It's not news that the Toronto Argonauts' offence is far better when they're running the ball than throwing it. Their best offensive player is running back Cory Boyd, who's been criminally underused this season; he finally was given some carries Friday against Calgary and helped the Argonauts pull off a huge upset. However, the comments made by head coach/general manager Jim Barker (seen above) comments following the game were highly disappointing, as he said Boyd only received carries because of what Calgary's defence did.
Head coach Jim Barker suggests Calgary was not plugging the line, which was why Boyd had a heavier workload. "Boyd runs for all the yards this week because they weren't going to allow Chad Owens to catch the bubble screen, so they took a guy out of the box and that allows him to run," Barker said.
The base principle here isn't in dispute; it's easier to run the ball when you're facing less linemen, linebackers and defensive backs crashing down to stop the ground game. The "box" is usually defined as an area opposite the offensive line and about five yards deep, and it's usually filled with players whose primary role is stopping the run or going after the quarterback. In both 11-man American football and 12-man Canadian football, the standard 4-3 or 3-4 defensive fronts have seven men in the box, while an eighth man (either an extra linebacker or a defensive back) is added on certain blitzes or in situations where the defence is confident the offence is running.
Adding the eighth man does make running more difficult, and Barker's been saying for weeks that Toronto isn't running much because teams are stacking the box against them. However, this is unimaginative, predictable and flawed given the Argonauts' obvious passing deficiencies, and it certainly is possible to establish a strong ground game even with eight men in the box. To explain how, here's former NFL coach and current FOX commentator Brian Billick breaking down running against an eight-man box in a 2010 video with then-Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson (now the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line coach):
The late-2010 Panthers were facing exactly the same problem as the 2011 Argonauts; they were stuck with an inexperienced quarterback trying to find his way in a new offence (Jimmy Clausen in Carolina, Steven Jyles in Toronto), but a strong running game (DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson in Carolina, Boyd in Toronto). Obviously, teams going against these squads were going to focus on stopping the ground game. Toronto's solution thus far has been to abandon the rushing attack almost entirely when opponents stacked the box against them, while Carolina got more creative.
The Panthers were still on the wrong side of the numbers game, with seven blockers (five offensive linemen, a tight end and a fullback) going against the eight run-stopping defenders, but as Davidson details in that video, there are ways around that. Carolina had their fullback read the movement of one of the defensive tackles and either cut backside or continue to the front side based on what he saw, with the running back following suit. As that video illustrates, running the ball successfully is not about blocking every potential defender; it's about finding a hole, hitting the hole and blocking the guys who are supposed to fill that hole. With deception, innovation and scheming, it's quite possible to run successfully against an eight-man box, as the Panthers proved.
If anything, it's even more possible to run against an eight-man front in the CFL, as Canadian defences are generally designed around stopping the pass. CFL defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs are frequently smaller than their NFL counterparts, and while that can mean they're faster, it also means they're not always as powerful. Moreover, many defences' default formations (in the CFL game, these are usually four defensive linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, or 4-3-5) aren't exactly what they seem.
For example, the B.C. Lions' base alignment against Saskatchewan Sunday looks like a 4-3-5 on the depth chart, but it actually includes only two linebackers and a "NKL", or nickel back (no, not the atrocious band). That nickel back is Anthony Reddick, who's listed at 6'0'' and 205 pounds, considerably smaller than starting linebackers Anton McKenzie (5'10", 235 pounds) or James Yurichuk (6'3", 222 pounds), and his role is as more of a hybrid of a linebacker and a defensive back than a pure linebacker. A player like Reddick has a notable size disadvantage against a blocking fullback like Toronto's Jeff Johnson (5'10'', 218) or a big running back like Boyd (6'2'', 218). Moreover, CFL teams carry significantly more defensive backs than linebackers, so even if your 4-3 includes three pure LBs rather than hybrids, your eighth man in the box is likely to be a smaller defensive back stepping up. That's a mismatch that can be exploited with some clever thinking and planning, rather than a clear signal to avoid the run game at all costs.
What's remarkable is that Carolina's solution to the eight men in the box problem would require so little adaptation on the part of the Argonauts. This isn't a drastic scheme or personnel change; it's just using reads (which I'm sure they already do to some extent) to attack vulnerable areas of a run defence rather than abandon the run altogether. Other slight modifications are possible, too. Facing a dominant defender, like the Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh? Smart Football's Chris Brown illustrates how you can leave him alone initially and then hit him with an unexpected "wham" block, as the San Francisco 49ers did to great effect Sunday. There are all sorts of ways to slightly modify a conventional running scheme so it works against any particular defence, and plenty of them work better than just "give up on the run when they put eight men in the box".
For the Argonauts, though, dramatic changes might pay off even more. This is an offence that has the personnel for a dominant rushing attack, and that could become their primary identity with a few tweaks. They were great running the ball Friday, and although their upset was almost nullified by a late defensive meltdown and poor offensive play in the second half, that came because Toronto went away from the ground game and started relying on Jyles' arm. Boyd picked up 148 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries (8.2 yards per carry), mostly in the first half, while Jyles completed just 11 of 21 passes (52.3 per cent) for 118 yards and a touchdown with four interceptions. In fact, Boyd's 8.2 yards per carry were significantly better than Jyles' 5.6 yards per passing attempt, and they were almost as good as his 10.7 yards per completion.
If you're the Argonauts, why not use more elements of a ground-oriented offence such as the zone read, gun triple option, quad option or flexbone? They have the perfect personnel for a triple option or quad option attack, with a rushing quarterback in Jyles, a power back in Boyd, an excellent pitch back in Andre Durie and capable receivers like Jermaine Copeland, Maurice Mann and Chad Owens. At the moment, this is a team with a terrible passing attack but a great rushing one. CFL orthodoxy and Barker's apparent philosophy says that's no good if defences focus on stopping the run, but ground-based offensive gurus like Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo would like to have a word. As Billick's video shows above, defences with eight men in the box may be an excuse to go away from the ground game, but they're not a very good one.