Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Can You Run the ZBS Some of the Time?

Brian Hook at Football Outsiders has a nice little explanation about what zone blocking actually is. It was a good little review I found, as I was stewing about the FOX announcer claiming that the overtime run by the Titans came off a zone blocking play.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Denver offensive line scheme, they use a technique known as "zone blocking". In a "man" or "drive" blocking scheme the lineman is responsible for an individual, and the play is designed for a running back to hit a particular gap. The zone blocking scheme, on the other hand, has a lineman blocking an area instead of a designated defensive player. If multiple linemen are blocking an area than one can break off and block into the second level.
I find that interesting, because I don't see that much of a difference between the concept of zone blocking and that of a simple "smash left" or "smash right" when it comes to the basic idea of the linemen all heading one direction and trying to take out the guy in front of them. About the only big difference is the proud claim that the lineman not actively blocking anyone is allowed to cut block (which I still believe should be banned from the league and perpetrators punished with having to act as Jermichael Finley's mentor).

So, when Daryl Johnston (I think) commented on the zone blocking opening up that hole, it kind of got me thinking. Is zone blocking really something you do once in a while, or is it something that you do all (or, at least, most of) the time? We keep having talks about teams, like Packers, which do "zone blocking" some of the time, and yet, none of them seem to have success like the Broncos did for so long.

Chris Johnson has been described as a "good fit" for the zone blocking scheme, mainly because he is strong and very, very fast (4.2 speed). But, you also see him have success when the Titans don't run a "zone block". Furthermore, LenDale White, a behemoth, is far from an ideal ZBS back.

From Hook:
One reason it has not been widely adopted is time: it takes time to teach, time to master, and time to get the smaller, more agile offensive linemen that the system requires. If you take zone blocking and try to implement it with 340 pound behemoths, you will probably fail, and for better or for worse, 340 pound behemoths are what you'll find on a typical offensive line in the NFL.
Which is why I don't like it when an announcer throws a comment out like "they did zone blocking on that play". To me, saying a team that runs a smash left or right and makes a play doesn't make it zone blocking. Even Hook states that it is a scheme that is built in and tends to be used the majority of the time, with players brought in to fit it.

It's kind of like saying that whenever the Packers line up with four- or five-wide, they must be running a "Run and Shoot Offense". We know that isn't the case...we just run some plays that resemble it. For the Packers to have a true Run and Shoot like the Oilers and Lions used to run in the 80's and 90's, we'd likely have short, fast receivers and a running back that would be able to run out of a single-back setting (like Barry Sanders). Our receivers would be assigned Choice Routes and Switch Routes, not curls and slants.

But the Packers don't have that. So, we don't call it a "Run and Shoot" when we run something that looks like it on a play or two a game.

I feel like the ZBS is much the same way, and it is clear that whatever the Titans are doing with their running game, it is far more successful that what the Packers are doing. But, I wouldn't classify them as a zone blocking team.

As Hook states, the Titans would have invested heavily in the smaller, quicker offensive linemen. Atlanta did this not too long ago, and after finding little success with their version of the ZBS, they abandoned it They had to reload much of their entire offensive line, which was limited in a traditional run scheme.

The Packers have invested heavily in those types of players, too. And, even though Ryan Grant has had more success in the past few weeks, his best runs do come off the zone blocking plays where he makes one cut and is able to run downhill. The designed pulls and stretches (not a part of a true ZBS) that the Packers try to run don't usually end well.

The point? Running what looks to be a zone blocking play doesn't make it a zone blocking scheme, any more than running what looks to be a run and shoot play makes it a Run and Shoot Offense. Just my humble opinion.

The Titans can attrubute their success in the running game to having the venerable "Thunder and Lightning" running back tandem...a fast Chris Johnson who can find seams and go upfield, partnered with a titanic landmass like LenDale White who can crash the power game.

If I were building a team and a choice between investing in a scheme or investing in talent, I think I'd choose talent.

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