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The Seahawks & the Zone Blocking Scheme

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We spend a lot of time talking in generalities about the Alex Gibbs-then-Tom Cable zone-blocking scheme the Seahawks are implementing in Seattle -- the types of linemen the team likes, the types of running backs it takes, and just the basic concepts behind it -- but as with a lot of things in football, the system is fairly complex. We know it's a system that Gibbs and Mike Shanahan used in Denver in the late 90's and it helped them to win a couple of Super Bowls there. Since then, it's been passed down to proteges and copy-cats and elements of it are used in every single offensive blocking scheme.

However, only a few teams are really dedicated to it - the most obvious, apart from the Seahawks, being the Houston Texans and the Washington Redskins, where Shanahan and his former offensive coordinator with the Broncos when they won those two Super Bowls, Gary Kubiak, have successfully installed the system for their respective teams. The Texans are probably the current gold standard for the zone-blocking scheme -- in 2011, Houston ran for 2,448 yards (2nd in NFL behind only the run-first Broncos), on 4.4 yards per carry (7th), at 153 yards per game (2nd) - and featured two of the most effective running backs in the league in Arian Foster and the underrated Ben Tate (942 yards in 2011 with 5.4 yards per carry!).

I can tell you the basics of what the ZBS brings, the top level differences between a ZBS and other types of systems, and I know how to recognize it on a football field, sort of, but I always find it interesting to hear former players and coaches talk about the finer details or more nuanced philosophies behind it. Former NFL defensive lineman Seth Payne was on the Chalk Talk radio program with Doug Farrar and Rob Rang last weekend and his explanation really resonated with me and sort of clarified a lot of the things you hear the Seahawks preach about personnel and identity.

"The big element that [the Denver Broncos that won multiple Super Bowls in the 90's] had was the offensive line coach that was sort of the revolutionary behind this modern zone running offense [in Alex Gibbs]," started Payne. "And, I'm a huge proponent of that offense -- I don't know why more teams don't do it -- and for your listeners, when you run a real zone offense, you're talking about the offensive linemen stepping laterally at the snap, and running toward the sidelines, creating seams horizontally instead of trying to blow guys off the ball. Every offensive line uses some elements of zone-blocking, but teams like the Redskins and Texans do it predominantly. They have a very simple running game that is predicated on running toward the sideline."

Payne went on, "What that does for you is it stretches the field for you horizontally; in essence, you're almost moving the hashmarks as you do that. And, you're getting the secondary, the linebackers -- not only to commit to the run, but to commit to the run toward the sideline. So, when you do pass, you've really created a lot of nice open lanes."

Creating passing lanes is essential to the other basic tenet of the Seahawks' offense - the explosive downfield passing game. "We want to be a run-first team," Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell noted recently. "We added a second running back in the draft [Robert Turbin], so we still end up having that size, that big strong runner, once Marshawn Lynch comes out of the game. But, I think the important part of the passing game is that it needs to be explosive."

"That's what we want to do, it's what we want to be," Bevell explained. "It gives us opportunities to throw it, not just the little, you know, West-Coast Offense style where you're going five or six yards, we want to be able to get big chunks. If you're going to drive the length of the field, you're going to have to do that, and I think that's something that we're still working on."

Again, the Texans are the model of this philosophy - they finished sixth in the NFL in yards per attempt last season - and their downfield passing is set up by their heavy use of the outside zone run. So, if this offense works so well, why don't more teams use it? I've often wondered this myself, and Payne offered his theory.

"The downside is that it takes a lot of teamwork," he said. "I've always equated it to running a full-court press, in basketball. You have to have guys that are really tough-nosed, grinder type guys that can work together and have really good endurance. You end up with smaller offensive linemen, you get scrappy guys -- I hate that word, but it's true -- you get scrappy guys, receivers that can block downfield, and it's very effective."

The Seahawks don't subscribe to the 'undersized' linemen tenet of this system quite as much as some teams have in the past - they started to when Alex Gibbs coached for Seattle shortly to start the 2010 season, but moved away from it in 2011 with the hiring of Gibbs' protege, Tom Cable. But, under Cable, they still certainly value mobility in their personnel. "You need to have power, [and size]," Tom Cable recently said, "but you've got to have speed and quickness. It's not a fat-guy system, it's a big-guy system that can move and create violence."

The scrappy type of player Payne describes certainly holds true for the Cable ZBS though, and is evident in some of the Seahawks moves over the last few seasons -- Breno Giacomini, James Carpenter, J.R. Sweezy, Edawn Coughman, Rishaw Johnson, and Lemuel Jeanpierre, to name a few, all have 'that nasty' that you hear coaches talk about. Tom Cable noted that if he wanted to have one guy with him in a dark alley to back him up in a street fight, it'd be Breno. 'The Big Russian.' Giacomini was asked the same question too, recently, and he replied that he'd take 'Mel' with him to have his back.

Who is this 'Mel' that Breno mentions? 'Mel' is Lemuel Jeanpierre's on-field alter ego -- the non-married, not straight-laced, not nice version of himself -- Breno explained.

Interestingly enough though, Payne went on to talk about how the ZBS affects, is affected by, and is even predicated upon the play of a few other key positions.

Said Payne, "I think it's true that you don't have to have a truly, Peyton Manning-type precision quarterback to [run the system effectively]. If you've got a guy like Matt Schaub, who's a very intelligent quarterback, I was watching some games earlier today and I had forgotten how well he does throwing into the teeth of the blitz. He has a good sense for when blitzes are coming, and where to get rid of the ball when they come."

The ability to stare down the gun barrel, as you'll hear John Schneider (quoting Jaws) say.

[The offense is predicated on] the line and the running backs," Payne went on. "If you listen to some coaches that talk about coaching the system, all they talk about is -- you almost have to look at the running back as an extension of the offensive line. That running back, more so than in a conventional scheme, really has to understand what those offensive linemen are doing, and it's up to the running back, more so than in a conventional blocking offense, to really read, and understand where a center or guard are taking guys, because they'll just wash them upfield if they're beat."

You may remember that sometime around Week 9 in 2011, the Seahawks essentially decided that despite the results, they were finally going to commit fully to the run. On first down, on second down, on third down - whether they were losing or not, installing that run-first identity was the most important thing. At that time, as it was explained by Cable after the season, Marshawn Lynch apparently accepted a fundamental change in his running style as proposed by Tom Cable: "We made a deal - you have to do it the way I tell you to do it, I ask you to do it," Cable said. "And he's done it. So a lot of credit, to me, goes to him because he was willing to kind of maybe push his ego or push own beliefs, to some extent, aside and then embrace something new."

"Because," Cable went on, "this is a system that asks backs to do things a certain way. Once you get in and through the line of scrimmage, then do your thing. You can do all the craziness you want then. But you've got to do it this way from A to B. And he bought in from A to B. And after that, what you do from C on is you." Lynch began to improve on his runs from A to B - largely eliminating the dancing and fidgeting behind the line that had driven fans crazy early in the season and into last year. Then, predictably, has been a beast at point C, breaking tackles and consistently pushing the pile.

Payne noted too, predictably, that the quarterback has a lot to do with the success of a ZBS.

"So," he said, "once you sell it, with that running game, the quarterback better be really good at making his fakes, the quarterback better be ready to deal with a defensive end in his face on a boot, but it's much more of a team concept, It's a real team concept."

This is where a quarterback's ability to throw downfield comes in, but also where his ability to move comes in. It's why the Seahawks require athleticism and mobility in their quarterbacks, because at some point they're going to have to deal with a defensive end in their face on a naked bootleg. But it's more than just that -- leadership comes in, and this is another thing that you'll constantly hear Pete Carroll and John Schneider talking about in reference to their ideal quarterback.

"Let's all fit in. All 11 of us are going to make this offense work," Payne noted, on the mindset of a ZBS. "If you've got a quarterback that's got that mentality, - which Schaub has, sorry to bring it back to the Texans, he's known as a leader in the lockerroom, I think it's even more essential in a zone running offense that predicates itself on running the ball well, to have a quarterback that can be selfless and be a real leader."