the Seahawks are switching to a zone-blocking scheme in their running game

chris-spencer-mini-campIf you haven’t heard that the Seahawks are switching to a zone-blocking scheme in their running game, you haven’t been paying attention.

Everyone from the instigator (new offensive coordinator Greg Knapp), to the instructor (offensive line coach Mike Solari), to the implementers (the linemen), to the applicators (the backs) has been extolling the virtues of the system that places an emphasis on the linemen’s agility and mobility and the back’s ability to cut and go.

“I don’t know if it would be seen by the untrained eye,” Knapp said when asked about the nuances of zone blocking compared to the way the Seahawks linemen blocked in the offense run by departed coach Mike Holmgren the past 10 seasons.

Two things to look for:

One, a more decisive running style by the backs. “We’re going to emphasize, ‘You’re taking this path, and you’ve got one cut to do downhill; one cut, bounce outside,’ ” Knapp said. “A little less dance, a little more decisiveness.”

Two, more combo blocks. “Guards and tackles working together. Tackles and tight end working together, and guards and center,” Knapp said. “Not having that one lineman have to block the one technique all day long.”

Expected result: Limiting penetration by the defense, which is aimed at nullifying minus-yardage runs on first and second downs that can lead to third-and-too-long situations.

“That’s one thing that’s a benefit of the zone run game,” Knapp said.

But what about the guys on the other side for the ball? How does the decision to feature more zone blocking in the running game impact the defenders who are being blocked in this system that was so productive for Knapp during his stints as offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders?

“A lot of people don’t understand this, but the defensive tackles, they’re probably the most essential position as far as going against a zone-blocking scheme,” said Colin Cole, a wide-bodied, low-center-of-gravity nose tackle.

“If I’m not quick enough, stout enough, to play square with those guys, it can make for an easy day.”

Cole, a 330-pounder, was the Seahawks’ first signing in free agency this offseason because he possesses that combination of size and quickness. He played the past four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, another zone-blocking team.

“There are times when you’ve got to bring the big-boy pads, when you’re expecting double-team (blocks) across the board,” Cole said. “There are times you’ve got to bring the quickness and speed that you’ve got, and that’s when the offense is going with flat zone blocking.

“Against zone blocking, you’ve got to keep up with them, rather than penetrate.”

The ideal scenario for the offense is to cutoff the defensive tackle, get a blocker on the middle linebacker and seal the backside pursuit.

“If you can do that,” Cole said with a knowing nod, “you can gash a defense very badly.”

Another import with first-hand knowledge of defending the zone-blocking scheme – from the outside of the line – is Cory Redding. He was obtained in the March trade that sent Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson to the Detroit Lions.

“As a defensive end, you have to get off the ball and penetrate,” Redding said. “If not, then the offensive scheme will work, because the offensive linemen will get up to the second level quick, they’ll cut off the backside guys.

“So if you don’t disrupt the timing in the backfield, an offense team running the zone scheme can be very effective.”

At 6 feet 4, 292 pounds, Redding has the skills to play end, but also the size to move inside to tackle. The Seahawks plan to utilize that versatility.

“If the end doesn’t get good penetration, the back will go outside,” Redding said. “If the end does get good penetration, the back has to cut it back and then you have a shot at him.”

Unless, that is, the offense is successful in walling off the defenders who are pursuing the play.

“If the backside pursuit isn’t there, there’s a huge gap back,” Redding said. “And that can lead to a huge gash in the defense.”

That’s why when Cole discovered that the Seahawks were making the move to more zone blocking, he considered it a no-brainer – and another reason he wanted to sign with the Seahawks.

“Most defensive tackles in this league definitely have the strength to play some of the other schemes teams like to run – traps and pullers and that kind of stuff,” Cole said. “But if you don’t have the quickness against a zone-blocking team, nine times out of 10 you can get beat very easily.”