The Oakland Raiders have had trouble getting Darren McFadden going, and it now has fans looking for a scapegoat. The most common target has been offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and his zone-blocking scheme.
While scheme is certainly a factor, it’s the execution of that scheme by the offensive lineman that has been the real issue. Knapp has used fewer zone runs over the last two weeks, and outside of one long run, McFadden’s production hasn't really improved.
It’s becoming harder and harder to blame the scheme and Knapp for McFadden’s struggles. Given that McFadden has proven over the last two years that he’s an elite running back, the reasonable explanation is the blocking of the offensive line.
McFadden is averaging 3.5 yards per carry; that statistic tells you that Run DMC is struggling. What is doesn't tell you is what part of the running game is at fault. Is it McFadden or a turnstile left tackle that allows penetration into the backfield on every running play?
Who/what is most to blame for McFadden's struggles?
The Raiders have used a combination of zone runs, draws and man blocking. Knapp has shown a willingness to slightly adjust the blocking scheme to help McFadden, but the results have not been consistent. It’s time to start evaluating the play of the offensive line.
The NFL’s official game book lists every run, the yardage gained and the direction of the run. The direction and yardage of each run can reveal two things: where the offensive line is struggling and where the team believes they have a weakness.
The Raiders are clearly trying to get McFadden to the edge as 44-of-57 of his runs (77 percent) have gone off tackle or off end. That means McFadden is running laterally longer than he has to, which gives the defense time to penetrate the blocking and stuff the run. The result has been 21 runs of one yard or less.
McFadden has been most effective running behind left tackle Jared Veldheer, where he’s averaged 3.7 yards per carry. Take away the 64-yard touchdown run against the Steelers and McFadden’s average off right tackle drops from 7.2 yards per carry to 2.8 yards per carry.
The Raiders have run off end 16 times and averaged 1.3 yards per carry. Blocking issues by tight end Brandon Myers could be a big reason for those struggles. Myers has the worst run-blocking grade by ProFootballFocus on the team at -5.7.
It’s surprising that Myers has been a run blocker on 71 plays (according to ProFootballFocus) while Richard Gordon (who is regarded as a good blocker) has been a run blocker just 18 times. It seems there is an opportunity for the Raiders to get more production running the edge simply by switching out some of the personnel.
McFadden is averaging just 1.9 yards on 13 carries inside. There could be two reasons for this lack production. One reason is the injury and lack of practice time to center Stefen Wisniewski, the other could be that the Raiders have faced three 3-4 defenses in the first four games. The 3-4 defenses use big nose tackles to plug the running lanes up the middle.
Against a 3-4 defense, the uncovered guards are the key to springing the running game, particularly in the zone-blocking scheme. Only 15 of McFadden’s 57 runs have gone for more than five yards, indicating that the offensive line is struggling to pick up the linebackers and get McFadden through traffic.
Cooper Carlisle and Mike Brisiel are responsible for getting the linebackers against 3-4 defenses and both have struggled. According to ProFootballFocus, Carlisle and Brisiel have the two worst run-blocking grades on the offensive line (-3.6 and -2.1). It wouldn’t be surprising if the Raiders gave rookie offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom a start over Carlisle in the near future if his blocking doesn't improve soon.
One thing former head coach Hue Jackson did was to get McFadden running north and south quickly, which covered for the offensive lines' struggles last season. The finesse of the zone scheme has created problems with the offensive line and also eliminated McFadden's greatest ability to make up for those issues.
McFadden hasn’t been particularly effective running in any direction, but if he’s going to improve in the zone scheme, the offensive guards and the tight end will need to execute and sustain their blocks. Knapp can also help by using more quick-hitting runs that allow McFadden to get to top speed quickly.