Rubber Bands of Steel – Stopping Washington’s Zone Blocking Attack

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Mike Shanahan has brought his successful Denver offense to Washington and Redskins partisans expect a major improvement over Jim Zorn’s train wreck of an offense. Shanahan earned the reputation as a running game guru at Denver, turning late-round pick Terrell Davis into a star and later turning a list of no-name backs into effective running backs. Shanahan’s system was so effective he rarely spent a high pick on a back, reasoning he could find just about any back to make his ground game work.

What makes his zone blocking attack so effective and what challenges does it pose for Wade Phillips and his Cowboys defenders Sunday night? Some stills from the Texans pre-season game demonstrate the pressure Shanahan’s game presents to a front seven. (Houston runs the same schemes Washington does. Texans HC Gary Kubiak was Shanahan’s OC for over a decade in Denver.)

The first still comes from the 2nd quarter of the game. The Texans are in a 1st-and-10 situation on their own 38. Houston deploys in a strong or near-I left, an off-set I with the offset fullback on the same side as the tight end. Note that Houston’s tight end is flexed, meaning he’s lined up wider than normal outside the left tackle.

The flexing moves Cowboys OLB Demarcus Ware out in space, creating a natural crease between Ware and DE Igor Olshansky. This is the gap Houston will attack. They run a stretch play to their left, with the runner’s landmark outside LT Duane Brown. Success depends on the double-teams on Olshanky and on Ware.

Here’s a look just moments into the play. Notice how the Texans linemen fire off the ball. Their initial steps go wide left — they move in unison but want to get the Cowboys moving laterally, to probe for cutback lanes. Note also the battles for gap control. Look at the Cowboys placement in the first photo. Working from right-to-left, you can see Anthony Spencer has the C gap outside the Texans right tackle. LE Jason Hatcher is responsble for the B gap between the center and right guard. ILB Bradie James is cheating into the right A gap and though it’s not clear in photo one, you can see in image two that NT Jay Ratliff is fighting to get across the center’s face and seal the left A gap.

Olshanky started the play lined up in the B gap, between LT Brown and Houston’s RG. But he’s about to lose control of that here. Note the double-team block in play; Brown has jabbed his right arm into Olskansy’s armpit, all the while keeping his eye on the Cowboys WILB Jason Williams, who’s stacked immediately behind Olshanky. Brown’s jab stunts the DE’s lateral movement, allowing Houston’s LG to slide outside of Olshansky and hook the DE inside, as you see in image three.

Meanwhile, the fullback kicks out on Ware, who is locked up with the tight end. LT Brown, meanwhile, has let go of Olshansky and moved upfield to seal off Williams. A huge lane is forming for the back and he’ll gain nine yards before Ware breaks free from his double team to make the tackle.

From Dallas’ perspective, the play broke down when ILB Williams dithered in space. He’s responsible for the C gap outside Brown but as you can see scanning the sequence, Williams failed to recognize the play to his side and attack the gap. He’s four yards off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped and was still three yards off the ball when Brown engaged him. Had Williams attacked the line Brown would have had to leave Olshansky earlier, and this would have improved Igor’s chances of staying outside the guard and making a play. Williams also would have slowed the back’s cut upfield and given two pursuers, the NT Ratliff and the OLB Spencer, a chance to run the play down from the backside.

This sequence shows the pressure Washington’s quick, one-cut-and-go attack puts on a front. Shanahan’s scheme stretches your front laterally, like a rubber band, and if just one of your linemen or linebackers breaks discipline, if he over-pursues or allows himself to get hooked inside, the back will snap through the line at this point of weakness. The Cowboys front will have to be a band of steel Sunday night, stretching but maintaining its strength.

These base running plays, the inside zones, the intermediate zones and the stretch plays, present just one set of problems for the Cowboys outside linebackers and safeties. Take a close look at photo three. You’ll notice Texans QB Matt Schaub turning to carry out a bootleg action. On this play, Schaub handed the ball off. Had he kept it, Anthony Spencer would have been put badly out of position.

In the next piece, I’ll look at the options a successful zone running attack can create for Washington’s passing game.

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Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com