he’s not looking. This block frequently came from a receiver. At the snap of the ball, the receiver launched himself like a missile toward the hapless defender tasked with edge contain (or a playside gap). That defender - usually either a DE or OLB - was busily watching the backfield, moving toward the line of scrimmage to set the edge and force the run back inside. And just as that edge defender thought he’d heroically done his job - WHAM - the receiver stuck the crown of his helmet into the side of the defender’s jaw (or, shoulder pads into ribs), and murdered him - usually to deafening applause. Forgive me, but see the gif below for an example. Note the receiver at the top of the gif, coming in motion, and the handy spot shadow of the brutal homicide. Hines Ward is a Hall of Famer for exactly this kind of stuff.
What’s the point of asking a rules question? Well, friends, it’s pertinent to a gif linked earlier on BSD by Doctor Clay Sauertieg.
Kill The Lights
Below is Clay’s gif of the fateful run stuff.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the defense’s pre-snap formation. That’s right, friends, you are looking live at the very latest trend in anti-spread defensive wizardry, the “34 Tite”: that’s three down linemen, 4 linebackers - but with a wholly strange alignment, to most “34” defensive aficionados (who are themselves an odd breed to the 4 down linemen traditionalists). Rather than the familiar troika of 330-lb hulking beasts aligned as “5-tech” DEs and a “1-tech” nose tackle (think: Wisconsin, or 1986 NY Giants), what you’re seeing are slimmed down, quick footed (this is relative) 4i-techs, plus one squat, tree stump 0-tech nose tackle.
(What’s all this “tech” nonsense? Here’s a picture. (Bear Bryant forgot the 8)).
Five (ish) short years ago, almost no one on planet Earth aligned their defensive ends as 4i’s. Such an alignment - particularly with your linebackers spread across nearly all 53.3 yards of horizontal green grass - creates absurdly weak “A” gaps. Laughably puny, pathetically weak A gaps. And since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, no defensive coordinator from the manball era ever thought to abandon the center of the field. It was anathema, an affront to our inner cave man’s ethos, and got you excommunicated from every coaches association in the land.
Well no longer, friends. Manball is currently on hiatus (mostly). If you’re a MAC squad, generally unable to recruit 1st round quality beef along the defensive line; and if you’re facing a proliferation of spread offenses, all of whom are constantly in the shotgun, without any room for even a single fullback on an 85-man roster - well, then, why not weaken your “A” gaps? Why not turn your stout middle into a soft puddle of goo, in order to bolster your edges? Put your guys where the ball goes. If the offense is going to abandon those A gaps (practically speaking) both by scheme and roster, then you may as well, also. (This is, in support of Dr. Sauertieg’s general conclusion, an opportune time to note that offensive coordinator Slick Rick Rahne called a couple two-tree QB draws - probably with the intention of trying to hit those soft underbelly A gaps. My kingdom for a Suhey).
Apologies - forgive the sidetracked discussion of defensive alignment. Let’s get back to that gif.
Just before the snap, you’ll notice RB Journey Brown motion to the opposite side of QB Sean Clifford. As Brown flips, so also does Buffalo’s left DE move from his 4i to something approaching a stand up 7. Because where else could Journey Brown go from that alignment (assuming a mesh/hand-off), except to that DE’s outside? (Hello, familiar old offensive tells.)
Clifford is a learned professional. Doubtless, Cliff notes the DE’s shift, and that - along with both the DE’s and LB’s initial stay-at-home type of footwork (or lack thereof) - influenced his decision to “pull” the ball from Journey, and keep the pill.
Regardless of the movement, RT Will Fries and RG Mike Miranda adjust on the fly, pick up their men, and make winning blocks - particularly Fries. LG Gonzo pulls to his right, leading around the edge, encounters that shifted 4i DE, and folds him. The 4i alignment is supposed to discourage pulling a guard - that’s half the point of this crazy alignment. PSU adjusts, though, with an extremely crisp and confident move from OC Mike Menet, sealing that backside 4i. LT Walker checks inside before sealing the backside OLB, pushing him behind the play. The point to this short paragraph, friends, is that the OL does a fine job here, particularly given the queer nature of the defensive alignment and pre-snap shifts.
Which brings us back to the question that began this post - are crackback blocks illegal? More specifically, can slot receivers no longer go head hunting for easy marks within that 3-yard, anything goes (except blocks below the waist) zone? We’re not asking this sarcastically, but genuinely. Because it sure would be a lot cooler if KJ Hamler used his prodigious speed to launch all 117 lbs of himself at that unblocked linebacker’s face (i.e., the one who tackles Cliff, after convincing him to pull the pill). Who doesn’t want to see 10 lb, 9 ounce infant baby Hamler murder an unsuspecting dolt standing near the line of scrimmage? We all do. It’s good, clean American fun. It’s what made this game so great.
Hit The Lights
Get used to the “34 Tite”. If you’re old like Film Room, then yes - it looks really weird, seemingly inviting everyone to run it down your throat. But if you don’t have a roster full of gorillas who can bludgeon your opponents into a fine red mist, then it’s a great way to cause confusion and mayhem against spread ‘em out, shotgun offenses without any fullbacks, like the kind Dear Old State now employs. (At least, until everyone else copies it, and ruins the advantage of being different).
Please do let us know about the crackback block. Below-the-waist is illegal, because knees are precious. But historically, brains weren’t valued nearly so highly (though that’s clearly begun to change). And even today, nobody cares about ribs or internal organs. So we harbor some hope that the ol’ crackback is still technically legal in some form. Knees and brains may be off limits, but it’s still open season on kidneys. We appreciate your counsel.