One drawback of consistency is that it makes us start to take for granted even the most extraordinary talents. I admit that I have reached a point where I'd just shrug whenever I see Marshawn Lynch break two tackles and turn a three-yard gain into eight yards, even though I know that that toughness and athleticism is unique as it is temporary. And each season Lynch goes "Beast Mode" on, each carry he takes comes with an ever-shrinking window of this pure physicality we were gifted for two mid-round picks. How many running backs do you see in the NFL that can do the same thing?
This is why I decided to take some time out of defining the Seahawks' defense to bring the spotlight back onto Lynch. Amidst the excitement factor of Percy Harvin, the limitless growth potential of Russell Wilson and the general possibilities of other offensive players and plays, lies the run game and the zone blocking scheme. The Seahawks offense bases itself on these two core ideas (running it, and throwing it over your head), and excels at them due in large part to Tom Cable and his selection/ coaching of the trenches (explained HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE) as well as Lynch's commitment to "read" the play.
For every successful ZBS running back in the league (namely Arian Foster, Alfred Morris) there are typically more who struggle (namely Darren McFadden, Cedric Benson, Chris Johnson, Shonn Greene) in the scheme. The list itself doesn't seem to discriminate against the players themselves and after all, some of the players who "struggled" put up similar (if not better) numbers than those who are "a success". But you must understand that whatever physical or athletic advantage a running back has, when they play in the ZBS they can only expose it after making the read; If you make the wrong read, you're not going anywhere on the play without a little bit of pure luck.
Fortunately, we've already seen what half a season of wrong reads will do to an offense, and more importantly, we've gotten a first-hand account on just how difficult it is for a players to adjust to this system. The ZBS goes against all traditional notions by asking running backs to be patient and to hit the correct (not the first) hole he sees, as well as asking him to anticipate the cutback based on what the defense will be doing, rather than specifically what is happening right now.
You can't just run downhill all the time - you have to be able to think about where your opponents and your blockers will be at the fifth step after the handoff, when you're still only about to take your second.
It's a lot to take in and handle, especially for players like Lynch, who was raised in a predominantly downhill, power blocking scheme throughout his entire career. So for him to match, and continue to outpace his early-career production, after only three to five months on the learning curve, is even more incredible.
Take a look at this 24-yard touchdown run against the Niners in December. Even though the Seahawks are running their Pistol formation for the first time, the blocking, the route, and the play design are still the same as it'd be in their 'normal' offense (ie, the only thing that changes is Lynch/Wilson's pre-snap positioning and the footwork for the handoff - which happens more quickly than normal):
But the interesting idea is that this play was technically a failure when it comes to planned execution. The offensive line did not secure their blocks well enough for Lynch to hit the correct hole, which meant that he was running right into traffic not designed/accommodated in the play, and they gave up more ground to defensive players than necessary. Yet he ends up with a touchdown. How did this happen?
For one thing, Lynch anticipates the "right" read (the one he will take to the bank) before he even gets the ball, and pauses in the backfield just enough to let the offensive line and defense decide where the running lane will be. In this particular play, there are three potential lanes Lynch can run through, by the design of the general ZBS itself: a secondary "open" lane to the strongside, a cutback lane to the weakside and finally, the play-designed running lane itself. The diagram for the first one as follows:
With the strongside open lane, you can clearly foresee the reasonably large gain Lynch can have. Anthony McCoy and Zach Miller can double team the DE out of the play purely by positioning alone, and Lynch can reach the second level if he follows Miller on his peel block towards the safety. Max Unger is taking on his man squarely, but doesn't seem to be getting beat, so let's count that towards our favor and imagine that he cuts off any interior pressure. So far, so good.
The only potential roadblock would be Paul McQuistan's initial block (outlined in red above), where he could be potentially pushing the DT towards the intended hole. So for everything to go accordingly, Russell Okung would have to beat his man with the outside shoulder (which negates any sort of pressure towards the hole that McQuistan would be pushing via the double team) and McQuistan would have his secondary peel block (outlined in blue above) on the LB coming down, leaving Lynch alone with open space and the safety from the right side if he bounces the route back again away from the DB on his left (not shown in the picture).
Now let's look at the cutback lane, which is usually a last resort for the ZBS - in the sense that, if there's nowhere else to run, this is where you go:
Now as you can see, the cutback lane is a bit more difficult, and not only because it's against the strength and the overall flow of the offensive line. For one thing, the outside DE must slow down or hesitate/freeze (by design with Wilson's rollout) for this play to be anything but a loss of yards (this is why you see Russell 'sell' his rollout HARD every.single.time).
For another, both J.R. Sweezy and Breno Giacomini must beat their man - whether via head-on blocking or taking their knees out - rather than just cutting them off from the intended running lane. Finally, hitting the cutback requires Lynch to shift directions very quickly, much earlier than necessary; if he does decide to run to the cutback lane, there is a certain time frame within the play that he has to commit to it, and he can't cut again to another bigger hole if things do open up (as you'll see later on).
You may notice that both lanes above require certain things to go Lynch's way for them to be completely open for a big gain. This is why Lynch's most important (and necessary) read on the line will always be the gap that the play is designed for:
Unlike both the cutback and the strongside open lane, almost all men within the box are taken care of, meaning Lynch will be one-on-one with the safety between himself and the end zone. Running right into the designed lane also benefits Lynch in that he doesn't need to change angles towards the point of attack. If you look carefully, Lynch's direction to Wilson's handoff is directly in line to where the play should be ruin, where if he was to bounce the play to the strongside or cutback to the weakside, he would need to waste time shifting gears. As the guru Alex Gibbs would emphasize, "The best cut is NO cut!", and in a perfectly executed ZBS play, the running is as downhill as it gets.
Now here's where things get interesting. If the play above was strictly under a power blocking scheme, Lynch would be racing to hit the strongside lane/hole as quickly as possible instead of where the play is designed to go. After all, most running backs are trained to go after the first sliver of daylight they see, and few coaches would criticize a player for the opening that Miller and Okung made within their first step and positioning.
Lynch, as a ZBS running back, must instead be patient and let the play continually develop until the optimal choice for the running lane is shown. ZBS frequently allows for a lot of ebb-and-flow movement on the offensive line, so there might be multiple running lanes and options for the back to choose within a given play as the defense overpenetrate or go too far along with the general flow of the OL. More often than not, a better lane would be developed within a few seconds and is the difference between a 6 yard gain and a 24 yard gain.
Upon Lynch's first step towards the handoff, this is how the three lanes look:
Both strongside options are viable. Miller still has the outside leverage on the DE. McQuistan has anchored his side of the hole by turning out (with his back perpendicular to the LOS) on the DT with Okung. Unger is struggling to reach the outside on the NT, as Giacomini is with his man, but since neither of them are letting their men beat them towards their left shoulders, both the strongside lane and the play-designed lane are all open so far.
The cutback lane shouldn't even be considered, as the unblocked DE can crash down as soon as Lynch runs towards his way, which is always a good sign - it usually means that the rest of the offensive line is doing well within their respective jobs.
This is how the three lanes look upon Lynch's second step. He's at the point where he's about to take the handoff:
By now, both Miller and McQuistan are comfortable enough to start peeling towards the safety and the linebacker respectively.
This, in turn, tells Lynch that they trust McCoy and Okung enough to kick their men out and beat them towards the strongside. Meanwhile, Unger is still struggling to gain leverage on the NT, but is withholding any interior pressure that might disrupt the play. Sweezy is charging towards the LB waiting to cut his knees out.
Giacomini's beginning to turn his outside shoulder perpendicular to the LOS as well, meaning that he might cut off the DT from backside pursuit after all. At this point, the strongside lane and the play-designed lane are still open, but the latter seems to be closing up faster and faster...
This is how the lane looks after Lynch's third step. He has the ball in his hands and should probably start making a decision as to where to run:
You may notice how the holes seem to be shifting with every step that Lynch takes; that's because the flow of the ZBS is designed to be read in concordance with the OL's movement.
As of right now, the cutback lane doesn't seem to be much of an option anymore because the NT's left shoulder (our right) is free towards the hole. This, however, suggests that Unger should be starting to beat his man with his outside leverage, and along with McQuistan coming down on the LB, means that the play-designed lane should be open in a matter of seconds. The secondary strongside lane is also free, as Miller continues his peel towards the safety, but again, the play-designed lane should always be the first choice if possible.
Four steps into his run, Lynch begins to accelerate towards the area between Okung and Unger:
Anticipating the blocks like always, its looks like Unger is beginning to turn his shoulders and again solidify the opening for the play-designed lane. McQuistan is full head on against the LB, and Sweezy is taking the other LB down with him. Things seem to be going well.
However, Lynch quickly notices that Okung is not doing very well after the transition from McQuistan's double team. From behind, it's unclear what direction he's taking his block against the DE to. And the backside is closing in with the unblocked DE and Giacomini's DT:
With Lynch's fifth step towards his running lane, things begin to unravel. The play-designed lane (in orange) that Lynch reads doesn't seem to be such a good option anymore:
So from this angle, Okung has lost all leverage from his play-side block and the DT has beaten him towards the hole. On the backside, Giacomini is being pushed down by the DT to the point where it seems like he's about the hit the turf, obviously not a very good sign. Sweezy is doing a good job though taking the LB out of the play, but whatever good he has done is nulled by the fact that Giacomini just got beat.
With both the cutback lane and the play-designed lane stuffed, Lynch must now shift gears and turn towards the secondary strongside line (earlier outlined in blue). He does this within his sixth step of the run - notice how he steps down with his right foot to bounce the play outside.
In seven steps, Lynch has successfully read the play based on his blocks. He has also foreseen (from his second and third steps of the run) that the secondary strongside lane will be open with Miller and McCoy's double team. WIth Okung letting the DT beat him on the right side, logic dictates that he should hold the outside leverage on him from the left. He doesn't have to worry about McQuistan pushing him the other way anymore - he's blocking the LB quite well. Combining this with the aforementioned blocks performed by the tight ends, then Lynch has finally found where he needs to go with the rock.
Something that Marshawn Lynch does very well is read his blocks in a ZBS, which is why despite having two of his key linemen fail at making their blocks he still manages to turn this run into a magnificent 24-yard trip to the end zone.
Of course, that's not the only thing that contributes to this touchdown - he's free to unleash the Beast after paving the way past the LOS, which is just another factoid on that I can delve on further. But I'm keen to guess you probably know how all that works already.