Breaking Down Darren McFadden's Early Struggles

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystSeptember 20, 2012

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - SEPTEMBER 16: (L)  Darren McFadden #20 of the Oakland Raiders is tackled by (R) Reshad Jones #20 of the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on September 16, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Very few members of Raider Nation were excited when the Oakland Raiders re-hired offensive coordinator Greg Knapp. Knapp brought with him the zone-blocking scheme, which many fans blamed for the struggles of RB Darren McFadden in 2008 and 2009. McFadden excelled under offensive coordinator/head coach Hue Jackson’s more traditional man/drive/power-blocking scheme in 2010 and 2011.

With the return of the zone-blocking scheme, it was easy to point to other factors for McFadden's poor performance, such as injuries and a poor offensive line. The excuses made sense, but they are gone now; McFadden is healthy, and the offensive line is much better than the one Oakland put on the field in 2008.

McFadden simply is struggling to execute the zone-blocking scheme. The offensive line could execute its blocks better, but the running game is struggling because McFadden isn't being patient or finding the cutback lanes.

The good news is McFadden can get better. This isn't some physical incapacity to execute the scheme. It's mental. The more McFadden runs the ball, the more he will get comfortable with the scheme. After all, he’s carried the ball just 26 times in the first two games.

Struggling only means he's been inconsistent. McFadden has been good about identifying where he needs to be running when the blocking is great, just not when it is marginal. The zone-blocking scheme is one of options for the running back, but once the running back settles on an option, he must commit to it. It's the "one cut and go" system. 

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Example No. 1

McFadden has three options. Notice the edge is set by the defense on the right, and Derek Hagan (No. 10) can't get a block on the defensive end.

McFadden makes the correct cut and has room to run. Unfortunately, the defensive end Hagan can't block is able to tackle McFadden after a short gain. If Hagan even slows down the defensive end a little bit, then McFadden gains at least five more yards, if not more.

The fault goes to Hagan. McFadden makes the correct cut, and the offensive line does a good job.


Example No. 2

Again, McFadden has options, and he's waiting for the right hole to develop. He has three options here, and the middle option looks the most enticing to him.

McFadden makes a great, sharp cut, and the offensive line has the play well-blocked. This play should net at least five yards with the potential for more, but there is a problem.

McFadden will make a second cut to try to bounce the play outside (red line), but the linebacker slips around two players (blue line) and makes the tackle on McFadden before he can get much yardage. If McFadden stays with his sharp cutback (yellow line), he has a chance to use his speed to get past the linebacker and make a big play.

The blocking could be better, but it isn't an issue with the offensive line. Marcel Reece doesn't reach one of the linebackers, but that linebacker only has a chance to make the tackle if McFadden doesn't try to bounce the play outside.

McFadden's initial cut is good, but he doesn't stick with it. He is either second-guessing himself, or his instincts are running counter to the principles of the zone-blocking scheme.

Example No. 3

This is another play where McFadden leaves yards on the field. He should plant his foot and get positive yardage (yellow). One of the linebackers is likely to stop McFadden for a short gain, but the Raiders wouldn't lose yards.

McFadden is going to run backwards and try to bounce the run to the outside.

Running backwards and to the outside backfires, as five Miami defenders are there to stop him for a loss.

The fault is completely on McFadden for losing yards. The offensive line doesn't move the defenders enough to open up a big hole, but not every running play is going to net big yardage. McFadden is trying to do too much.


Example No. 4

The Dolphins have eight players in the box to stop the run.

McFadden cuts straight up the field (blue line) instead of slashing through the hole to his left (yellow line). There is more space up the middle, but McFadden is using his eyes here and not his head.

Dolphins nose tackle Paul Soliai tosses center Stefen Wisniewski (yellow arrow) to the ground and makes the tackle on McFadden. Two other Oakland blockers (yellow arrows) end up on the ground as well.

Wisniewski could make a better block on Soliai, but McFadden makes his cut right back into the teeth of the defense. If McFadden takes the small crease to his left, he gets positive yardage, and a defensive back would have to make the tackle on him instead of a lineman or linebacker.

The Conclusion

After reviewing the coaches' film of every run from Week 2, the problem with Oakland's running game is primarily McFadden. The offensive line is doing an above-average job executing the scheme, and McFadden is simply not turning the blocks into yards.

The line can get better and make the reads easier for McFadden, but otherwise it is executing the scheme. Even when the offensive line is physically dominated, McFadden has had opportunities to gain positive yardage.

The good news for Oakland is that the blocking is not a huge issue, and McFadden isn't incapable of learning from his mistakes, but so far he has been turning a lot of five-yard gains into two-yard gains.

McFadden may be healthy, but he's feeling the growing pains of the transition to the zone-blocking system.