I was somewhere between thrilled and ecstatic with the announcement that premier offensive line coach Alex Gibbs will be added to Denver’s already extensive coaching firepower. Denver has been using both outside and inside zone running plays over the last two years. Why not also add the modern version of the original stretch zone play?
The offensive line players Johns Elway and Fox have put together have good feet as well as greater size. There's no reason they can't run this.
The old idea that you need smaller players for this scheme, or that defensive coordinators have learned to defend it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Like a lot of Peyon Manning's plays, it's one thing to know what they might do and something entirely different to stop them from doing it. What the zone scheme needs is offensive linemen with excellent footwork - and the Broncos have them. What’s unusual is that Denver's gotten both size and power to go with their skill in footwork. That's not the common approach to the ZB scheme, but it's one that I've been interested in seeing for a long time.
Although Denver has used more power blocking and will continue to, Gibbs’s work is still essentially what the Broncos have used with their inside and outside zone plays - put simply, it combines the two into a single approach and lets the running back pick his cutback lane based on his read. They’ve changed from the original Gibbs approach, but it’s a small change back to make.
Ryan Clady pulls and traps well. Zane Beadles’s pulling is one of the factors that landed him in the Pro Bowl. I’ll wait to see on J.D. Walton, but he moves well, and the technique might help minimize his slightly lesser physical power. I’m sure the line will have a hiccup or two on the way, but I saw the uptick in Orlando Franklin’s footwork between his drafting in 2011 and his play in 2012, and it was substantial.
OL coach Dave Magazu has referred to Louis Vasquez as his ‘new toy’, and I don’t have any concern about Vasquez’s ability to learn the footwork and hand techniques. He already knows a form of it that he employs on inside and outside zone runs, which both Denver and San Diego use. This is just one more technique, but that’s also like saying it’s just one more cannon for the armory. Gibbs’s ZB packs a punch.
Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman each possess good vision, physical quicks and, in Hillman's case, surprising power. Ball's power is no surprise to anyone, but he’s an excellent candidate for a one-cut system, having run it at Wisconsin. Knowshon Moreno stepped up in his vision last season - you could see the improvement from him on that for the first time in the latter part of last season. Willis McGahee has always flourished in zone blocking. All four primary backs are comfortable in a one-cut system. There’s no shortage of matching player skills: the technique is a good fit.
Neither Ball nor Hillman is an obscure back - both are quality rushers who could be with the team for an extended time. John Fox has always used earlier picks to get the running backs he believes in - Ball was taken in the second round in April, Hillman at the start of the third round in 2012. Upgrading the run game was one of the priorities for this offseason; I believe this hire will let them maximize their accomplishments.
Magazu, as well as Elway, have worked with Gibbs in the past. Given what I’ve seen in terms of the improvement of the line’s play just from 2011 to 2012, adding Gibbs’s level of options to the quality Magazu has already sculpted is exactly what a team that’s trying to win a Super Bowl wants to do - it adds a new weapon. No one has ever been happy to play against a Gibbs-coached line - they’re both technically proficient and highly effective. John Fox has used a variation on the zone blocking schemes in both Carolina and Denver, so it’s not entirely new to him, either. And, nothing forces Denver to always use Gibbs’s scheme, either. They won’t - they’ll keep what they have in place and add Gibbs’s twists only when it suits them.
Frankly, I can't wait to see what Gibbs does for Denver. He's one of the most fertile minds in the league, after all. I’m sure that he will both demand excellence in his approach and that he’ll have some new twists - one of his strengths has always been as an innovator (you can find the rest of this series on Gibbs on YouTube, if you’re a true trenchhead). I’ve also raved about Magazu for two years now. You have to know that both Ball and Hillman are dancing in their respective houses today - their careers just got a boost. The offensive linemen aren’t gloomy either - Gibbs is a legend.
Gibbs himself has a reputation for being a bit prickly at times, and coaching is a profession in which you learn early that you’re going to get fired from time to time anyway, no matter how good you are. Elway has worked with and won with Gibbs before - he knows exactly what he’s getting. Matching Gibbs with Magazu allows Denver to both maintain coaching consistency and to add a new level and option of technique.
To clearly understand how little it’s been well-defended at any time, Gibbs’s full system turned obscure running backs into 1,000-yard rushers in Denver with the inevitability of the seasons from 1995 to 2003. His theories are still applied to great success in Houston, where they helped undrafted phenom Arian Foster become the top back in football in 2010, then had him over 1,400 yards last year. So, no, it isn’t true that coaches have learned to defend it, if you've been told that.
The player upgrades and addition of Gibbs will serve to provide Manning with the kind of running game that will ease his job and increase the potency of his play action passing, which has always been a strength for him. Quarterbacks coach Gregg Knapp has also worked with a zone blocking scheme, and with Gibbs, in Atlanta. Seen from that perspective, it’s an even stronger play for the team to make.
I see this as a match made in heaven. It’s appropriate that it was announced on Mother’s Day. A lot of defensive players are going to walk off the field and exclaim, “I HATE those mother@#$ers!”. They really won’t know what option to prepare for.
Welcome back to Denver, Coach Gibbs. I hope you have a long and fruitful stay.