In the Trenches - Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Zone Blocking Horns

As the Longhorn fanbase wakes up from a sleepy off-week and prepares for Colorado, I thought I'd use this week's version of "In the Trenches" to address some questions about the Longhorn offensive line and that mysterious thing we've all heard about, called zone blocking. For experts like ScipioTex of Barking Carnival or our very own GhostofBigRoy, much of this may be old hat, but comments from many suggest that it's new hat for many BONers.

Let's see, where to begin... I recall overhearing a conversation on a London train that went something like this...

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"By jove, Holmes, that Newton's a right quick little roger!"

 

Two gentlemen, decked out in tweed and hats, sat cross-legged on the bench.

The one with the cap exclaimed, "Dear God, Holmes, what on earth are you reading!"

Nonchalantly sucking on a pipe (since there's no smoking on the trains nowadays), the porkpie-hatted one rustled his newspaper and replied, "My dear Watson, this is a snappy little rag known as the Austin American-Statesman. I never had much use for those newfangled internet sites, however fiendishly cleverly they're linked to the great library of the world. I much prefer the feel and rustle of newsprint beneath my fingers."

"Well, what's so fascinating about that provincial outpost," pressed Watson.

"It's quite fascinating, really. Seems there's quite the mystery  about this raucous game called American football. Some team in a rather heat-blasted colony called Texas has a football team with all the ingredients for a smashing ability to hand the ball to a quick bloke and let him run with it. Yet somehow the populace is quite fervent in their disbelief about its efficacy and extremely dispossessed in their lack of understanding of it."

"Well, it must be quite the story to be wresting your attention away from all the nefarious crime here in our fine city of London," said Watson doubtfully.

"Indeed, Watson, indeed... Seems there's this bizarre phenomenon called 'zone blocking' that's got everyone titillatingly frightened and frustrated. A mystery worth solving by any standards, I'll warrant."

"Tell me more, good sir. Anything to crush the boredom of this train ride. I wish we could just cut back through the alleys," snuffled Watson. "Like in the old days!"

"My dear Watson, you are right as always, and as always without knowing why!" exclaimed Holmes, sitting more erectly. "For it is indeed in the so-called 'back cut" that the secret to the mystery presents itself. Elementary! Why didn't I see it sooner!"

Watson gaped at his companion."Back cut! I'm afraid you've lost me Holmes."

"Well, I suppose, Watson, that a rather clearer picture of the whole affair would emerge from a bit of background. Along about 2004, the instructors, er coaches, of this football team began to be fascinated with a peculiar series of plays called the 'zone read,' in which the quarterback would receive the ball from the center and decide whether to hand the ball to another runner going in one direction or keep it himself and go in another direction. Devilishly simple, and it was eventually run to perfection by a rather phantasmic character known as Vince Young. A regular Tower of London with the feet of a dancer and the speed of a locomotive.  As always, Watson, the general populace is singularly unprepared to accept the obvious and prefers instead to focus on the fantastic. You of course remember that harrowing case of the overgrown dogs, don't you Watson?"

"You mean the hound of the Baskervilles?"

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"My dear Watson, the public's view of Vince Young can never be trusted!"

 

 

"Precisely," smirked Holmes. "Illustrates my point perfectly. All that blather about ghosts and demons, and in the end it was nothing but an overstimulated dog. At any rate, all the jolly good folk of  Austin thought the rampant success of their team was due to this Young fellow, when in fact a just as important change was in how these incredibly massive young blokes, called the offensive line, were attacking the rather plightful defensive players that tried to tackle their heroes. In short, it was the advent of 'zone blocking.'"

"Sounds altogether quite boring, Holmes," sighed Watson.

"Quite right, my good man. The most brilliant of deductions are virtually always boring to the uninformed eye, based as they are upon the most fundamental, and least fantastic, aspects of any enterprise."

"Bloody hell, Holmes, then get on with it, what's this, er, 'zone blocking,'" grumped Watson.

"Elementary in concept and adept in form. Each of the five blokes, and sometimes a tight end, is responsible for blocking the men in a defined area around them. This was a novel concept in the late 20th Century, and became unmatched in its execution at the universities in the early part of this decade. It was unremittingly new because, prior to its advent, each offensive lineman would pick a defensive man and push on him for the entirety of a play. In zone blocking however, linemen often switch from one defender to another, with defenders passed among linemen like so many water buckets in a fire line. I recall an excellent source on the basics of this fine idea from the latest delivery from the library. And, yes, it's always good to seek the advice of professionals, and a former NFL (You do recall the London Monarchs don't you Watson?) coach has an excellent video tutorial on the subject."

"By jove, Holmes, I am yet to be distracted by this tome. If this scheme is all so effective as you say, then why isn't everyone doing it, and why is there such a mystery?"

"Patience, my good man. The successful tale is always good in the telling, if only for the discerning listener. There are in fact many teams using this scheme. The mystery, you see, is in why it works or not. When those scatbacks are being pummeled at the line of scrimmage, the average fan looks at how  the offensive line appears while it's blocking. Imagine gorilla behemoths dancing with and engaging, rather than pulverizing, their opponents. Think of the exquisite timing of trading defensive partners from one lineman to another. A sort of primary school mantra comes to mind, 'First we double, then I share, and off to the linebacker I go, go, go,' repeated over and over. It's enough for the respectable conservative fans, with blood on their mind, to decry as 'soft' or 'sideways'," replied Holmes.

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"'Whatever happened to smashmouth football?' they scream," he continued. "Why is the running back always going sideways?' they moan. The coaches have turned real men into ballerinas. Quite frankly, Watson, it's enough to spark the appetite of any sleuth. How indeed, can this zone blocking scheme be the foundation of a powerful running game?"

"I'll take the liberty of sketching it out for you on the back of this newspaper," continued Holmes. "I suppose I could use actual video or video stills in the manner of that most insightful analyst GhostofBigRoy, but it's rather hard to distinguish the movements of offensive linemen from a horizontal perspective. First let's draw how they start. The team of interest, of course, is the Longhorns, and a brilliant choice of mascot it is, I might add."

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"This is one of the basic formations for the team (in orange) with three wideouts, 2 to the wide side of the field, and a tight end, apparently a fine young fellow known as Greg Smith, the Extra Blocking Surface. The running back is lined up to the weak or short side of the field from the quarterback."

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  "The play starts with the running back moving to the right, which draws the linebackers in the direction that the running back is moving (yellow arrows). Note that the TE and right tackle double team the end and attempt to seal him inside. The center Chris Hall (71) and right guard Michael Huey (63) double-team the defensive tackle on the strong side to prevent him from penetrating and destroying the play. The two offensive linemen on the left side (outlined in blue circles) each block a single defender, but they are about to change who they block."

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As the play develops, the left tackle Adam Ulatoski (74) (left-hand blue circle) leaves the defensive end (E) and reaches out to block the outside linebacker (OLB) on the weakside, who has now entered his area. Charlie Tanner (52) (center blue circle) passes his man off to Chris Hall and now blocks the end that has entered his area. Note that all the defenders are pushing to the strong (or righthand) side of the field. The Extra Blocking Surface (83) has left the end he originally blocked to muscle up the linebacker (right hand blue circle).  At this point, the good fellow running back Tre' Newton has a choice of potential holes, depending on the movement and blocking by the offensive line. In the case studied here, Newton took the cutback lane (white) instead of completing the sweep to the right because of the penetration by the strongside end and outside linebacker. Newton gained 12 yards on exactly this play against Texas Tech.

"Surely they don't always run this play," suggested Watson.

"Indeed not," affirmed Holmes. "The team often runs plays out of this so-called 'shotgun spread,' but occasionally they change it up to something called the 'I-formation' with the running back lined up 7 yards behind the quarterback. Witness this play, which scored a touchdown from 15 yards out, and frankly would have scored from anywhere on the field."

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"Watson, do note  that there is no fullback and no tight end but instead a 'flex' TE, Dan Buckner (4). As the play begins, note the clever bit where the defensive end comes unblocked into the backfield while our man Huey and Hix double-team the defensive tackle and the center Chris Hall pushes the other tackle to the left, keeping him on his left shoulder. It is readily observed that this allows the Longhorns to concentrate more blockers on fewer defenders."

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"But then," said Holmes, raising a finger in exhilaration, "Huey leaves the tackle to the outside shoulder of Hix and charges after the middle linebacker (blue circle), leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the line for our man Newton. Thanks to an additional fine block on the safety by Jordan Shipley, Newton sprints straight for a touchdown! Meanwhile, there's been no smashing of defenders, merely a bit of pushing and shoving along the line."

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"Fascinating!" exclaimed Watson, now beginning to see the point.

"Moreover, this rather utterly destroys another popular myth,"  continued Holmes, "namely, that one requires a fullback and a tight end to run the I-formation. Zone blocking allows the defender normally blocked by the fullback to be blocked by an offensive lineman and the defender blocked by the tight end is rendered irrelevant by splitting the tight end out in the flex position, thus pulling the linebacker covering Buckner too far away from the play. Brilliant, I say!"

"If I might have the temerity to offer an opinion, what happens if the outside linebacker ignores Buckner and attacks the gap in the middle?" queried Watson.

"Astounding deduction as to the defense's response, my dear Watson. In that case, the team might very well go back to a spread formation and run their very best running play," gloats Holmes, "It is called a 'counter,' which has nothing to do with numbers, but everything to do with a rather dramatic sleight of feet, so you might say. It's a right jolly symphony of beefy movement.

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"As the play begins, the entire left side of the offensive line 'pulls,' as they say, from left to right, as the center Chris Hall pushes the defensive tackle to the left and Michael Huey engages the tackle to the right, setting the poor bloke up for a future block by the pulling linemen."

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"The pulling linemen enter the gap between Chris Hall and Michael Huey, looking to attack the tackle and end, which have been left behind by Michael Huey and Kyle Hix to attack the inside and outside linebackers. A jolly classic demonstration of the finest zone blocking techniques."

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"The pulling linemen (Ulatoski and Tanner) take the right defensive tackle and end from a new angle, keeping the defensive players on their right shoulder. Smith helps seal the other defensive tackle to the left, along with Chris Hall.  Huey and Hix each execute their downfield blocks on the linebackers and Newton right into the hole and straight up the middle.  Extraordinary!"

Watson sat speechless (for once).

"So," intoned Holmes, "You see that, when properly executed, these zone blocking behemoths can create a powerful running game, though they may be perceived as ballerinas. A rather unpleasant and unwarranted image I say."

"You don't say, Holmes," exclaimed Watson.

"And so there you have it, Watson. A complete de-bunking of the popular moronity, that you can't have a good running game with measly-appearing zone blocking. It should be mentioned that the scheme requires exquisite timing and supreme intelligence and experience of its practitioners. Having an intrepid back with sufficient vision to spy those cutback lanes is also a requisite. Without those, the plan might as well be rubbish."

"And once again, my good man," lauded Watson, "you've reduced hysteria to cold hard analysis. It might be one of your best cases ever!"

"I wonder if my not so humble opinion would be of value to the press," speculated Holmes.  "Ah, a useless muse, no doubt. The press... mystery, not facts, sells newspapers, not to mention space on that polyglot of public opinion, the internet. One must present the appearance of dire consequences and grievous incompetence to intrigue the public. Things have changed little sincce 1876."

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