Kyle Caskey is a 12 year veteran NFL assistant coach who has spent time with the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions and Jacksonville Jaguars. He also has 6+ years of NCAA Division I coaching experience at The University of Louisiana - Monroe, Indiana State University, University of Mississippi and LSU. Kyle and his wife, Kayla, founded the Caskey Family Foundation in the summer of 2020 and have been able to help underfunded schools and teachers find ways to improve the learning experience for their students. Kyle and Kayla have three sons, Olsen (5), Kolten (3), Beauden (1).
Preparing NFL RB’s for Superior Pass Protection
by Kyle Caskey
“The NFL is a passing league”.
This is a phrase that is constantly being said in conversations revolving around the current NFL. As a former NFL Running Backs Coach (Bengals/Lions), I had to take it to heart that just protecting the football and creating good habits when running the football weren’t the absolute answer when asked how I would prepare running backs in the NFL. My background in the NFL began as a QC/Assistant Offensive Line Coach with the Cincinnati Bengals under Marvin Lewis and working with Paul Alexander, so when I moved over to the RB room in 2014, I took a lot of the techniques from the OL room into the RB room when it came to pass protection. These ideas will show up more when talking about how to attack defenders in a close range.
Before we go any farther into how these preparations happen, I must address some of the main issues that go into getting started with these preparations. Most RB’s that come into the NFL have been a part of the ‘spread’ offense movement in college football and haven’t been asked to perform protection based on the scheme and tempo of the offense. This leads to spending a lot more time with rookie RB’s on not only who to block based on the protections, but how to block NFL defenders. Their knowledge of how to study schemes is one thing, but studying the defenders themselves and how they attack blocks is just as important, if not more. Most of these young RB’s think that they can just overpower the defenders, or in some cases, just cut them down. A major difference in the NFL as compared to college is that the QB they are protecting usually makes the most money of any player on the team and taking a chance on cutting a defender on a 5 or 7 step dropback pass is playing with fire (and their career if they miss this block and get the QB hurt).
As we move forward, there are five main factors into effectively preparing a NFL running back to be a superior pass protection back: Break the bad habits, drill ‘blocking’ from the block backwards, learn how to study the game of football, study the opposing defenders (and their rush moves), and each RB must understand their role in the offense. Each of these areas will be expanded upon.
1. Break The Bad Habits
As mentioned earlier, most rookie RB’s think they can overpower or cut the defenders in pass protection and be successful. This has to be worked out of their system early and often. These actions have become habits over time and just mentioning it once or twice will not break them of these behaviors. This must be an everyday point of emphasis, whether in meetings or in offseason practices / drill sessions. This is not only breaking a physical habit, but breaking a mindset and creating a much more physical mindset.
One of the most overlooked areas of improvement is actually one of the easiest behaviors to create, once they realize they aren’t doing it. ‘Closing the Space’ (or getting as close to the defender before engagement) when a defender is attacking can be drilled anywhere, on the field, in the classroom, in their hotel room or hallway, almost anywhere. RB’s must create a mindset that if their defender is attacking from a distance, they must get into ‘levels’ with the OL (or TE if he is in the protection scheme). This allows the RB to use the OL/TE as a sideboard and create a ‘one-way go’ for the defender or force a ‘bull’ rush. Closing the space must be emphasized not only for using the sideboards, but to create space between the RB and the QB, in case the RB does get pushed back slightly. Sometimes it’s ok to just ‘Lose Slowly’, especially if the RB is much smaller (or has shorter arms) than the defender that is rushing against him.
As a coach, you may get the question ‘Why can’t I cut him?’. The answer is easy. The defenders rushing against them are superior athletes to any defender they may have ‘cut’ down in college and can avoid these blocks without missing a step. Which will lead to the defender having a free run at our $20M QB. It’s all simple economics.
2. Drill ‘Blocking’ from the Block Backwards
A lot of position drill work, no matter the position, always starts with some form of a ‘Stance & Start’ drill, then works into whatever skill they will be honing during the drill. I believe that to fully understand how to be an effective pass blocker as a RB, the backs must start from the actual block and work their way back to their stance, which is literally backwards from what they are used to drilling.
These drills should begin with teaching the RB how to engage with a defender. Start with a static engagement (not a moving target) and have the RB engage their hands (thumbs ‘supinated’ upward into the breastplate/underarm area of the defender). Have the RB drop his weight (feet shoulder width apart and ‘nose over toes’) to create a leveraged position. This must be emphasized to be the correct way to end the block. If possible, once this position has been engaged, have the RB pull the defender to him (to eliminate separation for the defender) and he should end up in a power clean position to finish the block. This drill should be repeated another 4 reps, but having the RB take a step back each rep until they are 4 steps away on the last rep. This is working into the next step of the progression.
The next step is called the ‘Attack and React’ progression. The RB and defender will align five (5) yards apart and the defender will attack straight ahead for a step, then make a move to the right or left of the RB (attacking a shoulder - not trying to avoid). The RB will attack straight and then have to drop his weight, shuffle (without crossing over) and finish with the engagement drill that was described above.
The final step is to have the RB align either in the home (dot) position, under center, or in an offset gun alignment with at least two defenders aligned at the linebacker or nickel (slot) alignments across the LOS. The coach (aligned at QB) will make a protection call, so the RB can integrate scheme into the drill. The coach will also signal to the defenders which one will be pressuring the RB. On command, the RB will determine the blitzing defender, then with no ‘false steps’ attack this defender by ‘closing the space’ and getting as far away from the QB (coach) as possible to create space before engaging with the defender. The defender will make a move and attempt to get to the QB (coach who has now taken a slight drop as well) and give a realistic look for the RB. This progression will create a backwards learning process for the RB that is now in the full progression from snap to block engagement.
One final note about hand placement and punch. This is not a ‘Bench Press’ type of punch, it is more of a ‘Power Clean’ movement when engaging the RB’s hands into the breastplate/underarm area. A lifting movement like a clean is much more powerful than a straight ahead punch just to get their hands engaged. This is a technique I brought over after working the ‘low hands’ theory with Paul Alexander and the offensive line. Another quick drill that can help the RB’s, just like the OL, is a ‘flop’ drill. This is where the defender has started to push the RB backwards (two hand bull rush moves mainly) and the RB will kick his feet back and drop his weight to create a ‘flop’ backwards to reacquire his leverage on the rushing defender.
3. Learn How To Study The Game of Football
“Film study”. This is a widely used phrase in the game of football. One of the most interesting things I would do with rookie RB’s is have them watch an assigned game on their iPads overnight and write notes about what they saw while watching the game. Their notes were always all over the place. These notes included phrases such as: “Big time move by (insert RB name)”, “They didn’t run the ball enough”, or “I would have made that defender miss when (insert RB name) got tackled in the open field.”
What I learned from these exercises is that these players weren’t even looking at the opposing defense. They were just watching the game. They couldn’t even tell me what types of runs (power, iso, inside zone, etc…) that the offense was running. This is what led to the creation of an ‘opponent study’ workbook that each RB received when they joined the team. This included identifying the defensive personnel, scheme, coordinator, and a mix of technique observations of the opposing defensive players. An opponent team was assigned in the offseason to each RB, they would fill out the workbook and then we would find time to watch these opponents (all on the next season schedule) together and fine tune what they are watching. Defensive scheme is the main emphasis at this time, so that these young RB’s can learn the complexities of NFL defenses and how they differ from the schemes they saw during their time in college.
These techniques would continue into the season and each player would be required to fill these sections out by the time we had our first meeting on Wednesday morning. Since film is readily available on NFL players iPads, there are no excuses for them to not be watching opponent film. Younger players must sometimes learn how to manage their time away from the facility and understand that their careers do not start and stop when they walk in and walk out of the facility, respectively. Film study should take the place of some of their social media or video game playing time. This is something that is a fine line to walk, because you don’t want to burn them out early in their career, but they must understand to get better at the highest level, it takes the highest level of preparation.
4. Study The Opposing Defenders (and their rush moves)
As mentioned above, there are ways to study defensive schemes and ways to study how defenders are rushing the RB’s themselves. One of the main cutups that was created for the RB’s each week was a breakdown of each defender (mainly LB’s, Nickel and Safeties) that would be rushing the RB’s that week. Clips were found of each individual defender actually rushing a RB on game film and these were cutup together with a title slide telling the personal profile of each defender. This cutup would be on their iPads by Monday and would be watched as a group no later than Thursday morning.
Understanding that the opponent has a 6’4 250 LB with 35 inch arms and likes to ‘two hand bull’ is very important if you are a 3rd down protection RB who is 5’8 205 with 30 inch arms. You will have to find ways to attack this larger LB that may be different than attacking their Nickel who is 5’10 210 with 31 inch arms and likes to do a ‘juke’ move. Drill work may have to be detailed differently that week vs a week where the LB’s are a little smaller and quicker. These types of discussions must be held each week between the RB coach and the players so that everyone is on the same page and there are not any miscommunications during the game when these pressures show up.
5. Each RB Must Understand Their Role in the Offense
Football is a crazy game and has a lot of ups and downs, and the RB room isn’t immune from these. I had the chance to be the RB Coach for the Detroit Lions in 2019 & 2020. During this time, I worked with a 2nd round draft pick from Auburn, Kerryon Johnson. Kerryon was known as an elusive runner in college who had explosive running abilities and a very strong stiff arm, but no one really talked about his pass protection. Unfortunately during the 2019 season, he had some knee issues and underwent some weekly procedures to help get his knee back into playing shape and he wasn’t as explosive in the running game as he once had been earlier in the season. One area of his game that did flourish during this time was his knowledge of the protection schemes and his ability to take on defenders and become a superior pass protection RB. I would make the observation that of all of the RB’s during my time in the NFL, Kerryon is the overall best protection back I have worked with and it was a change in his mindset during the 2019 season that transformed him into a superior protection back.
The biggest part of this transition for Kerryon happened going into the 2020 season. We were in a pandemic and the entire offseason was virtual. He did all he could to get himself healthy and ready to play, but also embraced learning more about NFL defenses and how defenders were attacking him. He embraced the role of being a great pass protection back. We often joked that Kerryon should get paid like a right guard because there were times he would end up on a 3 technique or a big name outside linebacker and would proceed to shut them down, every time!
This is a role that a lot of RB’s don’t want to embrace, but it can lead some RB’s to a long and lucrative career in the NFL. Giovani Bernard, another back that I worked with in Cincinnati who is currently with Tampa Bay, also embraced the ‘3rd down’ role and he has become one of the most respected protection backs in the league as well as a receiving threat from the backfield, despite his size and stature compared to the defenders that he regularly shuts down in protection. It may take time for a RB to embrace this role, but if they do, they can become a player that the coaching staff wants on the team, because he will help keep their QB upright.
In conclusion, pass protection from the RB position is a performance factor that can be developed with the correct progression in teaching the techniques and creating a mindset from the moment they step foot in the building as a rookie. Never get frustrated with a player because they aren’t winning the 1 on 1’s with the LB’s in training camp, but create drills to help that player develop the understanding of how to engage and use their leverage to stop the charge and stay with the defender until the ball is thrown, which sometimes may mean they must ‘Lose Slowly’.
I wish the very best to all of the coaches out there during this 2022 season! Keep pushing yourselves, as coaches, to be the light that guides your players. You really have no idea which life you are affecting on a day to day basis, so keep being the great leaders we all strive to be, every day!
- Kyle Caskey