Sunday, October 23, 2011

A new look for the Redskins running game?

Something interesting is happening with the Redskins running game.

We all know that Mike and Kyle Shanahan are strong devotees of zone blocking and have worked to build the offensive line with the sort of athletic, though not necessarily overpowering, players that can excel in that system.

Pure zone blocking schemes have a pretty unique look, and part of the beauty of the system is that you see mostly the same runs (primarily inside zone and outside zone, well explained here) without all that much variation. That's why it really jumps off the screen when a supposedly pure zone team like the Redskins starts showing you characteristics of traditional power blocking.

But in the opening game, as the Redskins were trying to run out the clock to clinch a win against New York, the Redskins ran five consecutive plays that seemed to come out of a good old-fashioned power blocking playbook. The most conspicuous characteristic were repeated pull blocks from Chris Chester - the pulling guard just isn't really a characteristic of a zone run.

It happened again in St. Louis - some power runs were sprinkled throughout, and the final three plays before the Redskins went to victory formation were all power runs.

What puzzled me about this trend was that if the plays were considered effective, then they should be used more often. And if not, why use them at all?

I think the Eagles game solved that mystery. In the first half we got to see Chester pull a couple times, interspersed with the usual inside zone/outside zone fare. But in the third quarter, the zone runs disappeared for all but one play. The line was doing standard seal blocks, and blockers were trying to move guys off the point of attack and pulling guards were being sent through the holes. These power runs are excerpted below for your reading pleasure (due to time constraints I never got to review the fourth quarter).

The results were mixed, and yet I love this development on principle. The Shanahans have long been committed to the zone run system, so I'm sure it's not a permanent scheme change. But the fact is that teams with an athletic front seven and some good game planning can often blow up zone blocking. And you can usually see early in the game if the zone game will work. If it's struggling in the first quarter, that's not likely to change as the game goes on. So the Shanahans have taken the sensible precaution of having a backup plan in place. If it's clear a team knows how to beat the zone, the Redskins can switch gears and try a different approach. I am always in favor of coaches having enough flexibility to adjust their scheme based on what will work against a given opponent.

The Panthers are a weak run defense. Zone blocking usually dominates a weak front seven. I would expect that against Carolina and other poor defenses we should see mostly the zone runs, as zone blocking often lets even a mediocre line dominate weak competition. Against tougher competition that has been getting penetration and blowing up the zone, the Shanahans will will seal an end and send a guard pulling around the edge and see if they can't create a hole and then let Torain, Hightower, or Helu break some tackles.

I will admit I have a totally selfish reason for welcoming this development. Zone running is often successful football, but it is boring both to watch and to describe for you guys. In the zone you're not really trying to blow a guy off the line, but to control him enough so that the back has multiple cutback lanes. That's fine, but it doesn't give me much to talk about in the game reviews. With good old-fashioned power blocking, however, there are a number of discrete acts designed to create on particular hole. Collisions happen, and either the blocker or the defender wins each. There's a lot for even an amateur like myself to analyze and describe.

As promised, here's some power running highlights from the 3rd quarter:

1-10-PHI 15 (14:09) R.Torain left tackle to PHI 9 for 6 yards (B.Rolle).

Well, the run game is certainly evolving. Darrel Young is offset to the left, he rushes up and takes on the RDE, which allows Paulsen and Locklear to get straight to the second level and take out the MLB and WLB. Chris Chester then pulls again and puts a hat on the SLB.

2-4-PHI 9 (13:28) R.Torain left tackle to PHI 8 for 1 yard (M.Patterson).

Still more traditional blocking concepts. This is getting really interesting.  Locklear kicks out the RDE while Montgomery and Cook get push the RDT off the line and set up second level blocks, but Jammal Brown is unable to prevent the backside penetration from the LDT. 
2-10-WAS 32 (10:32) (Shotgun) R.Torain right tackle to WAS 35 for 3 yards (B.Rolle, D.Landri).

OK, are the Redskins even a zone running team any more? Very curious what is going on here. Brown seals the RDT inside, Davis kicks out the LDE, and Montgomery pulls through the hole. But the hole collapses after only a modest gain because neither Mongtomery nor Davis hold there blocks any more.
1-10-PHI 18 (7:15) R.Torain up the middle to PHI 20 for -2 yards (D.Tapp).

Even when it doesn’t work, the new approach to the running game is at least interesting to watch.  Paulsen and Mongtomery turn the RDE and RDT to the outside, while Chester jumps outside and tries to seal out the LDE. Meanwhile Young, offset to the left, crosses the backfield to take out the LDT who is initially unblocked because he is initially unblocked to let Cook and Brown, along with Locklear, go straight to the second level. Unfortunately Locklear never locks onto his LB and Montgomery can’t keep his man to the outside, so the hole collapses on Torain.

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