by Ben Muth
The Chiefs beat the Saints in overtime on Sunday for their first win of 2012. In the process, they ran the ball 45 times for 273 yards. If there’s one thing we respect at Word of Muth, it is commitment to the running game.
The best part is that they chewed up all those yards with basically one scheme: outside zone. They ran a couple single-back powers, but other than that it was all variations of outside zone (force, boss, weak, search and slice). It was simply a clinic in execution.
Before we get to the praise though, a couple quick nitpicks about their run blocking. First: the Chiefs were terrible at cut blocking. For a team that majors in outside zone, this seems like it could be a huge problem. I can recall just a single instance where a Chiefs blocker actually cut down a New Orleans defender on the backside. There were times when they stopped the defender's momentum enough for there to be a small cutback lane, but the huge alleys you would typically see from a team that had this much success with this particular scheme weren't there. It’s definitely something I’ll keep an eye on as the season progresses.
The other issue may just be a new schematic wrinkle. There were a couple of times in the second half on weak side outside zones where the defensive end pinched and nobody really picked him up. Both plays involved basically the exact same personnel (except they were flipped, one to the left, one to the right): I Formation, 4-3 over defense. At the snap, the end would slant inside. The tackle would put a hand on him and continue to the second level. But the guard was working in combination with the center on the nose tackle, and wouldn’t come off for the end. The fullback would wheel back and get a piece of him, but not much.
I have a couple of theories about this. The Chiefs could have done it exactly as called both times. If the defensive end slants, the play side tackle and the fullback switch responsibilities, meaning the tackle now has the Will linebacker and the fullback has the end. It’s technically how the Chiefs blocked it, it just seems like it could lead to the play getting blown up in the backfield a lot. If the end redirects well after his initial slant, he’s making contact with your fullback three yards deep in the backfield. That could cause problems.
Another possibility is that there was a communication breakdown between the guard and tackle. This was my initial instinct the first time it happened. I thought maybe right tackle Eric Winston was used to not having to make a call from his time in Houston (this is a benefit of playing with guys long enough: you just start to see and feel the same things) and perhaps right guard Jon Asomoah missed an indicator.
But then left tackle Branden Albert and left guard Jeff Allen did the same thing on the left side a drive later. Now, once again, maybe it’s just two guys not used to playing next to each other. Albert usually plays next to Ryan Lilja, who moved to center after Rodney Hudson went down in the second quarter, so it could be two guys seeing different things again. Or, maybe the tackles made the calls both times and the guards missed them because of the noise in the Superdome. That can happen too.
All I know is that it seems unlikely that both tackles would just let an end stunt inside without thinking that someone was picking them up. So it has to be the schematic theory (the fullback and tackle switch responsibilities), or the communication theory. It’s another thing we’ll have to monitor as the season goes along.
One thing I don’t have a question about is the Chiefs ability to hit their landmarks and lock on to defenders on the front side of outside zones. They did a real nice job of this throughout the game. The Chiefs offense, particularly Winston and Albert, were able to get their helmets on the outside number of play side defenders whenever they wanted to.
This puts a lot of pressure on defenders. Now, they are in danger of getting reached, so they’ll do whatever it takes to fight outside and regain their leverage. That’s when the running back sticks his foot in the ground and turns it up inside the tackles for nice gains.
That’s what the Chiefs did for most of the first half. Helmets outside, defensive linemen fight to regain leverage, Charles puts his foot in the ground and goes between the tackles for modest gains of 3-to-10 yards. It didn’t get them a lot of points, but they kept possession and laid the groundwork for what was to come.
When the Chiefs got the ball back inside their own 10 with 5:31 left in the third quarter, they called a simple Outside Force play. They lined up in I-Left Formation, meaning the tight end was lined up left. The Saints were in an equally vanilla 4-3 Over, so the three technique was to the strength of the formation.
Outside Force is just an outside zone concept with the tight end responsible for the force player (usually the safety, unless the corner shows an obvious Cat look). Every lineman is responsible for the man on the gap to their left. If they don’t have someone on the line of scrimmage to their left, they are responsible for a second-level player.
Right at the snap, not everyone gets their helmet to that outside number landmark. You’ll notice that (LT) Albert and (RG) Asomoah seem a little behind the blocks in the picture below. That’s because they are working in combination with a front side player (TE Moeaki and C Lilja, in this case). You always want to leave some surface for the chipper to hit. Otherwise, you are wasting the early double team.
Because the front side player’s trajectory is much more vertical, he’s able to blow a shoulder off (turn the shoulders of) the down lineman. That allows the backside offensive linemen to get his head on the front side and drive a defender who is in an awkward body position. Lilja did a really nice job of this below.
This next shot is borderline pornographic for offensive line coaches. You’ll notice that all three down linemen for the defense have been reached. Albert (LT), Allen (LG), and Asomoah (RG) all have their helmets on their defender’s shoulder pad. This is exactly how you draw it up.
I also want you to notice Albert's right hand. It’s kind of hard to make out, but you can see it right at the base of the end's shoulder pads, just below his pecs (kind of on his back as well). In traditional drive run blocking, you always want to shoot your hands together inside the defenders framework. Everyone has heard the old adage about inside hands winning, but on outside zone a lot of coaches teach what’s called a catch hand.
They’ll teach you to lead with your helmet and play side hand, and then throw the backside hand like a hooking open-handed palm strike to the body. This accomplishes a couple things. First, it hurts the defender: it doesn’t feel great to take these open-hand punches to the ribs all day and it wears you down. It also allows you to almost shot put a defender outside if he really doesn’t want to get reached -- when he starts to fight outside, you use his own momentum to throw him outside a couple of yards further.
Finally, it allows you to really hold the piss out of the guy if he tries to redirect inside. By throwing the catch hand low, you can grab on to the base of the shoulder pads. Most holds get called because guys are grabbing around the sleeves, so when a defender changes directions there’s a violent shift in his pads, and it looks they’re getting pulled off. By holding lower, there isn’t a ripping motion of the jersey away from the body, where a guy’s body is facing one way and his pads are facing another way. Instead, the defender just has a hard time turning his body at all.
Now here is where the ground work comes in. The Chiefs had a couple looks like the one above in the first half, but on every one of those plays, either the end or the outside linebacker would fight like hell and get back outside. This would create holes inside, but the Saints could corral Charles for medium gains. On this play though, Sam linebacker Will Herring and play side defensive end Martez Wilson both stay inside and allow Charles to get the edge.
Maybe it’s because they were tired, maybe it’s because they were tired of watching Charles turn up inside for five yards. For whatever reason, neither defender got outside. Herring’s failure was particularly bad, as he was unblocked on the play since fullback Nate Eachus took an awful route in the backfield.
In the end, Herring dove at Charles’ ankles and Moeaki ended up getting a good block on the safety. And that was all she wrote. Charles went 91 yards, untouched, into the end zone for the only Chiefs touchdown of the game.
Finally, before we wrap it up this week, I do want to point out a tremendous block by Terrance Copper. Usually, I make fun of how little wideouts want to block and how cornerbacks oblige them by not wanting to tackle, but Copper’s effort deserves praise. It was the key block on a 40-yard run by Charles. If he gets another one this year, I’ll even draw it up.