Knapp Keeps Offense in the Zone

Replacing a legend is never easy, and for new Seahawks offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, the specter of Mike Holmgren's success with different schemes and personnel is always there. Still, the former offensive coordinator for the 49ers, Falcons and Raiders has his own thoughts about the way an offense should be run, and an estimable record of success to back it up.

With the team's recent rookie minicamp wrapping up, Knapp had a chance to get to know his two newest weapons: Oregon offensive lineman Max Unger and Penn State receiver Deon Butler, Butler, whose 4.3 speed should provide an interesting wrinkle from the preseason on, drew kudos from his first practice. It's clear that the coaches like what they see from the Nittany Lions' all-time leading receiver.

"It was a good start for him," Knapp told Elise Woodward of KJR on Wednesday. "He's in a situation where he's not the tallest or biggest or most physical guy, but he does have speed. And it's a trait that's unusual for a fast guy -- he's actually a very good route-runner. It's one of the things we saw in preparation for the draft -- the ability to run good routes despite his speed, We were pleased to see that. His biggest issue, and we'll see how he overcomes it, it the press coverage. Because you've got some good, physical corners, especially in our division, and you're going to have to be able to get off the line versus press, but for a starting point, he did a good job.

For Unger, ostensibly the team's future leader at center, the first challenge is just in picking up the offense. The advantage he has is that in the 51 games he started in college, he spent serious time at tackle and center, Knapp, however, saw him at guard for this minicamp. Unger looked smooth at the position, especially in pulls and dropbacks. "Well, you've got to first start by saying that the fact that we got him in the building was great," Knapp said. "I think Tim Ruskell and Ruston Webster did a great job in preparation for the draft, because this was the guy we were targeting with that second-round pick. And when we traded out of it, and got that first-round pick (from Denver), and still pick up the guy we were targeting, I think that was a great coup. It was a very good move.

"That's what Max presented to us, and why we liked him so much, is that he's a versatile guy. He started his first two years at Oregon as a left tackle, and then moved inside to center. He showed us the versatility, even though he hadn't played a whole lot at guard, that he could fit in and play the inside three for us. Right now, with our depth, and with Mike (Wahle) missing some reps for us, that was the best spot for him at the backup left guard position."

For Knapp, it's about getting the physical out of the way, and dealing with the mental aspects of the zone blocking system he'll implement this season. "When you're going to bring a new guy into the line, guard's probably the best position to start him at from a learning standpoint -- there's not as much put on him as there would be with a center of a tackle as far as protection calls, So we feel like, if you're going to train a new guy, and he can handle playing guard, that's probably the best place to start him from a mental standpoint. Let him learn and listen to the center's calls.

"Now, Chris Spencer's been great this offseason; hasn't missed a beat," Knapp said of the oft-injured veteran, who will be a free agent after this season. "He seems to have his health in order, knock on wood, and he's been doing a great job picking up the offense, Part of the scheme I'm bringing in is putting a little more burden on the center to make some more calls, take a little off the quarterback's shoulders, and he's done a fine job of that so far.

Asked by Woodward about the zone blocking system in general, Knapp gave a short master class. "Well, I should probably start by saying that my dad was an o-line coach for 30 years in high school," he said. "The first question he would ask after a game -- we may have won by 40 points and thrown for 300 yards, and he'd say, 'How much did you run?' So I need to run the ball more. It's definitely a belief in mind. It's not run first of pass first; I truly believe in balance. You've got to be able to do both well in this business. To win games, you've got to be able to run the ball efficiently. To score points, you've got to be able to throw the ball efficiently. And you're going to need both come playoff time, You can get away with one or the other, doing it dominantly and well and win a lot of games, but if you don't do both well, you won't go far in the playoffs. So, it's definitely a belief.

"Now, I had success in San Francisco running a different type of run scheme. More the power, counter, and the traditional West Coast Offense. But I got exposed to the zone run game with Alex Gibbs in Atlanta, and saw the success he had at Denver with changing the parts -- different linemen, different running backs, So when we went with it in Atlanta, we were in a start-up mode, We were in a brand new offense for those guys, and you had Michael Vick getting rushing yards from the quarterback spot, but Warrick Dunn had his best career year. And when you're putting the offense together, one of the selling points to me was, 'Hey, you're just starting the offense up, and this running back that's really good had his best year.' And T.J. Duckett had his best yards per carry at that point in his career. It carried over to Oakland, too - Justin Fargas had a 1,000-yard season.

"So it has really sold me on -- in this business of turnover and transition when it comes to free agents and coaches, this might be the best run scheme to teach and get on the same page quickly with everybody."

What is it about zone blocking that made such an impact on his philosophy? "Well, it starts with the teaching of it. Fortunately for me here, Mike Solari has been exposed to it. And Mike DeBord, our tight ends coach, did some of that at their previous locations. Mike Solari at Kansas City and Mike DeBord at the University of Michigan. So, they teach the system really well.

"To answer the question more specifically, it's less dependent on the individual making an individual block, and more about making blocks in conjunction with each other, Whether it's the tackle-tight end combo working against an end to a 'backer, of the tackle-guard … so you don't need the big, strong, physical one-on-one blocker type up front. You don't need five of those to run the ball efficiently. You do need good tackles to pass-protect, but maybe because you're not demanding a certain type of individual to make a certain type of block, you can work with different players. More importantly, you can pick up the system quicker. It's not as much front-adjusting as it would be in a man scheme. You don't have to make as many calls."

Knapp has the experience to implement a new line system quickly, and the hope is that it'll turn around a Seattle front five that's been a question mark for the last few years. Check out NorthwestFootball.net this weekend, when we'll go into further detail on zone blocking, and what it might mean for the Seahawks.


Doug Farrar is the Publisher of NorthwestFootball.net. He also writes for Football Outsiders, the Washington Post, ESPN.com, and the Seattle Times. Feel free to e-mail Doug here.


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