Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Zone Blocking Schemes Revisited

It was sitting and watching the formerly 4-12 Atlanta Falcons clobber our Green Bay Packers with the rushing game that got me thinking about some old discussions about the Zone Blocking Scheme that I used to have, and how that applies to us today.

The reason that the Falcons, in particular, made me think of the ZBS (because I had a ton of teams that have gashed us this year in the run game) was the fact that I did a bit of research on other teams that had implemented the scheme (other than the Broncos, of course). As it turns out, the Falcons HAD once decided to copy Denver and use the scheme, only to find that it wasn't working for them. So they scrapped it.

But the scrappage wasn't just calling a meeting and changing the scheme. They had drafted players that were "cut out for the ZBS". While the source link is outdated and dead, this is a blurb I copied a couple years ago, when the Falcons had decided to scrap the ZBS:
It looks like new Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino wants to get away from the zone-blocking scheme and is interested in populating the offensive line with maulers. Because of personnel and current contracts, nothing will change in 2007, but going forward, Petrino expects to transition to a line full of fat bodies:

"We want to change the body type of our linemen but we have to do that over time," Falcons president and general manager Rich McKay said. "You can't do that overnight unless you are willing to invest, truly, an inordinate amount of money in free agency and that, as a lot of teams have learned, comes with great risk."

As McKay points out, a big factor in making such a change is money. With salary-cap restrictions, this isn't a one-year process, and the recent long-term deals for center Todd McClure and right tackle Todd Weiner complicate things. The club will make changes at guard -- Matt Lehr was already released -- and there was interest in Floyd Womack and Edwin Mulitalo, both weighing in at 330-plus.

With running back Warrick Dunn entering the twilight of his career, there may not be a need for a zone-blocking scheme. Instead, expect a more smash-mouth approach. Interestingly, I'd guess a player like T.J. Duckett would excel in such an offense, but he's now a Detroit Lion. Of course, Duckett had such a chance last season in Washington and couldn't get off the bench. So who knows. Link

So, what is the Zone Blocking Scheme, and is it a part of our present problem?

The answer is yes, not because of just the scheme, but the talent we have to run it.

Pete Doughterty addressed this issue in a recent GBPG Chat, which rang true with words I've stated many times, from the first day the Packers announced they were going to implement the ZBS.
They've drafted guys to fit this system, so if those guys aren't performing well, then they just made mistakes evaluating talent. Clifton isn't a good run blocker, I don' t know if it matters what system they're playing, though maybe the cut blocks are especially tough for him because of his knees, I don't know.

There are people in the league who think you need more of a power run game to be a champion, and they'll argue that Denver won the SB with this scheme because it had a Hall of Fame-caliber halfback in Terrell Davis who would have been dominant in any scheme (not to say Davis will be in the HOF, his career was too short, but he was that good in '97 and '98) Others, like McCarthy, will argue that there's a lot of ways to run the ball, and the zone scheme will work. They'll point to ... the Broncos. I'm beginning to think you're right, that something about that scheme isn't working here. The problem is, overhauling the run game would be a major project, and doing it right - this is, not setting the team back -would be difficult. They couldn't do it during the season, it would have to start in the offseason, but even then it would be disruptive, and MM's first three seasons would go down the drain in that regard. Don't know if it's something MM would consider. He says no way, but if he were thinking about it he'd never say. Link
I didn't like the ZBS because, for one, it isn't wise in any business to copy what a competitor made successful and expect the same success. You are better off innovating and being the first on the block with the new product, as the Denver Broncos did twice in the 90s, not only innovating the small, quick defensive line that combatted the West Coast Offenses, but implementing a zone blocking scheme that was remarkably effective.

In a zone blocking scheme, fleet-footedness and athletic ability trump size as desirable qualities in offensive linemen. Coordination and technique matter more than muscle in implementing a successful scheme because defensive linemen are often double-teamed at the point of attack. Creating movement on the defensive line is more important that opening a specific hole in the defense.

But what the Packers did, as the Falcons did years ago, is they started drafting players who "fit the scheme", instead of the best athletes available. And today, this is coming back to haunt us.

The following are some comments I made back in 2007 on the topic of zone blocking:
Drafting players to fit a scheme is a very slippery slope to be treading on.

At this point, the only team that has shown any sustained success with the ZBS is Denver. Atlanta is trying to get rid of the scheme, and has now found themselves saddled with one-dimensional personnel that is going to take time to rebuild.

The more we keep drafting players based on how they fit a certain scheme, which so far has proven zilch, the bigger a hole we dig for ourselves if it ends up not working (as the Falcons have found out).

In essence, Ted Thompson is living and dying by the ZBS.
In regards to the idea that all teams use the ZBS to some degree:
But the ZBS, when run as Denver and the Packers do, is a very specific approach in which there are four running plays: left outside, left inside, right outside, and right inside.

I think that just because you happen to run a play in which the running back chooses one of those patterns, behind that style of blocking, doesn't make you a ZBS team. It's like saying that just because you run four WR's a couple times a game makes you a "Run and Shoot", or because you run a zone nickel on some passing downs that you are now a "Cover 2" defense.

The ZBS is designed to do that type of play all the time, not just a bullet in the arsenal.
In regards to the idea, then, that the ZBS is easy to defend because there are only four basic plays:
Recall in 2003 that Mike Flanagan used to walk up to the line of scrimmage, tell the defense what play they were running, and then smile and get ready to hike the ball.

THen, they would run the play and gain 6 yards on an Ahman run.

That's not only execution, that's having great athletes and talent working together and executing.

But, the Packers did decide to get away from it. Sweeps are NOT a part of a strict ZBS scheme....the idea of the scheme is for all the linemen to make one quick block in the same direction and the running back to make one quick decision, one quick cut, and make the play.

That is the inherent danger of drafting for a scheme, especially when it calls for measurables that are inconsistent with what is the norm. Like bringing in 5'9" receivers with 4.2 speed to play the run and shoot. Like bringing in a mobile quarterback with better legs than an arm for an option offense. Like bringing in light offensive linemen for a scheme.

If you abandon the scheme, those players better be able to play a more traditional offense, or they are useless, and in today's salary cap era, you can't afford to be saddled with players that are useless.
What kind of players are brought in, then? Colledge seems like a sizable specimen, perhaps comprable in his measurements to, say, Mike Wahle? Shouldn't equally sized guards be able to play at the same level?
There are many wide receivers who have graced the Packers roster with similar heights and weights to Sterling Sharpe, but none of them have made an impact. Like him or hate him, Sharpe was a football player, not a scheme player.

My biggest concern is that if we are targeting players to fit the scheme, every time we take one, we likely leave a more complete player out there for another team.

When teams like Houston and Detroit tried the Run and Shoot in the 80's and 90's, they drafted tiny guys who were fast. Remember Drew Hill and Ernest Givens? Both 5'9". And in the 1986 draft, the Oilers took Ernest Givens to fit their scheme. Not too long after in that draft, the 49ers took a more conventional receiver named John Taylor.

The Falcons, who were another ZBS copycat team, has now decided that they've had enough of it after 2-3 years of trying to implement it. link
Patty, a former NFL scout with the Houston Texans and fellow contributor to PackerChatters, chimed in on the topic:
It is not so much as size as it is skill sets. Look I can show you 2 players. They both stand 6-4 and weigh 310 but when you look at them you see a difference. One might be much wider and the other more stocky up high. They do not carry their weight the same and they do not play the same style of play.One player will have much better foot speed and the other more power.

When you look at OL you look at their skill sets. Whether they block straight on or they have lateral slide and shuffle blocking skills. Just because they are the same size does not mean they play the same. The Packers are locking themselves into certain skill sets of players that will make it difficult to do much more than what they were brought in for. I think this is what has LA concerned. I tend to agree. I look for an OL that has that slide potential and can shuffle down and out but also has enough power to handle the brunt bull blast of DL.

Mike Wahle is a great example used. He was so multi-layered in his skill sets that he could operate well in a zone blocking scheme but he also had great athleticism to play other schemes. As the Falcons discovered drafting players to fit a specific scheme can lead to some horrible situations.

As the person who used the Bear Bryant statement I say this: I want a team that builds their schemes around the talent on the team. I do not want to see waste created because a coach has a scheme in mind and refuses to acknowledge he has a different skill set players.

I also do not want to build a team with 1 dimensional type of players.
I added:
When I look at a lot of these scouting reports, I see more and more qualifiers being given to players who don't fit the prototype: for linebackers, you get this "would be good in a 3-4 scheme", because they don't have the skill set to play in a 4-3. This is for those tweeners who often couldn't make it as a DE or linebacker in a traditional defense.

I saw this in a lot of Barbre's write-ups, too, that he is limited and would be best suited for a ZBS. I have nothing against the kid and hope he does well, but if he's limited outside of the ZBS, well, then he's probably going to hope we stick with it. And if we're acquring linemen AND a backfield designed for the ZBS, well, hopefully, we're choosing the right corner to paint ourselves into.

I think there are cases where the WCO has made players successful, players who may not have been as successful in more traditional offenses. Certainly, there are quarterbacks that have benefitted greatly from being reined in by the quick timing and short passes that the WCO discipline demands.

But there are also many of those players that would be successful in ANY offense, and while I'm not about to knight Javon Walker, I would say that the kid came in with a heck of a skill set and was slowed more by his struggles to learn the offense early on.

Who knows?

My prediction, however, is that if the ZBS is successful, it will not be in the pure and exclusive incarnation run by Denver for so many years.

And that's a good thing: because we wouldn't be expecting the scheme to make us successful. We'd be taking the skills and talents that we have and maximizing them however we can, tweaking the scheme to fit our needs.

Which is why I'm for bringing in the best talents and skills, not the talent and skills that best suit a scheme.
So, now let's catch up to the present. The interior line that we've drafted (Colledge, Spitz, Moll, and Barbre) all had "a good fit for the zone blocking scheme" somewhere in their scouting reports or writeups.

Allen Barbre: "he fits into the athletic mold in which the Packers like their linemen in order to play in their zone-blocking scheme."

Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge: "It's no surprise that lightweight rookie second-rounder Daryn Colledge and third-rounder Jason Spitz are what the new coaching staff is looking for as they implement a zone blocking scheme"

Tony Moll: "The easy part for me was we ran the same kind of run scheme at Nevada," he said. "I came into minicamps already knowing all the rules and how to run-block."

But, the run game since 2006 has been AWOL, with the exception of the final seven games of the 2007 season. McCarthy has tinkered repeatedly with the scheme, trying to open up more sweeps and screens, but as we've seen, these plays don't execute well when your guards don't pull well.

With Favre gone, some of the weaknesses are more glaring. Pass protection has been an issue, somewhat hidden when you have an overhyped quarterback adept at avoiding pressure and making the line look good. And when you have a quarterback who commanded the respect of the defense, as Favre did through the entire first half of 2007 without a running game, it eventually opens up a running game for a good runner like Ryan Grant.

But, Aaron Rodgers has put up almost identical numbers to Favre in his first five games, and yet, a line and backfield that is almost completely unchanged from the end of last season has struggled. Linemen in the third and fourth years, expected to come into their own by this time, are regressing instead of maturing.

And, the cost to move this line to a more conventional blocking system may require a complete overhaul of the talent presently on the team. Interior linemen without the lateral movement skills required in a full rushing game plan (sweeps, screens, particularly in a WCO) and who struggle in pass protection means we may be starting over not only with the interior lines, but with the tackles, who both look like their best days may well be behind them.

So, is it the fault of the scheme? In some ways, yes...because it seems like we drafted players to fit the scheme, instead of designing our scheme around the assets of the best players available.

What happens if the scheme fails?

Even more daunting...what do you do with all the one-dimensional talent you drafted to fit that scheme.

Easy. Ask the Atlanta Falcons.

1 comment:

stick56 said...

Another excellent piece.

Keep it up !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!