Monday, December 15, 2008

In the Zone | by Jay

Here's the SBT article some of you were clamoring for, quoting Tom Thayer, former Irish lineman and the current Voice of the Chicago Bears. The piece just came out on Friday, but has already been hashed out on message boards far and wide, so forgive us if it's old news to you. I think Thayer makes a couple of pointed observations, one going to technique, and the other to scheme.

Insightful: I pay attention when former players at the highest level (Thayer played in the NFL for a number of years, and even has a Super Bowl ring from '85) are critical of technique. Thayer says the current Irish linemen are strong, but have poor footwork and exhibit a woeful lack of "choreography." Clearly, the Irish rushing attack is rather punchless; take a look at the "highlights" of the rushing attack against Michigan State, as but one example from the year. How much of this is due to poor coaching is anyone's guess, but when former linemen can identify poor footwork from a television broadcast, it's probably time to reassess your technique.

Debatable: Thayer's critique of zone blocking -- the scheme, in other words -- as the main culprit. "To me zone blocking is a bunch of crap," Thayer says and he goes on to deride the entire concept. To me, this reads as personal preference more than anything else, and it also flies in the face of successful zone blocking implementations elsewhere in college football, as at Southern Cal. (For an excellent discourse on the Trojan's zone blocking, check out this post from Trojan Football Analysis, one of the better Xs and Os blogs out there, and one we've had linked on the sidebar for quite a while now.)

I also ran across this quote from David Cutcliffe, another collegiate offensive guru known to use zone blocking from time to time.

Years ago in short yardage, UT would line up with two tight ends and run inside the tackles behind a strong lead blocker. Now days, UT has often gone with an empty backfield set or even the shotgun on third-and-short. And UT does more zone blocking. But Cutcliffe said the Vols aren’t primarily a zone blocking team in short yardage.

"We’re always going to do a combination," Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe said zone blocking is somewhat misunderstood. For example, in zone blocking, if a guard has a defensive linemen lined up in front of him, it becomes a drive block.

"It’s a little bit misunderstood by most people," Cutcliffe said. "Some people think you’re blocking an area and you’re soft. I don’t want anything about our offense to be soft."

When UT got the defensive look it wanted against Cal and ran the zone blocking scheme, the Vols averaged 7 yards per play, Cutcliffe said.

"We were getting double teams at the point of attack," Cutcliffe said. "I probably didn’t call that enough."
If you want to make the case that zone blocking doesn't work for Notre Dame, or for this group of Irish linemen, that's one thing. (And to his credit, Thayer says he'd go to the blackboard to show us, so he's willing to back up what he says). But an indictment of all zone blocking seems to be painting with a broad brush, and maybe a bit partisan to boot.

Lastly, I'd like to point out the one area where this line made great strides: pass protection. You can chalk it up to a reinvigorated passing attack, or more headiness on the part of one James Clausen, or better blitz pickup by the running backs, but the numbers speak for themselves: 20 sacks given up, down from 58 last year. That's the lowest total in Charlie's tenure, and tied for the lowest total going back to 1998. And on a per-pass-attempt basis, it's good for 31st nationally, which isn't too shabby.