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Beyond Size and Speed: Feet Don't Fail

Posted Sunday, April 23, 2006 by Mike Tainer

Beyond Size and Speed: Feet Don't Fail

Mike Tanier / FootballOutsPosted: 4 days ago

A statue with clay feet will crash to the ground.

An offensive lineman with bad footwork will get knocked over by every defender he faces. It doesn't matter if the lineman is chiseled out of 340 pounds of marble: If he doesn't move his feet properly when blocking, he's a liability to his team.

Many elite prospects leave college with awful footwork. That's because most top prospects are so much bigger and stronger than their opponents that they don't have to fret about fundamentals. Many a scholarship and varsity letter has been earned simply by being six inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than anyone on the opposite side of the field. Even at the top college programs, where defenders are bigger and stronger, a superior prospect may only be challenged three or four times per season. The rest of the time, he can kick dirt in his defenders' face despite sloppy footwork.

But in the NFL, anything that negates strength or quickness is a fatal flaw. Bad footwork negates both strength and quickness: A blocker who doesn't align his feet properly will not reach his power potential, and a lineman who takes missteps when dropping into pass protection is just inviting a defensive end to slip past him

Good footwork is a function of both athleticism and practice. A would-be offensive lineman must be fast and coordinated enough to move his feet quickly. But it takes practice, practice, practice to master all of the subtleties and skills that constitute sound footwork.

Choppy steps and pointed toes
Have you ever seen those Arthur Murray-style dance step charts, the ones with footprints leading this way and that? Offensive linemen have to master complex sequences of steps that make the samba look like the chicken dance.

The basics, in most cases, are drilled into youngsters at the Pop Warner level. A lineman's steps should be short, choppy, and deliberate. A blocker running at full stride is in no position to deliver a blow. When engaging a defender, a blocker's feet should be separated, spread to a width slightly wider than the blocker's shoulders, and his knees must be bent. Most critically, a blocker's toes must be pointed at his target when delivering a blow. If the toes are pointed slightly outward (as feels more natural), some of the lineman's power is diffused. He wants all of his force to be directed right at his defender.

It's not unusual to see major mistakes in footwork when you watch linemen carefully. Some stand straight up from their stance, with their feet too close together to maintain balance and leverage. Others, when blocking on the move, point their feet in the direction they were running, not at their defender. These linemen are often rag-dolled or steered around the field by their defenders.

Even if an offensive lineman has a perfect stance when blocking, it won't help if he cannot get into proper position to engage his opponent.

First steps and false steps
Football games are won and lost in the trenches, and trench battles are often won and lost on a lineman's first step.

While it appears simple to the casual fan, an offensive lineman must carry out a number of complex assignments. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images)

Think of all the assignments an offensive lineman might have. On a running play, he may be drive blocking forward, or he might be trapping or pulling. On a passing play, he may have to block the defender in front of him or a blitzing linebacker aligned far to his outside shoulder.

A lineman's first step or two must match his assignment. On a straight-ahead block, he may simply have to step forward about 12 inches with his back foot (a right-handed player's back foot should be a few inches behind his left foot in his pre-snap stance) and prepare for contact. But if he is expected to "hook" a defender on an outside running play, the lineman must take his initial step with his correct foot: left to hook an opponent on a run to the left, right for a play to the right.

What's the big deal? Remember that defenders aren't just standing there; they are reading the blockers to predict the nature of the play. Once a blocker moves left, so does his target. So that first step must be with the left foot, allowing the blocker to quickly get between the defender and the ball carrier's likely destination. If the blocker's body moves left, but he leads with his right foot, he'll have no time to get into position in front of his opponent.

On a pull or trap block, a lineman's first step must be a drop step: if he is pulling right, he must step back about 12-to-18 inches with his right foot and point his toe in the direction he plans to run. His next should be with the opposite foot, swinging his whole body and moving forward. In two steps, the lineman must have his body square and should be on his way to his blocking destination. A pulling lineman has to arrive at the hole in front of his running back; even a tiny false step will cause him to arrive too late.

In pass protection, a lineman must adjust his steps based on who he will block. Offensive tackles have the most to worry about. If a defender lines up square against a tackle, the tackle's first step will be a short inside step with his inside foot, all the better to coax the defender to take a wide rush. If the defender is aligned to the tackle's outside shoulder, the tackle must step back at a 45-degree angle with his outside foot. If the defender is split really wide, the lineman's outside foot should drop back at a steeper angle. The ensuing steps depend upon the actions of the pass rusher: every defensive move has a counterattack designed to keep the lineman balanced and ready to hold the defender at bay.

In pass protection, sloppy footwork is truly exposed. Some collegiate linemen always step back with their right foot. Fast NFL defensive ends will just pass them on the left. Some don't drop deeply enough on their first step, allowing defenders to beat them to the edge. And some just aren't prepared for double moves: having set to the outside, these ineffective linemen sometimes get their legs crossed up when their defenders suddenly work inside. Crossed feet are a major no-no. If you don't believe it, try lifting a heavy weight with your feet crossed. Tell your chiropractor we said hello.

The prospects
Some NFL coaches would rather draft a mediocre athlete with great footwork than a great specimen with awful footwork. A mediocre athlete can improve with a year in a pro weight room. A guy with sloppy fundamentals can also improve, but some have tuned out coaches for so long that their bad habits are almost irreparable.

That being said, there's always a market for behemoths with a little more to learn when it comes to technique. Here are three players who get high grades for footwork, and three others who may have to take ballroom dancing lessons before they take the field.

Good feet:
Ohio State's Nick Mangold is being compared to some of the best NFL centers. (David Maxwell / Getty Images)

Jeremy Trueblood, tackle, Boston College: Many fundamentally sound NFL linemen, including the Patriots' Dan Koppen and the Giants' Chris Snee, have come out of Boston College in the last few years. One common trait is that they learned their technique from former Boston College offensive line coach Dave Magazu, now the Carolina Panthers' tight ends coach. Trueblood isn't a super athlete, but he makes the most of his ability by rarely taking a false step.

Jonathan Scott, tackle, Texas: A sure-footed pass protector who was often on the move when blocking for Vince Young.

Nick Mangold, center, Ohio State: Mangold draws comparisons to Broncos center Tom Nalen, in part because he sets quickly in pass protection and excels at stepping out to the second level to cut off linebackers.

Bad feet:
Andre Whitworth, tackle, LSU: A 330-pound stud for the Bayou Bengals, Whitworth isn't particularly quick-footed, and his technique wasn't pretty. He will be too slow to be effective at the pro level if he doesn't improve his footwork.

Mike Degory, center, Florida: Degory gets high marks as a center because of his size, toughness, and experience. His footwork has improved, but he still has trouble trapping or climbing out to take on linebackers.

Brad Butler, tackle, Virginia: D'Brickashaw Ferguson's line mate at Virginia was big enough to beat up on most ACC defenders, but he often got crossed up when pass blocking and didn't do a great job when blocking on the move.

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