Gary Kubiak, now in his sixth year as Texans head coach, brought more than his two Super Bowl rings he earned as the Broncos' offensive coordinator and quaterbacks coach from 1995 to 2002. He bought an entire offensive philosphy with him, one that ties the 2012 Texans and the '97 Bronocos together.
I'm talking about zone blocking. The team orientated, technique-driven blocking style that proves you don't need to be big to make holes for your running back.
Zone blocking is an offensive line scheme where, essentially, individual OL players are responsible for blocking specific zones instead of defensive players (man). Instead of moving forward or back at the snap the OL moves laterally with the direction of the run. It can be broken down into a few basic steps:
- The ball is snapped, the OL steps to the left or right.
- The players on the OL block the defensive player in their area.
- If an OL is uncovered he helps the teammate to his side by double-teaming his man.
- While double-teaming the OL watches for the second-level defender (usually a LB).
- When the second level defender is identified one of the offensive linemen comes off the double team and blocks him.
- The RB then reads the point of attack and bursts through it.
The play requires quick feet and good technique rather than pure strength and the OL has to concentrate on both making the block and knowing when to peel off to attack the second level. All the players on offence have a blocking assignment (including the WRs) and all need to execute their blocks well for the play to succeed.
Like the players on the OL, the RB also needs good vision - if he doesn't make the correct read he'll run straight into the path of the blocking players. An ideal runner in the zone blocking system would have great awareness and outstanding straight line speed. Much like Arian Foster or Terrel Davis.
Let's take a quick look at their stats from their two best years (so far).
- Terrell Davis 1997: 369 carries, 1750 yds rush, 15 TDs, 42 rec, 287 yds receiving.
- Terrell Davis 1998: 392 carries, 2008 yds rush, 21 TDs, 25 rec, 217 yds receiving, 2TDs.
- Arian Foster 2010: 327 carries, 1616 yds rush, 16 TDs, 66 rec, 604 yds receiving, 2 TDs.
- Arian Foster 2011: 287 carries, 1224 yds rush, 10 TDs, 53 rec, 617 yds receiving, 2 TDs.
- Currently Arian Foster's average YPC is 4.7, Terrell Davis' was 4.6.
Keep in mind that in 2011 Foster missed three games. While I doubt anybody in the league will get as many carries as Terrell Davis did (after the 1998 season he was more or less burnt out), Foster is still getting a similar amount of overall touches. It's clear that the RB is the most important part of an offence that utilises zone blocking, a rarity in today's game.
While both Kubiak and Redskins Head Coach Mike Shanahan continue to utilise zone blocking in their respective teams, the coach who developed and perfected the system was offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Gibbs, now retired, was the man behind zone blocking for both the championship Denver Bronocs and the on-the-rise Houston Texans. When Kubiak came to the Texans wanting to run a zone blocking scheme he bought Gibbs with him.
Gibbs' zone blocking legacy creates an undeniable link between today's Texans and yesterday's Broncos.
In this play you can see the LG move to double team the man his LT is blocking. However, he sees the LB trying to fill the gap and quickly blocks him instead. Terrell Davis identifies the large gap and breaks straight through it. You can see how the entire OL steps to the left, in the direction of the play.
It's a different play than the Terrell Davis one above, but you can still see the zone blocking principles at work. The entire OL steps in the direction of the play. The Centre puts this hands very briefly on the DT before moving to block the LB trying to hit the gap. The LG then cuts the DT down so he cannot pursue from behind. Cut blocks are common in zone blocking schemes to prevent pursuit. Notice the excellent job the WR #12, Jacoby Jones, does blocking far down field.
We can talk about Matt Schaub finally being healthy and Andre Johnson being eager to reclaim his crown as the league's best WR. But for the Houston Texans their key to success will come from this blocking scheme, a scheme that takes relative unknowns with very specific skills and turns them into superstars.
Next time you watch Arian Foster break off another big play, stop and take a look at the size of that hole the OL made for him. It's all thanks to the zone blocking scheme that Kubiak and Gibbs brought with them from Denver.
This article wouldn't have been possible without the assistance of Coach LJ. It was inspired by Chris B. Brown's great article titled 'Gary Kubiak, Alex Gibbs, And The Greatest Run Play In Modern Football'
in his book The Essential Smart Football
. For another great breakdown of zone blocking, please check out Bob Davie's NFL 101 article via ESPN
. I am a fan of the Washington Redskins who also make use of a zone blocking scheme.