Falcons OC Shanahan brings zone scheme to o-line

FLOWERY BRANCH--The Falcons managed to piece to gather a reasonably effective offensive line during the 2014 season in spite of a boatload of injuries to starters. They'll have to do it again with a new coaching staff and while incorporating a radically different approach to blocking in the run game under coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

"We believe in the outside zone scheme," Shanahan said during his intro news conference Tuesday. "We are going to do a lot of things but we are going to major in using the outside zone. It's what I used in Houston. It's what I did in Cleveland. It's what I did in Washington. It's something I believe in very strongly.

“The main thing when get these linemen in here, is we are going to get them to run. They are going to run more than they ever have before. We are going to challenge the defense sideline to sideline, not just between the tackles. It’s a challenge to get guys to run and still be as physical as anybody.”

For detailed primers on the zone blocking scheme, see here and here. The system was popularized in the 1990s by the Broncos with assistant coach Alex Gibbs and head coach Mike Shanahan, Kyle's father. Gibbs later coached with the Falcons under Jim L. Mora.

In this transcript from a coaching clinic presentation, Gibbs emphasized: "This system works, but you cannot work it and do other things." Kyle Shanahan echoed that sentiment when explaining why he uses the zone scheme.

“First of all it’s worked for a long time,” Shanahan said. “It makes sense to me, just thinking about it and watching it. When you have years and years of tape to watch it confirms it. Similar to what Dan Quinn preaches on defense, as coaches we are not trying to make ourselves smarter than we really are. We need something sound that we believe in that puts defenses in a bind and we need to be very good at it. When you believe in something that is sound, you drill it over and over and over until you get really good at it. Zone is what I believe in.”

What types of linemen are best suited for the scheme?

“You need to be able to run,” Shanahan said. “It’s not necessarily always the 40. You need quickness. I had some bigger guys in Cleveland that I did in Washington and there were some pluses to it and some minuses. Everyone wants a huge player who can run faster than everyone else. Until they allow me to spend top pick on linemen five years in a row that’s not going to happen. You have to find other ways to get by.”

The new Falcons coaches won’t know for sure if they have the linemen to run the new scheme until they get on to the practice field. But we can look at the testing numbers on agility drills for their linemen who are under contract for next season and get some sense of whether they will fit the new system. (Center/guard Peter Konz is not included because he didn’t participate in the combine or Wisconsin pro day because of injury.)

It appears Jake Matthews and Jon Asamoah will have no problem adjusting to the zone scheme if their agility test times are any indication. Matthews was among the top performers among offensive linemen at the 2014 scouting combine for the two agility tests, the 20-yard shuttle and the three-cone drill. Asamoah didn't participate in the 2010 draft combine because of injury but his unofficial shuttle and three-cone drill times at his pro day would have placed him among the top-performing offensive linemen.

Judging by their testing times, tackles Ryan Schraeder and centers James Stone and Joe Hawley also may have the quickness necessary for the zone scheme.

Stone had a lackluster three-cone drill time at the 2014 combine but his 20-yard shuttle time tied for 14th among offensive linemen. Schraeder, a former basketball player, had an OK 20-yard shuttle time at his pro day at Valdosta State and an excellent three-cone drill time. Hawley also had a decent shuttle time and a great three-cone time at the 2010 combine.

Guard Justin Blalock did not test well in either agility drill at the 2007 combine. Blalock, 31, also sat out with a back issue last season after previously never missing a game because of injury.

The Falcons will have more to go on than just testing numbers when evaluating offensive linemen. They will subtract players and add others through free agency and the draft between now and the opening of training camp. Coaches will decide which offensive linemen fit the zone scheme and then drill them in the new system.

Shanahan said it will be a long process.

“It takes time to develop,” Shanahan said. “Nowhere have I been that guys get it right away. You are usually asking them to do stuff they have never done consistently throughout their career. But when you get the commitment from guys to do it, you rep it all the time, guys usually come around.”