Monday, 25 January 2010

Understanding zone blocking and the future of the running game part 2: Seattle's existing O-line personnel

By Kip Earlywine
Thanks everyone for leaving comments and suggestions in part 1. This explanation in particular was very informative.

I realize as I sit down to write this post that addressing every offensive lineman in depth and going over every possible offseason offensive line option is probably insane to attempt in one shot. So instead, I'll just very quickly give my 2 cents on each member of the existing line and whether or not I see them as long term options. Down the road, I'll make some posts about potential offseason options at offensive line.

Ok, but before I begin that, I wanted to link this entertaining zone blocking scheme explanation from NFL network. Yes, its Brian Billick, and yes, he illustrates his point using Madden. That combination could cause a cynic to injure himself from rolling his eyes too hard. But regardless, for how brief it was, I thought it was an entertaining and a surprisingly informative watch. Have a gander: Link.

At the 1:40 mark, check out the center (#69), how he gets all the way around to the outside shoulder of the DT, and when he knows he's about to lose his block, he dives for the legs. That sequence allowed the hole to be open fairly long, and it kept the DT (#67) who was assigned that running lane from ever really factoring on a nice 6-7 yard gain. Hustle and minimizing direct engagement (engaging defenders at angles) seems to be what makes this system work.

The more I learn about the system, the more I realize just how valuable the running back is to its success. If you field 5 competent zone scheme appropriate blockers, holes will open somewhere, and its up to the back to see them and make a decisive cut to the cutback lane as quickly as possible.

The problem for the Seahawks the last two years has been that, in all brutal honesty, they almost never fielded 5 competent zone appropriate linemen. And when they did, they didn't stay healthy. That has to change, even if it means bringing in low profile veterans who can stay healthy and won't kill us. Here is the list of the Seahawks existing offensive line, broken down by category.

Who? Guys that are on the edge of the roster:

Na'Shan Goddard- the Seahawks site lists him on the roster, but Wikipedia claims he's now a member of the Saints practice squad. Either way, he's already 26 and has never even made an active roster, so we probably don't have to worry about him either way.

Trevor Canfield- this, along with losing Derek Walker for no reason and signing punter Jon Ryan to a 6 year extension, is pretty much the full legacy of GM Ruston Webster. Webster signed Canfield on December 30th off the Cardinals practice squad. You can read more about Canfield here. Teams often try to stash decent zone scheme players on practice squads, since they can be found in such abundance late in the draft. Brandon Frye was acquired off the Texans practice squad, and played pretty well for us. From the link above, Canfield sounds like the type of guard I'd expect Gibbs to look for this offseason.

Mike Gibson- The Seahawks were quite the vultures in 2009, signing three different zone friendly offensive linemen from other team's practice squads. We know a little more about Gibson, who actually made the active roster and even played late in the season. My very preliminary impression of him was that he didn't stand out as being particularly good or bad. And for a practice squad player, that has to be considered a big success. Compare that against the miserable failures of Kyle Williams or Steve Vallos, especially in that first Arizona game. Anyway, Gibson is a former JuCo All-American, and 6th round pick.

Brandon Frye- Frye was once a starting left tackle for Virginia Tech, and a 5th round pick who was coached by Alex Gibbs during his days with the Texans. Frye was thrown into the fire when he had to face Dwight Freeney in only his 2nd start ever. That was an impossible situation and Frye didn't play well, but he did perform solidly against San Francisco, Chicago, and Jacksonville. My worry with Frye is that while he showed terrific toughness by playing hurt, he suffered multiple injuries in just a short span of time, including a neck injury that forced him on the injured reserve. Durability could be a concern, but he seems like a decent backup, if not more.

Damion McIntosh- A castoff 10 year veteran, McIntosh was only signed by Seattle because of his connections to then offensive line coach Mike Solari, and only after practice squad player Brandon Frye was IR'd. For all the hype about how bad his pass blocking is supposed to be, he actually didn't seem that bad last year. However, he'll be 33 next year and is a free agent. The Seahawks should target a free agent that is younger and more Gibbs appropriate.

Kyle Williams- Williams is 6'6", 295 pounds, and played for USC. For those reasons, I expect him to at least enter camp with the Seahawks in 2010. However, we've had a chance to see plenty of Williams the last two years and it hasn't been pretty. His combination of above average height and very low weight has made it difficult for him to win leverage or survive bull rushes. When he was paired with Rob Sims or Mike Wahle, he stood out as a liability, but when paired with Steve Vallos he was a disaster. Still, Williams fits the Gibbs mold, and as he's exhausted his practice squad eligibility, he'll be given some preseason looks to see if he can make the team. I'm curious to see how much Gibbs' coaching will help him.

Steve Vallos- Vallos really, really struggled in 2008. Defenders would often run right through him or right around him, especially in the Dallas game that year. In the running game, he'd frequently be pushed several yards into the backfield. In 2009 he wasn't much better, and he was just demolished in the Arizona game. Vallos did show some slight improvement later in the season, and if Gibbs can make something out of him, he could be a mediocre backup center. I could be wrong, but I think Vallos has exhausted his practice squad eligibility.

Walter Jones- I figured I'd put him here since he's very likely played his last NFL snap.

Guys that are on the roster but don't really fit the Gibbs mold:

Mansfield Wrotto- Wrotto is kind of like the Baraka Atkins of the offensive line. Drafted as a raw prospect (a converted DT), he never really impressed anyone and last season didn't even make the active roster very often. Wrotto is a good power blocker, but a true zone scheme avoids direct blocking. I don't think Wrotto is a bad player, but as his role was already in decline and we're moving to the purest form of zone imaginable, I think he'll be traded or released before opening day next year. I was once a big fan of his- I hope he catches on somewhere.

Ray Willis- Of the regular lineman, only Max Unger struggled more than Willis in '09. Willis possesses very extreme right tackle skills. He's huge and powerful, and is maybe the best run blocker on the entire team. However, he doesn't have the fastest feet and can be victimized by the edge rush. Robert Mathis had a field day against Willis, earning 2.5 sacks and drawing two holding penalties. If Willis were moved to a team that uses man scheme and is very run oriented, he could be a decent starter or a very valuable backup. Despite having knee concerns early in his career, Willis has been incredibly durable for the Seahawks. There probably isn't a lineman on the team who is more at odds with Gibbs system than Willis though. I'd hate to see the team release him. He's got 1 year left on his contract, and if Seattle tries hard enough, they might be able to find a trading partner (although they'd probably get a minimal return). I do hope Willis isn't starting next year, if only to free up John Carlson, who suffered for having to help Willis in pass pro so much.

Chris Spencer- Spencer is powerful and athletic, and very under-rated. He's expected to be a restricted free agent this offseason (assuming no new collective bargaining agreement is reached). Spencer's best attribute is his strength. He's ideal for managing fierce 3-4 nose tackles, something that most zone centers would consider a nightmare. Despite owning man scheme attributes (size, strength), Spencer has played better football the last two years after switching to zone. Spencer could be retained for as little as $0.885 million. If the team is smart, he will be. Even for a 1 year backup, that's a good deal.

Rob Sims- It feels silly including Sims on this list, but technically its true- Sims is a converted Tackle who like Wrotto and Spencer is very large and powerful by zone guard standards- he's best utilized in a system that allows him to directly engage defenders and overpower them. Prior to the 2008 season, Sims had said that he wanted to switch to zone in 2007 because he thought it better suited his abilities. Sims essentially missed the entire 2008 season so we didn't get to see if he was right. In 2009, Sims broke out, and became the only member of the Seahawks offensive line who was undeniably above average. So while Sims is not a prototypical zone scheme player, he excelled within it regardless, kind of like Ryan Clady in Denver. Sims is a powerful run blocker but really shines in pass protection. Sims is a free agent to be, although like Spencer it will probably be as a restricted free agent. Either way, signing Sims to a long-term contract should be a big priority.

Guys that are on the roster who fit the Gibbs mold:

Max Unger- I guess I could've included guys like Frye and Vallos on this list, but I'm not even 100% confident they would make the final roster next year. Unger is a prototypical zone scheme interior lineman. Unger's big weakness is his lack of power, but if a zone scheme is being utilized properly, that shouldn't matter much. Unger has a reputation for being a pretty smart player, and he has good athleticism. I'm very curious to see how he performs under Gibbs guidance, although I have to admit I was alarmed by how poorly Unger played as a rookie. If I had to quantify it, I'd say he was 120% Steve Vallos. Unger gave up nearly a sack a game in the final few weeks of the season after moving to center. His handwork (punch) really needs work, it doesn't even phase charging DTs. Unger is also overpowered very easily if a DT engages him straight on, and on a few occasions, he was blown into the backfield on running plays, usually leading to a tackle for loss. Rookie offensive linemen tend to struggle, so I'm not really holding 2009 against him. That said, he's got a lot of work to do and unless he shows big improvement, I wouldn't start him over Chris Spencer in 2010 (or at guard- unless we are desperate).

Sean Locklear- Sean Locklear is an adequate RT or a sub-mediocre LT who is paid like an elite RT or an above average LT. He does fit the zone scheme and is a terrific athlete. Against Jared Allen he never gave up a sack, but had Hasselbeck not been playing paranoid, Allen probably would have had 4 sacks that day. In a better situation, the Seahawks would probably outright release Locklear to get out of his contract and address the position in the draft of free agency. But with so many needs on the offensive line, and so few players that are both Gibbs prototypes and starting caliber, the Seahawks simply can't afford to give Locklear up.

So looking at our options, our current Gibbs oriented line looks like:

Frye/Gibson/Unger/Sims (FA)/Locklear

Yikes. Looking at that lineup, left tackle and right guard really stand out as the areas of most concern. If we add a left tackle, that means we'd have good depth at right tackle (Locklear/Frye). If Spencer is retained, we'd have good depth at center (Unger/Spencer/Vallos). Left guard could use some depth, but Sims is a very good starter. At right guard, you have a choice between Chris Spencer (who has never played well at guard) or a practice squad player. Ideally, that opening should be filled with a zone scheme veteran, especially if Unger is the starter at center.

I'd list a few options for the Seahawks in free agency and the draft, but this post is already very long. I'll make some individual posts about possible options in the next few weeks. I'll leave it at that for the offensive line as of now. In part 3, I'll cover the Running backs- what kinds of skills the Seahawks will be looking for and (hopefully) some runners that fit those descriptions.


Nick said...

Audio of Houston Texans right tackle Eric Winston discussing the special challenges that 3-4 defenses present to zone blocking teams.

Nick said...

And if you're more into visual learning, he's a small video tutorial from former Texan LB Kailee Wong.

Nice post Kip.

Jon said...

Very informative stuff.

I have a question about Frye though, I thought his injury was career ending or very close to it. That's what I remember at the time anyway, is there a solid chance he can play next year?

Rob Staton said...

Thanks for posting those links, Nick.

Anonymous said...

Great read. Please don't wait weeks to post more about prospects and RBs.

Donald Duck said...

Thanks for your very helpful article.

According to Mel Kyper of ESPN the 10 best offensive tackles in the 2010 draft class are Russell Okung, Anthony Davis, Bryan Bulaga, Trent Williams, Bruce Campbell, Anthony Castonzo, Clint Boling, Marcus Cannon, James Carpenter and Jason Pikston.

The 10 best guards are Mike Iupati, John Asamoah, Vladimir Ducasse, Mike Johnson, Sergio Render, Rodney Hudson, Justin Boren, Mike Pouncy, Stephen Shilling and Orlando Franklin.

Which of these works best in a zone blocking scheme?

Anonymous said...

Good analysis. Good read. Thanks.

CLanterman said...

Very informative Kip. This piece has made me changed my mind about our o-line situation. Before I would have put the onus almost solely on Hasselbeck (except for the Arizona game at home), but I think your point that several of our lineman our valuable, just not in this scheme, is a very good one. You could have a QB with a very strong arm, but if the play call never has a deep ball in play, it wouldn't matter. If we're set on getting a zone lineman, I think that it's essential to find one lineman in FA and one in the draft, especially if we draft a QB at #6.

Kip Earlywine said...

Thanks Nick for the links, I'll be sure to check those out.

Duck- I couldn't help but notice that Charles Brown didn't make that list. I wonder where he shapes up for McShay or Mayock?

Hey CLanterman, I definitely think Hasselbeck bears a huge amount of responsibility. Ask any Colts fan and they'll tell you O-line is one of the biggest weaknesses on their team (they run zone like we do), and yet because of Peyton Manning's amazing talents (ability to complete passes very quickly) the Colts finished the season with the fewest allowed sacks in the NFL. Maybe down the road I'll do a post about Hasselbeck- I don't want to open up a can of worms here, but the short version is that I think our offensive line was made to look even worse than it really was because of the fact that it was always playing from behind and had such a non-intimidating dimensional offense running behind it.

Thanks for the kind comments everyone. After I finish part 3, I'll start highlighting some individual players of interest that could be brought in this offseason.

Kip Earlywine said...

Regarding Frye, I don't know anything other than that his injury "was more serious than a stinger." I haven't heard that his career is in danger, but I guess we'll see.

Donald Duck said...


Mike Mayock lists the top five OT as:
Russell Okung
Oklahoma State
Bryan Bulaga*
Anthony Davis*
Trent Williams
Vladimir Ducasse

and his interior linemen are:

Mike Iupati
Maurkice Pouncey*
Jon Asamoah
Rodger Saffold
Zane Beadles

That is all I can find right now.

Mase said...

That was a good read. Every other part of the part of the offense gets analyzed thoroughly but I have always been interested in learning about what makes a good offensive lineman. Nice analysis from a former O-lineman.

I agree with Kip's analysis of Unger. Throughout the season I've generally heard praise thrown the way of Unger. He's made some nice plays along the way but I saw him getting overpowered a lot. For a guy his height he's too lite and can definitely add some pounds to give him the strength he needs to fight at the point of attack.

D said...

Good stuff Kip,

Looking forward to number three. I am also intrested to hear what you think about the top RBs in the draft regarding zone. Spiller is too soft up the middle? Dwyer seems like a zone RB but I can be WAY off there as I am only just now getting into the X and O:s of the zoneblocking.

How about Stanfords Gerhart for value?

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