Last week, the Oakland Raiders hosted the Arizona Cardinals (a game which Arizona won 24-13). The Cardinals are not quite a "true" zone blocking scheme team, as they incorporate a variety of running plays into their offense, but they still run a good deal of outside zone, inside zone, and other related runs.
Here's a series of plays from near the end of the third quarter of the Cardinals vs. Raiders game last week. On this drive, the Cardinals repeatedly attacked the Raiders defense with outside zone runs. Oakland knew it was coming and yet they couldn't stop it. As you can see below, aside from the touchdown, none of these plays got all the way out to the edge. The playside ends were able to hold contain but the interior linemen weren't able to defeat their blocks to eliminate cutting lanes inside.
On this play, the playside outside linebacker takes on the tight end and does an effective job of controlling him and being prepared to shed and attack the ballcarrier should he come outside. He does not. Playside 3-4 end C.J. Wilson does a good job of 2-gapping while flowing laterally, looking to fill whichever lane the back takes.
The breakdown on this play is further inside. Reserve nose tackle Stacy McGee tries to beat the center to the backside. He does but isn't nearly quick enough to threaten the RB and the center seals him out of the play. MIKE linebacker Miles Burris overpursues toward the sideline and then the playside guard takes him out. This creates a huge lane between the right guard and center.
The next run on the drive comes against a 4-man defensive front with nickel personnel. Once again, the playside end has good contain (this time it's Benson Mayowa). C.J. Wilson also effectively flows in the direction of the run. The center comes over to help on Wilson, who is starting to beat the left guard. The back is going to have to make his cut inside of this bottleneck. With the center occupied, this leaves backside linebacker Sio Moore free to make the play. The back runs as far up onto the center's hip as he can, making the linebacker have to reach to get him, and then makes his cut. The linebacker misses and the back gets an extra 4 or 5 yards before the playside end takes him down:
The next play comes against a 3-4 front. Khalil Mack is the end man on the playside. He wins versus the tight end's block, so the back cuts inside of him (and the way Mack bends here barely looks humanly possible). C.J. Wilson is once again getting out there and stringing out the play from his 3-4 end spot. The back cuts inside him as well and somehow Mack releases and catches him from behind:
On the next play, the defense is in a nickel package with a 4-man line shifted to the weakside. The run is to the strong side. Justin Ellis, the nose tackle, has a step advantage on the center but still gets beat playside. He makes progress against the center and nearly gets there to make the tackle 3 yards downfield...but a miss is a miss and the center being able to manage him 1-on-1 allowed the guards to get free into the second level straight off the snap, where they eliminated linebackers Miles Burris and Sio Moore. The playside end Lamarr Woodley beats the tight end and forces the running back inside. That's no problem because there's a clear path into the secondary between the right tackle and guard.
After that, the Raiders switched to an Over front, with the line now shaded to the strong side. With the defense getting used to fighting for the edge and flowing toward the sideline, the coaching staff pulled a change-up here and called an inside zone play, hoping to catch the defense overpursuing. Antonio Smith, the backside tackle, is driven off the ball by a double team. Playside end Khalil Mack sets the edge, as expected, but defeats the left tackle soundly enough to release inside after the RB commits. Due to the alignment of the defense, the playside guard is off leaking to the second level to attack a linebacker. This leaves nose tackle Justin Ellis singled-up and able to 2-gap effectively. Due to Mack and Ellis, the back cuts in behind the center. This gives the backside pursuit the opportunity to catch the ballcarrier. This resulted in a 5-yard gain, but without stellar play from Mack -- both setting the edge and filling the guard-tackle gap -- it could have been much more.
Finally the Raiders get penetration into the backfield. Defensive end Benson Mayowa comes inside, across the face of the guard, and is deep in the backfield immediately. He barely misses the running back but now there's a huge hole in the spot where he just came from. The left tackle has linebacker Sio Moore under wraps and the center is taking care of the nose tackle. The only thing saving a touchdown here is the backside linebacker laying out to make a diving tackle.
The Cardinals made it to the goal line. They run a heavy personnel version of a Pin-and-Pull play. They have two tight ends on the end of the line block Khalil Mack and a corner that was lined up on the line. They then have the playside guard and tackle pull behind the tight ends to pave the way to the endzone. Strangely, playside defensive tackle Antonio Smith anticipates a fake and chases down quarterback Carson Palmer after he has completed the handoff.
#78 Justin Ellis
- Plays nose tackle.
- Stout and hard to drive off his spot 1-on-1 due to his strength and to getting good leverage.
- Has decent balance and agility but is not explosive.
- Can work his way into plays but he's not a disruptive penetrator.
- Doesn't consistently overpower and drive offensive linemen.
- An athletic guy in a phone booth but lacks range.
#94 Antonio Smith
- An athletic under tackle and 5-tech end.
- Has range to track down plays from sideline-to-sideline.
- Doesn't explode through gaps and break into the backfield in run defense but is a threat to do so when pass rushing.
- Can effectively contain on the backside of zone runs.
- Keeps square to the line when flowing laterally to prevent giving up extra ground to blockers.
- Can hold his ground, is stout enough, bends to get good leverage.
#90 Pat Sims
- Plays nose tackle, under tackle, and 3-4 end positions.
- Surprisingly athletic for his size.
- Plays too high and turns his shoulders to the sideline when moving laterally which causes him to lose leverage and give up ground too easily.
- Gets turned too easily and then is easy to push around once he gets turned.
#98 C.J. Wilson
- Plays 3-4 end, under tackle, and sometimes nose tackle.
- Agile and has surprising strength and leverage but is not explosive.
- Lacks great range but has good agility and balance to pursue laterally.
- Doesn't fight much for ground at the point of attack.
- Can be a threat as a pass rusher when he can commit to a full-on bull rush. Uses leverage to drive offensive linemen back.
#95 Benson Mayowa
- Outside linebacker and defensive end.
- Athletic, very good leverage, strong.
- Maintains leverage while moving sideline-to-sideline.
- Good backside contain.
- Can beat offensive linemen with leverage as playside end.
- Very effective vs. a single blocker in the run game but struggles mightily vs. double teams.
#52 Khalil Mack
- Plays outside linebacker and end.
- Effective as a pass rusher and in coverage.
- Excellent leverage and very quick. Able to stack and shed blockers.
- Dominates tight ends in the running game and fares well against offensive tackles too.
- Plays the run with discipline and does a very good job setting the edge.
Here are a couple more plays:
Khalil Mack gets caught getting too far upfield when he has edge contain responsibility. Linebacker Miles Burris manages to force the RB back inside, though.
This time the Cardinals actually get the edge. Woodley loses contain and the back turns the corner:
Here we can see backside defensive tackle Antonio Smith get cut-blocked by the left guard. Mack and Ellis have the run contained on the playside but with Smith out of the play the back has a path behind the center. After a broken Sio Moore tackle, the 3- or 4-yard gain becomes even bigger.
C.J. Wilson is playing strongside end on this play. The tight end and right tackle double team him, the guard reaches the playside linebacker, and this springs the running back for a healthy gain:
Defensive End Justin Tuck has been dealing with a lingering knee injury and he did not play versus Arizona last week. He is expected to play against the Browns, though. Conversely, Lamarr Woodley faced the Cardinals but suffered an injury and will not play against Cleveland.
Justin Tuck is powerful and quick. He's a dangerous pass rusher with the ability to beat his blocker to the outside or the inside and he can also be effective lining up inside in sub defenses and rushing from a defensive tackle position. As for how he fares against the outside zone running game, he sets the edge well and is a threat to bowl through or slip past the offensive lineman attempting to block him on the playside of the run. This can result in a tackle for a loss or at least force the runner to take an inside path. When on the backside, Tuck is able to consistently hold contain and can track the play down from behind if the runner gets held up by his playside teammates.
Here we see Tuck beat the right tackle on the playside of the run. This leaves only the right guard to block both Tuck and a defensive tackle. The running back sees this and makes his cut toward the backside of the play. If not for missed tackles by DT C.J. Wilson and DE Khalil Mack, this run could have been stopped for no gain.
Tuck does it again. This time he beats the tackle to the outside, causing the runner to cut away from this trainwreck. Tuck's move on this play almost looks like he's pass rushing rather than defending the run:
On the backside of an outside zone run, Tuck scrapes across the line in pursuit and is there to make the tackle for a 4-yard gain when the running back cuts behind the backside guard:
Here, against Houston, Tuck gets driven five yards downfield by the right tackle, showing that when his initial attempt to win the leverage battle fails he can be bullied around by athletic linemen:
So, what does this mean overall?
Overall, the Raiders defense is good at setting the edge with their outside linebackers/defensive ends Khalil Mack, Justin Tuck, and Benson Mayowa. Sometimes these guys are even able to shed and blow up the play in the backfield if it is run right at them. Usually though, they force the runner to make his cut somewhere inside rather than continuing toward the sideline. They also provide good backside contain.
The downside for the Raiders is that their interior defensive linemen are largely unable to capitalize on this. C.J. Wilson, Justin Ellis, and Antonio Smith are athletic and strong enough to hold their ground or pursue the play, but none of them can outright beat their blockers with any regularity. This allows the running back to read his keys and make his cut. The Raiders really need somebody on the interior who can threaten the back in the backfield but they simply do not have one.
Just to put this into perspective
In Week 2, the Raiders faced Houston. With the departure of Gary Kubiak and the arrival of Bill O'Brien, the Texans are no longer a pure zone blocking scheme team, but they still have a lot of personnel in their offensive line and running back corps to execute outside zone runs at a high level. The Texans mixed a few outside zone runs into their rushing attack. Below I have a few that they ran in the fourth quarter, just to show you how a team built to excel at these plays was able to perform against the Raiders defense.
These plays occurred when the Raiders defense was at full strength -- as opposed to now when Woodley is out and Tuck has a banged up knee -- but, as you all know, the foundations of the Browns offense have also been shaken by the Alex Mack injury. Still, our vulnerability is up the middle of the line and our strength is on the edge. This matches up well will the Raiders defense, which is strong on the edges but much weaker up the middle. If the running game gets going, this could be seen as a reprieve and a chance to catch our breath for the tougher tasks awaiting us down the road. If it falters, it wouldn't be too unreasonable to expect things to get ugly in the upcoming weeks when we face premier interior defensive linemen such as Tampa Bay's Gerald McCoy, Houston's J.J. Watt, and Cincinnati's Geno Atkins.