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Monday, January 11: Probably Time To Brush Up On Zone Blocking

Posted by Matt Terl on January 11, 2010 – 5:31 pm

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When Jim Zorn came to town, all of a sudden the conversation was all West Coast Offense, all the time. It was no longer enough as a Redskins fan to mumble vaguely about short passing and Bill Walsh when the subject of the WCO came up. You had to have at least a passable understanding of the principles of the scheme and of Zorn’s interpretation of it.

Well, there’s no legendary-but-arcane Rocky Mountain Offense coming to town with Mike Shanahan, but it certainly seems like everyone is trying to make sure you’re up-to-speed on the new coach’s zone blocking schemes.
For example, from Barry Svrluga’s story in Sunday’s Washington Post:

The offensive linemen became experts in zone blocking, and because the groups were so cohesive and, for the most part, healthy, the Broncos, as Schlereth said, “just felt like going into a game we were going to out-execute you.”

Alex Gibbs was the Broncos’ offensive line coach at the time, and Shanahan, Gibbs and running backs coach Bobby Turner all preached the same things for their running backs: Don’t dawdle. They talked about it in meetings and in practice. And they insisted on it in games.

“Mike always brought in guys — and Terrell Davis was the first one and certainly the most prolific — that were the powerful, slashing-type running backs,” said Brian Habib, a Broncos guard under Shanahan for three seasons. “You make it simple for the running back. You don’t mess around. Terrell was so in tune with what we were doing up front that he could find those cutback lanes. He wanted guys that just made one cut and exploded.”

And, not coincidentally, from Rick Maese’s follow-up post on Redskins Insider today:

Mark Schlereth, a former lineman for Shanahan in Denver who now blocks for Chris Berman at ESPN, said that his former coach really has only a half-dozen running plays. But when you review the film, it looks like more than three dozen.

The keys are simple: creative personnel groups, myriad formations and blocking schemes.

Shanahan wouldn’t commit last week to any sort of blocking scheme for the 2010 Redskins, but he has relied on zone blocking more than most coaches, whether his line coach was Alex Gibbs (now in Houston) or Rick Dennison.

It’s not something that’s just being discussed now, of course. This is the system that Shanahan made his name on, and the names of several running backs, however briefly for some of them. Everyone remembers Terrell Davis; fantasy football owners will remember Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, and Mike Anderson; almost no one will remember the brief success for guys like Andre Hall, Selvin Young, and Ryan Torain, among plenty of others. But there’s a simple reason why those guys were successful, according to a 2007 article by Jeremy Stoltz:

They were average running backs working in an above-average system.

The ability of Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan to consistently produce quality runners comes from his use of the increasingly popular zone blocking scheme.

Stoltz goes on to give one of the best brief summaries of what zone blocking is, and how it differs from good old-fashioned man blocking.

In the time-tested man blocking scheme, the offensive linemen block a predetermined defensive player. Zone blocking differs in the fact that linemen do not pick the players they will block before the start of the play. Instead, they choose who to block after the play begins. Therein lies the difficulty of zone blocking. Each lineman must work in unison to pick out the right players to block in the few lightning-fast seconds during which a play takes place. Since they are completely dependant upon one another, a missed block by just one offensive lineman may cause the play to fail.

Great. Makes perfect sense: in zone blocking, you block a zone, not a guy. But here’s the thing: we all know that Shanahan isn’t the only one who uses this scheme, but another guy who’s known for it is Joe Bugel. In fact, over the last few days a couple of offensive players have mentioned to me that they used zone blocking almost exclusively this past season, and we all saw how well that worked out.

So the fuss in this case is not just about the system in general, but about this coach’s VERSION of the system. In this NFL.com video (embedded above), Brian Billick focuses specifically on Shanahan’s zone blocking system, and on what made it so successful. (The running back used in most of the highlights in Andre Hall, which — in its own way — just proves the point.)

Billick claims that this blocking scheme is designed to open a hole for the running back, who identifies the gap, makes (at most) one cut, and goes. And, he says, this version of the scheme works for three major reasons:

First, this is the heart of their scheme. They get constant reps at practice.

Secondly, their backs are incredibly disciplined. If you don’t understand the stretch cutback scheme, if you’re not willing to press and cut, you’re not gonna play.

And finally, Mike Shanahan’s willingness to stay with the running game no matter what the situation, not abandon the running game, recognizing that that’s gonna be the staple with his offense.

(Watch the video for much more.)

The other difference — the MAIN difference, probably — is the personnel that’s used. According to Redskins Examiner Mark Newgent’s excellent explication of Shanahan’s zone blocking, this system is ideal for linemen who fit the following categories.

• Quick, even at the cost of size.
• Disciplined, even if the assignment seems pointless.
• Consistent, not giving visual cues to the defender as to their initial intention.
• Smart, able to keep up with defensive shifts before the snap.

The Redskins have largely favored size over speed in their offensive linemen in the past, the classic Hogs scenario, so — if Shanahan is planning to utilize a classic zone blocking scheme — this would represent a fairly seismic organizational shift.

Huge guys like Stephon Heyer might be out of luck; Mike Williams would need to perform almost as severe a personal makeover this offseason as he did last (when he dropped from 450 pounds to 343). A pre-injury Randy Thomas would be an excellent bet for this scheme, but … well, the best the team can hope for is a post-injury Thomas. (Actually, I saw Thomas in the facility last week, and he seemed pretty optimistic about next season. But still.) Casey Rabach could conceivably make the transition, and young Will Robinson fits the rough general size-and-shape characteristics.

But other than that, this scheme transition casts a lot of doubt on the futures of the big guys along the O-line, and if you’re into projecting free agent signings, it’s probably worth looking around for available former Shanahan scheme guys.

On the whole, though, this is still much simpler than determining exactly which flavor of West Coast Offense Jim Zorn was going to run, so take some solace in that. Maybe the Chicago media will get to finally sort that out.


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