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When observers evaluate a running back, many people look at his speed, shiftiness and strength. Beyond the physical tools, however, a running back also needs good field vision. The difference between a touchdown and a play that's stopped near the line of scrimmage can come down to the way in which a ball carrier reads his blocks.
Understand each play's structure before the snap. For example, in a trap play, a defender is permitted to enter a gap unmolested and then is blocked by a lineman approaching from the side. The running back shouldn't run away from the hole simply because a defender is momentarily filling the gap. Instead, the ball carrier should look for the blocker who's supposed to make the trap block and see if he's in position to do so.
Keep your head up for as long as possible before you receive the ball and watch your blocks develop. Practice handoffs with your quarterback so you can keep your eyes on the line of scrimmage while the quarterback places the ball in your midsection.
Observe which gap a defender is trying to fill, and then run to an adjacent gap. On running plays, defensive linemen and linebackers are typically assigned to specific areas of the field. So even if, for example, a linebacker and a center are at a standoff, the linebacker may be leaning to his right or left, trying to plug his assigned gap. If he's leaning to your right, cut to your left.
Watch your blocker's backside and hips to see which way he's moving the defender. Reading a single block in the open field is easy. Just look which way the blocker is angling the defender and run in the other direction. The line of scrimmage, however, is crowded and messy. There will likely be several blockers and defenders together, making observations more difficult. Narrow your focus onto one or more blockers' backsides. If their hips are angled one way, then that's the direction of the block.
Be patient and wait for your blocks to develop if a hole doesn't open immediately. If you're in the backfield and your intended hole is filled, wait a moment and watch the blocker's hips. If you see a blocker's hips begin turning, chances are he's angling a defender to the side and opening a potential hole.
- In some situations you may be able to set up defenders to run themselves into blocks. For example, say you're running wide to the right, with a tight end blocking a linebacker directly in front of you, and a safety is approaching from behind the linebacker. If the tight end angles the linebacker to your right, try taking an extra step to the right, trying to get the safety to commit in that direction, before you cut back to the left to take advantage of the tight end's block. If you time it right, the safety may get caught up in the block, or may at least have to step around the linebacker, while you're dashing upfield at full speed.