The secret to the NFL's best rushing teams: Why zone blocking is here to stay

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We've reached that time in the NFL season when we discard fantasy fun and lock in on playoff football. You know what that means: wholehearted tributes to the running game, amid bad weather and injured quarterbacks and everything else that comes in late December.

What we really should be recognizing is that -- even in a league warped to reward throwers -- you do not need to pass 600 times over a 16-game campaign to be a playoff team or Super Bowl contender. The 2019 season has delivered a broad spectrum of multi-threat offenses that will march into the postseason. The Baltimore Ravens' unique scheme tailored around quarterback Lamar Jackson has attracted most of the attention, but the more widespread trend is a resurrection of the zone-blocking concept popularized by the mid-1990s Denver Broncos.

Franchises that employ disciples of those Denver teams will represent at least one half of the NFC playoff field, and two will take center stage Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. A league-leading 70.3% of the Green Bay Packers' run plays this season have used outside or inside zone concepts, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) data. The Minnesota Vikings, who host the Packers in a key NFC North game, rank No. 4 (66%) and will test the durability of the scheme with tailback Dalvin Cook (shoulder) sidelined. And let's not overlook the San Francisco 49ers, who have deployed the NFL's best rushing offense outside of Baltimore and are using zone blocking on 55% of their run plays.

To be clear, despite a healthy 4.3-yard average per carry, the NFL hasn't moved toward the run in any kind of collective way. The league total of 11,668 carries, including quarterback runs, was the third-lowest through 15 weeks of any season since 2001. But within that sum, zone blocking is being used to some degree by all 32 teams and at least half the time by a majority of them.

Why has a 25-year-old scheme held strong enough to make an outsized impact on the postseason? Let's take a closer look at the journey of zone runs, one that started in response to a defensive wrinkle that changed the game in the early 1990s, through the eyes of its current evangelist.

Denver beginnings

The first time Vikings assistant Gary Kubiak remembers hearing the term "zone blocking" was upon returning to the Broncos as an assistant coach under Mike Shanahan in 1995. Shanahan hired legendary assistant Alex Gibbs as his offensive line coach, and the staff began discussing an antidote to the zone blitz schemes proliferated by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

In their zone blitz, the Steelers would in essence swap player responsibilities. If a linebacker blitzed, for example, a defensive end might drop back into his coverage zone. Among other results, the switch would throw off an offensive line's man-to-man blocking assignments.

In response, Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme called for linemen to block whoever was in a particular zone rather than a specific man, often creating a double-team on the line of scrimmage to push back the initial wall of defense.

"I remember Dom Capers running all of those zone dogs," Kubiak said. "When you're in a man scheme, you're getting picked off and you look bad. In zone schemes, when defenses start stunting, you don't stop and go back and block them. You just keep running into your area and pick people off. So all of it was probably a reaction to the zone blitzes, and it just became part of football."

As the zone-blocking scheme developed, it grew beautiful in its simplicity and effectiveness. It boiled the running game down to two essential plays: outside zone and inside zone. Coaches taught one on the first day of practice, the other on the second day. By the third day, Kubiak said, the foundation of the run offense was installed.

During the next four seasons, the Broncos won two Super Bowls while tailback Terrell Davis rushed for 6,413 yards, second-best in the NFL. Davis scored a league-high 56 touchdowns during that period as well. His performance in those seasons, as well as a 157-yard game in Super Bowl XXXII, formed the foundation for Davis' enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The approach spawned believers who would impact the league a quarter of a century later.

"It was really about just many, many repetitions of doing something simple," Kubiak said. "I remember Alex saying, 'We're not going to run a lot of plays. We might run them 10,000 different ways to look different, but it'll be the same thing up front.' ... You become a wide-zone or a tight-zone team, and you adjust to what people do."

Here's a modern-day example of the scheme from the Niners' Week 13 game against the Ravens, a 19-yard gain by Raheem Mostert on a cutback, as shown by NFL Next Gen Stats animation:

The right people in place

The Shanahan-Kubiak coaching tree worked actively to preserve the scheme's lifespan. Kubiak brought Mike Shanahan's son, Kyle, with him to Houston when the Texans hired him as head coach in 2006. Kyle Shanahan, now the 49ers' coach, was Kubiak's offensive coordinator from 2008 to '09 before taking the same role with his father in Washington from 2010 to '13. And current Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur was the Redskins' quarterback coach during the Shanahan era, and then followed Kyle to the Atlanta Falcons from 2014 to '15. When the Packers hired LaFleur in January, he was determined to bring zone-run concepts with him.

At about the same time, Kubiak came out of semiretirement to join the Vikings as an assistant head coach and offensive adviser. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wanted a veteran coach to guide young offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski -- but Kubiak had an agenda behind his move. He wanted to evangelize zone-blocking schemes, and the value of a balanced offense, for a generation that might have been in danger of forgetting them.

In 2018, of course, Zimmer had fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo largely because the Vikings couldn't establish a balanced offense. At the time of DeFilippo's exit, the Vikings ranked fourth in the NFL in dropbacks (568) and No. 31 in rushes (274).

"One of the things that was important for [Kubiak]," Zimmer said, "was to keep the offense moving [toward balance]. For him to be able to come in and mentor a young coordinator [in that scheme] was really important. To me, that's about talking about your particular scheme and making sure that carries on in the future. I think that part was as important to me as anything."

That's when Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman went to work. The Vikings already had some of the personnel ingredients necessary for zone running. For instance, Cook had been introduced to the scheme at Florida State and had a natural instinct for stringing out wide-zone runs. Right tackle Brian O'Neill, who started his college career at tight end, was an established starter and one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the league.

Spielman drafted center Garrett Bradbury, a former defensive lineman, and signed guard Josh Kline, who played last season with the Tennessee Titans when LaFleur was their offensive coordinator.

Indeed, zone runs work best when linemen can quickly move to the second level, or get ahead of the running back, and they tend to favor lighter players. Offensive lineman on the Vikings' roster average 308.3 pounds, the third-lowest in the league, according to a league database. With a bit more time to retrofit, the 49ers have the lightest group of linemen, averaging 305.9 pounds.

"A lot of it has to do with athletic ability and the ability to move laterally," Spielman said, "and the ability to adjust and sustain in space because they're going to have to block linebackers and defensive backs."

The Packers, meanwhile, had long sought athletic offensive linemen under former general manager Ted Thompson to maximize pass protection during the transition from quarterback Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. And new general manager Brian Gutekunst did make two additions with LaFleur's scheme in mind: signing free-agent right guard Billy Turner and drafting left guard Elgton Jenkins. The Packers' offensive linemen average 311.9 pounds, the 14th-lightest in the NFL.

Getting results

There is a difference between employing the zone-run scheme and imposing a run-based offense. As it has turned out, the 49ers and Vikings have leaned more on the run than the Packers have.

Perhaps the best way to assess those values is to eliminate playcalls from the fourth quarter, which can skew wildly based on game situations. Viewed from that perspective, the Packers have run the ball 238 times in the first three quarters of games, the third-fewest in the league -- hardly a shock given Rodgers' stature and career history. However, the 49ers (306) rank No. 2, behind only the Ravens (353), while the Vikings (297) are tied for No. 3. Conversely, the 49ers and Vikings both have among the NFL's 10 fewest dropbacks during the first three quarters; the Packers have the 11th-most.

It's no surprise, then, that the 49ers have accumulated the league's second-most rushing yards (2,058), and the Vikings (1,902) rank No. 4. The teams' four primary runners -- the 49ers' Matt Breida and Mostert, along with the Vikings' Cook and Alexander Mattison -- all rank in the league's top 20 in average rushing yards before first contact, a sign of the relatively clear lanes they have received. Packers tailback Aaron Jones ranks No. 21, though he, along with Cook (1,135 yards), has already surpassed his previous career-high in rushing (830).

Beyond run frequency, and aside from any desire to revert away from the current pass-first inertia, all three teams have used zone blocking to help grease their passing game, especially with play-action and screens. The Packers, for example, feel confident that their outside zone puts an additional threat on pass defenders. Jones ranks No. 6 among NFL running backs, with an average of 9.4 yards per reception.

"We have kind of gotten the outside zone rolling a little bit," Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said, "and that's something we want to focus on. That's something that we want to be all about, because it opens up the play-action down the field, because not only do you have [linebackers] stepping up, but you have them running one way or the other also, so you kind of get to displace those guys a little bit more. So I think that's something that we want to keep rolling with and some of the things have been pretty good."

In this example from NFL Next Gen Stats animations -- a Week 3, 39-yard pass from Rodgers to Davante Adams -- the Packers used play-action and an outside-zone look to hold the corner near the line of scrimmage, allowing Adams to get open downfield.

Indeed, the Packers have ramped up their use of play-action in their past three games as their outside-zone game has settled in. Their 40 play-action dropbacks over that period are tied for the sixth-most in the NFL. And overall this season, the Vikings lead the NFL with 13 touchdown passes on play-action, while the 49ers are tied for No. 5 with nine.

The Vikings, meanwhile, rank No. 2 in the NFL with an average of 9.22 yards per screen pass, more than 3 yards better than their 2018 average. Cook leads the NFL with 28 receptions for 298 yards on those plays. According to Spielman, the connection is clear between gearing up for a zone-blocking scheme and improving on screens.

"Our screen game is as effective as it's ever been," Spielman said. "... The thing that we haven't been very good at in the past -- and give credit to Dalvin Cook because he's been magic with the ball in his hands -- is the screen game. That's been a big part of the offense, as well. When you look at our games or watch the tape, look at how these guys are running downfield."

Cook, of course, won't be on the field to catch screen passes or pressure the edge of the Packers' run defense on Monday night. His backup, Alexander Mattison, is dealing with an ankle injury that forced him out of the Vikings' game last week against the Los Angeles Chargers and is questionable to suit up. The Vikings' running game could be in the hands of Mike Boone, an undrafted free agent with 32 career carries, and veteran kick returner Ameer Abdullah during a key part of their playoff run.

In many ways, this game will deliver an enduring update of the zone scheme. The Broncos famously fielded six 1,000-yard rushers during Mike Shanahan's time in Denver. Can a good zone-blocking team subsist without its top runner? Monday night is the test.

ESPN Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and NFL analyst Matt Bowen contributed to this story.