Playoffs Preview: Weathering The Wide Zone Run
Before we delve into our playoff preview of the Houston Texans, let’s clear up one myth perpetuated by the talking heads on television: teams that won in the first round of the playoffs don’t have any advantage over their second round opponents. This is confusing because its impossible to change the television channel without catching some new gregarious haircut screaming, “The Texans won this weekend. What did the Ravens do? Nothing! While they were laying around eating Yoplaits and watching The Gilmore Girls, the Texans were out on the field.”
Since 2001, teams with a first-round bye are 25-15 (.625) in the second round of the playoffs. This doesn’t mean that the Ravens will win Sunday’s game everytime it is played, but it shows that they didn’t spend the weekend losing the capabilities that enabled them to win the AFC North. In fact, the upsets in this round that do happen, don’t look like the Ravens vs. Texans. Instead they resemble games like the Saints vs. 49ers, where a quantifiably great team happens to end up under-seeded.
With that misconception dispatched, let’s preview the Texans after the jump.
The foundation of the Texans offense is a zone-blocking running game which Gary Kubiak learned under the tutelage of Mike Shanahan with the late-1990s Denver Broncos. Those Denver teams became an incredible brand resulting in two Super Bowls, a 2,000-yard rushing season from a previously unheralded Terrell Davis, and 1,000-yard rushing seasons from guys who had previous careers as Marines.
The key to the zone-blocking running game is one play: the wide zone run. If the Ravens are capable of stopping this one running play the Houston Texans offense should crumble. Simple, huh? All the Ravens have to is stop one play, force TJ Yates to throw a bunch of interceptions and coast into the AFC Championship. Unfortunately its a bit more complex. Based on explanations from SmartFootball.com and HogsHaven.com, we’ll explore the subtleties of this play in detail.
In the wide zone run every offensive player is given detailed responsibilities, even receivers and quarterbacks are expected to execute specific blocks. In general, the blockers try to reach the defenders and seal them to the inside. This can be seen circled in black in the picture below during the Ravens 2011 preseason game against the Shanahan-led Washington Redskins. On the backside of the run, blockers are instructed to cut defenders to the ground to seal off pursuit, as shown circled in red in the picture below. The picture is courtesy of HogsHaven.com.
The key to the wide zone run then becomes whether the running back (R) can execute effective reads. His job is to make one cut and get yards by reading the movement of the defensive end (E) and defensive tackle (T). If the end and tackle stay inside, the running back runs outside as shown in the left-hand side of the figure below. If the end and the tackle go outside the running back needs to cut back as shown in the right-had side of the figure below. The cutback on the wide zone doesn’t look like much of a “cut” at all. Instead the runner goes straight up the middle of the field. The figures below are stills taken from SmartFootball.com’s excellent youtube video on the wide zone run. Click on the figure to embiggen.
That’s it on offense, one play. However, the Texans execute it extremely well and once the defense has overcommitted to the run, there are opportunities for effective play-action passes that TJ Yates may even be capable of exploiting. Ultimately, the Ravens should win Sunday’s game. They already beat a better version of the Texans in week 6 with Matt Schaub at the helm. If the Ravens do win, their ability to stay disciplined against Houston’s wide zone runs will be imperative in keeping the Texans’ backs limited to short gains and avoiding big plays.