Football 101: The Trap Block

I was 16 years old and so far down the depth chart of my high school’s football team that getting snaps with the practice squad was an honor.  Before the season, we played in a jamboree, where we played four or five different teams. Towards the end, the benches were emptying and the quality of players shuttling into the game were getting closer and closer to my skill level. Finally, they called my name and my moment had come, my first ever play against someone that wasn’t wearing the same uniform.  I lined up at defensive tackle, ready to fly upfield at first movement, this was my moment where I’d distinguish myself and rocket up the depth chart. The ball was snapped and the guard went right by me, I was unblocked, not a soul between myself and the ball carrier.  I charged. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a light blue jersey, the right guard, closing quickly. The trap block was executed perfectly and I found myself flat on my back, staring up at the blue sky. Fooled, as many before me by one of the simplest plays there is, the trap block.

The Trap play was one of Pop Warner’s many creations. Along with the first downfield passing game, in 1907 Warner debuted the Single Wing Offense, and his trap and counter play.  The classic trap play involves allowing a defensive tackle to get into the backfield unblocked and pulling a guard from the opposite side of the formation to block the defensive tackle. The pulling guard needs to move parallel to the line of scrimmage and to explode into the defensive tackles inside shoulder.  This block creates the essential part of a successful run play: a seal.

Below shows the most basic form of the trap blocking on the inside of the line.  If blocked correctly, the running back will have a clearing straight up the middle to run. 

With the continuing rise of spread offenses in football as well as simplified zone blocking schemes, the trap block isn’t used nearly as much as it used to be.  However, modified versions of the concept of the trap block still show themselves every weekend during the fall.  Teams will use a tight end to perform the trap or occasionally pull the tackle to trap the end on the opposite side.  Jim Harbaugh during his time with the 49ers resurrected the trap play and developed one of the more creative and exotic running games in the NFL.

A trap play is most successful against overaggressive defenses, typically defenses that run a 4-3, as it inherently provides better angles. Harbaugh used traps, using a guard, a fullback and a tight end with wild success against the two most aggressive defensive lines of his day, the Seahawks and Lions.  The Lions “Wide 9” defensive alignment and undisciplined defensive tackles made it easy for the 49ers to run traps and wham plays (a close relative of the trap). 

The Seahawks in matchups in multiple matchups in 2011 and 2012 were undone by the 49ers using trap plays to exploit their aggressiveness.  In the 1995 Orange Bowl, the Nebraska Cornhuskers killed Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis and the rest of the Miami Hurricane defense repeatedly with a fullback trap.

The trap block, for its impact, its simplicity, deception, and the beauty of running the ball straight up the middle, is one of my favorite running plays.