How do Denver’s current backs fit within a zone blocking system?

The issues of zone blocking itself and the personnel for it are now well covered. The next step is considering the personnel that will be carrying the ball. These were David Hooper’s preferred qualities of running backs for the zone blocking scheme:

  • Disciplined, willing to do their job and not improvise.
  • Decisive.
  • Crisp runners - not necessarily fast, but they must have sharp cuts.
  • Committed, willing to blast toward a gap that doesn't exist - yet.
  • Decisive. No, really. A backfield dancer is absolutely doomed.

Running Back Personnel

We’ve talked about what the personnel of the line might look like this year. Final specifics are never known in early February, so let’s talk about the potential fit for the current running backs.

All of Denver's current running backs should be around in 2015. It’s likely that a few more will come in for training camp. Who among the current group suits the ZB scheme best? We don’t know if C.J. Anderson or Montee Ball will be the primary back, but they have fairly similar builds and styles. Ball made a big splash running the ZB at Wisconsin, so I don’t worry about his level of play - if he’s not injured. It might help if he tells the team when he is.

Anderson was a tailback in high school and again in college. He was so focused on football that he let his grades fall to where a Division I school couldn’t take him. He did two years at Laney College, a junior college in the Bay Area. While there, Anderson met a philosophy professor named Amir Sabzevary. Sabzevary gave him a whole new perspective on academics. It made him buckle down. Anderson got his four-year degree at California in interdisciplinary studies as a result. Mentors mean so much.

But C.J. never stood out in his two years at Cal. He backed up Isi Sofele as a junior, split carries as a senior, and went undrafted in 2013. Luckily for the Broncos, Anderson's agent is Denver-based Peter Schaffer. Anderson signed with the Broncos for a $12,500 bonus. It didn’t give me a lot of video to study on his style.

Anderson played well at San Francisco in his first preseason game. Two days later, he suffered a knee injury and spent most of his rookie season on the bench. Knowshon Moreno was heading the group. In 2014, Montee Ball had a groin injury that he tried to hide. His play diminished as that went on, and Ronnie Hillman came in.

Hillman showed that while he has a different running size and style, he could take both the inside and outside zone runs. His ability to get outside is superior to Ball’s. Anderson has done well at both. As he showed in 2014, he’s a change of pace back with plenty of skill. Hillman isn’t big enough to be a primary back, but he can handle 10-15 carries per game.

2014 undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson is the best blocker of the four, and an excellent receiver. He’s played fullback as well as running back. He’s not quick-footed, but he’s strong and dependable. He’s also willing to do anything he’s asked for. You always want a motivated backup who can catch, block, or carry.  

Given the various skillsets of these four backs, Denver has a nice group going into the 2015 season. Regardless of scheme, quality players are quality players. Some of the best will tend to ‘freestyle’ as they’ve done their whole lives. Some who looked ordinary (such as Arian Foster) play much better in the ZB.

Why? The reasons are simple.

Aspects of the 3 Zone Plays

It’s interesting how many fans aren’t aware of the type or amount of zone blocking that their own teams are currently using. I don’t recall not seeing at least one inside zone play by any team last year. 80+% of its gain is based on the quality of the blocking. It’s an inside run that doesn’t lose effectiveness with a smaller runner.

Hillman looked good running it. He has a lot of quickness and he’s built low enough that he’s hard to spot. He’ll like this system. He showed good vision in college. He just has to upgrade it to NFL standards. After his work last season, I’m not worried.

Ball didn’t look good very much, trying to plow through his injury. Part of the rookie symposium ought to be centered around injuries. Reporting them, not putting the team’s welfare first, and an overdeveloped ego also come into it. It’s arrogant to think that you’re a better player for that day if you’re too injured to be effective. But given his history with the ZB scheme, he’s not someone I’d worry about.

There were two things that C.J. was able to handle that moved him up even further in my eyes. First, his vision was excellent. He kept finding holes and bursting through them. Many were closed as he stepped out on the defense's side.

Second, he trusted his system. Many players who are special runners up through college falter when they’re placed in a ZB team. They’re used to using their own style: to juke, cut, and find a big gap. In the ZB, you have to trust the system. The rushing gaps are often quickly opening and closing. If you think, you’re too late. You have to see it as it’s opening and go through it.

I don’t know that Juwan Thompson fits a ZB scheme, but any guy who can block, catch, and carry is someone I want on my team. He’s the classic depth player. He can ram into the line when killing the clock. He’s a willing and effective blocker.

With these four, the Broncos are in good shape. The best part? If one of them goes down, there’s a quality backup. Even better? If someone beats one of them out, he’s going to have to be an even better back. Given their quality, that’s a high bar to shoot for.

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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