Does anyone still use Vince Lombardi’s “Packers’ Sweep”?

Vince Lombardi’s “Packers’ Sweep” is probably the single most famous play in football. And, if it is not the most famous play on the field, it is undoubtedly the most famous play to have ever been diagrammed. Very few football fans cannot recall the famous “seal here, and a seal here and he runs…. in the alley,” even if they don’t even know what was actually being described; such was the magic of Lombardi:

Whether or not you understood the play itself, you certainly understood the import: A tough runningback turning the corner with a couple of offensive linemen as his personal bodyguards. But, of course, as Vince Lombardi himself explains, a play is just a play; there’s nothing magical to it. It’s about attitude and execution, and, as he also explains in the videos below, the right play comes to personify the heart and soul of an entire team; it makes the whole enterprise go.

But that was then, the common refrain goes. Whether because of the speed of the game, the evolution of offense, or simply the death of the fullback position (which you can see in the diagrams and video had probably the most crucial block in the whole play), the play is simply no longer relevant, having been replaced by zone blocking. Indeed, Bill Walsh’s 49ers, shown in a photo from 1986, was one of the last major NFL teams to run this play.

And it is kind of true that the play is not nearly as popular as it once was, but it — or at least some very similar concepts — have been making a bit of a comeback. The source of the modern “Lombardi Sweep” is the Wing-T “buck-sweep,” maybe the most important play in the entire Wing-T family. (H/t for the image.)

As you can see from the diagram, the concept is very similar: down blocking on the playside with the guards pulling to create an alley for the runner. The main difference between the bucksweep and the Lombardi sweep is the bucksweep has the added element of misdirection with the fullback up the middle.

The modern versions typically seek to get the same line concept as the bucksweep but from the shotgun and with a variety of misdirection. As I’ve previously explained:

Does this play look familiar?

Since he was at Springdale, [Auburn’s Gus] Malzahn has been running a version of the old Wing-T “buck sweep” (also sometimes called the “truck sweep”) from the shotgun. Most teams don’t use this because it’s a kind of slow-developing play to the outside, but Herb Hand once mentioned that it averaged more than 10 yards an attempt at Tulsa for a full season. The play is classic Wing-T: The line, tight ends, and receivers all block “down,” or step to their inside to get an angle to cut off defenders’ pursuit, while both guards pull and lead to the outside. Meanwhile, the quarterback executes a fake, causing the defense to hesitate for just a moment, and off the runner goes. And if the generic buck sweep is classic Wing-T, the Auburn version is classic Malzahn, an age-old concept combined not just with the shotgun but with a funky formation and receiver motion. He can use a variety of sets and looks, but against Mississippi State running back Ben Tate scored on a long touchdown run on this play where Malzahn brought the receiver in a sweep motion and the quarterback, after handing it to Tate, faked giving the ball on the reverse, then faked again as if he was setting up for a play-action pass, all of which is possible in this system.

Below is a simple example from Tulsa (h/t ShakintheSouthland):

The beauty of this concept is that, once the blocking is in place, the sky is essentially the limit for additional adjustments. Indeed, even the NFL guys have been running something similar for some time, calling it “truck sweep.” The blocking on this varies, but a good place to start is with the crack sweep concept I have previously discussed.

There’s no magic here, and it’s important to remember Lombardi’s dictum: It’s more important to do a few things well than a bunch of clever things poorly. But, given the prevalence of the zone running game today, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the old Wing-T concepts — and, indeed, the old Vince Lombardi man blocked concepts as well — making a resurgence. Some things just never get old.

Additional Reading:

18/19 Wide – The Lombardi Sweep

Auburn Run Game Buck Sweep

Auburn’s Malzahn at the Gates

Auburn’s “Hand Sweep”

Shotgun Wing-T

  • Jonathan Ellsworth

    The Pittsburgh Steelers still ran the power sweep in the 90’s. It’s been a staple of split-back teams forever- BYU in the 80’s and 90’s ran power sweep with an influence trap and draw trap as supplements.

  • Paul

    One of the things that distinguished Lombardi’s sweep was the playside running back (could have been either fullback or halfback, but it was usually the fullback) blocking a defensive lineman.  This was not unique to him — Woody Hayes shows the halfback blocking a DT in his Split T formation sweep, in a book he wrote in 1957.

    In the days of 240-250 lb. defensive linemen, a good sized back could do this.  Not a good percentage play today.

    Also, the typical defensive sets of those days usually gave you a pretty clean read of the interior defensive line, whether it was odd or even, so you could develop a practical scheme to pull both guards.  Still doable today, but the line blocking assignments get more complicated than only pulling one lineman.

    It was really a C-gap play, most of the time the TE took the Sam LB outside.  It usually bounced outside later as the pulling linemen sealed pursuit.  In speed of development and point of attack it’s a lot like the counter-trey  — I wonder if the coaches who developed it were thinking “how can I adapt the Packer sweep to run it out of I formation or one-back, without having a back take on a DL head-up?”

    I took a look at the old BYU playbook, and the play diagrams in Walsh’s “Edge” book — they used the TE (a bigger athlete by the late 80s and 90s) to block down on the man over the OT when they swept strong side, and had the lead back take on a 50 DE or a 40 SLB instead — a logical adaptation of the Lombardi play but one that would tend to break it wider.  (Run weakside, the back would log the DL… or probably, in those days, cut him…)

    I also recall that other teams (specifically I remember the Chargers, but there were others) that rearranged to pull front-side linemen only to make the play quicker, like some folks’ toss plays today (Walsh ran that too).

  • Mr.Murder

    Al Saunders now leads with play side tackles to play side like that. Keeps the EMLOS down block intact. Guess the back leading on end and pulling around it would be a thing to take on wrong arming tactics to spill plays.

    Had a coach yell at a player for cutting back on a sweep and telling him “you don’t cut back on the sweep.!” All I could here was the Lombardi:”Seal here, seal here, and run this play in the alley.”

    So if we seal the outside to the outside, we don’t cut back? Granted the Packers repped it so much you could read the lead block, they still knew teams at that time were not as fast from inside out so someone would take the wrong angle on wide runs. Teams were trained to take on point of attack runs so you needed to work them laterally.

    As for down blocking, the cut block rules drastically changed, and the teams who paid the most in terms of output since were WCO teams. Without the ability to go low from the outset, technique had to change and high hat emphasis evolved. Also teams set the lines deeper on wider splits, with longer linemen on average. All part of reach blocking, using formation space, instead of angle blocking.

    Heel to toe depth spacing for pull blocking was saved for goal line, short yardage. Heel to waistline depth gave linemen more ground to handle stunts and blitzes and block areas instead of counting outside in or vice versa and switching assignments down the line.

    Today’s sweep is the screen. Even those evolved in  who leads the play out. Didn’t old screens use the playside tackle to seal back? Now it’s usually an interior lineman sealing back while the playside tackle kicks out to lead it.

  • Mr.Murder

    Zone the backside, lead the man up frontside blockers from half slide, run the tight end up past the sam like a draw, use the lead back to sell sweep before becoming hot and change it into a dual(or triple) read screen frontside from the gun.

    Mahlzahn enough for you?

  • JimmyUrban71

    I remember an anecdote I once read about a younger John Madden going to see Lombardi speak at a clinic. Supposedly, Madden went into it with quite a cocky attitude, thinking he probably would not learn much new. Let’s just say his attitude changed a little bit after four hours of Lombardi discussing just the Sweep, and this was only at the half-way intermission. I am not certain exactly how accurate those details are, but it is still a great story to show just how detail-oriented Lombardi was.

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