The Seahawks' run game has really taken off in their last few games. The revived passing attack has helped things along by stretching defenses out vertically so that they can't put eight in the box on every down, but that's more of a contributing factor. Believe it or not, the main reason for the run game's newfound success is that the offensive line and running backs appear to have finally figured out how to work effectively in a zone blocking scheme.
And really, it's about damn time. For years now, Seahawks fans have been hearing about how zone blocking was going to revitalize the team's once-dominant run offense, with nothing in the way of results to back up those promises:
|Year||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs||Yards/Attempt|
|2008||1,768 (19th)||10 (25th)||4.2 (17th)|
|2009||1,566 (26th)||7 (28th)||4.0 (26th)|
|2010||1,424 (31st)||13 (17th)||3.7 (29th)|
To be fair, the blocking scheme taught by Mike Solari in ’08 and ’09 was a hybrid power/zone blocking system, and the development of the o-line in 2010 was hampered when Solari’s replacement Alex Gibbs retired just prior to the start of the regular season. But whatever the reason, as a fan it’s hard to accept excuses when your team keeps failing to earn out those tough yards on the ground. So when the 2011 run game under new OL coach Tom Cable started off looking suspiciously like the same anemic failure we all suffered through the previous three seasons, I think we had good reason to feel concerned.
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Thankfully, things began to click in the week three game against the Cardinals, and ever since then the run has become a legitimately effective weapon for the Seahawks. (I know the total rushing yards for the Falcons game is low, but that’s only because the Seahawks fell behind early and were forced to rely more on their passing game while they played catch-up.)
|Game||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs||Yards/Attempt|
|Week 1 - 49ers||64||0||2.9|
|Week 2 - Steelers||31||0||2.4|
|Week 3 - Cardinals||122||1||4.1|
|Week 4 - Falcons||53||1||3.5|
|Week 5 - Giants||145||1||5.0|
To me, the telling part of all this is in the average yards per attempt column. Remember, the goal for any offense is to average at least 3.4 yards per carry, because that’s the threshold for getting a first down on three carries1. As you can see, the Seahawks are now consistently measuring up after falling well short of that mark in their first two regular season games.
To show you just how much this team is improved, I want to walk you through two runs by Marshawn Lynch, the first being a 12 yard run against the 49ers in week one, and the second being the 45 yard run against the Giants in week five. On paper both plays look pretty successful, but as you’ll soon see not all long runs are created equal.
Before I get to that, let’s talk for a minute about what zone blocking actually is. First off, the sort of blocking we’re talking about is mainly for blocking on run plays. Pass blocking, with its engage-and-drop-back techniques and focus on maintaining the pocket over dominating the opposition, is an entirely different animal.
In a traditional man-blocking scheme, each blocker (i.e. the five offensive linemen plus any additional tight ends and/or running backs tasked with staying back in protection) is assigned to block a specific defensive player. Those assignments can be traded between blockers on the fly to deal with blitzes and stunts, but for the most part everyone just focuses on blocking their man2. By contrast, zone blocking in its simplest form calls for the o-line to turn and run to one side or the other, as though they were cars on a railroad track, and any defenders who try to move across that track are blocked and taken along for the ride. The farther the o-line is able to push the defense sideways, the more likely the run is going to be successful. (Just so you have a point of reference, by the time the running back crosses the line of scrimmage, the zone block should have pushed the defensive tackles past where the offensive tackle was lined up at the beginning of the play.)
In practice, of course, zone blocking involves much more than just running in a straight line. Double teams and cut blocks are used on a regular basis to neutralize defenders on the back end of the play, and, depending on the pre-snap positions of the linebackers and safeties lined up in the box, one or two of the o-linemen on the front side of the play may release into the second level and engage defenders there using man-blocking concepts. But all of those extra bells and whistles are designed into the system and used uniformly enough that assignments are rarely confused. In general, zone blocking is much less demanding than a man-blocking scheme. When it’s coached and run properly, zone blocking excels at maximizing the effectiveness of less-talented offensive linemen. As ZBS expert Alex Gibbs points out in this series of videos, Atlanta’s offensive line graded out as being one of the worst in the league while he was the Falcons' offensive line coach, but that didn't stop the team from using his zone blocking scheme to become the number one rushing offense in the NFL for three years in a row.
The other major strength of running a zone blocking scheme is that it minimizes the number of runs that result in no gain or a loss of yards. That’s because running backs in a zone blocking scheme are coached to be decisive. No dancing, no juking, just pick your hole, make one cut, and get upfield as quickly as possible for as much yardage as you can get out of the play. On any given run play, the running back is given a simple inside-to-outside or outside-to-inside read. For example, if the run is designed to go between the guard and tackle on the right side but the hole doesn’t materialize, the back then quickly bounces the run outside and turns the corner as quickly as possible. Likewise, if the run is designed to go outside but the back sees a gap open up on the inside, he then abandons the outside run, makes one cut, and hits that hole as quickly as possible. Think of it as a modern version of Vince Lombardi’s “Run to Daylight” system.
But enough of that, let’s move on to the plays. First up, the 12 yarder against the 49ers:
For this play, the Seahawks lined up in a modified single wing look, with three offensive tackles and a tight end to the left of the center and just a single guard and tight end to his right. As near as I can tell, the three tackles are supposed to run at an angle toward the right hash mark, clearing away everything in their path like a big ol’ snow plow. Meanwhile, the tight end and two wide receivers on the left do their best to wall off any defenders on that side of the play while #74 John Moffitt pulls and lead blocks for Lynch up the middle of the field.
At least, that's how I think this play was supposed to work. As you'll be seeing in a moment, there's a whole lot that happens in this one that doesn't go according to plan, which makes it difficult to tell for an absolute certainty what everyone's assignment was.
Here’s a look at the play pre-snap from the sideline . . .
. . . and from the end zone. (Miller was in motion just prior to the snap.)
Seconds after the snap, most of the play is going according to plan. I say “most of the play” because Breno Giacomini is struggling big-time trying to block his man, #94 Justin Smith. Granted, trying to move Smith anywhere is a difficult task no matter what the playcall is, but Giacomini’s failure to get any push at all nearly dooms the play from the start.
By the time Lynch and his lead blocker arrive on the scene, Smith has beaten Giacomini badly enough that Moffitt has to abandon his duties, at least temporarily, to bail out #68. Even with #53 Navarro Bowman lurking unblocked just behind Smith, the lane up the middle is more than wide enough for Lynch to shoot through for positive yardage, and if he can fend off Bowman with a stiffarm the run could still go for a long gain.
At least, that would have been a possibility if Moffitt, in his haste to block Smith, hadn’t filled the entire run lane with his big round butt. Now Lynch has a decision to make, and he needs to make it quickly: should he bounce the play outside to the left and take his chances in a one-on-one matchup with Bowman, or should he panic, reverse direction, and try to bounce the play around the right edge and straight into the arms of a half dozen defenders who up ‘til now have been safely blocked out of the play?
Please choose left, please choose left, please choose . . .
Thankfully, Lynch stopped running in that direction before it was too late, but because of his poor decision-making he’s now forced to reverse direction again and run back toward the left side, which is where he should have gone in the first place.
By the time Lynch finally gets there, things have broken down completely in the middle of the field. Giacomini has disappeared into the mass of bodies on the right hash mark, Moffitt has failed to block anyone at all, and Bowman has a clear shot at making a tackle for no gain. Lynch manages to break the tackle, then continues his refusal to get upfield by running laterally past his blockers on the left, thereby allowing the defenders there (who had all been walled off pretty effectively by Obomanu, Williams, and Miller) to make the tackle.
Really, between the poor blocking by Giacomini and Moffitt & Lynch’s panic-driven choices, it’s a wonder the Seahawks managed to gain any yards at all on the play.
Next up is the first quarter run against the Giants that went for a 45 yard gain:
No gimmicky formation this time, just a straightforward outside zone run to the right using “11” personnel. The routes run by the wide receivers, a drag route by Sidney Rice on the right side and a go-route/bubble screen combo by Obomanu and Tate on the left, are used purely as decoys to occupy the cornerbacks and safeties. To neutralize backside pursuit, Russell Okung and Anthony McCoy will use cut blocks on the middle linebacker and right defensive end, respectively.
Just like before, here’s a look at the play pre-snap from the sideline . . .
. . . and again from the endzone.
Now that is a thing of beauty. The o-line is moving in lockstep toward the left side of the defense, and although Moffitt appears to have some trouble moving the defensive tackle directly in front of him, Unger is already diagnosing the situation and preparing to help Moffitt move things along by slamming into the DT with a double-team block from the side.
About a second later, Lynch has two run lanes to choose between: an inside lane between the right guard and tackle, and a lane to the outside. The only unoccupied defender left near the line of scrimmage on the play side is #57 Jacquian Williams, who has to choose which of those two lanes he should plug. There should also be a cornerback available to fill the other lane, but Rice has taken him out of the play (more on him in a minute).
Williams chooses to fill the inside lane, but that gap ends up not being an option anyway when the left defensive end manages to slow Carpenter down just enough to pinch the run lane shut. Really, bouncing the run outside is a pretty easy read for Lynch, so it’s hard to give him too much credit for his decisiveness here. Then again, the read he botched in the other run play should have been a no-brainer, too. Regardless, the way Lynch quickly makes the right decision here instead of panicking and reversing field is a big improvement.
I also want to call attention here to Okung and McCoy’s cut blocks on the back side of the play. Okung drops his man, but McCoy ends up a little off-target, allowing #71 Dave Tollefson to avoid most of the block and stay on his feet. Even so, avoiding McCoy’s cut block slows Tollefson down just enough to keep him from having any chance of catching up to Lynch from behind. In short, a cut block doesn’t have to be terribly well executed to neutralize backside pursuit.
Finally, here you can see Lynch turning the corner with plenty of open space in front of him. Also pictured is #23 Corey Webster, who is so focused on not letting Sidney Rice get away from him that he still doesn’t realize that the play is a run and not a pass. That's right, Rice pulled the playside cornerback completely out of the play just by running his route -- no blocking required. Think of it as one of the many side benefits of having a receiver that defenses are forced to account for on every single play.
* * *
So there you have it -- actual, verifiable evidence that the ground game is actually improving. There are many more plays I could have analyzed here, but I decided to go with just these two because I think they do a good job of representing where the ground game was at the beginning of the year versus where it is now.
On another note, this is my first stab at working film stills into an article, so I’d appreciate any feedback you can give me on whether or not you find this approach useful or interesting. Is there anything you wish I had talked about more? Any problems with the pictures, descriptions, etc.? I'm working with MS Paint, the print screen key, and an old copy of Microsoft Picture It!, so there's a definite limit to what I can produce, but I'll do what I can.
1 3.4 x 3 = 10.2 yards, good for a first down. For comparison, 3.3 yards per attempt would net you just 9.9 yards on three consecutive carries, leaving you a few inches short of a first down.
2 In case you’re wondering, this is the type of blocking scheme the Seahawks ran for the first nine of Mike Holmgren’s ten years as head coach. The scheme was installed by OL coach Tom Lovat, who was also Holmgren’s OL coach in Green Bay. After Lovat retired following the 2003 season, his assistant Bill Laveroni took over the job. Laveroni was able to coast through ’04 and ’05 by just maintaining the o-line that Lovat built, but he proved much less effective when it came time to replace aging and/or departed starters in ’06 and ’07, which led to his being replaced by Solari in 2008.