The zone-blocking scheme is under scrutiny in the Raider Nation.
The running attack made famous by the late 1990s Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos teams has been the cause of angst for many Oakland Raiders fans this season, and has put Oakland offensive coordinator Greg Knapp on the hot seat in fans’ minds.
However, after a disastrous first two games, the Raiders showed some signs that they are getting used to the scheme during a 34-31 upset win against Pittsburgh in Week 3. The centerpiece of the scheme, Darren McFadden, finally broke loose with a 64-yard touchdown run, and he finished with 113 yards rushing.
However, besides that one run, McFadden had 49 yards on 17 carries in the game. He has 103 yards on 43 carries on the season other than his big run.
McFadden excelled in the power attack Oakland used the past two seasons. He was in the zone-blocking system of Knapp (who was Oakland's offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008) in his rookie season and had his issues.
Can McFadden succeed in this scheme or are the Raiders going to just hope the speedster pops the occasional long run like he did against Pittsburgh? The Raiders are convinced McFadden and the rest of the offense will thrive in Knapp's system.
"It's fun to watch Darren run. We weren't as worried about the running game as everybody else was,” Oakland quarterback Carson Palmer said after the win against Pittsburgh.
Added Oakland coach Dennis Allen: "We have the right personnel to get it done."
Many people think McFadden is not the typical one-cut-and-go runner that best fits the zone-blocking scheme, and not all of the Raiders' offensive linemen are best suited for the zone-blocking scheme. But the Raiders did bring in guard Mike Brisiel from Houston, which is one of the best zone-blocking teams in the NFL and is where Knapp last coached. Guard Cooper Carlisle and tackle Willie Smith also have experience in the system.
Traditionally, zone-blocking offensive linemen are smaller and more athletic than more power-blocking lineman. Mike Shanahan's Broncos were probably the most famous zone-blocking running team, and Shanahan preferred smaller offensive linemen.
However, one of those former Denver offensive lineman, Mark Schreleth (now an ESPN analyst), doesn’t buy that certain players are not good fits for the zone-blocking schemes.
“I think the Raiders have the pieces for it,” Schreleth said. “People think you need a certain type of a guy for the zone-blocking scheme, but it’s not true. It can work as long as everyone in the offense, that’s all 11 guys, are tied together. That's the key, and it takes time.”
After the second game, Knapp preached patience. He said the team needed to grow into the system. Schreleth is behind Knapp.
“You have to have patience,” Schreleth said. “Every guy on the offense is part of it. It is complicated and it’s not something that just comes overnight. It takes great teamwork, but when it comes it is very effective, and I think Oakland can get there.”
The essence of the zone-blocking schemes is the running back quickly finding the hole and the rest of the offense working in concert to continue to develop the play. Most teams have the zone-blocking scheme as part of their running attack, and many use it as their primary attack.
When it runs correctly, it can wear down defenses. The Denver defense is preparing to face a zone-blocking team for the second straight week. The Broncos played Houston last week. The Texans had 152 yards on 34 carries. Denver linebacker Keith Brooking said defending the zone-blocking scheme is not for the antsy.
“You have to be patient,” Brooking said. “The gaps move quickly, so you have to be sound in your gap responsibility. You have to know where your leverage is, as far as where your help is in the run game, as far as if you’re bringing a safety down, if you’re not. So you really have to be in tune with that. I think more than anything it is just attacking. They want to kind of get you running sideways and then cut downhill, so you have to take the attack to them. First of all, setting the edge of the defense is key, because they’re really good at stretching the perimeter of your defense. You have to set the edge of your defense and then your inside guys have to stay in their gaps and come downhill and attack and get off blocks, because they do a great job of trying to sustain those blocks. The key is once you attack them, you get off of them and make the play.”
Schreleth believes Houston runs the scheme the best in the league right now. He calls the Texans’ running attack a “well-oiled machine.” Knapp was part of it last season, and the Raiders are fully committed to seeing it work now.
After the first two games, there was speculation about whether the Raiders would scrap the attack during the season. The Raiders have scoffed at that. Even though there might be continued growing pains, the Raiders are going to try to make this work. Matt Williamson of ESPN.com believes Oakland’s patience could pay off, partly because McFadden is so special.
“I have no worries that McFadden can and will adapt to the scheme,” Williamson said. “I do think their offensive line is still a work in progress, but overall, the linemen move well enough to pull it off. It just might take some time.”