Sunday, 24 January 2010

Understanding zone blocking and the future of the running game: Part 1

By Kip Earlywine
I need to preface this post by admitting up front that I'm not a big expert on Zone Blocking Scheme. If anyone is reading this and wants to make corrections, please feel free to contribute in the comments.

I played offensive tackle in high school and college, but at both levels, we used the time-tested traditional "man-blocking" system. Before the Seahawks made the move to zone blocking scheme a few years ago, it was something I had only a vague understanding about. Zone blocking scheme prides itself for its simplicity and flexibility, but oddly enough I found it pretty hard to research as not many people seem to really know exactly how it works. Since obviously the immediate future of the Seahawks offense will largely rely on coaching legend Alex Gibbs perfecting the scheme in Seattle, I thought I'd research it and make a post about how the system works and what that means going forward.

To start, I'm going to explain the zone blocking system as best as I understand it (as it relates to man), and I'll work from there in follow up articles which specifically address the offensive line and running backs.

In a traditional man scheme, every called play gives each offensive lineman his own specific assignment. On non-screen passing plays, its really simple- you pass block. On running plays, the team will attempt to open a hole at a specific spot or gap, and to do so, each lineman will carry unique marching orders. It could be simply to block the guy straight ahead, or cut your man, or double team a defensive lineman, or pull block, or pretend to pass block (in the case of a draw) or charge into the 2nd level to take out a particular assigned linebacker. Its important that assignments are done correctly, because this system puts a really high value on winning individual battles. The success of a running play is disproportionately dependent on the success of a couple key assignments being "won." This is why man scheme blockers tend to be very large and powerful. Its also why Seattle was so good at running the ball with man scheme when they had Walter Jones and Steve Hutchinson, who almost always won their individual assignments.

By contrast, zone blocking scheme tends to be more improvised and unpredictable. On most plays, zone offensive linemen are simply asked to beat the player ahead of them, or if uncovered, to double team or attack a linebacker at the 2nd level. Zone blocking likes to use pulling blockers, which I'm assuming is assigned similar to man, but for the most part, its a very interpretive, reactive system.

Whereas man gives a lineman a specific order to follow for a play, zone asks a lineman to survey the situation and decide for himself which action to take. Because of this, unspoken communication, chemistry/familiarity, instincts, quick thinking and quick movement play a larger role in this system. For example, lets say you have an uncovered guard and covered tackle combination. If the defensive end crashes inside, the tackle should release the defensive end and allow the guard to pick him up, moving instead to the 2nd level to engage a linebacker. The guard has to be aware of this possibility. If the defensive end does not crash inside, the tackle picks him up and the guard must then quickly move to the 2nd level to engage a linebacker in the tackle's stead.

Its kind of amazing that such a "simple" system can regularly force offensive linemen to make split second decisions and adjustments. This is why intelligence is a highly valued commodity for Alex Gibbs type linemen. They don't just play fast, they have to think fast too.

The other trade mark of a zone system is cut blocking. A good cut block can defeat even an elite defensive lineman, but only for a second, perhaps two seconds at most. The zone scheme is built on the idea of winning at the line of scrimmage in the first couple seconds but not much longer. This is why smaller, quicker, more athletic lineman are preferred. These types tend to fire off the line quicker, which gives them a chance to engage a defensive lineman before he fully exits his stance. Even a good defensive tackle will struggle for a moment with a double team hitting him so quickly after the snap. In a lot of cases, one lineman will cut a defensive tackle, causing him to lose the use of his legs for a moment, and the other will "clean up," pushing the defensive tackle out of a gap and possibly off his feet completely. By engaging quickly and using their athleticism, a zone lineman can usually win in the early seconds of a scrum, and even if they ultimately lose, the system is designed to get the ball through the line very quickly, so that usually doesn't matter.

Another reason the cut block is used so extensively by this system is because it uses small, quick, linemen who would get absolutely demolished in a fair fight against a very big and powerful defensive tackle. Should a zone scheme center have to go mono-a-mono with Albert Haynesworth, his only prayer of victory would be to aim for his legs and try to slow him down.

The result of this system is that it creates holes and cutback lanes anywhere, and those holes tend to be fairly small and only open for brief amounts of time. As such, its of utmost importance that the runner have great vision, running instincts, burst (conspicuous acceleration), tackle breaking ability and decisiveness. The classic Gibbs RB tandem tends to be a "thunder and lightning" combination, with one runner having size and power, and the other possessing high top speed.

Justin Forsett is neither, and yet he excels in the system because he meets each of the criteria above. He has nearly Shaun Alexander level vision and instincts- but unlike Alexander he's decisive. He has terrific burst. He "plays big" and can be hard to wrap up, and as an added bonus, his tiny body often allows him to slip by defenders in the scrum. If only his tiny body did not limit his workload so much, and if only he had a top gear, he'd be a superstar for Seattle. Regardless, he's very valuable every time he touches the ball. According to football outsiders, Forsett was worth a full yard above replacement per play (including receptions- 155 combined DYAR in 155 total touches) in '09. By comparison, Chris Johnson had 454 DYAR in 429 touches, about 1.1 total yards above replacement per attempt. Obviously, Forsett benefited from being a 3rd down back, but when he was on the field, he gave the Seahawks a Chris Johnson level of contribution.

Justin Forsett isn't as valuable as Johnson because he can't manage a 450 carry/catch workload, and but get 2 more Justin Forsett caliber runners, one with a top gear and one with short yardage skills, and give the three of them a combined 450 touches, and you'd be pretty close. That, in a nutshell, is how Denver and other zone teams compiled elite rushing offenses with players who were draft day afterthoughts.

In the next post, I'll audit the Seahawks existing offensive line, and I'll name some potential options this offseason to improve the unit or make it more Gibbs appropriate. In part 3, I'll review the Seahawks backfield, and look at potential offseason options to fix the running game.


Steve in Spain said...

I look forward to parts 2 and 3.

One thing: other than knowing whether to pass block or run block, to what extent does the OL even need to know what the offensive play is? Is it purely read and react?

Re Chris Johnson, don't you think this is one of those times where the FO statistics just don't tell the story? FO adjusts a running back's yardage by capping yardage on long runs - I think they stop counting at 20 yards. That's because long runs (20+ yds) are usually the result of situation, scheme and defensive breakdowns. CJ strikes me as a special player, though, one for whom the long run might be a true skill - he's a threat to go the distance any time from any point on the field. DYAR doesn't measure that impact. I'm having a tough time swallowing that 3 J-Forces = 1 record-breaking RB.

(I'm promoting C.J. Spiller at #14, can't you tell?)


Kip Earlywine said...

I know for man scheme, on running plays, each guy has an exact assignment, just like a WR, RB, or TE would. For zone though, as it was explained when I researched it, the basic concept is to block who ever is in your column or "zone", which sometimes means double teaming or reading and reacting. As far as I can tell, pass blocking is more or less the same concept for both systems.

You make a great point about DYAR (I think you are correct about it being 20 yards). However, even if we look at a metric that includes long runs, like yards per carry, the two backs still match up well, Johnson has 5.6 vs. Forsett's 5.4. Obviously, Johnson is a far superior player and Forsett benefits from the role and system he plays in, but if all you care about is results, 3 backs with Forsett level production will give you an elite running game. Not quite Chris Johnson great, but pretty close. That's why the Gibbs system has been so successful everywhere its been, because guys like Chris Johnson are rare and guys like Justin Forsett are not.

I do agree that the team needs to look at adding a "homerun hitter" at RB, but it doesn't necessarily have to be Spiller. Jahvid Best is very similar to Spiller as a runner and could be there in the 2nd. Joe McKnight is a great fit for our system and has a good top gear. Dexter McCluster regularly broke huge TD runs in college. If the team drafted Spiller, it wouldn't completely shock me, but my guess is that Alex Gibbs will identify some system friendly backs in the mid-late rounds and the team will target them while spending the top resources elsewhere.

Donald Duck said...

Here is an article on zone blocking that I found helpful. It is too long to copy and I could not include the illustrations.

Vince Mulcahy said...

From what I understand zbs incorporates athletic linemen for their ability to block in space. Meaning that the o linemen are constantly attacking the second level through the use of combo blocks, folds, and jump throughs.

That's why lateral quickness is valued so highly for zbs running backs. As someone earlier posted, holes are there for short amounts of time and when one opens up a back needs the vision to hit it.

For pass pro I believe there are more trap blocks and such so that a d linemen isn't always sure what angle he will be blocked from. But that is more speculation as I wasn't able to find much info about zbs pass pro.

Donald Duck said...

Zone blocking 1

Zone Blocking Tutorial: Inside Zone Runs
by Hooper on Mar 31, 2009 11:45 AM EDT in Tennessee Volunteer Football 22 comments
Zone blocking is one of the most discussed - yet least understood - strategies in football today. There are nearly as many different opinions on zone blocking as there are people who have heard of zone blocking, and most of the debate comes from people who couldn't tell you the first thing about how a zone block differs from a man block. So with Tennessee adopting a "100% Zone" blocking scheme, I felt it was a good time to go through some of the basic concepts of zone blocking so that we can have a more intelligent conversation on it. Here, I'll use a standard play - the stretch sweep with inside zone blocking - to illustrate how zone blocking works. It's one of the simplest situations to illustrate as well as one of the most devastatingly effective runs available to a team willing to commit to it.
If anybody ever asks you what zone blocking is, the shortest possible answer you can give is that the linemen block zones rather than block defenders. (If the asker is particularly annoying, you can always say that in a matter-of-fact, how-could-you-not-already-know-that tone. Very effective.) Digging a little deeper, what this really means is that the linemen are looking for specific areas of the field to block; if a defender happens to be there, they block the defender in such a way as to control the spot. If a defender isn't there, they continue toward that spot, offering double-team assistance only if it's convenient. Once they control a zone, if they're not fully engaged, the linemen can then look to the "second level" for somebody in the defensive backfield to block (on run plays).
The reason teams came up with zone blocking is rather simple: big, hulking offensive linemen who are agile enough to keep up with defensive shifts are hard to come by. In the NFL, the problem is quite simply that there are not enough quality big linemen for every team to assemble a dominant offensive line. Instead of competing against 31 other teams for a scarce resource, some teams sought to find ways to use smaller, quicker linemen effectively. Because of the acknowledged weight disadvantage these linemen would face, the goal was to scheme away from the straight-up shoving contests and find ways to maximize leverage on the opponent.

Donald Duck said...

Zone blocking 2

As we step through the following diagrams, keep these principles in mind.
The ideal linemen for zone blocking are:
• 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 ideal running backs for zone blocking rushes are:
• Disciplined, willing to do their job and not improvise.
• Decisive.
• Crisp runners - not necessarily fast, but they must have sharp cuts.
• Committed, willing to blast toward a gap that doesn't exist - yet.
• Decisive. No, really. A backfield dancer is absolutely doomed.
Those characteristics in runners and linemen are relatively cheap to come by in the NFL draft. For years, Denver was the only team that was fully committed to a zone blocking scheme; during those years, their best linemen and runners were routinely found on the second day of the draft. Just as routinely, Denver was cranking out a different 1,000-yard rusher every year, subsequently selling them off to other teams for capital to be spent later. Meanwhile, the rest of the NFL was tripping over themselves to get the top-rated players at these positions. (Recently, the significant increase in the number of zone blocking teams has changed the market, and Denver spent a #12 pick on an offensive lineman last year.)
The point is that you don't have to have the superstars to run an effective system. While that always helps, zone blocking was an advent created to atone for talent shortfalls. So let's see the zone blocking principles.

Hooper provides various illustrations of how zone works and provides a link to where it is illustrated in NFL plays.

Anonymous said...

DraftDaddy is reporting that Charlie Brown and Trent Williams are among those invitees who haven't reported to the Senior Bowl yet: (I'm not sure where the permalink is)

I wonder if Brown is still a little light or if this may cause his stock to fall (all the way to #40).

Mr Fish said...

Following up on Donald Duck's excellent comments, does anyone have a list of the NFL teams who are now using the ZBS?

That will be useful information to have when considering who might be competing with us to draft a given lineman or running back.

Kip Earlywine said...

Thank you VERY much everyone for your contributions. I'm still figuring the system out and a lot of the information was really helpful. For example, I hadn't considered the usefulness of lateral agility for a RB, but it makes complete sense. Donald Duck, thanks very much for the link and explanation.

If Brown fails to gain enough weight, I could definitely see him falling to our 2nd rounder. Hopefully, he's light enough to scare other teams away but enticing enough for Gibbs and Carroll to still want him.

As far as other ZBS teams, I don't have an exhaustive list, but I know that Green Bay, Washington, Houston, Indianapolis run it. Atlanta probably still runs it. I would guess New Orleans runs it since they take a RB by committee approach and haven't invested heavily in their lines. Denver was running it but they are switching to man scheme this offseason.

Kip Earlywine said...

In a future post, probably weeks down the road, I'll compile a list of teams that run 3-4 vs. 4-3. I'll also attempt to do the same for man blocking vs. zone.

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