Mike Shanahan has brought his successful Denver offense to Washington and Redskins partisans expect a major improvement over Jim Zorn's train wreck of an offense. Shanahan earned the reputation as a running game guru at Denver, turning late-round pick Terrell Davis into a star and later turning a list of no-name backs into effective running backs. Shanahan's system was so effective he rarely spent a high pick on a back, reasoning he could find just about any back to make his ground game work.
What makes his zone blocking attack so effective and what challenges does it pose for Wade Phillips and his Cowboys defenders Sunday night? Some stills from the Texans pre-season game demonstrate the pressure Shanahan's game presents to a front seven. (Houston runs the same schemes Washington does. Texans HC Gary Kubiak was Shanahan's OC for over a decade in Denver.)
The first still comes from the 2nd quarter of the game. The Texans are in a 1st-and-10 situation on their own 38. Houston deploys in a strong or near-I left, an off-set I with the offset fullback on the same side as the tight end. Note that Houston's tight end is flexed, meaning he's lined up wider than normal outside the left tackle.
Here's a look just moments into the play. Notice how the Texans linemen fire off the ball. Their initial steps go wide left -- they move in unison but want to get the Cowboys moving laterally, to probe for cutback lanes. Note also the battles for gap control. Look at the Cowboys placement in the first photo. Working from right-to-left, you can see Anthony Spencer has the C gap outside the Texans right tackle. LE Jason Hatcher is responsble for the B gap between the center and right guard. ILB Bradie James is cheating into the right A gap and though it's not clear in photo one, you can see in image two that NT Jay Ratliff is fighting to get across the center's face and seal the left A gap.
From Dallas' perspective, the play broke down when ILB Williams dithered in space. He's responsible for the C gap outside Brown but as you can see scanning the sequence, Williams failed to recognize the play to his side and attack the gap. He's four yards off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped and was still three yards off the ball when Brown engaged him. Had Williams attacked the line Brown would have had to leave Olshansky earlier, and this would have improved Igor's chances of staying outside the guard and making a play. Williams also would have slowed the back's cut upfield and given two pursuers, the NT Ratliff and the OLB Spencer, a chance to run the play down from the backside.
This sequence shows the pressure Washington's quick, one-cut-and-go attack puts on a front. Shanahan's scheme stretches your front laterally, like a rubber band, and if just one of your linemen or linebackers breaks discipline, if he over-pursues or allows himself to get hooked inside, the back will snap through the line at this point of weakness. The Cowboys front will have to be a band of steel Sunday night, stretching but maintaining its strength.
These base running plays, the inside zones, the intermediate zones and the stretch plays, present just one set of problems for the Cowboys outside linebackers and safeties. Take a close look at photo three. You'll notice Texans QB Matt Schaub turning to carry out a bootleg action. On this play, Schaub handed the ball off. Had he kept it, Anthony Spencer would have been put badly out of position.
In the next piece, I'll look at the options a successful zone running attack can create for Washington's passing game.
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