Why the Zone-Running Game Can Make Washington Redskins a Playoff Team in 2012

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2012

Aug 29, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins running back Roy Helu (29) rushes through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense during the second half at FedEx Field.  Mandatory Credit: Rafael Suanes-US PRESSWIRE
Rafael Suanes-US PRESSWIRE

If Mike Shanahan emphasizes his famous zone-running game as the focal point of his offense this season, the Redskins can be a playoff team.

This is a theory expounded on by this author before, but the preseason performances of Alfred Morris and Roy Helu have added weight to that original view. Even the Redskins' regular-season schedule, along with growing defensive trends in the NFL, point to the zone-running game as the team's best route to success in 2012.

Despite his noted history working with stellar quarterbacks, the zone-rushing scheme is the most famous staple of the Shanahan system. It has been successfully adopted around the league and continues to dominate defenses.

The Seattle Seahawks run a version of it that has helped reignite the career of Marshawn Lynch, producing a 1,200-yard season from the bulldozing runner. Long-time Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak took the scheme with him to the Houston Texans where it has helped produce several exciting runners.

In truth, it has had mixed results in D.C. where injuries and poor offensive line play have hampered Shanahan's efforts to re-create the kind of ground game he had with the Denver Broncos. Kubiak and the Texans are currently the most successful proponents of the system, having used it to make a star out of Arian Foster.

The main feature of the scheme, present in the playbooks of both the Texans and the Redskins, is the outside stretch play. It calls for a trio of blockers to slide out to the direction the play is called and pin pursuing defenders to the edge.

This creates natural cutback lanes to the inside, and as the runner turns up field, the blockers move up to the second level, exploiting a mismatch against undersized defenders. The Redskins are adept at running the play to the left side behind guard Kory Lichtensteiger, tackle Trent Williams and the tight end in motion to that side, or the fullback, depending on formation.

The key to the play is the blockers on the left have to quickly fan out to their side in unison. The blockers on the right, specifically the center and guard, must quickly move to the second level and clear traffic in the cutback lane.

The play can be devastating against 4-3 fronts that require pursuit and flow to set a hard edge. It challenges the weak-side end to react to the outside flow of the blockers by crashing down inside. This means the end gets caught in the traffic and taken out of the play.

Even if he stays to the outside, the flow of the blocking pushes him too far out, widening the cutback lanes. Think of Helu's touchdown jaunt against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 12 of last season. It was this exact play run out of the shotgun.

The zone stretch play's success against the 4-3 is why the Redskins can use it to win big this season. In a case of convenient timing, more and more teams are now switching back to a 4-3 base after the 3-4 has been in vogue the last five years.

Defensive coordinators have seen the matchup problems that can be created for the 3-4 by spread formations. The entire AFC East has moved to some version of the 4-3 during the last two offseasons and so have the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos.

A look at the Redskins' schedule shows them playing 12 of their 16 games against teams that run a predominantly four-man front scheme. In fact, the Redskins begin their season with seven straight games against 4-3 teams and face the scheme in nine of their first 11 games.

In particular, the Redskins face the Browns, St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They were the three worst run defenses in the NFL in 2011. Add in the 25th-ranked Carolina Panthers and two games apiece against the 19th-ranked New York Giants and 16th-ranked Philadelphia Eagles and the Redskins simply have to be a run-first offense this season.

Things may be a little unclear in the backfield, with no definite starter yet named. However, Shanahan now has the weapons to make his scheme work. Helu, Morris and Evan Royster are natural zone runners who fit the scheme.

So, despite the urge to let rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III be the playmaker of the team, Shanahan must let his zone-running scheme lead the way this season. It just might lead the Redskins all the way back to the playoffs.