From the Far Hash: Eddie Lacy and the Zone Blocking Scheme Running Game
I’ve received some requests to write about the zone blocking scheme (ZBS) the Packers use in the running game. I’m the first to admit that the ZBS is my biggest enigma when watching the Packers play. I’ve decided to take a stab at writing about the ZBS, but I thought I would try to explain individual roles in the ZBS running game. So, rather than throwing the ZBS playbook at you all at once, I thought I’d split up the breakdown while showcasing a few of our favorite Packers.
Up first: Eddie Lacy (See this article by fellow PocketDoppler writer Stephen from the other day as a complementary piece). While I was licking the wet nap this summer for a football buzz, I re-watched some of the Alabama games I still have on my DVR. Yes, I have games on my DVR. All the cool kids do. After critically analyzing some games, I have really good understanding of how Alabama used Eddie Lacy. I expect the Packers to use similar strategies while they break him in.Leading up to the draft, much has been written about Eddie’s toe, the embattled Packers offensive line, and Mike McCarthy’s oft-maligned ZBS. These talking points were all symptoms of the same underlying sickness: the Packers need to improve their running game, while having lower draft choices than most teams, if they hope to make another title run while keeping Aaron Rodgers away from the meat wagon. If they weren’t going to trade up in the draft (they just missed out on fellow Alabama running back Mark Ingram two years ago) or sign a free agent (hello, Steven Jackson), then they’d have to take a chance on a player that slipped down other draft boards. Lacy did slip into the late second round.
When the Packers drafted Eddie Lacy in the second round, it immediately made sense to me. I had seen him run through SEC defenses for a few years while glued to the television (I am an Alabama alum and rarely miss watching their games). Yes, I’m a homer and I’m stoked to see Eddie wearing a green #27 jersey. However, when objectively considering the Packers ZBS, drafting Eddie Lacy was a good gamble by Uncle Teddy.
When NFL teams look to acquire new players, they have two options. First, they can find the players that fit the scheme the coaches already have in place. Or, second, they can find the best available talent and adjust their scheme to take advantage of the player’s abilities. It’s already established that Mike McCarthy is committed to the ZBS (although I have seen some man-to-man blocking in recent years). At Alabama, Eddie Lacy ran through several ZBS formations. He was excellent at it. Because of this, Eddie is a natural fit for the Packers run category. However, I expect to see the Packers put in some staple Alabama run plays to make Eddie Lacy feel right at home. If that is the case, this use of Eddie combines both philosophies of integrating new players into the team. I expect this will result in immediate success, and Eddie should be a strong candidate for some team offensive rookie awards, if not NFL rookie awards.
So, what exactly is a ZBS? Before we answer that, let’s discuss briefly what its counterpart, the man-to-man blocking scheme, is. In man blocking, each offensive blocker is assigned a specific defender to block with the intention of opening a specific hole for the ball carrier to run through. The blocker tries to push the defender out of the play and away from the ball carrier. The further they can push the defender out of the play, the better. You may hear these linemen called “bulldozers” or “road graders” and holes so large you “could drive a truck through them.” Good running backs are always needed, but a great man-to-man offensive line can make average running backs look great. Are you sick of commentators saying, “Even I could have run through that hole”?
On the other hand, the ZBS is different. ZBS linemen often move together in a slanting direction to one side with the goal of moving the defensive line. The ZBS values opening lanes in the defense more than creating a specific hole. Under this philosophy, each lineman attempts to block to a man in a space, essentially trying to get his body in between the sideline and the defender. Many times, two offensive linemen double team the defender at the point of attack. After the blocker has engaged the defender, the defender is often also moving with the direction of the play, so a successful block is more of a screen than a bulldozer. Once a block has been made, the blocker is free to engage a new defender that has entered his space or intended path. You may hear television commentators refer to this as “blocking up at the next level.” Since the run blockers are screening their defenders, the running back often runs in parallel with the moving offensive line and looks for the first available crease. You may also hear successful ZBS running backs referred to as “one cut” backs; they see the first lane, cut into it, and run to daylight. In contrast to man-to-man blocking schemes, it’s even more important that ZBS teams have outstanding backs; their deficiencies are more noticeable when running a ZBS. If they lack vision and a quick first step, they will have a hard time gaining yards.
Ok, so now that we know some of the basics of the zone blocking scheme, let’s look at a staple of Alabama’s run game with Eddie Lacy. I realize that Eddie has not even taken his first NFL snap yet, so saying that the Packers will run this style of play is pure speculation. But, I expect to see a specific personnel grouping and formation as a staple of the Eddie Lacy run package.
Alabama, just like the Packers, likes to run a two tight end, two wide receiver, and one running back personnel. This is called the “Ace” personnel and is suitable for both running and passing the ball. However, Alabama usually had both tight ends on the same side of the formation (Figure 1). The tight end on the line of scrimmage is the traditional tight end, but the other tight end plays off the line of scrimmage, technically making him a back. Therefore, he’s called the H-back. Alabama predictably reverts to this formation when trying to run out the clock en route to a victory.
Based on watching 2011 and 2012 games, especially both national championship games still on my DVR, I found that Eddie’s running game was predicated on the “outside-in” concept. Against Notre Dame, Eddie showcased his outside-in philosophy. Zach Kruse over at CheeseheadTV charted Eddie’s carries during that game. Accordingly, Eddie ran outside 12 times for 80 yards and inside 8 times for 60 yards; he had a total of 140 yards in his MVP performance.
That meant he utilized the outside zone running game to set up his inside zone running game. Once he established success running outside, the defense began to over-pursue in anticipation of trying to stop future outside zone runs. Then, once the defense began to over-pursue, the offense switched to the inside zone play calls. Other writers and scouting reports claim that the inside zone is Alabama’s main play, but I saw Eddie Lacy run more outside runs than he did inside runs. It could simply be that outside runs were the individual play calls for the Eddie Lacy game plan. I believe this is the case because Trent Richardson, who was Alabama’s starter during 2011, was clearly their inside runner. Whatever the situation, my eyes told me Eddie’s play calls were primarily outside runs. So, that’s what I’m expecting him to bring to the table in Green Bay. But, he’s equally able to execute both inside and outside runs.
In the outside zone scheme, the offensive line aggressively slides as a unit to the play side. Remember, they are trying to get in between the defender and the sideline to form a lane for the running back to run through. The backside guard does not slide at the same angle as the other linemen; rather, he takes a more recessed step, essentially pulling as a backside guard. He doesn’t pull deep, as to not interfere with the quarterback. The backside guard pulls to clean up any “junk” and to seal the play side edge for the outside run. He can also lead the running back through a designated lane. Defensive linemen are trained to follow pulling guards, and they’ll do it almost subconsciously. So, when the defender follows the pulling guard, the back side tackle is free to cut him down (remember all the chop block nonsense?). The H-back seals play side, helping form the lane the running back takes outside the tight end. A perfectly executed outside zone should run outside of the tight end, but the running back is free to cut it back inside if a more inside lane is formed. See Figure 2 below. The figure below is a simplification of the blocking. ZBS teams often use double team blocks on the play side. I’ll talk more about the play side double team blocking, and line blocking in general, in a future article.
After the offense has established the outside zone, the defense catches on and begins to over-pursue to the edge trying to cut down the running back before he clears the outside of the tight end. Click here to see (redirects to SBNation) Eddie run an outside zone against Notre Dame. Notice that he was still able to gain yards, with his power and spin move, against an aggressive pursuit that knew which run was coming.
Then, this is when the offensive play caller will put in the inside zone. The inside zone also calls for the offensive line to slide to the play side, but not as aggressively as the outside zone. The defenders have already committed themselves in an aggressive slide of their own. Therefore, when the defenders are sliding, the offensive line doesn’t need to slide as much themselves to form a barrier between the defender and the sideline. If the defender slides too far, then they are out of the play and are no longer of consequence. If each blocker’s defender has slid out of the play, then the blocker takes on a new defender at the next level. During the inside zone, notice the back side guard no longer pulls and the H-back no longer seals the play side, outside edge. Instead, the H-back cuts back and seals off the defensive end or outside linebacker that has been vacated by the back side offensive tackle. The run play is designed to go in between the guard and tackle, but the running back is free to run between the center and guard if that crease forms. See Figure 3 below.
How does Eddie excel as a ZBS running back? Eddie has great vision and can immediately find the open lane in the ZBS. He has a quick first step and is able to slam through the hole before the lane may quickly close. He’s also not afraid to put his shoulder down and grind out an extra yard. But, most impressively, once he squeezes through the offensive line, he will beat a charging linebacker. With most running plays, due to the quarterback making the hand off, there is at least one unblocked defender. The unblocked player is the one defender that the ball carrier is assigned to beat one-on-one. Eddie can beat him with his shoulder. Or, he can bust out his famous spin move. Either way, he’ll be fun to watch as he develops. While at Alabama, Eddie ran against defenses, with eight defenders in the box, expecting the offense to give the ball to running backs at least 35 times a game. He still gashed them. Against Green Bay, defenses will always plan to stop Aaron Rodgers and the passing game first, so Eddie should see fewer defenders in the box. Of course, Alabama had an amazing offensive line, and the Packers are currently playing musical chairs up front. Nonetheless, I’m expecting great things from my fellow Bammer. His running will also get the defense out of the pesky Cover 2 man. That’s always a good thing.
I will address the offensive line play in the ZBS running scheme in an upcoming piece. Keeping with the theme of this article, I will showcase an individual player and his specific role. He might have a hyphen in his name.