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The Power and Zone Blocking Running Games and the Broncos

After reading two of BShrout's articles this week, I liked them both very much. The article on the running game was very interesting to me, and I thought I'd bring a little extra info to your attention. Most of it probably isn't new.

The points that were made on the comments were quite accurate. One of the things that came out was that it was very effective for Denver, under Mike Shanahan, to use the passing attack to get ahead, and use the running game to close out the game. This is taken directly from Bill Walsh, the inventor of the West Coast Offense. Although other coaches have used this same line over the years, he understood (and used that phrase in an interview I saw with him) the phrase "Pass to score, run to win". At the very least, he based much of his system on it. Lots of teams know this principle and use it - as in, all of them - in degree.

What Mike Shanahan would do was to score on the first drive in a high percentage of games. His ability to score in the first quarter of the game was almost unsurpassed. In the third quarter, you begin to see the dominating running game, which would use up a lot of clock time, and almost guarantee a win. Yes, they ran before that - they ran in every quarter. Mike was particularly good at that. It showed in our won-lost record.

This is why there is a strong argument between people who feel that a dominant running game is what will win the game for you, and those who recognize that a high number of yards gained by the running game will not guarantee that you'll win. Many people know that those higher running numbers can simply indicate that you were already winning the game. However, it's equally important to realize that you can have a dominating running game in both the first and second half. That's not as common anymore, but it is done.

The reason is, very simply, that the rules have been continually changed since 1978 to show a preference for the passing game over the running game.  This was done, as I'm sure you know, to increase scoring.  The NFL wanted to make its games more exciting and to draw more fans.  They felt that improving the passing game would be a faster way to accomplish this and so they began to make a long list of rule changes.  I'm sure this is history that you are already familiar with.

But the predominance of the passing attack does make it more confusing if you're going to have an argument about what a dominating running attack really does in the modern game..  I'd like to give a couple examples of what I think a dominating running attack has to achieve.

First, the attack has to be able to run up the middle.  This is particularly important against the 3-4 defense.  The weakness of this defense is found in the middle of the field. In a 4-3 defense, you are facing two of the largest players on the field.  That  (in theory) makes it twice as hard to run up the middle.  If you can get run up the middle against the 3-4 defense, you can break up this defense at its weakest point.

Obviously, the weakness of the 4-3 defense is that you can often run more to the edges.  There you have one less linebacker, and because the defensive end is usually lighter, in general you can gain more yards against the edges.  On the other hand, if you have a particularly good or large center and guard combination, you can also run up the middle on the 4-3 defense.  If your defense is going to be called dominating, you need to be able to run against both defenses.

The second thing that makes a running attack dominant is to be able to run against the defense when they know that you're going to run.  This was true, quite frequently, with Mike Shanahan its early teams.  In the second half if the opposing team was down by even three points, Mike Shanahan was going to run against them.  He would also throw the ball, to score an additional points, but you knew that he was going to run out the clock as much as you could possibly could.  That combination could be deadly.

In a similar vein, there are strengths and weaknesses to both the power and the zone blocking offenses.  Both require high quality linemen, but they are usually of slightly different somatypes.The zone blocking offense, although it has done very well in the past in Denver, generally uses smaller, lighter players.  The fact of the matter he is, they do wear out., later in games, and later in the season.

There are exceptions, of course, but this is a frequent problem.  I believe that you'll find that Josh McDaniels prefers the power running offense for the same reason that he prefers larger tougher players at every position.  It's in his basic philosophy as a coach.  He always says, tough, smart, physical players.  In his mind, tough and physical usually also means larger (or at least stronger, such as Doom).  I have to admit, in today's modern NFL, with the size and speed that we're seeing from our athletes, the power game has a lot going for it.

There are also disadvantages to the power game.  For one thing, you have a lot of teams who are all searching for the same kind of player.  That is going to be a problem with the 34 defense, moving into the future.  More and more teams are using it.  Therefore, there will be more and more competition for players who fit that mold.  That has been happening for years in the power running attack.  By the way, as more and more teams are using the zone blocking, at least part of the time, you are also seeing more competition for talented players who can switch back and forth between these two systems.  That is exactly what I see happening with the Denver Broncos.

Josh McDaniels has said many times that he wants to use both zone blocking and power blocking in his running attack.  He also noted that he wants to include what is called gap or regular blocking in which the guards are pulling on any given play.  In some cases, the tackle pulls either instead or in addition to the guard.  This requires players who are light on their feet, big, and very strong, but who are also athletic.  This combination of factors might remind you of Ryan Clady.  He is the prototype, the template for this type of player.

Now, imagine that you're facing five players who look like Ryan Clady.  Next, imagine that you played defense and part of you doesn't  even want to go on the field against the opposing line.  That would be about it.  Of course, that's not realistic:  Clady is a rare player.  However, the theory holds. You want big, strong, athletic and very very tough players on your O-line to play the system as Josh McDaniels sees it.

That leads us to the second problem with the power running attack.  Each player has to win his own battle, usually one on one, against a defensive player.  In the zone blocking scheme, often, two players will pull in a certain direction and double-team. a certain player, using the legal cut block.  It is less common and the power game, although it is done.  A single weak link in this chain can create disaster.  Generally, it is harder to make up for a single weak player in a one-on-one power scheme, although there are ways to do so.

Power Blocking versus Zone Blocking: The Jets/Chargers Game
When you look at the running game of New York and you see the way that they handled San Diego, you begin to understand why Josh McDaniels is looking for a power oriented offensive line.  A member asked on a recent thread what were the differences between the zone blocking running attack and the power running attack.  A couple of members were kind enough to respond, and  in addition I'd like to add just a couple of simple points that were brought out watching the San Diego game this weekend.

Both teams generally used power blocking for their running game, but that just gave me some good examples of the differences between the zone blocking and power blocking running attacks. I'd like to note that I saw guards (and even a tackle) pulling on some plays, so apparently both teams favor using 'gap' or 'regular' blocking as well. The Broncos do too, by the way. For those who wrote and asked, it's my belief that McD has an interest in mostly being a power blocking team, but you can pretty much count on seeing gap blocking on other plays and zone blocking on some of them. He has a natural affinity for using several systems as a way to look for an advantage over a given attack on a certain play and down/distance.

It didn't take long to find a good example of the power blocking system and how it differs from the zone blocking approach. On one of the first plays of San Diego's first drive, there was a pitch to LaDainian Tomlinson (who started behind the QB and slightly to the left) which he took, driving forward  towards the left side of the offensive line. The play was designed to go between the left guard and the left tackle, but both were occupied and had not been able to drive forward and clear that path. However, one reason that LDT is such a good player is that he has great vision. He saw the waiting scrum, and took the ball outside, swinging around the left end of the LOS. A WR had cleared the cornerback and a second cleared the WLB. it was good for 5 yards. What really happened with the blocking? Each player - former Pro Bowl Marcus McNeil and the left guard did a good job at trying to drive back their man, but the DL players drove them together, clogging the hole. LDT did a nice job of turning a probably disaster into an opportunity to have a nice little gain.

What would have happened in the case of a zone blocking play? Well, in the SD play, the O-line fired forward from their basic stance, drove forward, and attempted to create yardage by driving the DL backward. In a play later that quarter, San Diego fired out, moved the entire defensive line backwards and made a nice hole that a lot of men could get through, which takes nothing away from LDT. That really isn't what happens in a zone blocking scheme. It's the difference between driving forward and getting the DL moving - but moving in a direction that you want the play to go in.

On a good ZB play, the line also fires outward, but to a player on  one side or the other side (that's simplified, but sufficient to get the gist of it). If the play is going left, the center will usually (against a 4-3) fire against the NT, the larger tackle who you usually find on the right, (when facing the O line). Each of the O-lineman fire against a man to their left, they get them moving in that direction, and the DL who can best fight back often find himself receiving a cut block. This occurs when that great big lineman (For the ZB, we're 'only' talking 290, 300 lb, although Clady is about 325) drives into the outside of the thigh, an area called the IT or iliotibial band (it is a strap of tough tissue that runs down the outside of the thigh, from the hip down to the knee, a flat piece of what amounts to gristle that is supposed to protect the outside of the leg as well as holding certain things together. Properly hitting this, by the way, hurts like heck (police often use PR-24s or riot batons to hit here because it works so well. ). It hurts for a couple of days or more and it means that if you are the recipient of that kind of block multiple times in a single game, you just don't walk the same for a few days. You don't chase down a lot of RBs from behind afterward, either, and D linemen tend to just plain hate that block. It hurts like the dickens.

While this organized chaos is occurring, the running back in the system that Dennison, Turner and company were supposedly running will create what are called cut-back lanes. The running back has to do two things at once, and they are polar opposites. He has to wait until a lane develops (if he doesn't, everyone knows. He looks like he's trying to find his girlfriend in a crowd of other athletes). Or, he needs to make a single cut into or through a hole and to get quickly into the second level. It's not an easy skill to learn and a lot of running backs just aren't cut out for it. It's also true that you are usually cutting back 'against the grain' of the play.

But if it works, when it works, there are great lanes that go backward, 'against the grain'. It's the RB's job to find that crease, and to hit it at exactly the perfect moment since such holes open and close quickly; at times, almost immediately. Once in a great while you'll have one of those 'Continental Divide' kinds of holes the ones you could build a highway through. Those are often the ones after which we congratulate ourselves on how good our running back is, but they tend to start with the zone blocking line getting everyone moving in the same direction.

Which, when you think of it, is a pretty good metaphor for the game.

I'd like to note that all three teams being discussed here also use gap blocking in which a guard (and sometimes a tackle) leaves his position and hoofs it to the opposite side of the play, in an attempt to take out someone coming through the line. Done properly, it can loosen the teeth of a middle linebacker. McDaniels has commented on being fond of that approach.

There were a few other things about this game that would be worth keeping in the old notebook. All of my notebooks are electronic, at this point, but even so - this is info that McD already knows and that most fans ought to. The first is this: As stated, you attack a 3-4 defense by running at the middle of the formation. If you can win at the point of attack, you will probably win the ball game. Yes, other things can and will play in, at times, but let's be real - what's the correlation of controlling the running game (on both sides of the ball), getting higher ypc and driving the opposing DLs off the ball to winning? I'm not TJ, but if you put them together, it's pretty good odds that you will win the game.By the way, if you want to see how a lot of folks would like Hillis used (if he earns it), consider the performance that Shonn Green put on for the Jets.

I don't know if you're familiar with his story, but Shonn Greene is a kid who dropped out of football a couple of years ago. He had never been much of a player before that - or so it was thought. He got a job at a local furniture warehouse, right up the road from the college (Iowa). he spent a year there, loading furniture, moving armories and mattresses, couches and tables and he came back to college with a new attitude about with his life would be and an intensity at football so fierce that you wondered just where he'd been keeping it hidden. He dropped a bit in the draft, part on a little extra weight and part on his past and lack of consistency, but that didn't bother him when the Jets took him with the first pick of the third round, at pick 63. He's been learning the NFL game quickly and showed it on Sunday. His ferocity combined with the quality blocking of the Jets simply pushed the Chargers clean off the ball. It was a textbook example of how to shut down each phase of the 3-4 defense. You have to control the center of the defensive line. Without that, Greene, Knowshon Moreno or even Adrian Peterson would struggle.

To be clear, Greene would have been a terrible fit for the Broncos. His pass blocking was poor and it still isn't that good. He can't receive well enough to be on the Broncos offense. But he's a heck of a runner, and he showed that this past weekend. Many times, he player needs to system as much as the system needs to player. In New York, Shonn Greene has found his niche, to the dismay of the opposing teams. The issue of pass blocking wasn't much of a concern because the Jets ran the ball almost 60 percent of the time in the regular season. (which pretty much defines 'Dominating running attack'). They also use plenty of two-back looks and play action. That meant that Greene's weakness isn't as big a concern for them as it would be for a team that works out of the shotgun like the Broncos do. However - this was also a great way to protect and maximize performance for Mark Sanchez, and it would work well for Denver and Kyle Orton, too.

But let's not forget what really mattered by the end of the Jets/Chargers game. No matter how good you are, if you make enough mistakes and just plain give the ball (and some points, like three missed FGs and a timely unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for kicking a challenge flag by none other than Vincent Jackson) to the other team for a while, you don't tend to win the game.  That's what the Chargers have managed, and oddly enough it earned Norv Turner a long term contract extension.

In fairness, when you don't lose a game in November or December for 3 years as is true of Norv Turner and the Chargers, it's hard to sever ties, but this game came down to the problems of the Chargers in miniature. Turnovers, mistakes, penalties and missed field goals are a great prescription for defeat. It's sad, to be honest. I know, we're supposed to 'hate' the Chargers. I don't, for the simple reason that hate has always poisoned the one who gives in to it more than those it is meant for. Let's be clear, though - I don't love them, either. They're a major division rival and I'd love to beat them more often, but their fans have been let down more than Mick Jagger's hair. No wonder the AFC West is considered such a weak division - even the divisional winner isn't able to get anything done in the playoffs.

Nate Kaeding was/is a great kicker, but he has choked in a few playoff games now, and that will probably earn him a serious look-see in the new offseason, despite Norv Turner's assurances that he'll be back. Rivers was intercepted a couple of times and the Chargers added more troubles to their own list, including 10 penalties, four of them major. Does anyone recall when Buffalo was unstoppable in getting to the Super Bowl and hapless once there? It was so embarrassing that some of the fans moved away.

Apparently, a lot of them went to San Diego. They get a little less to suffer. Not much, but every little bit counts.  `Chargers fans have become the Cubs West, the Indians of the football world, the team that can't get it done. This year, they were getting healthy at the right time, earned a bye week and were playing their best football. They were at home against a wild card team and were beaten by none other than themselves. The Jet's barely had to be one the field, not to take anything away from a heck of a performance.

Let's hope that next year the Broncos can step up and take the division crown away. San Diego can't seem to make it over the hump. It's time for someone else to take a try. Developing the running game is one of the first things on the list that will lead to that.