Fixing Detroit's Rushing Offense, Part 1

It has been well-documented elsewhere on PoD that Detroit's run game is basically nonexistent, so I don't want to rehash any of that. What I hope to accomplish in the next two fanposts is to break down some of the issues we've been discussing for the last month:

The Basics: Zone Blocking

The Lions currently operate almost exclusively, as pointed out by Alex Reno in PODcast #5, as a zone running team. Nearly every running play called this year employs zone blocking as opposed to man or angle/gap blocking (sometimes referred to by people elsewhere on the site as power blocking, but the most commonly used terminology is man, angle, or gap). The first order of business in understanding what is going on with the Lions' rushing attack, then, is to make sure everyone is on the same page with regards to what we actually mean by zone blocking since that's what the Lions are actually trying to do.

It makes no sense for us to analyze technique, scheme, or playcalling involving zone blocking if the readers do not all have the same foundation of knowledge of what we mean when we say "zone blocking."

Recommended reading:

I'm going to extended quote (read: rip off) Chris Brown in that last recommended link here:

Like Gibbs, one can spend a lifetime on the finer details of the outside zone, but we can cover the highlights here. On the play, each offensive lineman asks himself: Am I covered? Is there a defender lined up directly across from me? Or am I uncovered? If he’s covered, there’s really not much "zone" to it at all. The lineman fires out and blocks the guy in front of him. If he’s uncovered, he steps to the play side to help his covered teammate; together, they double-team a defensive lineman until one of them slides off to block a second-level defender like a linebacker.

Those assignments apply to both the inside zone and wide zone. The differences concern technique. On the wide zone, blockers try to reach the defenders and seal them to the inside. If they can’t be reached because the defender pushes out to the sideline, then the blocker’s task is to push the defenders as far as possible toward the sideline. On the backside, Gibbs likes to "cut" defenders to the ground — this is sometimes controversial, but it remains legal and is an important key to sealing off the backside pursuit.

The key then becomes the running back and whether he can find those fluid zones that might open up anywhere across the defensive front. Running backs are often undercoached, however, even at the NFL level. On the wide zone, the running back isn’t simply handed the ball and told, "Run like hell." He needs to make reads. He looks, in sequence, to the defensive end and then the defensive tackle. His job is to make one cut and get yards depending on their movements. If they stay inside, he runs outside; if they fly outside he’ll cut back, although on the wide zone what looks like a "cutback" is typically not a cutback at all. Instead, the runner goes straight up the field against a fast-pursuing defense.

The advantages of installing a zone rushing attack are primarily simplification. Again, here's Brown:

Gibbs will tell anyone willing to listen that if you want to be good at the wide zone and the tight zone, throw out all of your other run plays. All those wonderful Power O plays, Counter Trey plays, and whatever other fancy stuff you think you need — get rid of it. Instead, run two — yes, two — run plays, and run them against every defensive front you face until you get really good at them. To Gibbs, anything else is hubris.

Think about that. The rules for linemen get reduced to basically asking covered versus uncovered and the run game gets reduced to basically inside or outside zone. No matter how many people are on the line or in the formation, the covered/uncovered rules for blocking, first to second level combo block progression, and the frontside to backside one cut reads are the same.

What Can Go Wrong?

While this greatly compresses the teaching of the entire scheme, it means you are completely committed to running these two basic plays. And that means you had better be outstanding at executing those two basic plays because the defense is going to know what's coming and your team needs to be better than them at doing what it's trying to do (emphasis added):

"The more you run it, the better it becomes" is something which is found in almost all my scouting reports to our offense about these plays.

By running it more, and using less run plays, you are then immediately faced with two problems:

  1. If we aren’t perfect at understanding this concept, our entire run game won’t be good
  2. It won’t take long for defensive coordinators to realise you only have 2 runs, and be able to stuff both quickly.

In order for both of these to become less of an issue, you need to:

  1. Have linemen that understand the system perfectly, not just learn from pictures
  2. Run the Inside Zone a lot, it doesn’t matter what the defense does. The more you run it, the more effective it becomes
  3. We must not allow negative yards on any Zone play.

This is the main problem with Detroit's running game. We're not very good at doing what we want to do - and I think there are two fundamental reasons.

1. Inconsistency in OL lineups - I'm sure everyone remembers the packaged graphic that NBC had ready to go in the Denver game showing the mix and match offensive lines used by the Lions each week. On any given Sunday, there's no way to know who the hell is going to line up at LG and RG, and as pointed out by Jeremy Reisman, the Lions appear to have no idea what to do about RT and keep flip flopping between Lucas and Waddle.

This is a huge problem not just for pass protection and communicating who blocks which rusher when Stafford is dropping back, but also for zone blocking. The whole concept of zone blocking revolves around the entire line moving as a unit, and players standing next to each other cooperating to lock down the first level and trust each other to fire out correctly to the second level once the down linemen have been controlled. How the hell do you build trust and instinctive knowledge of what your neighbor will do across the offensive line when each guy has no idea who is going to line up on either side each week?

Don't think this is important? It's a big deal:

Third, cohesion and timing on combination blocks are crucial.

On every zone run, you will observe double-team blocks where two blockers are responsible for a down defensive lineman and second-level defender (most often a linebacker). A covered and uncovered offensive lineman will try to "zone" block a pair of defenders.

Since the first attempts to adopt zone blocking, almost every version of the Hokie offensive line has struggled mightily in releasing the double team and getting to the second level. Far too often I observed a combination block where the double team didn't turn the defender's pads before the secondary blocker moved on to the second level; or the double team stayed engaged far too long and the linebacker or safety filled the hole unblocked. For the Virginia Tech running game to build on the momentum gained over the last four games of 2014, executing these blocks are a key to success.

I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I have been with how cohesive the starting Hokie offensive line has looked throughout the spring.

This is an additional reason why all the nagging injuries that keep Warford and Waddle moving in and out of the lineup are big problems. Manny Ramirez keeps getting moved from one side to the other, the tight ends have no idea who they might be working with on the right side, and poor Travis Swanson has to figure out what the hell is going on around him each week. Is there any wonder why so many blocks are getting missed on zone plays?

2. Lack of reps - Part of this has to do with the fact the scheme is new-ish and Detroit simply hasn't run the plays many times to get really good at execution. This is reminiscent of the 2013 Ravens, who struggled running the ball early in the season, when Juan Castillo installed a new zone scheme there.

Ultimately, the Ravens simply haven’t mastered the ZBS yet, which isn’t a sign to give up.

When executed to perfection, there may not be a better run scheme in football. Seven games isn’t enough time to learn a complicated concept, and the offensive linemen have had to learn on the fly this season.

Guess who was OC for the Ravens that year. You get ONE guess. Now here's the interesting thing - using the old system from the 2012 season, the Ravens made the Super Bowl. Using the new system with the newly installed zone rushing attack, the Ravens were a mess and ranked dead last in the league in rushing average per carry. A major culprit - blown combo blocks and missed assignments from players trying to learn a new system they were not used to running:

If the Ravens stick to a high percentage of zone blocking, combination blocks need to get better. There are far too many missed assignments when decisions need to be made flexibly in the post-snap phase.

Sounds familiar!

Furthermore, the Lions are one of only three teams through week 5 with fewer than 100 rushing attempts on the year. The other two are New England and Miami. The Lions are averaging just 2.8 yards per carry and 49 yards per game. To say the team has abandoned the run is an understatement. I know people will laugh at the notion that running the ball more is going to help, but there's really no other way for the Lions to get better at this. I've bashed the handoffs to Joique Bell as wasted downs myself, but unless the team is prepared to give up on zone blocking, more repetitions are the only way to improve.

Zone Failures Against Arizona

Let's look at what happened this past Sunday against the Cardinals. The first play we have for consideration is zone right from I Strong to Zenner on 2nd and 6 from the DET 42 (9:28) in the first quarter.

At the snap, we have Tate in motion at the top and a basic inside zone run off the right side. 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew is aligned off the RT and will kick out the edge man, with 46 FB Michael Burton leading 34 HB Zach Zenner through the hole.

For the most part, the point of attack frontside looks good at the handoff. Pettigrew pushes his man to the outside and Burton is locked in on the safety:

This could have gone for a big play except for 66 RT LaAdrian Waddle completely blowing his seal to the inside against the second level linebacker flowing to the outside:

The penetration by 51 LB Kevin Minter on the missed assignment (Waddle did not understand his second level responsibility once the DE went inside - Minter didn't even see him but ran by) completely blows up the play for a loss of two yards on what should have been a decent gain.

On 3rd and 8, Stafford hit Calvin for an 18 yard pickup and a fresh set of downs. Lombardi goes back to the zone game and calls this play at (8:09) in the first quarter 1st and 10 at the ARZ 42:

Everyone in snug, we have Abdullah going outside zone right with Pettigrew scraping across the inside of the line as the backside seal. Frontside we have 16 WR Lance Moore as the last man on the edge outside of Waddle. At the snap, Waddle and 63 RG Manny Ramirez decide to slant left instead of right, putting Waddle on the last down lineman but leaving nobody for Ramirez to block. It appears Moore was expecting Waddle to move right instead, picking up 22 SS Tony Jefferson standing up between Waddle and Moore, because Moore looks at him but leaves Jefferson alone:

Even before the handoff, Jefferson is already in the backfield and 21 HB Ameer Abdullah has absolutely no chance. Abdullah pulls off his best Saint Barry impression to spin out of Jefferson's tackle, but look what happens next:

Moore looks inside but finds nobody to block. As he turns around, ANOTHER secondary defender blows past him to further trip up Abdullah until inside help can arrive. This is the Abdullah fumble that killed the drive.

Moving ahead in the first quarter, we have 1st and 10 to start a new drive at the DET 23. Again we're going to run inside zone, this time to the left. Tate comes on a jet sweep fake action and Pettigrew has backside seal to the right:

This time we have a different kind of failure. As Schnard pointed out in a fanpost, zone blocking will go sideways instead of downhill (especially wide plays on outside zone with bucket steps that even give up ground temporarily). This means your linemen are not attacking aggressively forward initially. If you watch ESPNU's Film Room like me, you'll hear them often say "low man wins" when looking at line play. Well, take a look at 72 LG Laken Tomlinson here at the point of attack:

What ends up happening here is Tomlinson gets no push on his man, and clogs the area that Burton is supposed to be leading Zenner into. High man loses and Tomlinson's guy turns him, getting penetration into the backfield. What's worse, 77 RT Cornelius Lucas gets smoked as well, so there's a second penetrator attacking from the backside. The defense is attacking our running plays:

Zenner runs into a pile with nowhere to go and loses a yard. Oh, and in case you were wondering about predictability of our playcalling, just take a look at Minter blow past Ramirez on the backside by looping around to cover the Tate jet sweep action.

If you really want to see how un-aggressive this zone running game is, scroll back up to the first play and watch 71 LT Riley Reiff get totally blown off the line of scrimmage. Sad.

Did we ever do it right?

Honestly? No. I'm not even kidding. Here's the closest thing I could find to a zone play that was actually executed decently well - and even then it was nullified by a penalty (backside "Alex Gibbs special" chop block by Tate) and was aided by lucky alignment by the Cardinals. This is 3rd and 1 at the ARZ 29 with 6:23 to go in the 2nd quarter. Zenner is going to take this zone left from I Strong with Pettigrew to the playside:

Look at the orange box in front of LT Riley Reiff with nobody in it. That's where the play is going, and the DL is going to pinch inside. Here's the play after the snap:

An uncovered Reiff fires out through the hole looking for someone to destroy, Pettigrew gets a nice seal to the outside, and Burton is exploding through the hole to the only other defender who can make a play. The thing I want you to focus on is Laken Tomlinson's back. He is completely turned inside because his man "underpursued" by trying to shoot inside the A gap, leaving both the B and C gaps essentially undefended. Getting that crease in the defense by pushing an over or underpursuing defender is what you want out of a zone play.

This is a complete breakdown in gap integrity by the Arizona defense. Yes, folks... this is what it takes for a Detroit Lions zone run to "work."

Unfortunately, even when the Cardinals gifted us a big run, we gave it right back with a penalty. So instead of converting a huge 3rd and 1 to get into scoring range, we get pushed back to 3rd and 15 where Matt Stafford has few options and tallies another incompletion. We punt again.


I know. It looks bad. What can we do about this? I'll take a stab at that in the next fanpost, which will hopefully cheer some of you up.

BTW - one last note about predictability... did you notice every one of those zone runs were from under center? I knew you did.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Pride Of Detroit or its writers.