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Zone Blocking Dissecting

   by Bryan Leonard - 10/15/2005

The Denver Broncos know how to rush the football. Fifth in the NFL in 2002, fourth in 2003, second in 2004 and currently ranked fourth. They do this despite an undersized offensive line, utilizing discipline and a zone-blocking scheme, as opposed to drafting stud offensive linemen such as Orlando Pace. They continue to have success despite replacing so many talented running backs through they years, such as Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, and Clinton Portis. So how do they do it?

The coaching staff uses a zone blocking scheme, one of only two NFL teams (Atlanta Falcons) to do this. The offensive linemen are taught to block so that three potential seams are created against the defense. Not necessarily opening three holes, but potential seams based on how and where they block. The second part of it is that the running backs are taught to take the handoff from the quarterback and head straight for the line of scrimmage. No pausing or delaying in the backfield is allowed trying to decide which seam to head toward. The running back has to get the football and head straight for the line deciding almost instantly which seam they are going to run to.

If everything fails, the running back, in theory, would still head right into the line and lean forward for one or two yards, as opposed to taking a delaying action which could result in no gain or a loss. If things go right, the back hits the line fast a split second before the defensive line and linebackers can react and a substantial gain is a possibility. It requires patience, discipline and hours of teaching.

It also works, and it’s surprising more teams don’t use it. The Falcons do and they led the NFL in rushing last season and currently lead the league with 190 rush yards per game. A lot of credit goes to QB Michael Vick, who is a unique running quarterback, but zone blocking is also a factor. The success of the zone blocking also helped the Broncos make a key trade a year ago, trading Portis for shut-down cornerback Champ Bailey. Bailey has improved the pass defense, while Denver’s running game hasn’t slipped. It was interesting that Denver faced the Redskins last Sunday, facing Portis for the first time since the trade. Portis got 103 yards on 20 carries, but Denver had 165 rushing yards, 5.9 yards per carry, and RB Tatum Bell topped Portis with 127 yards on 12 carries and 2 TDs.

It’s also interesting that the Falcons faced the Patriots Sunday, the same team Denver faces this week. Atlanta played without Vick and had 116 rushing yards, almost half its league-leading average, yet still gained 4.5 ypc. Of course, the Patriots also played without star defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who is expected back against Denver.

When the Pats played at Denver two years ago, Denver had 114 rush yards, just 3.9 yards per carry. The Pats also played without Seymour that game, who was out with an injury. Denver QB Jake Plummer didn’t play, either, and Danny Kanell started as New England won 30-26 with a TD pass with 30 seconds left. For what it’s worth, that was only the second win for New England in their last 14 games in Denver.

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