The chapter is titled, ’Zone Blocking,’ and its first page features a diagram and explanation of an ‘outside zone’ run. Rather than “firing forward” to block imaginary X’s, the O’s along the line flow laterally to the right, to draw defenders in the same direction and enable a ballcarrier to see a developing hole and hit it with one cut, often profiting from over-pursuit.
It’s exactly the type of play discussed nearly as often this summer in New England as the question of who will be calling for it in the fall, as the Patriots’ attempts to run outside zone often left them bankrupt of positive yards in preseason games and practices.
Such struggles, as Opening Day fast approaches, has led to a question: can the Pats adequately smooth out timing and assignments this week in Miami or should they scrap that section of their playbook for now?
But whether prepared or not to run it themselves on offense, they better be ready for a dose of outside zone runs and the play-action passing variants they spawn on defense.
That’s because Dolphins first-year head coach Mike McDaniel isn’t just a practitioner of the scheme, he’s a coaching surrogate of the father and son with whom it’s most closely associated.
From Tim Layden’s book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk: The Ultimate Football Playbook. (Photo by Bob Socci)
As Layden lays out, zone blocking concepts can be traced to the traps and double teams of Pop Warner’s single wing, were staples of Bill Yeoman’s veer of the mid-sixties and became foundational for the Browns and Bengals of the mid-eighties. But it’s the Shanahans, Mike and Kyle, and branches from their family’s coaching tree who are most responsible for the scheme taking root across today’s NFL.
When the older Shanahan became head coach of the Raiders in 1988, he hired Alex Gibbs to coach their offensive line. Gibbs later joined Shanahan in Denver, adding to the zone-blocking schemes choreographed by Howard Mudd in Cleveland and Jim McNally in Cincinnati a decade earlier.
Coordinating a line lighter and more athletic than most, Gibbs included cut blocking to the horizontal flow and point-of-attack double teams in the Broncos’ wide zone runs. Stretching defenses and cutting down defenders, Denver’s blockers sprung future Hall of Famer Terrell Davis to more than 6,400 yards in a four-year span.
They also helped relative also-rans become 1,000-yard rushers, even after Gibbs left for Atlanta in 2004.
Olandis Gary. Mike Anderson. Reuben Droughns. Tatum Bell.
All followed Davis as 1,000-yard breakouts for Shanahan’s Broncos. Same for Clinton Portis, who entered the league with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons before being traded to Washington.
During those years, Kyle Shanahan went from self-described “cord boy,” keeping the cable to his father’s sideline headset untangled, to quality control coach in Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, McDaniel went from a Broncos’ ball boy to one of their coaching interns.
McDaniel later worked with Kyle in Houston; joined him under Mike in Washington; then followed him to Cleveland, Atlanta and, finally, San Francisco, where the younger Shanahan was made a first-time head coach in 2017.
He named McDaniel a run-game specialist, changed his title to run-game coordinator a year later and, in 2021, promoted him to offensive coordinator. McDaniel’s machinations, conceiving pre-snap motions and personnel packages to confuse and out-leverage defenses made him a head-coaching candidate.
In February, the Dolphins made him their 14th head-coaching hire. During the three-game preseason, without revealing much specifically, McDaniel showed enough for Bill Belichick to recognize core offensive concepts.
“A lot of emphasis on the zone running game,” Belichick said on a Zoom conference Tuesday morning. “Things that we’ve seen from Kyle [Shanahan] and even before that from Mike Shanahan. But [they’re a] game plan team [that] creates different things each week for the new opponent, multiple types of runs.
“It’s not all zone runs by any stretch, and they use all their players, receivers, tight ends…whoever, as part of the running game, or RPO, which is kind of an extended – it’s a pass play – but it’s kind of an extended part of the running game. Outside screens and bubble passes, and things like that. So they do a good job of attacking the entire field and play actions come off the running game.”
Belichick highlighted the importance of yards after catch, noting the 49ers’ success as NFL leaders in that category the past two seasons, and the potential impact of Miami’s skilled and speedy newcomers.
Case in point, per Pro Football Reference, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo benefited from a league-best 6.5 yards after catch in 2021. Meanwhile, only three qualifying quarterbacks averaged less than Tua Tagovailoa’s 4.6 YAC.
But now Tagovailoa will be left-handing throws to first-year Dolphins Tyreek Hill and Cedric Wilson, in addition to last year’s rookie standout Jaylen Waddle. Any one is a home-run threat.
Plus, new running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert should represent a big upgrade over a group that still managed to more than double their per-game average by gaining 195 yards vs. the Pats in the 2021 regular-season finale.
“It’s an explosive offense that has a balance of running game, play action, mobile quarterback and deep ball, explosive play threats,” Belichick says.
Jeff Wilson rushed for 112 yards and three scores vs. the Pats on October 25, 2020. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Up close and personal
The one time Belichick saw McDaniel’s Niner run designs first hand occurred in a 33-6 loss in Week 7 of the 2020 campaign.
Already without an injured Mostert, San Fran called on on rarely used Jeff Wilson — himself questionable due to a calf injury — to be their lead back. Wilson carried 17 times for 112 yards, a 6.6 yard-per-rush average and three touchdowns in just three quarters. Overall, San Francisco gained 197 yards (5.3 average) on 37 rushes, including four scores, in a 33-6 rout.
On Monday, safeties coach Brian Belichick downplayed how much insight that experience can lend into McDaniel’s intentions for this weekend. It did, however, demonstrate an ability to utilize personnel in a diversified attack.
“We’re in a different place now than we were then and, obviously, this is a totally different team,” he said. “You don’t want to draw too much from something that long ago, with so many different people involved.
“But certainly, they’re a difficult offense to go against. That San Francisco offense from then, just speaking on that game, because they [could] go with big personnel and have a lot of different variables with how they can attack a defense.”
Ex-49er Raheem Mostert is a key member of Miami’s running back collective. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
Every draft cycle seems to stir debate over the value of one position more than others: running back.Speaking for the first time at an NFL Combine as Miami’s head coach in March, McDaniel explained how he believes the position should be appraised.
“What value do you put on anywhere from a third to a half of the plays on a given offensive season?” he said, per the Miami Herald. “You have to realize running backs, collectively, whether you do it part to whole or [with] one guy, you have about 300-to-400-some touches, so it’s incredibly valuable.
“But there is a more diverse way of finding them. There is, traditionally, from a historical perspective, there are rookies, second-year players, mid-to-late-round draft [picks] that have more success at that position than some others…It’s of paramount importance. We just have a concrete skill set that we found that can really flourish in a zone-blocking system.”
Bob Socci is in his 10th season calling play-by-play for the Patriots Radio Network on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.