Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Receivers like Josh Morgan and Pierre Garcon must block downfield.
Just like running backs adept in pass-protection, wide receivers who block well for the run were once considered a luxury. Yet the rise of certain versions of the zone-running scheme make downfield blocking an essential skills for wide receivers.
It is particularly important in the outside zone scheme favored by the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans. Both teams love the zone-stretch run to attack the edges of defenses.
This staple play requires both wide receivers to perform key roles in the blocking scheme. On the play side, a receiver is needed to set the edge.
Away from the run, receivers crash down and seal the back-side. Because the zone-scheme relies on cutback lanes, receivers can be used to come inside and create those lanes.
A breakdown of Redskins runner Alfred Morris scoring against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from Week 4, shows the key role receivers play in zone-blocking.
In the example given in this article, it is Josh Morgan who makes a vital block, as part of the play's design. This shows why Shanahan and teams that run the zone-stretch in general, have favored big, physical receivers.
During his glory years with the Denver Broncos, Shanahan used towering duo Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey to create cutback lanes and clear paths downfield for Terrell Davis to exploit.
These demands are central to the outside zone-blocking perfected by the scheme's innovator, former line coach Alex Gibbs. Grantland.com's Chris Brown detailed the collective nature of outside zone-blocking and the important of wide receivers in the scheme:
Gibbs's style of zone blocking requires total commitment by every offensive player--linemen must be perfect technicians, not just fat guys who push others around; runners must make reads and make one cut-and-go rather than juke and tap dance like the next Barry Sanders; and quarterbacks and receivers can't treat runs as breaks because they're expected to execute assignments and make blocks.
The zone scheme has helped the Texans and Redskins dominate the league's rushing charts in recent seasons. Washington boasted the NFL's best ground attack in 2012. The Texans were second in 2011.
Contending teams like the Seattle Seahawks also utilize the zone-based system. Even a traditional power team like the Pittsburgh Steelers, is switching to a zone scheme, according to The Tribune-Review.
The rise of read-option and pistol concepts will also increase the number of zone-blocking concepts in offensive playbooks.
The ability of wide receivers to execute blocks downfield will not stay under-the-radar much longer.