Running Up The Middle Is Awesome. Here’s Why

As is typical with any NFL team, the offensive coordinator is the easiest person to blame for losing a game. There are a few factors that go into this, and they all basically amount to the fans each saying "Man, I could call better plays than this!"

This is false.

Most fans, at least most of my generation of 20-somethings, grew up with the Madden series of video games. And that's great. Video games are fun. But too many people are good enough at Madden that they think that picking a play is as easy as pressing a button and there are no other factors involved. This attitude usually manifests after one or two snaps in which the starting running back only gains a few yards. Hop on Twitter when that happens, see how many people are already complaining about Todd Haley and lamenting the idea of running the ball. So why do so many play callers hesitate to get away from the run game, even if it isn't working at first?

Because a run up the middle is the best play in football.

Think about it. What is the first responsibility of every defense? Stopping the run. What play requires the fewest specific assignments, and therefore prone to the fewest mental mistakes? You guessed it: a simple run play up the middle.

"But it never works!" you complain at me. "If everything is predicated on stopping it, why would you bother trying to use it?" Simple. Because if you can gain 3-4 yards on a run up the middle with consistency, you win the game. A simple, successful run game uses every down to slowly advance down the field and score. If it works, you've taken eight minutes off the clock and worn out the other team's defense. If your team gets a lead, this is how you can almost guarantee a win.

If you start off a drive with simple runs and it works, that changes the defense you're facing. As we discussed above, any defense's first job is to stop the run. If they can't, little things will change, like the linemen not pushing as hard in case they have to move laterally. The safeties will tend to play up closer to the line of scrimmage. Once that starts to happen, you'll see why play-action was invented. By faking a handoff and keeping the ball, the quarterback is going to have 1. time to throw if the defensive linemen didn't get the initial push they needto rush the passer and 2. open receivers (with fresh legs from not having to sprint downfield on every play) because the safeties will be out of position.

Consider this drive: Start with the ball at your own 20. Get 5 yards up the middle. Get 3 yards up the middle. Get 4 yards up the middle. First down at the 32. Run for 3 yards. Run for 3 again. Play-action rollout on 3rd & 4 with a fullback in the flat, tight end 12 yards downfield, and a receiver sprinting down the sideline. There are going to be options at every range for the quarterback to at least convert the first down, if not score. Lather, rinse, repeat, and suddenly the drive has taken seven minutes and gotten you at least a field goal.

This is why running up the middle is difficult. If it works, it can be the most dangerous play in football. That's why defenses focus on stopping it before anything else, and that's why offenses try it throughout every game.

So the next time Le'Veon Bell dives ahead for a one-and-a-half yard gain on 2nd & 8, consider that maybe there's more to the play selection than getting as many yards as possible on every single play.

Bonus points to anyone who knows why I picked the picture for this article

About Brian Schaich

Brian studied computer engineering long enough to know he just wanted to talk about sports all day for a living, so that's what he does.