When watching the Bears, my friends and I have a fun drinking game we like to play: every time the Bears try to run up the middle and get stuffed, we drink. “Up the middle, drink,” is a common refrain, and over the past couple seasons consumption directly tied to this game has been high – too high.
The last few years we kept hearing about how Mike Tice was a O-line genius. He gets the most out of his players! The players love him! He’s the best thing for O-lines since cleats! The performance in the running game, however, has been less than genius. According to the awesome stats gurus over at Football Outsiders, the last three seasons the Bears have ranked 18th, 25th, and 19th in rushing – hardly gaudy for having one of the better backs in the league in Matt Forte. Further, Football Outsiders ranks offensive lines in their ability to generate yards, push the D-line with power, and penetrate into the second level of the defense. The Bears o-line, the past 3 years, ranked 16th, 24th, and 29th. This is not the type of production we expect from a team whose former head coach liked to proclaim that they “get off the bus running.”
The Bears offensive line has been a tapestry of travesty for multiple seasons, with draft busts (Chris Williams, Gabe Carimi??), draft throwaways (Tyler Reed, Aaron Brant, Josh Beekman, Kirk Barton), poor free agent acquisitions (Frank Omiyale, Chilo Rachal, Chris Spencer), and guys way in over their head (J’Marcus Webb). Good NFL teams overcome what they lack in talent with scheme and game planning, but the Bears kept trying to run the same busted plays over and over with the same results, but somehow expecting victory. Isn’t that the definition of crazy?
The problem with Tice’s offensive line blocking was the constant use of PULLING, where one or more lineman, after the snap of the ball, would cross along the formation behind the other lineman and engage in blocks in front of the ball carrier. Let’s take a look at a playbook page:
In the above play, the left guard pulls across the formation to the right to lead the full back through the line and, if the play goes right, he puts a block on a linebacker or safety in the second level of D and springs the back free. This requires a lot of things to happen at once, and a great amount of athleticism on each member of the offensive line as they are each responsible for blocking someone out of the play one on one. The center must seal off the d-line from sweeping in where the guard has pulled, the right guard, right tackle, and right tight end must each beat a one on one matchup, as does the receiver on the outside. If no one gets beat, the play has a decent shot at gaining positive yards, but it is solely dependent on each individual lineman winning their matchups. When you have sup-bar lineman this can be a big problem, and further more, it is difficult to account for any stunting or blitzing the defense might do. Blocking assignments are called at the line and each lineman knows the specific member of the defense they are supposed to block. What happens, however, if the defense is disguising well and sends a tackler not accounted for? Typically the job falls to the offensive lineman to react with their speed and athleticism if they encounter surprises from the D, but again, when you have subpar players, you can’t count on them to overcome defensive scheming with raw talent. What you need is a scheme that relies less on the individuals winning their match-ups and more on a team effort to open up running lanes.
What I expect to see from the Bears this year, and something Trestman has run up in Montreal, is a zone blocking technique for the offensive line. A zone blocking scheme is different from a traditional man blocking scheme in that each offensive lineman is assigned a zone, or space, to clear out to create a running lane for the back. Think about that conceptually for a moment. At the line of scrimmage the offense knows where they’re going to run the ball, which area of the field the back is going to attack, and they all work in concert to clear that particular running lane. It sounds like it makes a lot of sense, and it does, especially when you factor in the first push of a zone blocking scheme heavily utilizes double teams across the defensive front. Can’t count on your o-lineman to win one on one? Then use more lineman!
Look at the play above. Again, a two TE formation which often signals a run play (though with the addition of Martellus Bennett, the Bears are in much better shape to run play-action this year than in previous seasons). The left TE and the left tackle will double-team the left defensive end, the center and left guard will double-team the nose tackle, the right guard and the right tackle double-team the defensive tackle, and the right TE is left alone to take on the right defensive end by himself. You’ve got six lineman to make the initial push to clear a running lane, and then once that initial push is made, and the momentum of the double-team has the defensive lineman reeling back, the double-teams break up. One offensive lineman from each blocking pair will break off and head into the second level of the defense to make another block on a linebacker or safety, whoever is in the path of the running back, which his partner stays on the original block aided by momentum. By that point the running back has some steam coming through the hole and with some good secondary blocks he has a good chance of gaining positive yards and potentially breaking free.
The beauty of zone blocking is the initial push-back you get at the point of attack, using essentially four men working in concert to open up the lane for the running back, and then having them come off to push deeper into the defensive secondary. What about blitzes and stunts from the defense? Being overwhelmed at the point of attack is much easier when you’ve already got extra bodies assigned to that area. If the defense should send in extra pursuers at the snap, say a safety or linebacker blitz, the double-teams will simply break early and one of the offensive lineman will step up to take on the blitzing defensive unit. You have built in redundancy with zone blocking, and while blitzing will create needs for your offensive lineman to again match up one on one, someone will always be there. In man blocking, if all the o-lineman are locked up with a target one on one and a blitz appears, who picks it up? Often the running back is left to beat the blitz with their own ability, but in a crowded space at the line of scrimmage this can at times be near impossible.
Obviously there are more technical wrinkles that can be added on both sides of the ball to support and try to defeat certain blocking schemes, but overall I’m a firm believer that zone blocking is going to be a boon to the Bears, their running game, and their offensive line deficiencies.