One of the reasons Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan's zone-running game works so well is the scheme's ability to defeat eight-man fronts.
Dropping a safety down to support the D-line and linebackers is the most common way for defenses to arrest a strong running game. However, the Redskins' ground attack has managed to render the eighth man useless so far this season.
They have done it in two simple ways: running away from the extra defender and outnumbering the run front on the backside.
Here are two great examples from the narrow Week 2 defeat against the St. Louis Rams showing how effective the Redskins are at using zone blocking to free runners against eight-man looks.
Both plays are from the same drive in the third quarter. On the first run, the Rams present a standard 4-3 'under' alignment, shown in the screen shot below.
Three defensive linemen are shifted towards the left side of Washington's offensive line. The strong-side linebacker joins the line and strong safety Quintin Mikell drops down into his place as the eighth man.
The Redskins overload the side away from the shift. They have two tight ends, Fred Davis and Niles Paul, aligned on the strong side, in front of the linebacker and Mikell.
At the snap, the Redskins slide towards the play-side, in this case the left. The screen shot below shows how the Redskins attack the backside pursuit.
Tight end Davis (No. 83) and right tackle Tyler Polumbus combo-block defensive end William Hayes, shown in the highlighted portion. Paul (No. 84) locks up the strong-side linebacker. This prevents the Rams from flowing across to Morris.
Having Davis help on Hayes also enables right guard Chris Chester to slide along and take out the defensive tackle. This frees center Will Montgomery to quickly get to the second level and block the weak-side linebacker.
It's clear that this initial blocking leaves safety Mikel and middle linebacker James Laurinaitis free. However, the key to the Redskins zone-blocking system is quickly getting off initial blocks and moving to the second level.
Once they have slowed down the backfield pursuit, Washington's blockers can shift into space, shown in the screen shot below.
The highlighted portion shows Polumbus and Davis, having taken Hayes away from the play, moving out into the open field to take out Laurinaitis. The Redskins now have three blockers in the open field, and the eighth man, Mikell, doesn't even need to be blocked.
With left tackle Trent Williams and guard Kory Lichtensteiger winning their one-on-one blocks, the Redskins have created a huge lane for Morris to attack.
Two plays later, the Redskins aligned the same way, shown in the screen shot below.
This time, the Rams attempted to counter the front with an 'over' shift. They have three linemen aligned on the strong side towards tight ends Davis and Paul. Mikell is still on the strong side, while the linebackers adopt more traditional positioning.
At the snap, the Redskins again shift and quickly get three blockers out into space, shown in the screen shot below.
The first shift involves Paul (No. 84) turning in to block defensive end Chris Long, while Polumbus shifts inside to block the defensive tackle. This allows right guard Chester to move up and trap the strong-side linebacker inside, shown in the highlighted portion.
Notice how left guard Kory Lichtensteiger also moves into space to take on the weak-side linebacker. The third blocker in space is tight end Davis, who sneaks out to seal the backside by occupying Mikell, the eighth man.
The only defender able to make a play is the middle linebacker, but the Redskins rely on Morris' speed through the hole to create a sizeable gain before that happens.
The beauty of the Redskins zone scheming is that it can adjust to work no matter what side the eighth man is on.
If defenses can't stop Washington's running game even with an eighth man on the front, expect Morris to enjoy a monster rookie season and for the play-action pass to remain a major threat.