Through the Seattle Seahawks' 2010 training camp, we'll be following running back Justin Forsett(notes) as he tries to take that next step from offensive cog to feature back in his third NFL season. In this first installment, Forsett adjusts to a new offense that could be of great benefit to him.
RENTON, Wash. -- Alex Gibbs may be the greatest offensive line coach in NFL history. Gibbs did not invent zone blocking -- Vince Lombardi is often credited with bringing the "do-dad" technique to the pro game in the 1950s -- but few men have done more to refine it since. Through his times with several NFL teams (most notably the Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans), the 69-year-old Gibbs has always run his refined version of the zone-blocking scheme -- he wants smaller, faster linemen who can get upfield in a hurry, and he's been vilified in some circles for allegedly failing to acknowledge the difference between cut- and chop-blocking. Now in Seattle, Gibbs has another line to re-train, and another group of running backs to set things up for. The most intriguing of those Seattle backs is third-year pro Justin Forsett, a player who's lived his football life under the radar.
Forsett, 5-foot-8 and 194 pounds when he was selected in the seventh round by the Seahawks in 2008, was Cal's third-best all-time rusher despite starting just one full season. He first backed up Marshawn Lynch(notes), then ran in tandem with him, then took over as Lynch left for the NFL. Forsett didn't get the same love from scouts and personnel men that Lynch did -- his size would dog him through the evaluation process, despite the recent successes of similarly diminutive backs like Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Ray Rice(notes) and Darren Sproles(notes). After two seasons in which the Seahawks couldn't get much of anything going on the ground, Gibbs and Forsett are working to change the culture of Seattle's ground game.
At Seahawks training camp on Thursday, Gibbs worked with the linemen who would block for Forsett and battery mates Julius Jones(notes) and Leon Washington(notes). Forsett warmed up and got ready for 11-on-11 drills. When it all came together, and the combos and chips Gibbs had drilled meshed into zone slides behind Forsett's speed, it was a taste of what the team's rushing attack might soon be.
"We tried to assimilate the zone blocking last year, and now, we're just trying to make sure that we're all in the right places at the right times, and that everything's taken care of," Forsett told me following afternoon practice. "The small details, like being in the right spot to cut those guys down, is what we've got to do to make the zone scheme successful."
That was the zone blocking of former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who worked with Gibbs in Atlanta. In 2009, Forsett gained 619 yards and scored four touchdowns on 114 carries in a rushing offense that finished 27th in Football Outsiders' per-play efficiency metrics, and 27th in Adjusted Line Yards. Forsett gained 5.4 yards per carry to Jones' 3.7 and was the team's only consistently effective back in the red zone. Now that he's working with Gibbs, Forsett can't say enough about the change.
"It's unbelievable -- I can do nothing but respect him, because he knows what he's talking about, and it's been proven," Forsett said. "He's had 1,000-yard rushers everywhere he's gone, so I'm happy to learn from him and just be a sponge. He's really big on the little things; making sure that my shoulders are parallel to the line of scrimmage, and making sure that I can see the whole field. The cutbacks -- I want those to be [right] in the zone scheme -- don't miss those. It's been good. I love the way he coaches; he makes everyone excited around him, and I'm excited to learn from him."
This year, Forsett's mission is to separate himself from Jones and Washington to become as much of a featured back as the system will allow. New head coach Pete Carroll's primary motto of many is "Always Compete," and Gibbs' system is tailored for multiple backs to have success if need be. Forsett knows that to have any chance at the prime slot, he'll have to do a little bit of everything.
That awareness was obvious on the field -- Forsett looked noticeably quicker when cutting inside and bouncing outside, made tracks downfield on several swing passes, and has shown a real heart for blocking. Forsett would crash outside to take out a defensive back, or blast upfield to keep some protection behind a line that's still learning the little things. "A lot of people underestimate my blocking just because of my size," he said. "But it's something that I take a lot of pride in. That goes back to Cal -- in order to get on the field, you had to block first. It's the same mentality here."
Forsett's renewed quickness on the field is partially the product of a new staff that preaches a more up-tempo style, and primarily due to Forsett's offseason conditioning. "I definitely wanted to get stronger and faster -- I spent a lot of time on that, and I think it's paying off. I'm a little bit leaner than last year; down from 198 to 195. I really wanted to work on my long-range speed, so that when I break out, I can finish it."
To that end, Forsett spent some time in the offseason at the Michael Johnson Performance Center, the facility run by the former Olympic sprinter that has developed a serious buzz among current and prospective NFL players. "I went down to Dallas after my wedding and worked out -- started running, and worked on some technique things. I want to finish plays. Breaking it with speed, or running people over, or making people miss. Anything that's going to take my game to the next level. I want to be better every day than the day before, and better than last year."
Early on, that's what drives Justin Forsett. Through training camp, we'll see how far it takes him.