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

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.

Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

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

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  • boyfromoz

    Thx – great to have this quality analysis before the game – gives me something to watch for.

    I think its a tough scheduling break to get the ‘Skins first up – having to go back to Denver tape to figure out what they will do. Getting them 3 or so games in would have been much preferable.

    I guess the counter-argument is that the scheme is new to the players so they likely won’t be executing it that well in game 1, but I tend to think the ability to game plan more than outweighs the improvement in execution the Skins may get through the season.

    And its new schemes on both O and D – the Boys aren’t going to have anything to watch!

    • Squidlo97

      On the plus side its nice to get a weaker team like Washington to get a trial run before facing a tougher team like the Texans. Maybe we can improve our recogition and execution before facing the Texans.

      • Tjfoley

        Plus Jason Williams won’t be playing on running downs

        • Squidlo97

          LOL! Yeah that will also help.

      • StillHateTheGiants

        I think you are mistaken. Washington is not a weak team.

        • Squidlo97

          I don’t think they are a bad team but I think they are weaker than the Texans. They scare me because they play us tough but think they need some time to come together.

          • StillHateTheGiants

            It amazes me how this rivalry brings out the best in the weaker team.

          • Squidlo97

            Absolutely, I remember before camp started someone was already counting this as a win and was talking of blowing them out. I’m hoping we come with a W and good health. It’s usually a very physical game

  • Doomsday

    Wow. You just can’t get this anywhere else that I’ve found. Thanks, Raf.

  • Nortex

    I don’t see Portis or Johnson doing well in that system. JMHO

    • desus32

      Portis thrived in this system when he played under Shanahan in Denver. He was so good that he fetched Champ Bailey in a trade and no one really thought it was lopsided at the time (and considering the value of a top tier CB, that’s saying something). Now, you could argue that Portis has lost step and is no longer the back that he used to be but it’s been proven that this is the exact type of system that Portis thrives in. It’s actually the one that he made his name on.

    • Rafael Vela

      You sure. Portis played this system in Denver and was very good.

    • StillHateTheGiants

      This system made security guards all-pro’s. Portis will be very good in it.

  • Chmyers

    Love this kind of Xs and Ox talk mixed in amongst the news/speculation. Well done.

    • Teacher

      Agreed! And the photos really helped to illustrate your comments.

  • Erik

    Ridiculously awesome breakdown. In the Skins preseason I watched (I live in DC area, so I watched it live), their OL wasn’t nearly as nimble as Houston’s. Now, it was pre-season, so maybe they weren’t running their plays like Houston did, but the Jets, Ravens and Cards all had no trouble filling and penetrating gaps vs. the Skins OL. Neither Cooley or Davis are as good of a blocker as the TE iso’d in Raf’s breakdown, so Ware will ostensibly have an easier time shedding that block and perhaps avoiding the double-team.

  • Jarhead

    I think wade wants a shot at shanny’s offense and he’ll get it.

    Wade’s defenses start slow though. his first year, they couldnt tackle until week 3. last year, TB gashed them in week 1 and they made eli look like his older brother in week 2. i think wade simplified things after that and the defense responded well.
    here is hoping he doesnt get too cute in week 1. this one is going to take all 4 quarters. i might start off stacking the box.

    BTW, reference the other thread, brooking has 34 years of tread, not 37.

  • Glenn

    Then the Texans did use the bootleg and Schaub passed for an easy TD across the field. Portis did very well in Shanahan’s system, they just didn’t really get along!

    • Jarhead

      potis is a real knucklehead. i’ve laughed at the skins for year b/c he is the face of their franchise.

      i guess it is mcnabb now. they can have those two.

  • KDP

    Amazingly well done break down Raf– the only blogger who actually teaches the nuances of the game (well).

    • Oklahoma

      Quite right too. This is the thinking man’s Cowboys blog, attracting a higher calibre of reader than the garden variety. Like a certain spicy mustard for the discriminating palate. Like the Times of London during its Victorian heyday. Here it is not the number of hits by hordes of pre-teens, but the quality of thought expressed in the principal’s essays. Gentlemen, congratulations all around are in order.

  • Patrick L

    If memory serves, they did run a play action bootleg out of this formation (or one similar to it) and I remember rewinding it to show my buddy how badly Spencer was fooled by it. Spencer shot inside to take down the RB, and got somewhere behind the LG before he realized he blew his assignment. Schaub hit his WR for a big play.
    Great stuff Raf

    • StillHateTheGiants

      That ran that bootleg all the time in Denver. They will definitely run it Sunday.

      • 082288

        Do not be shocked if Washington scores the first time they have the ball. Shanahan was a wizard at scripting the first 15-20 plays and had a knack for getting points on his first offensive possession.

  • romoholic

    I am extremely worried about this game, Portis reunited with his old coach who made him a star worries me. After watching Arian Foster run all over our 1st team I am interested to see if Shanahan still has the magic to turn Portsi loose.