On Sunday, the battle in the trenches will be strength vs. strength. You probably know all about the talent up front on the defensive line for the Jets. Even without the suspended Sheldon Richardson, the Jets are stacked with defensive line talent.
The Browns have an excellent offensive line. It was the foundation for a lot of early success last season the Browns had on the ground. At the point two-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack was lost for the season with a Week 6 broken leg, the Browns had put up at least 122 rushing yards in four of their five games and at least 158 yards in three of their five games. The Cleveland run game fell off after that, but Mack is back on a strong line.
A year ago, the Browns' running game was based on zone blocking. They have a new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, but the new man in charge in his public statements has indicated the team will stick with that philosophy.
What does this mean? Part of it should be obvious based on the name. Zone blocking means the blockers are assigned an area of the field or zone to block instead of a specific man.
There is more to it than that. At the snap, the offensive blockers move laterally in the same direction. To open running lanes, you need to move defensive linemen. Driving linemen like Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison back is difficult. When all of the blockers move in one direction, the defensive linemen have to follow them. The design of the run moves the linemen to help create creases.
It isn't necessarily about blowing the other guy off the ball in this type of scheme. It is about athleticism and positioning. The blocking assignment in a given player's zone might not be lined up close so the lineman has to be nimble enough to get out to block him (red circle). Knowing a zone run play is coming, a defender might run himself out too far. A lineman has to know when this has happened to angle his block in a way that opens a lane for a cutback (blue circle).
Around Draft time, you might hear about an offensive lineman who is a good fit for a zone scheme. These tend not to be big, lumbering players. They are smaller, athletic types of linemen. This is why.
There is another critical part of zone running plays. They are not designed to go in any particular direction. On a man blockiing run play, there is usually a specific place the back is supposed to run. The blocks are designed to blow open a hole in a particular area. On zone plays, the back can pick any lane he wants. It is his job to identify the correct one.
This is where things get interesting for the Browns. They entered the week with one healthy back on their roster. They traded their leading rusher from a year ago, Terrance West, and rookie Duke Johnson is recovering from a concussion. Isaiah Crowell is the only back they have at the moment. If there is a silver lining for the Browns, Crowell ran for over 5 yards per carry before Mack's injury last season before tailing off rather dramatically.
This type of offense needs a back with a certain skillset. The back needs to have good vision and patience. Sometimes the optimal hole isn't there immediately. He needs to understand his blocking scheme and read the defenders in front of him. He might need to anticipate and wait for the block that springs him. It isn't just about hitting a predetermined hole as hard as possible as it is on many man blocking plays. These are things that have made backs like Marshawn Lynch, DeMarco Murray, and Arian Foster thrive.
Many teams have a mix of man and zone blocking runs. Then there are teams where zone runs are anywhere between the vast majority to all of their run plays. Those are offenses like Seattle, Dallas, and any coached by Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak. (Shanahan's son, Kyle, was Cleveland's offensive coordinator last year.)
DeFilippo has said he will mix in more man blocking elements, but his words suggest at least the Browns will be a heavy zone team. They will have their hands full. The Jets have an extremely talented defensive line. This isn't the first time they have seen zone plays. It is a front difficult to run against. I think this is what Cleveland is going to try to establish. Any team with Josh McCown playing quarterback needs to lean heavily on the run to keep McCown out of third and long.
This wasn't by any means a comprehensive review of zone blocking, but it hopefully provides a general idea of what we can expect Sunday.