Have you ever been excited to find a little nugget of information that you know could impact someone’s life? Not all excitement is good excitement, but it’s exciting none the less. They say knowledge is power; I’m not convinced I believe that. There are facts, stats, and analytics all out there for the taking, but, what good is that information if it’s not obtained, condensed, and distributed in a form that is not only digestible but also entertaining? That’s why I believe knowledge applied is power.
When I find those little nuggets of information, I get stoked. So stoked. It’s motivating in a way most people can’t fathom. Imagine if you have the pleasure of telling someone they’ve won the lottery or a couple that’s been trying to become parents they’ve succeeded. That’s how I feel in this space. I can’t wait to tell the readers and listeners I have information possibly vaulting them to the championship.
There’s a running back out there we know and love, whether it was from his time on the field or his Geico commercials. Getting my cold cuts! Whew! Ickey Woods, running back from the Cincinnati Bengals, was amazing. Extremely entertaining and invigorating to watch play. I read this article on Sports Illustrated, which you can findhere. This piece got me motivated to dive into an offensive system I knew existed, just not to this magnitude. Did you know, 1988 he finished with 1,066 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, good for ninth and first in the NFL? The crazy part was he did that in 185 attempts less than Eric Dickerson. While Dickerson was the rushing champ that year, Woods led in yards per rush.
He did that under a scheme which was somewhat foreign in the NFL during that time. Traditionally, offensive lineman would grab as many guys as they could and just push them backward. Meanwhile, the running back would try to find a hole to squeeze through and take off running. This scheme, however, was a little different. Alex Gibbs, the artist behind this scheme, designed it for a guy with superior power and speed while potentially lacking lateral agility. Fitting this description to a “T”, Woods was essentially a defensive end playing running back at 6’2, 230.
Gibbs observed that and pretty much said, “I need you to take the ball and sprint about 5 yards wider than the widest offensive lineman! You can see the best example of it at the 7:12 mark above.
Meanwhile, I need you, offensive lineman, to get out wide and block anyone who comes into the area I assign to you.” It worked wonders. This stunted the backside edge rushers’ ability to catch him from behind, essentially erasing half the opposition from being able to be involved in the play. It's not just a zone blocking based run scheme. It’s the wide or outside zone blocking scheme.
Most teams have some array of runs that use this theory. There are very few teams operating solely off this, much like the Titans did this past year. Get the ball, sprint as fast as you can diagonally past the widest outside lineman, find the crease, cut up the field and go. Worst case scenario, you meet a defender at the line of scrimmage with momentum. You fall forward, gaining a couple yards.
The nightmares for defenders start when you add in the bootleg. Not only do the edge rushers have to avoid the cut block while trying to pursue a running back sprinting away from them, they now must assume responsibility of containment. This is one of the most frustrating and diabolical offenses to stop, not to mention, one of the best ways to neutralize dominant defensive ends and edge rushers.
There is a catch with this system: not every running back can do this. Recently with the Titans, we saw Dion Lewis struggle. He lacked ideal size - only being 5’7, 193 pounds - as well as supreme speed and burst, running a subpar 4.57 40 time. There is a very specific skill set required in order to consistently have success which is why teams don’t run this as their entire offense. The Broncos were able to do it while Mike Shanahan was the head coach and they had Terrell Davis. Gibbs then brought that offense to the Falcons with Warrick Dunn. We saw Kyle Shanahan implement it from time to time with the 49ers, but it is increasingly becoming more and more difficult to install as a primary offense.
Why, you ask? Not only do you have to be the right running back, it also requires the right offensive lineman. The lineman on the side they are attacking have to come out of their stance extremely quickly get to their zone and use their leverage to drive whoever is in their area, back towards the pylons, creating wide holes for the running back to cut up into. You’re talking about driving 300-pound men ten yards in a direction they don’t want to go. On the weak side, you’re asking those lineman to properly cut block their guy, allowing for the running back to take the correct angle towards the hole.
The style of cut blocking essentially died with the new CBA agreements. They couldn’t initiate contact in that style during practice in the offseason because of injury risk. If you don’t perfect this technique, you’re essentially signing the quarterback’s death certificate if it’s a play action fake.
Imagine being the quarterback, you fake the hand off, turn to rollout, look up, and boom! He gets smacked in the face by a 275-pound defensive end. If it’s a run, the running back isn't going anywhere. His entire responsibility is to keep his eyes upfield and find that gap. Forget about breaking the tackle, he wouldn’t even know it’s coming. If that happens multiple times it becomes a disaster and the offense as whole fails. The quarterback will stop accelerating after his roll out. Can you blame him? The running back will be side eyeing the defenders to make sure no one is coming instead of searching for a gap.
Go back and watch the film from 2018. Prior to Henry’s breakout, you’ll see this constantly. This was primarily a result of not having an offensive line which could handle this system. The breakout occurred while facing some teams that were beat up at defensive line to start to gain faith. The Giants, Jaguars, and Redskins were all brutal towards the tail end of 2018.
The big question is why did it work in 2019? They drafted guard Nate Davis and signed guard Roger Saffold away from the Rams. Walla! The additions of those guys and the veteran leadership already in place unrolled this dominant offensive system. Tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan were both studs at setting the edge, and with the powerhouses in the middle they were able to crush teams moving forward.
Looking at 2020 with Conklin gone does make me a little nervous. They did re-sign behemoth tackle Dennis Kelly who’s been in the system. He’s looking like the potential stopgap while they develop their first-round pick, tackle Isaiah Wilson. If developed correctly, Wilson could be ungodly for this system. He’s extremely raw so he will need time to develop, but at 6’7, 350 pounds, with 35 ½ inch arm length, he has the physical tools to dominate.
2020’s Wide Zone Success Story
If you listen to my podcast, Fantasy Intervention, you know I have a point. I didn’t just go through all of that just to say how Henry will put up similar numbers or how Darrynton Evans, the backup to Derrick Henry, is a great handcuff. There is a team out there building a wide zone running scheme. A lot of people hated on this team for what they did in the draft and the offseason. I saw right through what other analysts failed to recognize. They drafted two power guards and a power center along with a tight end this year. They then added Ricky Wagner.
I’ll stop stalling and get to my point. If you haven’t guessed it yet, it was the Green Bay Packers.
They are attempting to run almost the exact same offense and now they are adding the final pieces into place. When Aaron Jones, the starting running back of the Packers, had good games, he was doing what that offense is getting built to do.
When he delivered bad games, you can see he’s taking far more cutbacks and changing directions.
Matt Lafleur, coach of the Packers, has a vision and Jones wasn’t consistently doing what Lafluer wanted, which is why they will let him walk in 2021. The only way he doesn’t is if he completely buys into the system. I just didn’t see it consistently. More likely than not, we are going to be watching the future starting Packer’s running backs AJ Dillon and Dexter Williams run the wide zone! They didn’t bring in Dillion to solely be the goal line back. I went back and looked at Lafluer’s career and couldn’t find any evidence of him being around or using anything but bell cow backs.
On top of that in which I just mentioned, as a head coach, Lafluer gave a running back he showed distain for a 62.6% snap share. That’s after Jones’ fumbles and inability to trust the system.
Lafleur might say he needs more running backs. I think he’s trying to respect the veterans, so he doesn’t cause a rift in the locker room. He’s looking for a guy that fits his system and desires to thrive in it. Dillion couldn’t be a more perfect replica of what this system requires.
I keep hearing people that are Dillon. Analyst talking about his inability to catch passes, but we don't know that. He caught 72% of his passes last year while fellow rookie running back, J.K. Dobbins in Baltimore, only caught 74%. I’m not saying that’s great, but we’ve seen far worse. It’s not like he’s even really had a chance. He only saw 31 targets in three years. I get that targets are more valuable. I understand weighted opportunity. Regardless, even if his pass-catching upside is limited, he's going to get a minimum of 300 carries a year starting in 2021.
For fantasy purposes you’re getting him in the late second, early third of rookie drafts, so I don’t understand where the push back is even coming from. Even if he comes out as a Jordan Howard or a Carlos Hyde type player, which is his floor, that’s a win at that point in the draft. How many wins do the average fantasy players get in the late second round, early third round of drafts? I just charted out rookie ADPs over the past seven years and I can tell you, it's extremely rare. I’m not taking him in the late first or the early second because I can wait to snatch him up, however, that’s where I have him valued. Let’s go through this checklist real quick for what you look for in a rookie.
I don’t care that his feet didn’t look nimble in the Staley drill or that he neglected to test in the agility drills. I don’t care. That’s not what the Packers will ask him to do. It’s completely irrelevant. They are asking him to get the ball, accelerate in a straight line to the corner, find a hole and hit it. Run over some guys in the secondary while he’s at it. He ran a 4.53 40 at 247 pounds! He has a 97th percentile burst score. That’s insane. He is the guy that Matt Lefleur has wet dreams about.
AJ Dillion could be better than Derrick Henry when it comes to dynasty value. He’s going to be effective at an earlier phase in his career and he’s with a coach that not only reached for him in the draft but also made a statement. Aaron Rodgers who!? He doesn’t need weapons because that’s not the offense the Green Bay Packers are going to run. Most coaches live or die by their quarterback. Lafleur is going to do it with his running back and system. He went all-in on this style offense, so he has to make it work.
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