Systemic Problems Part II:
• by Ransom Hawthorne
“Systemic Problems” is a 3-Part Series.
Read “Systemic Problems- Part I: West Coast Offense” –> here.
In the NFL, there are two primary run blocking systems: the Zone Blocking System (ZBS) and the Power Blocking System (PBS). Chiefs predominantly run a Zone Blocking System. The central goal of zone blocking, is to create holes for the running back through lateral, rather than forward movement. In pass blocking, the ZBS teaches linemen to focus on their part of the field, rather than the man in front of them. This requires a great deal of communication and coordination. The ZBS was, at one time, the most revered blocking system in the NFL, and Alex Gibbs used it to propel the Charger’s running game to first in the NFL, but times change, and the ZBS is hurting the Chiefs ability to succeed.
Personnel: A zone blocking lineman has to be mobile. If you look at the players Chiefs have drafted early, on the OL, you’ll see that all of them are uniquely mobile for the position. This is not a bad thing, but it’s problematic, in that, more mobile OL tend to also be smaller. This means, that while the Chiefs can scheme up some creative runs, they are often vulnerable to strong DL and pass rushers, especially in pass protection. If you’re plan on running a ZBS, you’ve got to have this kind of player.
Practice: The ZBS is completely dependant on coordination between offensive linemen. If one guy is out of position, a gap gets filled or a defender runs free, either way, the play is DOA if not properly executed across the board. This coordination requires a great deal of practice. The pass protection fits can be even more complex than the run blocking. A ZBS that lacks coordination and experienced players will be especially vulnerable to stunts (defensive players rushing through abnormal gaps). This, not unlike the WCO, requires a long term commitment to acquiring and retaining experienced OL, since one injury, or weak link, on the OL can derail the entire thing. The fact that the Chiefs have acquired some truly bad OL since 2013 (Mike McGlynn, Paul Fanaika), is likely due to the fact that these players had experience in a ZBS. With modern NFL practice rules, there’s simply not enough time to get a backup OL up to speed in a ZBS in a single off-season.
Support: Every run scheme is supported by a passing scheme. The ZBS is supported by a diverse passing attack that spreads defenders across the field. By it’s nature, a ZBS can’t hold up against eight defenders in the box. The running back’s job is to run up to the OL and then follow along until the designed hole, or a different hole, opens up. This is why ZBS running backs are often referred to as one cut backs. Their job is to find the hole, make a cut, and then run through the secondary for extra yards. The problem is, with eight defenders, the D can simply watch for the gap to open up, and then hit the RB immediately as he goes through. A ZBS, when challenged by an 8-man box, needs to have a QB who can throw deep off of play action. Without a deep passing game, a ZBS will fail, because it’s not designed to overpower the defense, it’s designed to out-finesse them, something that’s harder to do, the more players you’re dealing with.
What Does This Mean For The Chiefs: In this era of limited practice time, to build a quality ZBS takes a major commitment in the draft and the salary cap. It’s not enough to draft good players, you have to develop them and keep them. It’s incredibly hard to build quality depth for the system, because backup OL have to play multiple positions. This means they often have relatively little experience starting at their spot. The Chiefs started the year with an incredible running game, but it was quickly derailed by both injury and the disappearance of the deep ball. Either of those things hurts the run game, both together, will completely destroy the ZBS, as we’ve clearly seen.
A good quality zone offensive lineman is an incredible athlete with a rare combination of strength and speed. Many OL in the system, however, are either strong or mobile. The ZBS often forces you to pick your poison. Go with a great run blocker who will struggle with stunts, or go with a great pass blocker who will struggle with run fits. Assembling a ZBS that is both good in the run game, and good in pass protection, is both time consuming and expensive. At it’s best, it’s unstoppable, but teams are rarely able to maintain such a line year in and year out.
Solution: A Combo Blocking System
The traditional Power Blocking System can struggle in pass protection, due to it’s simplicity, but it can offer much more level production in the run game. In the PBS, OL simply attack the blocker in front of them, and try to shove them straight back. This is very easy to teach and really only requires the OL to be strong, and quick out of his stance. A PBS will often employ a pulling LG, so you have to be more mobile at that position, but other OL are not required to be freakishly mobile, just adequate. The beauty of the PBS, is that the running back simply follows his blockers up field. If you have players who can win at the point of attack, you’re going to gain at least some yards almost every play. You may not rip off the same kind of chunk runs as the ZBS, but you should be able to maintain steady production and still gain a yard or two, even against stacked boxes.
In pass protection, the Chiefs should continue to run zone concepts. NFL pressure schemes are too complex for the traditional PBS. Since power blockers are only responsible for the guy in front of them, they can get caught off guard by stunts or twists. Zone blocking in pass protection doesn’t require you to be quite as mobile, just aware. It still requires communication and coordination, but, for pass blocking, there’s really no way around that.
If Chiefs can resurrect their deep ball game, they can resurrect their big time run game. In the interests of sustainability though, I think they should switch to Power Blocking in the run game. While the ceiling of the PBS is much lower, it’s floor is much higher. I also feel like power blocking tends to wear an opposing defense out more, over time. If Chiefs can make this switch, without diminishing their effectiveness in pass protection, which hasn’t been marvelous anyway, they should absolutely do it. For the future, for the fans, Go Chiefs.
Bonus Thought: If switching to a PBS in the run game means that we never again sign a Mike McGlynn or Jeff Linkenbach in free agency, that alone should be worth it right?
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