|12-07-2005, 05:06 PM||#1|
Ring of Famer
Join Date: Oct 2003
Location: Hermosa Beach
Nice Article on our successful running game
By Paul Attner - SportingNews
It is the winter after his first season as Broncos coach and Mike Shanahan is troubled. His running game is not as dominant as he would like, with too many negative plays. And he's concerned that the finesse aspects of his West Coast offense are not projecting the image he desires for his team. So he and Alex Gibbs, his offensive line coach and friend, devise something uniquely their own -- a curiously different run approach that calls for zone blocking built on a foundation of toughness and physicality.
Ten years later, the brilliance of their creation is at its peak. The running scheme born from their talented minds drives the NFL's two top rushing teams. The Broncos and Falcons are grinding toward franchise-record running seasons, their playoff desires grounded firmly in the intricacies of the league's most devilish and intriguing method of line blocking.
For the Falcons, their success on the ground follows a 2004 season in which Gibbs, in his first and only year as their full-time line coach, transformed Atlanta's running game from mediocre to No. 1 in the league. It's a status the team has maintained this season with a 177.8 yards-per-game average that projects as the NFL's highest in 35 years. For the Broncos, their running prowess offers them a potential ball control solution to overcoming the Colts in January.
The effectiveness of this rushing scheme is fascinating, considering all the analysis it has endured by the best defensive minds the league could offer. These clubs have the NFL's two smallest lines -- both average less than 300 pounds -- and neither has a player atop the rushing standings. Yet Atlanta has gained 200 or more yards in five games, and Denver's 162.7-yard average projects to the highest of the 11-year Shanahan era, during which the Broncos have the most running yards of any NFL franchise.
This season, the two teams also are 1-2 in two important and revealing categories: yards per carry (each averages more than 5.0) and lowest percentage of attempts resulting in lost yards.
Let's embark on an exploration to uncover the secrets behind this Bronco Scheme, an approach that doesn't pull guards and tackles, doesn't employ the counter trey and doesn't feature many traps or draws yet is so amazingly successful.
The first time Falcons running back Warrick Dunn tries to be creative by making a couple of moves before cutting into a hole, he hears the voice of Gibbs. "One cut downhill ... one cut downhill," Gibbs screams. It was Dunn's introduction last season to the demanding details of the Bronco Scheme. "There is just one way to do everything they ask," he says. "Or you don't play."
Denver and Atlanta don't have many running plays. The Broncos, for example, might bring no more than 12 into a game. But the success of the scheme is not tied to quantity; it excels because of the ability of the offense to execute with precision the exacting requirements of each of these few plays. Behind all of it has been the bellowing of Gibbs, first in Denver and now in Atlanta, where he serves this season as a consultant who spends a few days each week with the team. This 5-7 bundle of passion, vulgarity and brilliance -- his players joke he is Napoleon on speed -- mixes demeaning authoritarianism and an incredible grasp of the concepts into success. An eccentric football genius with a doctorate in education, he crashed and burned in Denver in 2000, finally needing psychiatric help and medication.
Yet Gibbs became Jim Mora's most important hire as a rookie head coach in 2004. No NFL rushing method could make better use of Michael Vick's talents, considering how the Bronco Scheme, with its focus on inside runs, functions best with the bona fide outside threat of quarterback bootlegs.
"To make their system complete, you need to fear the quarterback running that boot to your weak side," Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry says. "With Atlanta, you have a freaking rocket ship coming out of there at quarterback. The whole scheme is a b**** to defend. Both teams don't do a lot. So no matter what the defense does, they are able to practice against it because they aren't bogging down their players with too many runs." It's what Redskins defensive line coach Greg Blache calls the "Colonel Sanders" philosophy: "They do one thing well; they do chicken right." But having Vick gives the Falcons the edge over Denver in rushing. He has 470 yards this season after gaining 902 yards -- the third most by a quarterback in NFL history -- in 2004.
Yet the Bronco Scheme doesn't need a Vick to excel. Shanahan has produced five different 1,000-yard rushers -- most of whom have been low-round draft choices -- including 1995 sixth-round pick Terrell Davis, who gained 2,008 yards in 1998. Ron Dayne, a flop with the Giants, set up the winning field goal against Dallas on Thanksgiving with a 55-yard overtime run. "He is a 1,000-yard rusher in our system as a starter," says Shanahan matter-of-factly. Oh, yes, Dayne is a third-string back. In Atlanta, Dunn, who rushed for 1,106 yards last season, already has accumulated 1,174 this fall, a career high for the ninth-year veteran.
So it's the system, not the backs, right? Not really. The Broncos never sign a jitterbug back whose instincts push him toward multiple fakes and ad-lib scrambles. Dunn had those tendencies pre-Gibbs; to function in the system, he has transformed himself. He now is a one-cut runner whose goal on every carry is to avoid negative yards. So if there is no hole, he plows ahead anyway. "We're taught to gain at least a blade of grass on every attempt," says Falcons fullback Fred McCrary. If you are indecisive and unwilling to be tough and run downhill, you won't run for these teams.
Still, it is what happens up front, among the athletic, quick and, for the NFL, small linemen that makes the Bronco Scheme different and so effective. To uncover why, we need to go to the videotape.
On the huge screen is a football choreography contrary to anything you'd anticipate about this most muscular of sports. In lock step, linemen move:
shoulders square, in perfect balance, sliding effortlessly down the scrimmage line, nearly 1,500 pounds of nimbleness -- a dance of intricacy and precision. These images, on this large screen within the headquarters of NFL Films, display the foundation of all that has been dominant about the Bronco Scheme. Before T.J. Duckett or Mike Anderson can gain a yard, their linemen must first become Baryshnikovs in shoulder pads, drilled to work in unison, geared to frustrate defenders unable to crack the formidable barrier presented by this picket fence in motion.
Several years ago, Denver's linemen had another term to describe their meticulousness.
Here on the screen, the current Broncos linemen are working against the Redskins' defense. The usual NFL approach to run blocking is macho-oriented. You take on opponents man-to-man, firing straight into them alone or in tandem with a teammate, with the goal to knock them up the field, away from the line and apart from each other. The ultimate triumph of this mentality is the pancake block -- sending the defender onto his derriere. But the Bronco Scheme is based on zone blocking, in which you worry about protecting an area and the defenders who intrude into it. The movement is lateral, not straight ahead. The pivotal word here is stretch -- the linemen want to stretch the field and force the defense to run laterally with them. The more it stretches, the more creases open for the running back.
On virtually every stretch play, you will see multiple double-teams by the linemen -- what they call a "hat and one-half" on each down defender. The heads of the linemen are always up; they are constantly looking, moving. Once the double-teamed defender is under control, one of the Broncos' linemen will split away seamlessly and move to the next zone, the next opponent, lending help to another teammate. Or he will scurry to the next level to hunt down linebackers and safeties. On the backside, away from the direction of the running back, the linemen frequently use cut blocks -- blocks aimed at the thighs and rolled to the feet -- to knock down defenders and limit pursuit. It is a controversial block -- defensive players hate it because it attacks their legs -- but it is legal and has a purpose.
"You knock down a 330-pound nose tackle for three quarters and he is really tired in the fourth," says FOX and Sporting News analyst Brian Baldinger, a former NFL lineman and our videotape guide on this day. "So all of a sudden he is too fatigued to make the same tackle he made in the first half. And that
3-yard run becomes a 30-yarder." So the Bronco Scheme preaches patience. "It is a philosophy," says Mora. "You have to stay with the run and not abandon it. You have to have the mentality that the big plays will happen, that the big holes will be there." On third-and-5 or -6, when most teams pass, these two clubs just as often run, frequently from three-receiver sets. The Falcons average almost 35 carries a game, the Broncos 33. The rest of the league averages 27.
It is so maddening and methodical, this unrelenting stretch-the-field approach. "They block everything so it looks like an outside run, but it's not," says Dolphins middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "They're not trying to get to the edge; they are trying to run between the tackles. But they're moving the line sideways and waiting for you to commit. It's tough because everything you're taught to do on an outside run is to attack, and you have to fight your instincts." Because if a defender attacks, that's when he's nudged out of the way and the runner cuts into the resulting hole. Or, if the defense really overpursues, he cuts dramatically, in back of everyone. And that's when the scheme's emphasis on cutting down backside pursuit and sending linemen upfield to help receivers block linebackers and defensive backs leads to long gains.
"If we are running it well, you can hear defensive guys muttering to themselves in the fourth quarter," Falcons right guard Kynan Forney says. "They are tired, they don't want to tackle anymore. Basically, they lose life; you can feel it." To constantly move sideways and stay in front of defenders requires players with quickness and athleticism. Both franchises have found these linemen mostly in the lower rounds; five of the 10 starters were picked after the fourth round, and another, Denver left tackle Matt Lepsis, was an undrafted college tight end. But the Bronco Scheme allows someone such as Denver center Tom Nalen (6-3, 286) to become a dominant player, a potential Hall of Famer.
"They play with a great awareness," Baldinger says. "They don't block guys who have no chance of making a play. And they give a defense so much to think about: the stretch, the cutback, the bootleg, the reverse. It slows defenses down, makes them have to play perfect on every snap."
It also is why Shanahan was eager to bring in Jake Plummer to replace slow-footed Brian Griese at quarterback two years ago. With Griese, the bootleg part of the scheme disappeared; with Plummer, it has returned with a flourish.
"It takes smart people to play this system," former Broncos lineman David Diaz-Infante says. "The guys are so good at knowing who to block. If a defense gives you an eight-man front or stunts or blitzes, the guys know how their assignment changes, and they make the changes immediately as the play is evolving on the field. That's why they are so sound play after play."
But the linemen also function within a strange code of conduct formulated by Gibbs, who boycotts the media. In both Denver and Atlanta, usually only one lineman gives interviews. Otherwise, an internal kangaroo court fines linemen even for having their name mentioned in stories. "It's all part of what you learn as a young lineman," Broncos right tackle George Foster says. "There is a standard on and off the field, and you are expected to live up to it. Otherwise, you don't last." Even current line coaches Rick Dennison in Denver and Jeff Jagodzinski in Atlanta buy into the silence. Jagodzinski, in his first season as line coach, still is learning from Gibbs. But Dennison, who has a masters in civil engineering, has excelled since replacing Gibbs. "I don't think I have been with a coach as bright as he is," Shanahan says.
What also hasn't changed is the difficulty of neutralizing the Bronco Scheme. Familiarity helps. Division rival Tampa plays the Falcons twice a season and has found that its own quickness has created problems for Atlanta's offense. But for teams such as the Jaguars, who have played Denver the past two seasons, preparation for the scheme is more taxing. "What the scheme does," says Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith, "is force you to be solid in gap integrity. They want to get two of their guys in the gap, and we can't let them do that or it opens up a run lane. They want to push you sideways, by the hole. So you have to be disciplined and have your color uniform in each gap. Then they give you all the window dressing with different formations and motion and all, and you have to cut through that, too."
If you have a defensive front such as Jacksonville's, which is strong and athletic enough to push upfield and cut into the lateral flow, suddenly the picket fence breaks. You don't want gap penetrators but rather gap maintainers who can shove the Bronco Scheme linemen backward. Still, so far this season, no team has held Atlanta under 115 yards rushing, and its average per game is 10.8 yards higher than last year's club record. Since two sub-100-yard rushing games to open the schedule, the Broncos have gained no fewer than 121 yards, and there is a chance Anderson and Tatum Bell might become the first backs under Shanahan to each gain 1,000 in the same season.
"You may not win championships because you run the ball well," says Shanahan, owner of two Super Bowl rings, "but it certainly gives you a better chance than if you can't."