If you attend a Green Bay Packers training-camp practice and the players are in pads, there’s one must-see drill: one-on-one pass rushing and blocking.
It's usually in the first half of a practice, when positions break off into small-group drills of offense vs. defense.
The period usually lasts about 15 minutes, give or take, and the one-on-one drill is about as pure as there is in football even if it doesn’t quite simulate game conditions.
Both lines take their positions, and a towel marks where the quarterback would set up in the pocket. Starting at left tackle one pair of players, a pass rusher and blocker, have at it when the ball is snapped. Then the next pair and the next on down the line, before it starts all over with a new left tackle.
When performed near the permanent stands at Ray Nitschke Field, the fans come alive. Players waiting their turn hoot and holler on decisive wins. And many reporters keep their own tallies by picking a winner and loser each snap.
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Unlike in a game, there’s no getting lost in the chaos of a 22-man play. It’s there for everyone to see, and the participants know it.
“It’s a big deal,” said Bryan Bulaga, the Packers’ right tackle. “A lot of people like watching it. The fans really enjoy watching it. Coaches really enjoy watching it. It’s a good period. An intense period. It’s competitive.”
The drill serves a couple purposes. With the premium on pass blocking and rushing in the NFL, it’s a way to hone skills and techniques on both sides of the ball.
“Everybody wants to win that one-on-one matchup,” center Corey Linsley said. “But it’s more important to take that drill and see if you can correct what you did wrong and move it into the team period.”
In a way, it's the ultimate test. Veteran players often talk of using one-on-ones to experiment with new moves and techniques, but they have the luxury of being proven performers. Younger players see it more as life or death, and performance in one-on-ones can affect anyone's confidence. The truth is, no one wants to look bad when everyone's watching.
“You lose a one-on-one, it’s like your whole day is ruined,” Linsley said. “Everybody wants to do great in that drill.”
One-on-ones can tell you something about a player’s power, or his quickness, or his balance, or his skills. It’s also a good way to get a feel for whether a rookie might be able to play in the league, or at least contribute in his first season.
For instance, left tackle David Bakhtiari looked comfortable in one-on-ones beginning with his first practice in pads in his rookie year. He ended up the starter that season. Same for Linsley, who in one-on-ones in his first camp showed an uncanny ability to recover instantly when he’d been knocked off balance just after the snap. He started as a rookie as well.
The drill inherently gives the pass rusher advantages he often doesn’t have in games. For one, he doesn’t have to think about the run, though that also can be the case on third downs in games. And two, the inside rushers especially don’t have to contend with the traffic that muddles the middle of the line during live action. They can rush inside, outside, or bull rush with no limitations.
“That’s why it’s good for us to do that drill,” Bulaga said. “You’re out of your comfort zone. You’re not working with another (blocker next to you). You’ve got all this space to operate in. So you stay in front of your guy, mirror him. It’s a pretty good confidence builder.”
It’s often not easy to pick a winner on a given one-on-one snap. When I compare notes with other reporters, there are always differences. There's plenty of room for interpretation.
You’re basically trying to determine whether the rush would have forced the quarterback off his spot. So a bull rush that pushes the blocker back four or five yards into the quarterback’s lap is a win for the defense. But if the blocker stops the push before then, he wins.
When an outside rusher gets around the edge, the hard part can be deciding whether he went too wide. If he has, then he’d have been pushed past the quarterback, just like you often see in games, and he loses. There are plenty of close calls and snaps without a clear winner.
Players have an internal arbiter that tells them whether they won or lost, though I’m sure there are times when both guys claim victory.
“I firmly believe that first touch wins,” said Jahri Evans, the four-time All-Pro guard who signed with the Packers as a free agent this offseason. “So if I can get my hands inside of a guy (first), control his power and his body, hopefully my feet are in a good position where I can win.”
Players don’t particularly like the scrutiny of the drill. I remember a few years ago Clay Matthews admonishing reporters for reading too much into one-on-ones after he’d had an unsuccessful day – he said he’d been trying some new moves that day. In the next padded practice, he came out and dominated his first couple reps, basically to say, “See?”
The oldest veterans take the fewest reps. They’ve had years to work on their techniques, and it’s more important to save their energy for 11-on-11 work in the second half of practice.
Going way back, I remember one matchup of two accomplished, longtime veterans devolving into absurdity. In training camp of 1995, Ken Ruettgers was a 33-year old starting left tackle and Sean Jones a 32-year old starting defensive end. They clearly had no interest in extending themselves or punishing one another in one-on-ones.
After one of their half-hearted matchups, defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmer bellowed, “What’s going on over there? You two look like you’re having a pillow fight!”
But that was the rarest of exceptions. Players are fighting for jobs, and nowhere is that more apparent than in one-on-ones. It’s something you really should see.
“Some guys hate the drill,” Bulaga said. “I don’t know any offensive lineman that loves it. But it’s a beneficial drill just because you’re put in an uncomfortable position and you’re forced to win.”