Darren McFadden has been a major disappointment for the Oakland Raiders and his fantasy owners. Much of the blame for his struggles has been attributed to the zone-blocking scheme, which has reflected poorly on offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, who is a big proponent of the scheme.
Fans have questioned how McFadden and the offensive line fit the scheme, which is fair because the running game has struggled for six games and was much more effective the previous two seasons. The reality of the situation is that the Raiders aren’t going to completely throw away the scheme in the middle of the season, so McFadden and the offensive line will have to work to get better.
McFadden is taking baby steps in learning the system, but he’s also still taking literal baby steps instead of one big cut on zone plays. The offensive line is also struggling, but is closer than some might think to turning things around.
Head coach Dennis Allen said via the team’s official website, “(McFadden) is still an explosive player. We've got to do a better job of creating some room for him to run. We've incorporated a few more of those gap scheme-type plays. Again, you can say this on every play, but we're one block here or one block there away from a big run.”
Allen is being genuine, and with a few tweaks, the Raiders could have a competent running game once again. McFadden often has been impatient, likely because his blocking often was getting him hit behind the line of scrimmage, but both the offensive line and McFadden have been much better since the bye week.
Example No. 1—McFadden Execution
One of the main things a running back must do in the zone-blocking scheme is to make a single cut and get up field. McFadden has been more patient in recent weeks, but he’s still inconsistent at finding the cutback lane and making one cut to get through it.
The better the blocking, the easier the read is for the running back and the greater the odds of the running back turning it into a big play. The Raiders are often one block away from that reality.
As noted earlier, McFadden is often taking baby steps, shuffling his feet and trying to run behind his blocking instead of making one cut and trying to run through a hole.
On this run to the left, the Raiders have the right play called, but McFadden fails to execute. The Raiders have five offensive linemen and a tight end blocking six defenders, and running to the left is ideal because the safety is playing deeper on that side.
McFadden gets the ball and immediately has to make a decision whether to take a running lane or be patient and see if another develops. The linebackers both run to the play side and the guards are able to take the linebackers out of the play at the second level. Had McFadden made the right decision, the play could have been a big gain.
McFadden’s second mistake is that he shuffles his feet, and that gets him stuck behind his three offensive linemen who aren’t going to be able to sustain their blocks for long. Even though McFadden misses the initial cut, if he makes a sharp cut at the end of the play, he has a chance to slip through the traffic.
The shuffle steps instead of the one cut cost McFadden a valuable split second of time, which could have been the difference between a gain of two yards and a gain of four yards or more.
Notice right tackle Willie Smith (red circle) ends up on the ground and the defender breaks free. Only Smith’s poor block would keep this play from being successful if McFadden hadn’t made two mistakes on the play.
Example No. 2–Zone Blocking Execution
Contrary to popular belief, McFadden is capable of executing the scheme and is getting better with additional experience. Often the blocking is to blame that the play isn’t more successful.
This is a similar running play to the left, except with a fullback to counter eight defenders in the box. The fullback and the two guards will be responsible for blocking the linebackers.
McFadden has a little more time to make his first decision this time around, and he does a great job of putting his foot in the ground and bursting through the running lane. Mike Brisiel and Cooper Carlisle do an excellent job getting to the second level and Stefen Wisniewski carries his defender all the way to the left side.
Unfortunately, Willie Smith ends up on the ground again, and it's his defender who drags down McFadden after a four-yard gain. If Smith executes his block, McFadden gets a one-on-one matchup with a safety. When McFadden gets one-on-ones with a safety he scores touchdowns, just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Just like Allen said, the Raiders were literally one block away from a big run.
Example No. 3—Man Blocking
The Raiders have also incorporated more man-blocking to try and get McFadden going. McFadden doesn’t have to think as much and can simply use his speed and athletic ability to gain positive yardage.
McFadden’s speed can be an equalizer when the Raiders use the man-blocking scheme. Offensive linemen don't have to sustain their blocks as long, and McFadden can run by linebackers even if his offensive line can’t get to the second level to block them.
On this play, McFadden takes the handoff and just runs straight up the middle behind Wisniewski and Brisiel. McFadden doesn’t have to make a read or make a cut, he just runs to the daylight in front of him.
Brisiel’s block at the second level and McFadden’s speed gets the running back into the second level of the defense for a nice gain. It’s simple and McFadden's athleticism makes a big difference.
The Raiders should continue to incorporate more man-blocking principles to get McFadden going, but a total abandonment of the zone-blocking scheme might also be a mistake. McFadden and the offensive line are getting much closer to executing the zone principles, and with a few additional tweaks the scheme could start to pay dividends.