The NFL season is upon us. I’m a Packer fan, but one can hardly be in an area with a professional sports team without getting drawn into its orbit. The Washington Redskins have a new head coach, Mike Shanahan, who is trying to implement an interesting new approach with the offensive line: Zone blocking.
Offensive linemen, instead of taking on the man in front of them, head to an area and hit the defender who occupies it.
“It’s the difference between a guy lined up six inches off your head that you’re blocking,” said former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, now a commentator for ESPN, “and pulling and having a full running start at eight yards.”
The result is the beginning of what Shanahan wants: Fatiguing a defense. If, in a zone scheme, offensive linemen are getting out toward the edge, defenders must follow them there.
“It wears you down,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, whose Buffalo Bills at times battled Shanahan’s Broncos for supremacy in the AFC in the 1990s. “It’s a lot of pounding on the body, that zone blocking.”
So against the Cowboys, watch the initial first-quarter handoff to Portis, but dismiss how many yards it gains. Pay attention, instead, to how far the defenders have to run – and how many end up on the ground. Shanahan’s teams have long used a technique known as “cut blocking” in which offensive linemen take out players on the back side of a play – the side away from where the ball is headed.
Say, for instance, Portis’s initial run goes to the right. The Redskins’ offensive linemen on the left side will try to cut off defenders – legally – below the waist, essentially eliminating them from a play and allowing a running back, if he so chooses, to cut back in that direction with one firmly planted foot.
By design, if the zone blocking is carried out correctly on the front side of the play – drawing linebackers with the flow – and the cut block is executed on the back side, a giant running lane can open. The effect can be devastating – and not only on that play.
“As an offensive lineman, if I cut you and get you on the ground, I get to lie on the ground on my fat belly and watch the play,” Schlereth said. “You have to pop up and you have to chase. You’re going to spend a heck of a lot more energy. So in the fourth quarter, when it’s third down and 12 and we have to make a play in the passing game, the odds of you having a lot of pass-rushing energy is not very good.”
Since local newspapers mainly cover local teams, it’s sometimes hard to get a sense of how other teams are doing. This forum can help us remedy that situation. What are the prospects of your favorite team for this year? (What changes has it put in place? Who are the players to watch? Will this be a “rebuilding”–a.k.a. “losing”–year for your team, or do you expect great things?)