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Mike Shanahan brings his well-refined offensive system to the Washington Redskins
When Shanahan met with his team on July 29, the first day of training camp, he put it in plain language: The Redskins will run the football. They will run it in the first quarter, and if they appear to struggle with it, they will continue to run it anyway.
"Defensive coaches can say, 'We held them to 60-something yards except for those two plays,'" Shanahan said. "Fine with me. What did we get on those two plays? Maybe 40 yards on one of them and 50 on another? It all fits together."
A significant portion of Shanahan's offensive philosophy developed after he had been in coaching for 18 years. When the Raiders fired him in the middle of the 1989 season, Shanahan returned to Denver as a quarterbacks coach, then became the Broncos' offensive coordinator. But his ideas about offense really started to crystallize from 1992 to 1994, when he served as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco. There, Coach George Seifert was running Bill Walsh's famed version of the West Coast offense, with Steve Young-to-Jerry Rice as a Hall of Fame passing combination. With Shanahan calling the plays, the 49ers won the Super Bowl following the 1994 season, and that led to Shanahan's return to Denver - this time as the head coach.
When he arrived back with the Broncos, Shanahan tinkered with a new type of running game. Zone blocking, which like most strategies in football dates back decades, offered more options, Shanahan thought. He worked with his offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, and his running backs coach, Bobby Turner - who joined Shanahan in Washington - to install parts of the system in 1995, his first year. By the following season, Shanahan committed to it fully.
"Everybody runs the same plays," said Kyle Shanahan, who was all of 15 when his father began flogging opponents with his zone scheme. "But I believe the reason that our philosophy, [why] we can do the zone better, is because that is 90 percent of what we do. And the only way you can get on the same page is repping it and repping it and repping it.
"That's why we don't like to carry a bunch of different runs. They're all good runs. It's just: What do you want to get good at? And we want to get good at that and the way you do that, if you can get good at it then you get five guys on the same page, you can go."
The basis of zone blocking is just as it sounds. Offensive linemen, instead of taking on the man in front of them, head to an area and hit the defender who occupies it.
"It's the difference between a guy lined up six inches off your head that you're blocking," said former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, now a commentator for ESPN, "and pulling and having a full running start at eight yards."
The result is the beginning of what Shanahan wants: Fatiguing a defense. If, in a zone scheme, offensive linemen are getting out toward the edge, defenders must follow them there.
"It wears you down," said Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, whose Buffalo Bills at times battled Shanahan's Broncos for supremacy in the AFC in the 1990s. "It's a lot of pounding on the body, that zone blocking."
So against the Cowboys, watch the initial first-quarter handoff to Portis, but dismiss how many yards it gains. Pay attention, instead, to how far the defenders have to run - and how many end up on the ground. Shanahan's teams have long used a technique known as "cut blocking" in which offensive linemen take out players on the back side of a play - the side away from where the ball is headed.
Say, for instance, Portis's initial run goes to the right. The Redskins' offensive linemen on the left side will try to cut off defenders - legally - below the waist, essentially eliminating them from a play and allowing a running back, if he so chooses, to cut back in that direction with one firmly planted foot.