Breaking Down the Vince Lombardi Offense
To this day, Vince Lombardi personifies winning. The principles of toughness, perseverance, and leadership he laid down so many years ago are still taught by coaches everywhere. However, with so much of the Lombardi mythology based on intangibles, it’s often forgotten that he was an excellent strategist as well.
His offense, especially the Packer Sweep, like everything else was an extension of who he was. A simple offense that was repped over and over again in practice everyday allowed the players to have a huge amount of confidence in the coach and the plan each week. Having a reduced number of plays meant that they could be practiced and ran successfully against a larger number of defensive looks.
Contrary to popular belief, Lombardi did not simply run the Packer Sweep left and right no matter what the defense did. He had a system, simple but effective, with answers to whatever the defense could throw at him. Of course, the offense was built around the famed Lombardi sweep, but each additional play acted as a constraint to keep the defense honest.
The exact details of the sweep play are not as important as the reasoning that went into designing the offense, as well as the straightforward way the responsibilities are explained. Most of the defenses these plays are drawn up against are out of date, but what we’re seeing is a great example of the chess game in its infancy. Lombardi is playing the role of the technician with a small number of tools to fix a small number of problems, as well as anticipating a few more. The process is what’s important, not the result.
In Part 1 of this 2-part article on the Classic Packer offense, we’ll get into the x’s and o’s of the famous Lombardi Sweep, complete with diagrams from the actual Lombardi Playbook and video of the coach himself explaining the responsibilities.*
*I should mention that the video comes from LuckyLaRue17’s YouTube channel, but I uploaded it to my own Vimeo channel and cut it up in certain sections for the purposes of this post.
The Lombardi Sweep – Establishing the Basics
First, we start with the bread and butter, the play that makes it all go. The famed Lombardi Sweep is what makes all the other plays in this offense possible, by virtue of the fact that a successful sweep play forces the defense to adjust, which opens up everything else. The biggest advantage to the play according to Lombardi is that it can be run against just about anything the defense can line up in.
Coach Lombardi explains in the video below:
In the diagram above, the play is drawn up against an 4-3 even front. We’ll get into the adjustments later, but the most important decision made before the snap is made by the center. In this example above, the center makes an “even” call, meaning he is responsible for reaching the defensive tackle to his side, and the right tackle climbs and seals off the Mike linebacker.
In an “odd” call, shown below, the center either has a man directly over him, or he doesn’t feel that he can reach the DT to his side. Thus, against a 4-3, he and the right tackle will switch responsibilities.
It’s worth noting that when drawing up the defenses on the chalkboard on video, Coach Lombardi refers to the defenders by number in relation to the ball (1st playside defender, 2nd playside defender, etc). This is one of the most efficient ways to teach blocking assignments, since it cuts down on the time spent learning and identifying every possible defensive front and all the variations that come with them. Because of the simplicity of this approach, it’s very fitting that this is pretty much the same way Chip Kelly teaches his offensive line their blocking schemes. The details are varied, but the basic approach remains the same, even all these years later.
Coach Lombardi talks about the Odd and Even calls in the video below:
The Tight End
The Y should split 6-9 feet outside the tackle in order to isolate the backer to that side as well as create spacing for the runner in the C gap. The ball carrier’s primary read is the block of the tight end, and the tight end should not allow any penetration to his inside. If the defender over him slants quickly inside, the tight end should push him straight down the line. If the defender shoots up the field to cut off the path of the pulling guard, the best thing to do is to take him where he wants to go and push him completely out of the play.
Coach Lombardi has more to say about the tight end’s job on the play, and demonstrates the proper footwork as well in the next video:
The Frontside Tackle, Center, and Fullback
As we talked about earlier, the Odd and Even calls determine the frontside tackle’s job on the play. With an even call, the frontside tackle climbs up to the Mike backer to seal him off from pursuit, but first he’s got to give the #2 man on or outside of him a good slam to make things easier for the fullback whose job it is to dig out the defensive end. The block on the defensive end creates one side of the alley that Lombardi is trying to create with this play.
The center cuts off the tackle, and the way is cleared for the pulling guards, which are covered in the next section.
The Pulling Guards
The guards are the muscle on this play, allowing the ball to stretch anywhere from all the way out to the sideline, to up the B gap inside the block of the fullback.
The first guard should pull wide, underneath the fullback so he can get to the defensive end, and kick out the first man who shows outside the block of the tight end. This widens the alley inside the tight end, and may even pull the near safety out of position.
The second guard should pull flat so as not to interfere with the QB’s drop and exchange with the halfback. Once he’s past the QB, he should gain depth and start to turn inside the first hole he sees, whether that’s inside the fullback or all the way outside the tight end. If everyone else does their job, the second guard is essentially a bonus guy, meaning the offense has numbers wherever he ends up.
The Backside Tackle
As Coach Lombardi says, the backside tackle has one of the toughest jobs in the whole play. He has to reach the backside defensive tackle, who at best is head up on the guard, and at worst may be a one technique on the opposite side of the guard, meaning the tackle has to work really hard to cut off a guy who could start off with a four foot advantage on him. The Packers have other plays they can run to keep the backside defensive tackle from getting too aggressive in going after the sweep, but at least to start with, the backside tackle needs to rely on good fundamentals to cut off the pursuit.
Coach Lombardi goes into more detail about the exact fundamentals of the block and what he wants to see.
Wide Receiver Play
The next part of the play are the guys responsible for containing the defenders in the secondary, the receivers. You can see how long ago this video was recorded by listening to Lombardi call the X an “end” and the Z a “wingback.”
Nevertheless, even the path the Z receiver takes to the near safety is designed to cut off a hard corner playing contain if need be. This also sets up the halfback pass, which we’ll go over in Part 2.
The Halfback and the Running Lane
Finally, we come to the ball carrier. The halfback’s reads are similar to the outside zone play that is so common today. He has the ability to either cut up inside of the tight end, outside of the tight end, or in some very rare cases, inside the block of the fullback if the defensive end jets up the field.
Now that we’ve covered the play that makes the Packer offense tick, Part 2 will cover the constraint plays, or all the tools Lombardi used to keep his opponents honest.
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