Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Understanding zone blocking and the future of the running game part 3: Zone scheme running backs

By Kip Earlywine
You may have heard that the zone blocking scheme can turn any running back into a star. That's a very common misconception that is based on the zone scheme's ability to turn late round running backs into 1000 yard rushers, as Denver did with Terrell Davis (6th rounder), Olandis Gary (4th round), and Mike Anderson (6th round). The truth is, it takes a very specific type of running back to get the most out of the system, and because the system emphasizes vision, decisiveness, burst and agility (cut making ability) instead of traditional attributes like speed, size, and power, it allows teams to produce great runners that would be overlooked by teams that run man scheme- teams that look for Adrian Peterson types.

Since overhauling the running game figures to be a big priority this offseason, I thought I'd take a look at the half-backs we currently have and see how well they fit the system:

Julius Jones: Jones was touted as being a zone scheme appropriate running back when he joined the Seahawks two years ago.


-Very decisive
-Above average (but not elite) speed
-Has a nifty "hurricane" move that works well when trying to break tackles in the 2nd and 3rd level.
-Team player
-Great blocker
-Big play threat on screen passes
-Decently durable/plays hurt
-Rarely fumbles (0 fumbles in 2009)


-Is below average at penetrating the 1st level, which is a big deal in zone scheme.
-Vision, burst, and agility are all more or less just average.
-Decently expensive (roughly $4 million per season)
-Only a 3.7 YPC and only 44 combined DYAR in 220 total touches.
-Doesn't have a "nose" for the endzone, just 4 TDs in 335 carries in Seattle, which is in line with his career numbers.

Jones is a decent fit for the system but not ideal, and as a result, the overall package (including blocking) is a player that isn't killing us, but he's not helping much, either. According to Football outsiders, he's worth a mere .2 yards per attempt over a practice squad type player. Jones is still in his prime, and at 28 years of age (he was born 2 days after I was, how about that), he could easily continue his current level of performance for the remaining life of his contract (2 years). However, with a potential uncapped year coming, it might make sense for the Seahawks to release him and take his contract off the 2011 books, and just replace him with a rookie who costs about a fifth as much money.

Justin Forsett:
Forsett was a 7th round pick who was released by the team in 2008 before we lucked out and he was reclaimed.


-Great vision, terrific (Alexander level) running instincts
-Outstanding burst especially given his lack of speed.
-Defenders at the line can sometimes lose track of him due to his small size
-High effort, plays bigger than his size
-Makes good cuts
-Excels at breaching the 1st level
-Surprisingly dangerous outlet receiver
-Productive: 5.4 YPC and 155 DYAR in 155 total touches.
-Low cost


-Four fumbles in only 114 carries. Not completely horrible, but below average.
-Despite giving top effort, his size limits his pass blocking to below average and inconsistent.
-Fairly limited upside. Forsett isn't a workhorse type and probably can't play any better than he did in 2009 (which was obviously pretty good).
-Very low top speed, a "big play" for Forsett is 20-40 yards typically.
-Despite very good production, Forsett only managed 5 TDs in 155 total touches. That's not bad, but not good either.
-Very small size, which means he's probably a higher risk for injury
-If he does get injured, he has no speed to spare, so like how Hasselbeck's barely adequate arm became a huge liability when he lost arm strength, Forsett could become a liability if he has to play hurt (unlike a guy like Spiller, who can still dominate while hurt).

Overall, Forsett was a perfect fit for zone scheme, and in 2009 he showed us that his performance against Chicago in the '08 pre-season was not a fluke. It might be surprising that a small back with so little top speed could be so productive. The secret to his success is because (according to a study by footballoutsiders), zone scheme is better suited at producing medium sized rushes between 4 and 9 yards, and is also better for avoiding negative rushing plays. Forsett's ability to break through the first level and get a reliable amount of yards with such frequency is how he totaled such good numbers.

Louis Rankin: Rankin was released by the Oakland Raiders last September. The Seahawks added Rankin to their practice squad and promoted him to the active roster about a week before they released Edgerrin James.


-Decent size (6'1", 205)
-Very good top speed, supposedly in the 4.4-4.5 range
-Low cost
-UW alum (or is that a bad thing?)


-Only 8 carries to evaluate him by, which included a fumble.
-Below average as a kick returner.

It would be impossible to sum up Rankin by what he's done so far as a Seahawk. Thankfully, I'm a diehard UW fan who hasn't missed a game in years. Rankin's college "skillset:" good moves, deceptive speed, above average size, all paint him as being best suited in a man system. Rankin does not have good vision, and in just the few reps I've seen him in zone scheme, he looks overly deliberate in choosing a hole and doesn't even seem to look for the cutback lane. I think Rankin has enough talent to be a good backup somewhere else in a man scheme where all he has to do is to run to an assigned spot every play and not worry as much about cut-backs. He's not a great fit for zone and his special teams abilities aren't helping, so I don't think the Seahawks should retain him.

The Verdict:

For the Seahawks to improve the running game, they need to add at least 1 RB in the draft this year, maybe 2. Thankfully, Alex Gibbs teams have averaged drafting (iirc) a whopping 1.3 RB's per draft. Seattle should target backs who are intelligent (can see where the holes are developing and make a quick and smart decision), agile, and have great acceleration to help power them through the first level.

One (potential) free agent possibility is Reggie Bush. Bush posted even better DYAR/carry than Forsett in 2009, and brings big play potential. Bush's status as a 3rd string back and his remaining $20+ million owed to him the next two years could make him a possible target for release in this unique financial offseason. Bush has great speed, good running instincts, good moves, good burst, unreal receiving skills for a RB, and has played (and excelled) in a zone system in both New Orleans and USC.

In the draft, I still have a lot of homework to do, but my early favorite is Joe McKnight. I'll give a McKnight a preview piece in about a week or so, but until then, here's something to look at (nsfw):

(full screen version here, if you prefer)

There are times, such as at 1:10 in that video, where McKnight's acceleration just explodes off the screen and I have to pick my jaw up off the floor. Dancing behind the line is the bane of a zone running back, but McKnight has kind of a nifty way of "cheating" by dancing in the backfield without losing speed. He'll turn towards a cutback lane for a split second, and then transition via a weaving motion towards the his initial option and turn on the burst. The flaw of highlight videos is we don't get to see when this tactic fails, but I have to say, it looks so devastating when it works that I can't imagine it backfires often. Another thing that is appealing to me is that McKnight's stock seems much lower than it should be, he's currently projected by Walter Football as a 2nd to 4th rounder. He also played for Carroll and Bates last year, in a zone scheme running game- which makes him easy to project and a "safe" pick. Even if drafted in the 2nd round, he'd be playing on a very affordable contract.

Anyway, there are certainly many RB options, Spiller in the 1st, to Best in the 2nd, to McKnight in the 3rd (hopefully 4th), and many great options beyond. And of course its those late round picks that could be potential home runs. Every offseason you can find great zone runners that are overlooked, just as Forsett was in 2008. If Gibbs and company can identify that late round difference maker, like perhaps McKnight's teammate Stefan Johnson, they could end up getting a 1st or 2nd round value out of a 6th or 7th round pick. And that's how team's "win" the draft.


Jon said...

Given the Gibbs track record of backfield personnel: smallish guy with good vision etc. and a bigger guy as the change of pace, does Toby Gerhart stack up as that physical back in contrast to a Justin Forsett?

Vince Mulcahy said...

I think that the contrasting rbs doesn't play to the strengths of the zbs. Someone like a Gerhart, Brandon Jacobs type of player isn't well suited because of their inability to change direction. You need multiple backs, but I would rather have two zbs rbs and for short yardage use our fullbacks.

Reggie bush would be an interesting placement but I don't see us going after him. You are still going to pay him more than his value and he has already stated that he values himself in the 8 mil per year range. Not worth it. He fades from games a lot, with little to no production. I would like to see what Gibbs can do with our 2nd or 4th (I don't believe Spiller is the best option) whether it is McKnight, Dwyer or someone else. No point in grabbing a first round rb with the track record of out coaching staff when we have a lack of playmakers at every other position on our team.

Anonymous said...


Its not true to say the ZBS can't use big backs. The key qualities in a ZBS RB are that they are decisive getting to the hole (they can only make one cut and may have to commit before the hole appears) and have the speed or the size to avoid arm tackles while getting through the first level. I wouldn't say that Gerhart or Jacobs are great fits for the scheme but you don't just have to play Forsett-type RBs.

Anonymous said...

From Texashawk,


Thanks for the the great highlight reel. I have watched highlights of many players and have to say I am most impressed with Mcknight and he is now my favorite back to get in the draft. I know spiller has the speed but he seemed to bounce outside too much and I worry about this translating to the next level.

What impressed me about Mcknight is his vision he seems to instictivly know when to switch directionand does so with quickness and decisiveness.

What are his measurables he seemed to be good sized as well? If we picked him up in the second round would that be a strech in your mind? Do you really believe that he will last until the Third?

CLanterman said...

Great write-up Kip, this series has been a great learning experience. I'm also really high on Joe McKnight, especially if he falls in the 4th round. Having watched him a lot this year, I felt like he is an elite back when he's on. Unfortunately, he's injury prone, but I think him splitting carries with Forsett would be a good look for the Hawks in 2010.
Our return game was woeful last year as well, and as such, I wouldn't mind getting a McCluster type to play KR/PR with a bit of RB and WR in there as well.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone considered LeGarrette Blount for the Hawks? He's obviously not a TR type prospect, given his severe character concerns. Is he someone the new regime could possibly take a look at? Obviously he's a later round prospect, given the risk associated with his character.

It seems like he could have a massive upside though, with good quickness and power. He'd compliment Forsett well as a power back. Looking at his highlights, he looks like the decisive 1-cut runner that's been discussed for ZBS. Decent risk/reward in late rounds?

Anonymous said...

McKnight looks like Reggie Bush minus some speed. They both have the shiftiness and acceleration, but they both run high and exposed. Both would rather jump into the endzone than lower their shoulder and take on would-be tacklers.

Kip Earlywine said...

As far as Gerhart et al, I'm trying to avoid giving an opinion because I haven't really seen much of them to go off of. Its true that in zone scheme you don't have to have a thunder and lightning duo- you could just have 3 good, similar backs and do very well. So I tend to agree with what Vince is saying, you want to make sure you stockpile RB who fit the system as best as possible, and if they happen to be big or fast, that's just a bonus.

That said, I would like the Seahawks to add a guy who has talent in short yardage. Maybe Toby Gerhart, Charles Scott, or Stefan Johnson, or someone else. A back doesn't need to be big to be a short yardage back, so I'd prefer a guy with as wide a skill base as possible that can still be solid in short-yardage. Even though I think TJ Duckett was good for us in 2008, I don't want another back who only gets used once or twice a game. Ideally, I'd like backfield where all 3 RBs split the load fairly evenly, so as to keep each one healthy and fresh.

I haven't formed an opinion of Blount yet, but from what I've read, he isn't especially suited for zone scheme. I don't consider Blount a character concern though. He lost his cool in a game once, not a big deal, IMO.

Vince Mulcahy said...

We didn't use Leonard Weaver to his full potential and I would hate to see Owen schmit or Justin Griffith's roster spots wasted because we don't want to use them in short yardage. Both are big burly guys that should be able to punch through a hole for a couple of yards.

And Kip I agree, two or three solid backs without the super star is fine with me. Plus your offense isn't reliant on one back and majorly hindered if he goes down.

Jon said...

Aside from me liking Gerhart I brought it up because Gibbs has a history of working in a larger back to change pace and or help in short yardage: TJ Duckett (in his young prime) with Warrick Dunn, Mike Anderson with ______ in Denver, Chris Brown with Steve Slaton in Houston.

Like it or not you have to look at the possibility and likelihood of Gibbs wanting a bigger due in the mix, especially since we already have Forsett. Dig?

Jon said...


Playstead said...

What a great write-up. Interesting that you picked out McKnight. We definately need to pick one if not two RBs this year. The cupboard is so bare.

Anonymous said...

Old Seattlite down in LA for years. Joe Mcknight is a Pete Carroll blind spot. Blessed with great talent, brittleness was less a problem then his propensity to fumble. Late-round flyer, sure. Before that, wasted pick.

Kip Earlywine said...

Thanks Playstead.

Thanks anon. I'd heard about the brittleness, but not the fumbles. If I do some real scouting on him later, I'll be sure to look for that. I'm not as big on durability as some others are. Injuries can sometimes be total flukes. Marcus Tubbs was totally healthy in college for example. Adrian Peterson was a walking injury machine. Plus, we saw how Tim Ruskell's "safe" drafting philosophy that avoided risk still resulted in a ridiculous number of injuries in '08 and '09.

If Seattle figures to splitting carries very well (150-200 carries max per back), that would mean less chance for injury to a RB and less impact if a RB is injured. But still, I can't say its not a concern. I'll have to look into it. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.