MOBILE, Ala. -- Mike Shanahan's offense is one of the toughest schemes in the NFL to defend. Unless it is only halfway installed. And the offensive players aren't sure what they are doing. And the defense knows what's coming.
Shanahan's South offense has used a very scaled-down version of his zone-blocking system this week, with lots of stretch runs that are designed to work in tandem with play-action rollout passes. It's a scheme that former Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak used to great effect as his Houston Texans reached the second round of the AFC playoffs, despite injuries to their top two quarterbacks. But this predictable-yet-hard-to-master offense may have something to do with some of the accolades being thrown at the South's defense.
Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw said on Wednesday that the simple offense was making life easier for the defense. "You know they are going to run a boot this way, a boot that way," Upshaw said, referring to the many "bootleg" passes. "You know where the blocker is going, so you can beat him there."
Any all star game offense is going to be very simplistic, of course: no one can master even a fraction of an NFL playbook in just a few days. But the South's offense looked incredibly conservative by even All Star standards during Tuesday and Wednesday practices. Most of the runs were zone stretches, with the offensive line blocking laterally and double-teaming defenders while the running backs searched for cutback lanes. Most of the passes were play-action passes, with the quarterbacks rolling away from the zone-blocking line and reading receivers on the opposite side of the field. A high percentage of those pass plays ended with the quarterback eluding a swarm of defenders who would likely have smothered him under game conditions.
Shanahan was not concerned early in the week about players struggling to pick up the nuances of his system, which requires precision play on the offensive line and decisiveness by the running backs. "I think they are doing a great job," he said. "Most people zone block in the National Football League." That is true, though few teams zone block as often as Shanahan's Redskins or Kubiak's Texans, and prospects coming from very different college systems clearly needed a few days to get comfortable.
For Vick Ballard (RB, Mississippi State), the light came out late in Tuesday's practice, when he began to anticipate the cutback lanes which open up when the defensive front is stretched thin. "We run gap schemes at State," Ballard said, referring to an offensive philosophy that asks running backs to attack clearly-defined spots along the line. "We are running 85% zone scheme here."
Most teams in college and the NFL mix zone-blocking principles with other concepts, including Mississippi State. But the finer points of zone blocking can be hard to perfect when it is only a part-time assignment. During Tuesday's offensive line drills, coaches had to correct fundamental mistakes by several linemen. Many blockers chased defenders who had already been picked up by their linemates, hurrying to fulfill a double-team that was never going to happen. "If you can't reach him, get out!" one South assistant said several times. Translation: you double team if the defender is not already being ridden down the line of scrimmage by your teammate. If that defender is taken care of, abandon the double team and search for linebackers to hit.
By Wednesday, offensive linemen looked more comfortable with their assignments in drills against each other and the defensive line, though the defense was back in total control by the full squad practices.
Matt McCants (OT, Alabama-Birmingham) has been one of the best blockers on the field for the South. Not surprisingly, he also comes from an offense that used a lot of zone blocking. "It's the angles you have to take," McCants said of the scheme. "Zone is all about taking the right angles and the right steps, getting on your guy, pressing and stretching." Finding the best angle to slide a defender sideways is very different from driving off the ball and trying to move him backward, or from setting in pass-protection for a wide-open spread offense.
Wide receivers, like backs and linemen, have new things to learn, though some of those lessons are not exclusive to Shanahan's offense. Juron Criner came from a no-huddle shotgun offense at Arizona, and got his instructions from the quarterback's hand signals at the line of scrimmage. He now must listen to the entire huddle call. "You have to tune out the whole huddle call to not mess you up, and identify the certain key words and formations that you need to know," he said. It's a skill every NFL receiver must acquire, but while Criner has had an excellent week, the Shanahan offense is limiting receivers in other ways: with the defensive front so dominant in full squad drills, accurate passes down the field have been very rare.
Thursday's South practice was held indoors at the Mobile Convention Center ballroom, and with players wearing sneakers on a cement floor, there was little for the team to do but walk through their playbook. Shanahan's offense looked much more diverse than it did on Tuesday and Wednesday: there were more shotgun pass plays, some screen pass installation, even a reverse. Criner said that the team used the limited practice to get more "in depth." But still, there were many zone-stretch runs, and half-speed drills to emphasize positioning on zone-stretch runs, and boot passes that start out looking very much like stretch runs. South players appear much more comfortable with the scheme. But the North no doubt knows what's coming.
As Upshaw pointed out, the offenses also know most of what the defenses will do, and it is no excuse for a bad game. "You gotta be a competitor," He said.