Zone blocking. Seattle fans have been exposed to more talk about zone blocking the last 4 years than is legally allowable, per the Geneva convention. Considering our next opponent, we're going to get to hear a lot more about it in the coming days. As for my take, I think we should all pitch in and buy Leroy Hill the best get well card we can find because he's going to be crucial to our defense next week.
Malcom Smith has shown a lot of potential, and flashes of brilliance. He has also shown a tendency to over-pursue, miss keys, and leave big holes for opposing running backs to find. All that pales to what I see as his biggest deficiency against this team -- mishandling blockers. I'm scared that it's going to get us killed against Washington's zone blocking techniques. If Malcom can't improve the angles he uses to take on linemen it is going to be long day in D.C.
I'm going to try to avoid explaining zone blocking in great depth. There are numerous resources on this site and others that do an excellent job, and I highly recommend all of them. I will beg your indulgence as I characterize zone blocking from a defensive perspective. The scheme embraces an offensive trade-off, a gap exchange if you will, conceding one gap to widen another. This can pay huge dividends when the offense can get an "inside-out" gap (i.e. a gap where both blocks have inside leverage). For the sake of clarity I will use the terms playside to mean "the direction in which the blockers take their first step" and backside to mean the opposite direction.
It is vital to understand that everything related to the ZBS is derived from combination blocks. These combinations, and the principles governing assignment, allow for strong assurances that expected assignment advantages become real assignments. For example, when a backside combination releases, the releasing blocker is always going to have a favorable position on his assignment, because his assignment is the next backside defender, and not the man expected to be the backside defender pre-snap. His job is to obtain playside leverage (e.g. on a run to the offense's left, the lineman should attack the defenders right shoulder and slow him from pursuing the play), and his job is made easier knowing he will always have a step or two advantage.
The playside combination (the two blockers closest to the side the play is being run) are going to do the same thing, but in reverse. When that blocker releases downfield, hid job is to let the play flow, and get backside position on the first defender to cross his face (to kickout toward the sideline). This is where the trade-off occurs. The gaps between each combination are not attacked in any way, in fact they are being squeezed out of existence by the double team. The result is that, by definition of the assignments, the offense has created a gap with inside-out leverage. Playside leverage on a backside defender, and backside leverage on the adjacent playside defender. This is the action that creates those oh-so-beautiful cutback lanes.
So you're a defense and you need an answer for this problem. Well, one answer is to
hack edit your player ratings and turn Brandon Mebane into Robo-Mebane with 99 block shedding, tackling, speed, strength, stamina and kick power (because honestly Hauschka could probably use a rest). Let the nose man both A gaps and give the playside B&C gaps to the 3-tech. Tell everyone else to come downhill into the remaining holes and hit things really hard. I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I wish we had Colin Cole right now. He was horrible at almost everything, but the dude knew how to hand fight, and boy could he shed blockers. If we had a 0-tech that we could trust to handle both A gaps and be able to disengage at the point of attack, life would be a lot easier for our linebackers.
Sadly we need a more realistic recipe to defeat the ZBS. One approach that I have seen be effective is using reactive gap assignments in the second level that key off the combo blocks. Reactive gaps are only one of a few ways to counter the gap tradeoff inherent to zone blocking. It probably isn't even the best approach but it is the one that I think is most suited to our defensive style.
Under a conventional approach, we would want our linebackers to be attacking the playside shoulder of the backside lineman in their gap. This causes trouble when the backside lineman already has a 3-yard head start, as he does coming off a combination. Reactive gaps attempt to counter this by shifting the gap assignment one gap to the backside, skipping (reacting to) every combination gap. Each linebacker will now be attacking the backside shoulder of whomever is coming downfield. This approach protects the linebackers from over-pursuit because they will no longer be assigned to flow over the playside combination to their gap, but will now scrape under any attempted backside leverage. This makes life much harder for less nimble linemen who will now have to change direction coming off the playside combination instead of merely slowing down.
This kind of scheme requires the linebacking corps to play with a hive mind. Every man has to read not only their assigned gap, but they need to read which combo block releases, adjust their gap approach accordingly, trusting the other two players to make the same read on the fly. If that trust isn't there, and reads get missed, the runner can just wait for the flow to clear and be 2:1 against the final stage of pursuit. Nothing any coordinator wants to see. This is my concern regarding Malcom. Can he make those reads? Can KJ and Bobby trust that he'll make these reads? If he does make those reads, does he attack the block with the proper shoulder?
Washington is going to stress this young group in a different way than anything they have yet faced. This is why I hope Leroy is back at full strength for this game. KJ, Bobby, and Leroy have shown far better chemistry this year and have shown an ability to adapt to offensive looks and still stay on the same page. If we can scheme that strength into our approach on Sunday it will make containing the ground attack of a very well coached ball club a far more manageable task. If we can't trust that cohesion in the linebacking corps then the game plan will be relying a lot more on athletic prowess and the indefatigable Robo Mebane in a road playoff game far more than I would prefer.
Get well soon Leroy! You get to earn that extra check this week.