Darren McFadden was one of the most feared running backs in the NFL under former head coach Hue Jackson from 2010 to 2011. Jackson rescued McFadden’s career from the zone-blocking scheme, only for Greg Knapp to bring it back in 2012. If the team is winning it wouldn’t matter, but the Raiders haven’t won enough games to make anyone forget.
The struggles of the zone-blocking scheme have been fairly obvious even to the casual observer. After six games trying to force a square peg into a round hole, the Raiders finally yanked back on the reins. The Raiders used the zone-blocking scheme only about a third of the time against Kansas City and found success running plays that didn’t deploy it.
McFadden ran the ball 29 times for 114 yards, but this shouldn’t be as evidence that the Raiders zone blocking has improved. Of the 114 yards, 69 came on three plays in the second half with a big lead and on plays that didn’t use the zone scheme. Without those carries McFadden rushed the ball 26 times for just 45 yards.
The Raiders used toss plays like this one to get McFadden going in one direction quickly. McFadden doesn’t have to do much thinking on plays like this. He can just use his athletic ability and speed to get positive yardage.
Just as important to the running game is the blocking and when the Raiders have used man-blocking they usually been able to engage the defenders and knock them backward. On this play the five offensive linemen all engage defenders at the first and second level.
With McFadden's speed, the offensive line only needs to engage their defenders for a few seconds before they become irrelevant to the rest of the play. Even if defenders can disengage from the offensive lineman, they will still have trouble making a solo stop on McFadden in traffic.
McFadden is used to plowing into the backs of his offensive line and that trait has not served him well in the zone-blocking system, but it occasionally pays off in the man scheme. McFadden took another toss and Oakland’s offensive line did a job of establishing a new line of scrimmage.
Even when a key blocker like Cooper Carlisle finds himself in no-man’s land it doesn’t always impact a play in the man-blocking scheme. McFadden was able to find a crease and burst through the hole by sliding past nose tackle Dontari Poe.
The Raiders also ran out of the shotgun formation with good success. By using a pulling guard and a tight end as a lead blocker McFadden was able to get to the edge and pick up big yardage.
The offensive line has been physically dominated, and plays that use man blocking don’t require them to sustain their blocks as long as they do in the zone scheme. Brandon Myers simply needs to get in the way of the linebacker to spring McFadden for a big gain.
McFadden has struggled to make the read in the zone-blocking system, and his linemen have failed to execute their blocks. Taking away the mental aspect of the zone scheme and allowing the offensive line to play more aggressively enables McFadden to use his speed and instincts to make plays.
The zone scheme works when executed properly, but until the Raiders have the offensive line and running back that can execute it, they would be better served using it sparingly. If the game against Kansas City is any indication, the Raiders have made zone plays in the running game secondary to plays that use man blocking.
The Raiders have also wisely made the running game secondary to the passing game. Not only is it a passing league, but the running game is still not consistent enough to carry the team to victory. The Raiders are slowly adjusting their personnel to their scheme and their scheme to their personnel, and there is hope that the offense and defense will continue to improve in the second half.