During their recent era of success, the Seahawks deservedly earned the reputation as a team built on the run. In the post-Marshawn Lynch era, it is unclear to what extent that will remain. With Russell Wilson now taking up a much larger chunk of the salary cap, it figures more of the offensive load will fall into his lap. That is only right as they hope he will continue to develop.
In the early period of 2016, indicators like the run-pass ratios of play calls in the first quarter of games or on first down in games where the score is within a touchdown suggest the Seahawks are moving away from an identity that runs to set up the pass. They are now a little below the league average in run calls in both areas.
Seattle still has a distinctive style on the ground that is worth discussing.
The Seahawks heavily utilize zone blocking concepts. Offensive line coach Tom Cable is a disciple of Alex Gibbs, an influential offensive line coach who is credited with popularizing zone blocking. Other zone blocking adherents include Mike Shanahan, his son Kyle who is now Atlanta's offensive coordinator, and Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak.
As you might have guessed, zone blocking means a player is assigned an area rather than a specific man on each play. What follows here will be an overly simplified and not at all comprehensive look at the way the Seahawks use zone blocking.
On a typical zone play, the offensive linemen move laterally at the snap in the direction the run is going. To block a play well, you have to move defensive linemen. Against big and talented 300 pounders like Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams, driving them out of the way with a block is easier said than done. If the blockers move laterally, however, the linemen will have to follow or risk being run out of the play. The play itself naturally moves them and creates an opportunity to set up those holes in gaps.
The fact these linemen are moving laterally makes hitting the right angles on blocks more important than power in many cases. Sometimes it means beating a guy to the spot and just getting in his way. This is why around Draft time, you might hear an analyst describe an athletic but undersized lineman as a perfect fit for a zone scheme.
Generally speaking on the offensive line, if nobody is lined up across from you, you are responsible as a blocker for the guy closest to you on the line in the direction the runner is going. If a guy is lined up on your outside shoulder (direction the play is going), he's yours. If somebody is lined up directly in front of you or on your inside shoulder (direction away from the run), you might start out with the guy next to you as part of a double team. Then you get to the second level and find the guy closest to you on the side the play is going.
Let me show you a picture, and maybe it will make more sense.
The run is going left. The left tackle has nobody across from him so he gets the lineman furthest to his left. The left guard has somebody on his inside shoulder so he helps the center with him. Then he passes the guy off to the center, and gets the linebacker furthest left. That same defensive lineman is the closest guy to the center on the side the play is going so he'll take him. The right guard has a defensive lineman on his inside shoulder so he helps the right tackle and then gets to the nearest linebacker. That same defensive lineman is the closest guy to the right tackle so that the right tackle's man.
These double teams are called combo blocks and an integral part of the zone blocking system.
Another key part is the increased responsibilities of the back. On your typical man blocking run play, the rush is designed to go to one specific place. The back's job is to hit that hole hard. In zone blocking, the back tends to have more leeway. He can choose which gap to run the ball to depending on where the hole is.
In man to man blocking, somebody not blocking well means the play is toast. A defender will get to the hole to destroy the run. In zone blocking, the back can just choose a different hole to take the ball. That is the advantage. The drawback is that giving the running back more options means giving the running back more bad options. In this type of system, your back needs to be smart, have good vision and good anticipation. He sometimes needs to both have the patience to wait for his desired hole to open up and decisive to hit it immediately once it does. These plays are designed for him to make one cut and get up the field. Sometimes he has to wait for that cut.
Take a look at this play. Many of these gaps are nonexistant.
An impatient back without vision might bounce this outside to the left between the yellow lines and see whether he can get to the corner. Things start to get a little bit better here.
Now a hole has opened up. This is great. He can just ram it in there for a nice gain, right? Wrong, he can read the blocks and anticipate where the defenders are going. An even bigger opening awaits him if he waits for thing to develop and then takes it outside decisively once they do.
The most important attributes in this system for a back aren't necessarily physical. Sure, size and speed matter. You want somebody physical enough to grind out extra yards through contact. You want somebody fast who will hit the hole quickly once it opens. These attributes are useless, however, if the back cannot read the blocks properly and hit the right hole.
Given his ability to do that combined with those tremendous physical tools, you can now probably understand why a team running this system can build an offense around a back like Marshawn Lynch despite an offensive line that one might be charitable to describe as average.
The play you saw above is an inside zone play. It has to do with the angle of the running back as he receives the handoff. On inside plays, he typically is running in the direction of the gap between the tackle and the guard on his side. There is also the outside zone play where he receives the ball running at an angle heading to the tight end or where the tight end would be if none is lined up on his side. He might choose to cut to a hole inside.
Note that the blocking rules aren't always going to be 100%. Part of it is reading the play, and reading your zones.
Now this is nothing out of the ordinary, but one of the things that sets Seattle apart is the way Russell Wilson's running ability adds to the offense.
When a team is running the ball, there is a numbers dilemma. There are 11 defenders capable of stopping a run play at any given moment. There are, however, usually only 9 offensive players capable of blocking. The running back who receives the handoff isn't a blocker. Neither is the quarterback handing the ball off.
On many zone plays, the answer is to simply not block the guy at the end of the line away from where the play is going. He is the furthest guy away from the ball and least likely to make a play.
It is inevitable, though, that if you don't block a guy, he is going to make plays.
Is that something an offense has to live with? Not exactly.
Notice how Wilson drifts left after handing the ball off. He is doing that for a reason. He is faking that he kept it. That is supposed to draw the attention of the unblocked guy on the line.
If the guy on the end of the line is not respecting it, the play caller needs to take note.
This is a bootleg. With some quarterbacks, it just means a pass with a simple read on half the field and no pressure. With Wilson's mobility , the edge defender overpursuing can mean a big play on the ground.
(On another note, let me give you the first purely on the field Colin Kaepernick take you will get all year. He made a mistake not doing whatever he could to get to Denver to run a similar type of system rather than be a backup on one of the worst teams in the league.)
The Seahawks also contain this edge defender from the shotgun on read option plays. The read is the unblocked guy at the end of the line.
The option is Wilson's. If the unblocked guy plays Wilson, he hands it off. If the unblocked guy plays the back, Wilson keeps it and runs outside.
The threat of the read option can help to keep that unblocked backside defender on regular shotgun runs just because Wilson's running ability commands such respect.
It shows why even if Wilson plays on Sunday, it is a big deal if his ability to move is compromised.
These are some of the things the Jets may see on Sunday as they try to shut down this rushing attack.