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Conversion From Man to Zone Blocking Benefits Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints Offense

The New Orleans Saints have been forcing a square peg into a round hole for years by trying make Mark Ingram into a power running back. So what happens when Sean Payton simply sands the round hole into a square one? Saints fans hope for success through the transition from man blocking to a zone scheme, and Ingram hopes to replicate the success that won him a Heisman in Alabama.

Jeremy Brevard-US PRESSWIRE

In the NFL, there are multiple ways to do everything.  There are multiple ways to play defense, multiple ways to pass, and multiple ways to scheme in general.  One thing that is rarely mentioned, however, is the fact that there are multiple ways to block for a running back on something as basic as a dive play.  The NFL is a "blink and you might miss it league," but one of the battles constantly being overlooked, even when it’s staring people in the face, is the battle in the trenches.

There is a reason that the area where the offensive and defensive lines clash is called "the trenches."  It’s a very simple one: It’s a war down there.  But not in the sense that it’s a bunch of huge guys crashing into each other.  There is more strategy and split-second thinking than anyone ever gives the big guys credit for.  They have to know how to pass-protect, run-protect, who or what their assignment is, what the quarterback is reading, whether he’s taking a 3-step or a 5-step drop, the list goes on and on.

When you’re working for the New Orleans Saints, that list got a little bit more expansive in 2013.  The Saints began transitioning from a power running scheme to a zone blocking scheme.  This was, presumably, to cater to Mark Ingram.  Ingram, of course, was drafted in the first round after the Saints traded in to get him in the 2011 draft, so they wanted (and want) him to be their workhorse for a few years to come.

Unfortunately, he has not yet lived up to the name "workhorse."  Not even close.  The Saints have a running back by committee system, so no one guy is going to get 250-300 touches in a season.  Ingram, however, has been nowhere near what they wanted yet.  In 2011, he got 122 touches for 474 yards, garnering a 3.9 yards per carry average.  In 2012, he touched the ball 156 times for 602 yards, again picking up 3.9 YPC (2012 was the only year he played 16 games as well).  In 2013, he carried 78 times for 386 yards, picking up 4.9 YPC.  This stat should be taken with a grain of salt, however, as he only played 8 games last season, shrinking his sample size, and had his stats inflated by an utterly atrocious Dallas Cowboys defense, against whom he picked up 145 yards on 14 carries (that’s 10.5 yards per carry for a single game).

The Saints, in order to combat Ingram’s perennial mediocrity, have decided to integrate the aforementioned zone blocking scheme (which will be referred to as a "ZBS" from here on out).  Ingram, of course, hails from Alabama, who famously run the best ZBS in the country.  Other running backs out of ‘Bama include Eddie Lacy of Green Bay and, infamously, Trent Richardson, drafted in the first round by Cleveland before being traded for a first round pick to Indianapolis.  Green Bay runs a ZBS, Cleveland and Indianapolis don’t.  The comparative success of Lacy and Richardson should speak for itself in terms of which works better for Alabama products.

So, what exactly is a ZBS?  It’s actually exactly what it sounds like.  Think defensive coverages.  Where man (or "power") blocking is simply finding your assignment and taking him out of the play, a ZBS calls on its offensive linemen to cover an area and eliminate players coming into that area.  The ZBS slightly abandons size and strength in lieu of quickness and lateral movement.  There is more technique and deception involved in a ZBS.

For starters, double teams are actually favorable in ZBS.  The backside defensive end (or the "jack" in most 3-4 schemes) is left to run free into the backfield, while the line slides towards the side they’re rushing.  A player may also perform a "reach block" in which he steps 45 degrees at the snap before attempting to step inside of a defender’s leg and engaging him.  This is also called a "shield block," since it eliminates a defender’s ability to read the play.

The key to reading ZBS vs Man/Power blocking is the first step the offensive linemen take and how the quarterback handles assignments at the line.

Take this play against the Carolina Panthers back in 2011.  The Saints line up in a "Standard I" formation with the right side as the strong side.  In 2011, New Orleans ran exclusively man blocking schemes.  To this point, Brees has already gone through a standard series of checks in which he establishes the "Mike," "Will," and "Sam" linebackers, along with who is supposed to pick them up.

At the time the ball is snapped, everyone who isn’t already engaged has their eyes on someone.  The left tackle handles the Will, the center is looking at the Sam, the Tight End is looking to seal the outside corner (this formation had the two receivers on the weakside) and the fullback is looking straight into the hole, presumably to pick up the Mike, who is unaccounted for at this point.  The backside end is completely unaccounted for on this particular play, he is taken out of it simply by direction.

The key players in this play are circled above.  In red, the center can be seen getting caught up in a block that was not his original assignment.  His original assignment was #50, Thomas Davis.  Because of this mishap, the fullback is forced to target Davis, circled in blue, leaving middle linebacker Dan Connor, #55, circled in black and standing right in the gap that Pierre Thomas wanted to run through.  This play is stopped after 4 years, when it realistically could have gone for so much more had it not been for one disrupted assignment.

In this regard, man coverage is not dissimilar to man blocking.  One missed assignment can blow up a play.  Likewise, zone coverage is similar to zone blocking.  Mistakes can be mitigated by others picking up slack.

The Washington Redskins ran arguably the best zone blocking scheme in the NFL in 2012.  It made Alfred Morris a 1,000 yard back in his rookie season and was doubled in effectiveness by the prowess of Robert Griffin III on the ground. Mike Shanahan, of course, has a long history of ZBS dating back to when he coached the Broncos.

For the sake of familiarity, let’s look at the Saints Redskins game opening day in 2012.

The ‘Skins come out in a 21 set (two tight ends, one halfback) with the strong side being on the left.  The Saints are out in their base 4-3 defense.  Will Herring is the Sam, Curtis Lofton is the Mike and David Hawthorne is the Will.

This image directly juxtaposes the 2011 Saints.  The ZBS relies on coordination and precision from the offensive line.  The yellow arrow indicates the mass exodus at the snap.  Comparing that image to the 2011 Saints:

It can be seen that the offensive line is more organized.  They slide as a unit to the strong side of the formation.  The right defensive end is double teamed at the snap as well, and the backside end is, again, left unblocked (more or less the only similarity in the two schemes).

Critics of the ZBS tend to go after its lack of forward thinking.  With the offensive line so heavily occupied, it may be difficult for a running back to find any open space on the second level.  However, the way the Redskins handle it is simply "it’ll take care of itself:"

The red circle is indicative of the giant mess that ZBS causes in the trenches.  Players are pushed aside and stumble over each other.  It isn’t polished, but it works.  The yellow circle, of course, is the ball.  ZBS running backs make the most of their touches through elusive lateral quickness and good vision.  Those two traits are imperative to the running backs in this scheme.  Herring is the linebacker being manhandled by a tight end directly to the right of Morris.  He would eventually shed the block, but not before a 6 yard gain.

So, where does Ingram fit into all of this?  Well, let’s take a look at 2012 vs. 2013 Mark Ingram.  In 2012, the Saints ran exclusively man blocking, whereas in 2013, they integrated some ZBS.  That’s actually an important note that shouldn’t be overlooked: The Saints are not entirely a ZBS team.  They do still run man blocking.  2013 was merely the beginning of the transition.

Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 15 of the 2012 season, the Saints come out in an "I" formation with the Z receiver pinched.   Each gap in the offensive line is numbered above.  The Niners are in their base 3-4 defense to counter it.  Now, against a basic 3-4, Ingram should be looking at either the 4 or 5 gaps (noted in red).

Astoundingly, Ingram gets his 0 gap, circled in green, as soon as he gets the ball.  However, it’s not his best option.  With the left defensive end being double teamed, the four gap (also green) is wide open.  It can be inferred that the playcall is for a 0 HB dive, which Ingram mistakes for "HB dives for 0 yards."

Despite the little bit of daylight displayed in the previous picture, Ingram attempts one last cutback that promptly puts him in the midst of a giant mass of people, where he’s brought down for two yards.  The red line above is his exact route on the play.  He zigged and he zagged, but he didn’t go anywhere and, most fatally, he failed to look outside of the assigned hole.  This tunnel vision was prevalent throughout the first two years of Ingram’s career.  He appeared tentative, and spent a lot of time running into his linemen because they weren't creating holes in the assigned gap.

Since it seems unfair to use tape from the Dallas game, an embarrassment of riches for the entire Saints offense, it only seems right to use a game that the running game won for New Orleans in conjunction with the defense: The Wild Card game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013.  Ingram rushed for 98 yards in this game, almost entirely behind the ZBS.

The Saints line up in a 21 formation, with the Eagles combatting it with a base 3-4.  This is literally as Brees is finishing the snap count.  Note the very slight lean towards the right from the Saints offensive line.

At the snap, this is what ZBS is all about.  The LG & LT double up the backside end (red circle), the center performs a reach on the Will ILB (black squiggly line), and the RG & RT bottle up their men, creating the very cluster pile Washington used to contain the Saints defense above (blue circle).  Meanwhile, the Sam linebacker and the strongside corner are forced to contend one on one with the Saints offense, thus diverting their attention from Ingram.

Ingram’s eyes are the keys on this play.  He takes a quick jab step on the inside line, freezing the corner #24, if only for a moment.  However, he’s already seen the outside hole and immediately breaks outside.

The biggest misconception about Ingram is that he can’t work in the open field.  In reality, people believe this because he’s in the open field so rarely.  Ingram jukes outside and reverses in, allowing himself a 17 yard gain on this play.

Why Ingram is so effective in the ZBS as opposed to man blocking is because he has very good vision and lateral quickness.  In a power running or one-cut offense, Ingram suffers from tunnel vision and refuses to try to make a play based on his own merit.  In the ZBS, he can pick his holes.  The Saints also have the perfect personnel for the ZBS (center pending).  Replacing Charles Brown with Terron Armstead helped Ingram tremendously in 2013, even for such a brief stint.  In fact, against Carolina and Tampa Bay last season, the two games Armstead started, Ingram averaged 6.4 and 6.7 YPC, respectively.  De la Puente fleeing for Chicago also isn't the worst thing in the world.  The images against the Eagles nearly existed in a vacuum; he struggled on reach blocks in 2013 an lacked the lateral movement or vision required to succeed in ZBS.  Of course, it’s hard to imagine Ingram will continue to pick up over 6 YPC consistently, but it’s a nice thought.

The other major thing to understand about ZBS is how it affects linemen behavior.  Rather than scattering at the snap and scrambling to find their man, they flow as a coordinated unit to one side or another, thus covering as much ground as possible as densely as they can.  To know if it’s man or zone blocking at the snap, watch the first step.  If their hips immediately open to the strong side, it will be ZBS.  If their first step is down the field to engage someone, it’s man to man.

Asking a running back to switch to running in a man scheme from a zone one is like asking Rob Ryan to coach the offense for a season.  It requires an entirely different skill set for an RB to run through a line that is creating holes through physicality rather than through coordination.  This is where Ingram suffered.  It’s admirable that Payton has taken such large strides to benefit his player’s strengths, especially since the transition from man blocking to zone is relatively easy for an offensive lineman.

2014 is a make or break year for Ingram.  It’s safe to say that there is absolutely no way that the Saints pick up the 5th year option on him, as $5.2 million is a lot to spend on any running back, particularly due to longevity issues.  However, he can still get himself a pay-day.  Ingram has the talent to be a top 15 running back.  Now that the Saints are in a system that benefits him the most, there are absolutely no excuses to not perform.  One can only hope that he’ll understand this and come back healthy and ready in 2014.