Through the first two weeks of the 2014 season the Kansas City ground game struggled. Chiefs running backs combined for just 3.3 yards per carry, a far cry from the 4.7 average they produced in 2013. Their odds of improving looked bleak heading into Week 3 against a stout Miami defense that stifled the Patriots’ running game in Week 1 and was allowing just 3.8 yards per carry, half a yard better than league average. Further, the Chiefs were missing All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles. But against the Dolphins, Kansas City backs carried 38 times for 157 yards, a healthy 4.1 average. It wasn’t just better execution; the Chiefs employed a surprising game plan, switching from their typical zone blocking scheme to one dominated by man/power techniques. They surprised the Dolphins and pushed them around with heavy lines featuring multiple tight ends. It was a successful game plan and Kansas City prevailed 34-15. This clip from the Chiefs’ Week 2 game against Denver shows a successful zone blocking run. When watching effective execution of this technique, the word that comes to mind is “flow.” Here, the choreography of the play just flows to the right. The hole isn’t opened by brute force, but by coordinated movement and angles. The offensive linemen do not move not forward, shoving their men off their spots. They instead move sideways, along the line of scrimmage, to occupy blockers and allow the ball carrier to exploit whichever lane(s) open up.
Watch the individual linemen as the play loops. Left guard Mike McGlynn (#75) and center Rodney Hudson (#61) have to execute reach blocks, flowing to the play to cut off their opponents and impede their progress. Right guard Zach Fulton (#73) and right tackle Ryan Harris (#68) do the same at the second level, cutting off the linebackers. There’s very little outmuscling by the Chiefs’ front; their responsibility is preventing defenders from clogging the running lanes. Tight end Anthony Fasano (#80) and fullback Anthony Sherman (#42) form the right side of the hole, but even they are pushing laterally as much as straight ahead. In a zone blocking system linemen don’t necessarily need lumberjack strength; athleticism and good technique are more ideal assets. Hudson, McGlynn, and Harris are all barely 300 pounds but have the athleticism to play in a zone blocking scheme. Zone blocking is especially effective for enabling cutbacks. Defenders will try to cheat, over-pursuing the running back in an attempt to avoid the reach blocks. A running back with good vision and instincts will cut the run back, away from the blockers and defenders. As he’s usually cutting back towards empty space, big plays can ensue ‒ which happens for the Chiefs in this Week 1 play against Tennessee:
Charles follows his blockers to the offensive left side, but sees a running lane open up and cuts back sharply to his right for a 24-yard gain. Charles is one of the fastest and most agile backs in the league and he will make defenses pay if they over-pursue. The Chiefs have primarily used zone blocking schemes under head coach Andy Reid. In Week 2 against Denver, for instance, they used zone blocking on 22 of 27 designed running plays, according to the tale of the tape.
In a man/power blocking scheme, the offensive linemen also move in concert, but what distinguishes this approach from zone blocking is that they’re not all flowing in the same direction; instead the blockers execute specific assignments. The hole isn’t opening organically; it’s being pried open by will and superior numbers. Above, the Chiefs align a tight end and a sixth offensive lineman to the strong side of the formation (right side in the highlight). The extra lineman creates one side of the running lane, while the tight end and left tackle double-team the defensive end to form the other side. A pulling guard and fullback burst through the hole ahead of the running back to take on second-level defenders. That’s five blockers at the point of attack; with that many, the offense should outnumber the defenders in that area and gain the advantage. The six-yard gain here converts a key 4th-and-1. Strength is more critical in man/power schemes than in zone blocking. Linemen need to push defenders out of the way rather than just impede them. That’s not to say athleticism isn’t important; notice how quickly right guard Zach Fulton pulls across the formation to get in the hole. Pulling requires a blend of quickness, speed, balance, and strength. Film analysis shows that the Chiefs ran man/power on 21 of 38 designed run plays (55%), a huge jump from Week 2 (19%) and their historical norm. The adjustment was rewarded with great success in the run game and on the scoreboard. The Chiefs’ line was built to zone block. As discussed, their linemen are smaller, quicker and more technically gifted. Contrast that with the Raider offensive line where every player is over 6’3” and at least 300 pounds. Without the brute strength of prototypical man/power linemen, the Chiefs often succeeded against the Dolphins by lining up multiple tight ends or extra linemen (as shown above). Arrowhead Pride highlighted some of the ways Reid used his tight ends in the Miami game. You can read more about their tight ends and line in our Know Your Enemy: Kansas City Offense feature.
Why and what this means
It’s obvious the Chiefs switched gears from Week 2 to Week 3, but whether it was a one-time game plan adjustment or a change in philosophy is unclear.. Charles missed the last contest, so the shift may have been made to simplify reads for inexperienced backup running back Knile Davis. With Charles listed as “probable” for Monday’s game, we could see a return to Kansas City’s more traditional zone blocking scheme. A game-specific plan to take advantage of some weakness in the Dolphins run defense would fit with Reid’s history of using a curveball to keep the opponent on their toes. No matter the origin of the shift, the Patriots aren’t likely to see as many pulling guards and double-teams on Monday night but it is something they have to account and prepare for. The Kansas City run game has proven that it’s not one-dimensional.