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MHR University - Offensive Line "gap blocking", running terms, and other thoughts

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I've been out of the loop for a couple of weeks with some work related matters, and have returned to answer a few questions from my e-mail box. The questions I'm getting the most relate to our team's change in offensive line blocking.

It certainly looks like Denver will lose the identity it had as a zone blocking team. While I'll miss it (and the advantages that go with it), I also realize that there are advantages to gap blocking as well. (Gap blocking, as we'll see, is the standard form of blocking. It is sometimes erroneously referred to as "man" blocking).

In today's University piece, we'll look at several issues. We'll look at gap blocking, and how it differs with zone blocking. We'll also go into some other areas as well, such as my thoughts on recent coaching changes, as well as needs going into the next season.

More below the fold...

Change in Defensive Coordinator

First, I'll say that I'm sorry to see Nolan go. He's a terrific defensive coordinator. However, I'm very well pleased with the decision to elevate Martindale (aka "Wink") to the DC position. First, he seems to have the respect of the players. Like a few other coaches on the team, he has a background with an AFC West rival (in Wink's case, the Raiders). Most importantly, he gives continuity to a team that has faced turnover in the position every year for some five years (by coming up from within the organization).

Another thing I liked about the move was that it gave Brian Dawkins the forum to express something that (once again) typifies professional, elite players:

If that's where Josh feels like we need to go in order for us to take the next step, to be on the same page, then that's what I am willing to do. I told him and I'll tell you guys; I'm behind him so if he made that decision there's a reason why he made it. I trust him and I'm going to go out, and whoever he brings in as Defensive Coordinator, he's going to have Brian Dawkins on his side.

Dawkins is the voice of leadership, maturity, and professionalism amongst players in the NFL. If he backs this coach, that ought to be good enough for most folks.

Last, I like the move because it means we aren't going down the NE hand-me-down road. The Broncos had been considering DC Pees for the position. He has a solid record, and is respected for his work. While his health issues and age could be a concern (for a team needing continuity), I was more bothered by another issue. I respect Josh McDaniels, and continue to be in his corner, but I also feel he dodged a PR bullet by picking Martindale over Pees.

The Houston Texans have been the "hand-me-down" team of the Broncos for some time, and have never been able to compete in the AFC South against the always solid Colts and the sometimes solid TItans and Jags. A team can't compete or gain credibility (in my opinion) by not only imitating, but scavanging a particular team. While a young coach ought to emulate his elders and the program he came from, he loses points for creativity, indivdualism, and player development if he only copies his old team and takes assistents and players from that program.

So while I was a little concerned about the consideration given to Pees, I'm relieved that the "hand-me-down" debate was short circuited before it even got started.

However, I'm going to be up front about another coaching areas that concern me. Josh's brother has been brought in to coach the QB position. I don't know anything about Josh's brother, and I'll assume that he's a very solid QB's coach. However, it always bothers me when coaches elevate their own family members in coaching positions. (In fairness, Coach Mike Shanahan did the same thing, and many coaches do it). It isn't that the individual assistent doesn't deserve the position, but the appearance is often questionable. I imagine that there are also dynamics in-house that can complicate relationships between coaches, as well as coaches and players. I wish our new QB's coach the best, and support the move. (Josh comes direct from coaching at the HS level, though he did some work as a grad assistant for the Minn. program. He was also an outstanding QB for Kent State).

Needs Going Into Next Season

Perhaps the most obvious place to start is at OC and OG on offense. I have read arguments both ways on whether Kuper ought to stay with the team, but I think most folks will agree that we need at least one OG, as well as an OC to replace Wiegmann at Center. With the OL likely to switch to more of a gap scheme, we'll have to watch Clady and Harris for how well they adjust at the OT positions. But for now, Denver should pursue an OC and OG.

Next, we have to ask the hard question, "Is Orton our QB of the future, or is he holding the fort until we bring someone else in?" I like Orton. He is at once both a smart and careful QB. He may not win a lot of games for us, but he doesn't throw away games like some other QBs can. I expect him to be improved next year too. However, if Denver is within striking range of a top tier QB in this year's outstanding draft, do we pull the trigger? This seems like a tough call to me.

WR is going to be a concern. I am of the belief that Marshall must go. Marshall's change in behavior this season was due in part to his understanding that his value would drop if he continued to be-clown himself. Marshall has continued to assert that he doesn't want to be in Denver, and he has worn out his welcome with other players and staff. Some folks think that he should be forced to stay and play, but that argument doesn't carry much weight when measured against the history of similar situations in the NFL.

I think that Royal will pick up his game (with Marshall no longer being the "go to" target). I also think there are other good receivers still on the team (Gaffney, Llyod, Stokley, McKinley). But given concerns for age, as well as the obvious hole Marshall leaves behind, Denver should consider pursuing a decent WR with moderate draft compensation.

I think the team can continue at RB with the present roster. I also think the team can continue at TE. If Scheffler leaves the team, Denver won't suffer so much as one might think. Scheffler is an outstanding receiving TE, but with an emphasis on blocking TEs in Denver, Denver can rely on Graham and Quinn. The bigger consideration may be Graham's age, and the need to shop now instead of later.

On Defense, I think the team needs some work. Age is an issue at the corner and safety positions. The team needs to evaluate the back-up players acquired recently (such as McBath and Smith) to determine how big the need is. However, even if the team trusts the younger players to step up, Denver faces the loss of about four or five defensive backs in the next couple of years.

Assuming (as I do) that the 3-4 is here to stay, Denver still needs some work at both LB and DL. Ayers does well enough stopping the run at LOLB, but (as asdqqq recently wrote) he might be even better as a LE. It is a matter of taste though, and I think Ayers stays put (along with frequent on-field player Haggen). D.J. Williams continues to be a solid LB, and Davis fills the role of inside linebacker well. Obviously Dumervil is a pass rushing specialist at ROLB, but so long as he can tackle well, we can overlook his coverage abilities because he is so darned good at what he does. We have other options at LB currently too (such as Woodyard and special teams standout Reid). Still, if the best available player on the board is a LB, a change could be made.

My concern is the line. McBean, Fields, and Peterson are all good enough on paper, but the play towards the end of the season fell off. As with the LB position, I have no problem with taking a "best available" approach. If the best available is a NT or DE, bring him in and let the competition for this summer begin.

Here are my own priorities for the re-loading season.

1. Get Marshall out of here, and get whatever can be had in terms of compensation. We have a lot of good receivers on the roster, but a "decent" #1 or #2 receiver with a couple of mid round picks would be fair compensation. In the best scenario (though unlikely), we trade Marshall for another elite WR straight up.

2. Determine if Orton is our man for the next several years, or if we can do better. This is a tough call (remember the Plummer / Cutler issue, or the Cutler / Orton issue). If Orton is the man, fine. If not, target one of the QBs in the draft. At the very least, Denver needs to replace Simms, so a late QB pick is probable.

3. We need an OG and an OC pretty much right away. An additional OG late in the draft would also be good insurance.

4. In two to three years, we will face the turnover of several elite or (at least) very good defensive backs. Bailey, Dawkins, Hill, and Goodman (not to mention Law) are nearing either retirement or a down turn in performance. We have serviceable and young back-ups in place, but we don't have the talent or numbers to make the transition a smooth one. We need one or two DBs in the mid to high draft range every year for the next three years in my opinion.

5. Best Player Available would seem to solve the other problems nicely. The front seven in Denver's defense is good enough, but a game changer from the draft could shake up the roster and turn the defense into a powerhouse. A receiver or a blocking TE would solidify those two positions for years to come. Any draft gamble on OG, OC, WR, or DB would be worth the competition in camp.

Gap Blocking versus Zone Blocking

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"In a lighthearted moment, the Denver Broncos offensive line reenacts the famous 'mooning' scene from the movie Braveheart (Battle of Stirling Bridge). Jay Cutler plays the role of John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey. It was later rumored that this was Cutler's "last straw", and led to his contempt for his team." photo courtesy of

For a quick review of what Zone Blocking is really all about, read here.

"Gap blocking" is a rarely used term, but is the correct term for the standard blocking that we see from offensive lines in football. Some folks (including coaches and even myself) will use terms that aren't technically correct from time to time. "Power running" is a running scheme that can be used with either a gap or zone blocking OL. In some cases, "power run" refers to a particular type of running play. "Power blocking" is an often used term, but refers more to individual technique than to a holistic OL approach. Some folks may even use "man blocking", since they may assume this is the opposite of "zone" blocking.

Coaches that use the incorrect terms are likely to use "power" (rarely "man" if ever). This doesn't mean they don't know what they are talking about. In fact, I've read the term everywhere from a recent McDaniels press conference to multiple publications (including our own MHR and other major blogs and media outlets). While I may be a stickler for correct terminology, I give this term a pass (and not only because I've been guilty of it). Here's why:

In gap blocking, the runner may use any number of techniques to effect yardage. He may run "downhill", he may "power ahead", he may "one cut", he may sprint, dive, bounce, or any of a number of other approaches. However, "power running" is more likely to be used with gap blocking than with zone blocking. Power running is also the most common running technique. So amongst coaches and writers, it is understandable that the terms seem to go hand in hand. Most OLs use gap blocking, and most run plays use a "power run" approach (whether or not the play is an actual power run "play").

For the purposes of this article, and to prevent confusion, we'll use the term "gap block". I'll go ahead and define the different terms for both blocking and running to further simplify the concepts.

Zone Block- In the zone block (which we'll call "zb", not to be confused with "zone blitz") each OLman stays shoulder to shoulder and starts to move in the direction of a run play. (We'll discuss pass zone blocking a little later). They will either block an opposing player 1:1 or 2:1. On the 2 to 1 blocks one of the OLs will break off of the block to go to what is called "the second level". Here, a LB is blocked. That is the simple idea behind the zb. The runners lane may or may not be predetermined.

Gap Block- The standard run blocking scheme of most football teams. In short, each OLman targets an opposing player and moves him away from a runner's predetermined lane. Also, an OLman (or lead blocker) may target a gap and attempt to run through it to ensure a passable lane for the runner.

Power Run- When a runner has a predetermined lane (or on some sweep plays, a route) that he is dedicated to. He commits himself to the lane, does not "juke", and gains as many yards as possible.

Power Block- Instead of blocking the opposing away away from the play (by placing himself between the opposing player and the runner), the technique is used by an individual to force the opposing player backwards. If successful, the defensive player is off balance or knocked down (a "pancake").

Downhill Running - Often confused with "power running". While power running is type of overall approach to running, "downhill" running refers to the technique used by a runner (who is often "power running") where the runner keeps his legs moving even while being hit or tackled. Years of experience shows that a runner with powerful legs can ensure extra yardage by ignoring balance and just "plugging ahead" with his legs. This is hard to train because a runner's natural inclination is to stay upright. But if a runner keeps his legs moving, he is likely to gain more yardage than slowing down to maintain balance.

One Cut- This is also an unnatural way to run that must be trained (which is why few runners are one cutters). The technique requires patience and good field vision. In this technique, a runner rarely has a predetermined lane. He starts towards one edge of the field, sees a lane created, and turns back towards the center of the field to take this lane. After years of learning to hit a predetermined gap, most runners fail to adapt to this scheme. The technique takes advantage of opposing players being pushed against the grain, and "free" defensive players (those players not in contact with another player) who are heading in the (now) wrong direction.

Sprint - A running technique where the focus is to beat a defender to a predetermined area of the field. Speed is the emphasis. It is to be hoped that the players momentum will carry him through any attempts at tackles.

Dive - A running technique (and a play) where a runner aims for set yardage, regardless of down and distance. This may involve a literal "dive" by the player, but may not. This is often used for short down yardage, goal line plays, or plays to get near enough to first down to set up a pre-arranged short yardage play.

Bounce- A technique usually reserved to short but stocky players in closed space, the technique has the runner glance off of potential tacklers and even team mates in order to build acceleration for short yardage. Rare at the pro level. (These player types are sometimes referred to as "pinballs" or "bowling balls").

There are, of course, many more terms associated with running techniques, runner types, and offensive line blocking techniques. For our purposes though, we want to differentiate between "zone" blocking and "gap" blocking, which are by far the two most common blocking schemes in football (with zone blocking being a distant second in terms of usage).

There are advantages and disadvatages to both schemes. However, it is my opinionthat short yardage runs are NOT an advantage of one scheme over the other. Because we often hear "power" associated with gap blocking, we may tend to think that "power" running is more, well, "powerful". However, with the exception of dive plays, any running play has the goal of picking up as many yards as possible. Even a brute force power run up the gut will hopefully turn into a big play.

The quickest way to get yardage (in theory) is to go straight ahead, right? Right. However, if we take the straight line, euclidean approach to running the ball, doesn't it also follow that we want the back closest to the line to be the runner (as in - the FB)? Not necessarily.

How a team creates the gap is the difference between zone and gap blocking. Any type of running style or technique can be used with both blocking schemes. A team can still hit the gut in a predetermined lane with a power run or even a dive while running a zone block. But the difference in short yardage effectiveness (or lack of difference in my case) between the two schemes is debatable and only my opinion.

Here is what we DO know for certain. Denver has dropped their links to both zone blocking and one cut running with the ouster of the former OL coach and RB coach. Denver is almost certain to switch schemes to gap blocking. With that in mind, here are some things to watch for.

  • Denver may not have to place as much emphasis on run blocking WRs as before. While we will still follow the NE model (some run blocking by WRs is expected), the intensity for blocking WRs will lower somewhat.
  • Less emphasis on mobile QBs (since the bootleg will have less prominance).
  • Bigger OLmen. These are easier to find, but then again, we'll be competing with the rest of the League for these guys.
  • Less emphasis on one cut runners. I also expect that we will move more towards "power" type backs than speedy backs.
  • Our TEs will get away from the Scheffler and Sharpe types, and move more towards blocking.
  • The defense will benefit from practicing against the type of OLs they are most likely to see during a given season.


If there are any questions for me or any of our knowledgeable staff or members, this is a great place to leave them. No question is "dumb", as MHR is a safe haven for fans of the game both new and experienced. Fire away!