Watching the X’s and O’s: Running Back Pass Blocking

In a new series, Gators Country’s Dan Thompson explores technique, strategy and film to help explain some of the finer points of the game of football.

Running backs are usually recognized for one thing: running the football, obviously. A long run of scrimmage, a set of broken ankles, or an explosion through a tackling defender all elicit a roar from the crowd. As exciting as those plays might be, most teams only rush the ball 50-55 percent of the game and those running backs are responsible for much more than just finding an open running hole.

One of the most overlooked parts of the running back’s responsibilities is his role in pass protection. A running back has an integral role in the success of a passing play – certainly one the less glamorous of the position’s responsibilities. The running back is typically the last line of defense to protect the quarterback in passing plays.

Let’s take a quick look at proper blocking techniques and take a look at a few different videos and pictures to help explain a bit further.

Proper Blocking Technique

While every blocking situation is different, there a few basics that every blocker must follow.

Primarily, the blocker needs to accelerate quickly to the rushing defender. Whether, for example, the defender is coming from the “A gap” or “C gap” the running block needs to meet his man as soon as possible. Arriving as quickly as possible to the defender, allowing the blocker to grab positioning and gain leverage. The most important part of the block for the running back is redirecting the defender from the quarterback. Meeting the rushing defender as early as possible allows for the highest yield of pass rush disturbance.

Once the blocker has met the rushing defender, the running back should square up to a defender and block at the numbers. The running back should have his butt down, simulating sitting in a chair, with his head up looking at the rushing defender with a straight back. This stance allows for the defender to gain leverage and then extend their arms to “pop” the rusher backward. After the initial hit, quick rapid jabs at the rushing defender and quick feet allow for the running back to control the defender. The main goal of the running back is the control the pass rusher’s hips and not allow the defender to gain leverage or grab onto the pads of the running back to control his movement.

Vanderbilt University put out a great video on technique. About 5:25 into the video this subject is explained with video:


Here against LSU, Mike Gillislee makes a great block for Jeff Driskel on an ultimately incomplete pass to Omarius Hines.

The play lines up in an offset I-formation, with two wide receivers, one down tight-end and a running back and a fullback.

As the play sets up, the “X” and “Z” receivers runs “go routes” and Omarius Hines runs a modified wheel-route to the side before turning up field.

Mike Gillislee, however, stays back to block. You see in this photo. Gillislee squares up the rushing defender. He gets his butt down and has his shoulders facing the defenseman. He is the last line of defense on this otherwise untouched rusher.

Gillislee is able to shift the momentum of the oncoming rusher to the left of quarterback Jeff Driskel. Gillislee is, obviously, a lot smaller than the rusher, ergo, he needs to simply disrupt his path to the quarterback. Gillislee uses his hands, and although he takes a big hit from the rusher, he is able to deliver a powerful arm punch and force him toward left tackle Xavier Nixon.

Again, you see Gillislee fighting to keep an open path for quarterback Jeff Driskel. Gillislee continues to guard the quarterback, while the rusher tries to maintain his balance. Gillislee stays engaged and ready to deliver another punch to the chest of the rusher.

Ultimately, Mike GIllislee continues to stay on his man until Jeff Driskel makes the throw. You will see, however, that the defender that Xavier Nixon was covering has disengaged and will get a shot on Jeff Driskel (see below).

This is a great example of Mike Gillislee keeping his feet grounded, his body squared, and his arms out. When a lineman that weighs 300-pounds is rushing a running back, basic physics will say that the defender has the advantage, but Gillislee shows how simply altering their path to the quarterback can make a huge difference.


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Daniel Thompson
Dan Thompson is a 2010 graduate of the University Florida, graduating with a degree in Economics and a degree in Political Science. During this time at UF, Dan worked three years for the Florida Gator Football team as a recruiting ambassador. Dan dealt daily with prospects, NCAA guidelines, and coaching staff. Dan was also involved in Florida Blue Key, Student Government and Greek Life. Currently, Dan oversees the IT consulting practice of a Tampa-based company. Dan enjoys golfing, country music, bourbon, travel, oysters, and a medium-rare steak. Dan can be found on Twitter at @DK_Thompson.