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Tale of the Tape: Zone “Blocking”

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Comparing the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys offensive line on zone running plays.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been some talk lately about our lack of a running game (an 18 yard rushing game will tend to steer the conversation that direction) and particularly, the viability of our zone running attack.

I plan to dig into the Tennessee Titans game later in the week during the normal “tape” post, but in the meantime, I wanted to dig into our zone blocking attack and do some comparisons.

I think we’ll find once we look at the tape, that the Denver Broncos zone blocking scheme is just fine, but the execution is just severely lacking - to put it lightly.

Dallas vs. Denver

Since I think many of us here have forgotten what real zone blocking is supposed to look like, I want to show two ends of the spectrum of the exact same plays.

Dallas is widely regarded as the best offensive line in the league, and has the top ranked rushing attack. Also, the majority of their runs are zone runs. This may come as a surprise to some as Dallas has a reputation as a “power/smashmouth” team. Well, they are, just not in the schematic sense, but their zone blocking is definitely powerful and smashmouth.

So what we’ll look at today is the only common opponent Denver and Dallas had: the Cincinnati Bengals. Denver played Cincinnati in week 3 and rushed for 52 yards. Two weeks later, the Dallas Cowboys played Cincinnati and put up 180 yards rushing.

Stretch Zone - Denver

First play is the staple of any zone running scheme: the stretch or outside zone run. The line will all flow right with uncovered linemen moving up the second level. Typically, the backside end will be left unblocked, but Andy Janovich is actually going to block the end.

The key blocks are Michael Schofield (#79) and Max Garcia (#76) as they have to “reach” their linemen who essentially have a head start to the direction the play is headed based on their alignment.

Immediately, our guards begin to lose on those blocks. I would like to see Matt Paradis give more of a helping shove to the NT to slow him down enough for Garcia to secure him (remember this for Dallas’ play).

Schofield is going to be driven all the way back into the running back.

Here is what C.J. Anderson has to work with at the handoff. The blue line is the line of scrimmage.

Here’s a ground level view at handoff. Garcia is trying a new blocking technique of blocking with his butt, Schofield is getting absolutely overpowered, and Ty Sambrailo is blocking the wrong guy.

CJ ends up getting tripped up due to the severity of the cutback he had to attempt, with Schofield in his lap. The backside wasn’t very clean anyway due to Garcia’s poor blocking.

Stretch Zone - Dallas

Now let’s see what this same play looks like when Dallas attempts it.

Nearly the exact same variation of the stretch. Jason Witten is going to block the backside end, just like Janovich did.

The two key reach blocks on this play are LT, Tyron Smith (#77) and C, Travis Frederick (#72). These are equally as challenging as the ones Garcia and Schofield had to make.

Frederick immediately explodes out to get good position on the NT. We’ll check in on Tyron Smith in a second.

Notice how well the line moves in unison.

Here is the aerial shot at the handoff. Notice any difference?

Remember earlier what I mentioned about Paradis not helping Garcia out? Check out Ronald Leary (#65) helping his LT make a difficult block by extending his arms and pushing the DT on his way to make his own block.

Tyron Smith also waits until Leary is disengaged before he cuts the defender so as not to get a chop blocking call. This is a perfect example of chemistry and teamwork on the offensive line.

Look at all the room Alfred Morris has to run. It’s okay to shed a little tear at the sheer beauty. I did.

Morris is five yards downfield before he ever gets touched, and ends up getting 17.

Split Zone - Denver

Next play up is the zone split. Here is a graphic from Inside the Pylon drawing up the concept.

Instead of leaving the backside end unblocked, or blocking him with an inline player, the split zone has a player come across the formation to cut the backside end.

This time, we are in a 4 WR set and Cody Latimer will be assigned to come across and take out the end.

Now, running is all a numbers game. So let’s take a look at what they tell us. Right away you can tell that this play should probably go to the backside (right) since you have a 4 on 3 situation in favor of the Bengals on the playside (left).

The line and RB should recognize this and react accordingly.

Garcia is going to get blown up on this play and send the running back to cutback probably a little earlier than he would have wanted. Paradis will help with the DT and move up to the linebacker.

All Schofield has to do is use the NT’s momentum to send him further down the playside and seal him off from the running back since the play needs to go backside anyway due to head count.

Instead he tried a horrendous cut block attempt and is lucky he wasn’t called for a chop block since Paradis was very close to being engaged with the lineman.

Additionally, since he went head down and essentially took himself out of the play, he wasn’t able to seal the backside from that linebacker who is reading the cut back and closing down on it.

I’d like to say that this play was an anomaly for Garcia, but it’s the exact opposite. He is routinely driven back and whipped in the run game. He has been terrible holding up at the point of attack, and is too slow/not savvy enough to chase down the backside effectively.

I don’t care if Barry Sanders is back there. When he consistently sees this at the handoff, things aren’t going to go well.

Split Zone - Dallas

Now let’s see how Dallas fares on the exact same play.

They have their 2nd TE coming across the formation to block the backside end. The backside linebacker is actually going to follow Jason Witten out on a route so it clears up the box nicely.

Let’s, again, check the numbers. This run should also go backside since there is a 4 on 3 advantage to Cincinnati on the playside.

Now Dallas recognizes this. Zach Martin (#70) knows that all he has to do is get the DT moving sideways and the use his momentum against him while keeping himself in between the defender and the runner.

Frederick does this as well. They both essentially let their men up the field and through, and then just guide them along to where they want them.

Now check this out at hand off. We know the run is going to cut back, so all the linemen have to do is seal off the defenders from that backside alley.

From left to right: Tyron Smith is squarely between the defender and the play,

Leary is cutting off his man, Frederick has pushed his man far enough playside and at that angle, is in good position to cut him off from the runner.

Zach Martin has the hardest task because he is going up against one of the best DTs in the game in Geno Atkins, but he manages to seal him off and keep his momentum going against him and trusts his running back to do the rest.

RT, Doug Free has moved up to take out the linebacker and now Zeke has a wall of linemen creating a perfect seam for him to cut through.

Zeke does the rest and takes this one 60 yards to the house.

Bonus:

One other thing I noticed while breaking these plays down.

This is the split zone we ran above. This is a 4 WR set. Look at all the defenders crowded into the box.

Contrast that with...

The stretch zone from earlier, Dallas was in a 3 WR set. The Bengals countered with a nickel package and two high safeties, leaving an extremely light box for running.

I can’t remember the last time a team played two high safeties against us. This is how the passing game and running game compliment each other, and when neither work well, they affect each other.

Wrap Up

Well that’s all I got! I hope this has given you some insight into how effective the zone blocking scheme can be when executed properly, and also given some perspective as to why our running game has been so poor this year.