"Break On Through To The Other Side"

Former Stanford center T.J. Gaynor (1991-1995) once again hit the film room to examine the enjoyable results of last Saturday's program pulse-providing 37-0 rout of San Jose State in the inaugural "Bill Walsh Legacy Game". He comes away not only impressed with the Card o-line effort, but is of a mind that the improvement Saturday may be more than a simple reflection of a beleaguered opponent.

Many moons ago Doors lead man Jim Morrison made those words famous world wide.  After two weeks of QB T.C. Ostrander loving the fact that he has two times as much time to throw on average than his old pal and predecessor Trent Edwards, the focus for additional improvement for the Cardinal o-line's Pre-Fab Five must occur in the run game. Clearly, T.C. was given ample time to pass against the Spartans. While breaking down game film, I counted only one QB sack while the starters were in the game. For the first time in many moons, Stanford's offense actually allowed fewer sacks than the defense supplied. There were a few pressures, hits and grazes that need to be cleaned up, but over two weeks the line has shown up well, keeping the passer nice and clean. The key to the rest of the 2007 season is to maintain and improve on this positive protection baseline and really rev up the run game. 

Using "sides" is a helpful tool when evaluating the run game for any offensive unit. "Frontside" or "Playside" vs "Backside".  Playing on the opponent's side of the ball, be it the defensive line in the offense's backfield or the offensive line and other blockers capturing the line of scrimmage and playing on the opponent's side of the ball and getting to the second level of defenders. Last week I commented on how well the "backside" linemen used "cut blocks" within the concept of the zone blocking scheme.  This week that tactic wasn't quite as effective because the Spartans were obviously coached up to look for it and play off their diving opponents. To react to this, "backside" blockers must change up their techniques, using what I refer to "RRR blocking" ("Reach, Rip and Run"), by "stepping deep" with a pulling or reach step, ripping the "backside" arm through the defender's "playside" number and then running with him to "cover him up", allowing the running back to cut back against the grain on the "backside" of the call.  The other key to "backside" cut blocking in the zone concept is to be sure to "throw through" the target area between the hip and knee, as diving at the ankle may allow the defender to jump over the blocking attempt.  Our blockers must ensure that they keep their eyes on the target and see their shoulders go through the target zone. Right tackle #63 Chris Marinelli in particular has shown the consistent ability to get his man on the ground using the cut technique.  His linemates must really focus in order to bring up their collective batting average.

Hopefully I have broken down the backside of zone blocking for you enough so you understand the basics of the techniques and options available to offensive linemen.  Relying solely on backside cutbacks within the zone concept will not get the job done, however.  The key to the cutback of course is to have the defense flowing so hard to the ball on the "frontside" that the defense overplays the "playside" gaps, thus opening up backside running lanes. For the "frontside" to open up, blockers and runners must combine high intensity with low pad level. We started to see that combination coming together in the second quarter in particular last Saturday night.  The first three plays of the second quarter in fact proved this out. Running right twice behind the explosive #60 Alex Fletcher, Toby Gerhart showed excellent vision, made a decisive cut and gashed the opponent.  Both players stood out for their "want-to" and "finish" because Spartan defenders were going backwards and the Cardinal continued to invade their side of the field, bringing the battle to the opponent. The third play saw big left tackle #67 Allen Smith pull out and run to cut the cornerback, again with low pad level, as running back Anthony Kimble navigated traffic with a high intensity burst.  Right now the Cardinal "O" is using a number of different concepts in addition to the zone (inside and outside) schemes.  I have also seen "lead draw", "draw" and "power" blocking also featured in the ground assault.  All have had some success, but before I further analyze why, let me define all of these schemes for you.  Zone blocking is fairly self explanatory with the linemen stepping in the same direction and blocking the first threat in their "zone".  There are many variations to this play.  Typically the "aiming point" for the running back is "outside", meaning the outside hip of the "playside" tackle.  The outside zone can be executed by a handoff or a toss from QB to running back.  This outside zone play was a trademark of the 1995 Cardinal rushing attack, one of the best in school history.  Four of the primary six blockers (including TE Greg Clark) were drafted by NFL teams, largely based on their ability to "reach block" well and run this play by capturing the edge of the defense.  The trio of Clark, Nate Parks and Brad Badger running outside right was extremely effective at springing Anthony Bookman and Mike Mitchell on that play.  Our current squad may not possess that level of raw talent, but they do have the ability to use this scheme to their advantage.  Anthony Kimble and Tyrone McGraw in particular should excel at this play given their speed.  The inside zone play worked exceptionally well for Gerhart last weekend, as he aimed at the outside hip of the playside guard (in most cases Fletcher), followed his lead blocker, and made a decisive cut breaking into the other side of the defense.  Gerhart should be featured on these inside zone plays, as well as lead draw and draw schemes.  The draw concept is meant to "draw" or "bait" the defensive line up the field under the pretense of offensive pass.  This scheme in particular helps the tackles lure the defensive ends away from the runner and towards the quarterback, who hands the ball off after a retreat and a delay. These draw plays also set up playaction, in particular to force the opposing linebackers to step up, opening up throwing lanes behind them.  To summarize, Gerhart's vision and ability, along with his size and strength allow him to attack the heart of the defense on inside zone plays (which he can also bounce outside, having proved that in the SJS game, or cut back) or within the draw concept.  Logically offensive coordinators want to have a play and a counter to that play built into the game plan so as to show the defense the same look while running two or more different plays out of it.  Here's a chart that illustrates that concept:

Play Counter #1 Counter #2 Options Best Personnel
Inside Zone QB Boot Pass QB Naked Boot with or w/o Lead Blocker Gerhart
Draw Playaction Pass with or w/o Lead Blocker Gerhart
Outside Zone QB Boot Pass QB Naked Boot with Lead Blocker Kimble/McGraw
Power Action Pass     Kimble/McGraw

  We will get into the "Power" play later in the season as it hasn't been featured much thus far, although it does have potential give our personnel.  Nonetheless, the Cardinal run game will take some time to totally gel and while some skeptics will say that the level of opposing talent was "mediocre" to "poor" last Saturday and that we should not read too much into this improvement, I disagree - to an extent.  It is clear to me that significant progress was made against the Spartans in the run game, but there is a long, long way to go. There is a lot to build on, especially with Fletcher's increasingly consistent ability to move people and finish blocks with a high level of intensity. Gerhart's ability to move the pile is also a tremendous plus and obviously his health is critical as the season rolls on.  From here on, from a physical perspective, the other four linemen must raise their level of intensity, lower their pad level and really understand that making the running game go will lead them to their ultimate goal: A big-time bowl.  Mentally the entire offensive unit, backs, receivers, even T.C., while carrying out his fakes, must realize that this offense has the talent to play with anyone, run the ball on anyone and that if they want to badly enough, together they too can break on through to the other side.

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