Zone blocking finds its way to Oakland

By Mike Ash  |   Sunday, June 24, 2007  |  Comments( 38 )

Oakland Raiders
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The offensive line scheme known as "zone blocking" has been gradually spreading across the NFL -- like a virus, perhaps -- for the past few seasons. Although the system is most closely associated with Denver, where it was perfected by former Broncos line coach Alex Gibbs, it wasn't until Gibbs joined the Atlanta Falcons in 2004 that zone blocking began to catch on outside the Mile High City.

It was in Atlanta where line coach Jeff Jagodzinski learned the system, which he took with him when he became the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator last season. And it was with the Falcons where coordinator Greg Knapp and line coach Tom Cable, both now with the Raiders, picked it up.

The general principle behind zone blocking is for the O-line to get the defense flowing in one direction, and then to open a cutback lane for the running back. This is done by having the linemen on the back side of the play execute cut blocks on the defenders. If the front side of the play is bottled up, the running back can then make a cutback and go the other way, past the cut-down defensive linemen.

Although the Broncos have had considerable success with the system, it has been the subject of a fair amount of controversy because of the injuries to defensive players that have resulted from cut blocking. The blocks -- in which offensive linemen go after the legs of defenders -- are legal under NFL rules, but they are considered unfair and even dirty by many players and some coaches.

Knapp and Cable have, of course, brought the system with them to Oakland. And after a season of abysmal line play in 2006, many fans are hopeful that the new scheme will bring the Raiders' upfront blocking back to some level of respectability in 2007. Unfortunately, though, while the silver and black may see much-improved play on the line in time, it might be unfair to expect immediate results.

For one thing, it seems that the Raiders, for the most part, will start the same offensive linemen this year as last. Not only is the NFL landscape littered with bad examples of coaches hoping that a new scheme would get different results from the same, ineffective players, it's important to note that the Raiders' line wasn't formed with Gibbs' system in mind.

Of the projected starters on the Raiders' line, only Cooper Carlisle -- signed away from Denver as a free agent -- is listed at a weight under 300 pounds. Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme prefers smaller linemen, with Broncos center Tom Nalen, for example, listed at 6-foot-3 and 286 pounds. Oakland center Jake Grove is 6-4, 300. Center Jeremy Newberry is even bigger at 6-5, 315.

The Raiders will surely make changes to their line in the future, bringing in not only more talented players but ones who better fit their new scheme. But the Gibbs system also relies on timing between the linemen, so much so that it's actually been compared to a football version of synchronized swimming. This not only takes time to master, but each new addition the Raiders make to the line in the years to come will force them to get down their timing all over again. The fact that it's difficult to keep five starters on one team long enough for them to truly jell together as a unit is often cited as a major reason why more clubs around the league don't employ the Gibbs scheme.

Additionally, evidence that zone blocking takes a while to master can be seen in the two teams that installed the system last season. The Packers and the Houston Texans -- who began using the scheme when they hired head coach Gary Kubiak from the Broncos -- had mixed results in their efforts. The Packers improved on their 30th-ranked rushing attack from 2005, but they still finished in the bottom of the league. And the Texans actually dropped, going from 15th in rushing to 21st.

So while their new system may pay dividends for the Raiders in time, expecting quick improvements from last year's unit may not be fair to the players or to their new line coach. But it's undoubtedly a proven scheme, and once the linemen get a season or two of experience under their belt -- or Oakland can fill its line with the type of players the scheme is built for -- the Raiders' investment in the controversial system should start to pay off.

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