Commentary

Zone-blocking scheme just one idea to get Panthers in end zone

Updated: August 5, 2007, 11:12 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Leaning back in his office chair, his feet planted on the edge of his desk after a crisp Thursday afternoon practice -- punctuated by a goal-line drill in which the Carolina Panthers' defense dominated -- coach John Fox insisted that he and his staff are "not trying to reinvent the wheel" in 2007.

But in attempting to re-energize an offense that ranked 24th in the league in 2006, didn't knock many opponents off the line of scrimmage and averaged 7.6 points per game fewer than it had in the previous season, Fox has overhauled his staff dramatically and tweaked some philosophies.

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Gone is legendary offensive coordinator Dan Henning, who had been calling the shots on that side of the ball since Fox landed the Carolina gig in 2002. Also out is offensive line coach Mike Maser, who had served in that capacity for all but one season of Fox's tenure. In is new coordinator Jeff Davidson and, with him, a zone-blocking scheme the Panthers brass feels is a better fit for the talents of the Carolina offensive linemen and running backs.

Unlike the Denver Broncos, the Panthers won't buy in totally to a design in which the blockers "cut" the defenders, particularly on the backside of a play. Davidson has retained some of the power-based and man-to-man blocking techniques and has kept portions of the gap- and counter-style blocking Carolina used in the past.

Still, there is a pretty big dose of cut-blocking being installed here with the hopes that if the Panthers can get into a zone, they'll get into the end zone more often in 2007.

"People have made a lot out of it, probably more than it deserves, but really, we just feel it fits better with our linemen and with their strengths," Fox said. "It's not like we're doing it on every play, like some of the teams that live and die with it and don't know anything but zone-blocking. We're not being [fanatical] with it. But [Davidson] knows it, it's what he likes and he believes in it."

Although the transition to the zone-blocking package is very much a work in progress, Carolina players are beginning to believe in it, too.

"Backs like it because it gives you a lot more options for reading the hole and finding the 'mesh point.' Linemen seem to like it because, if the back does what he's supposed to do, the offensive linemen always look right, and the defense often looks [silly]," said second-year tailback DeAngelo Williams, the 2006 first-rounder who played in a zone-blocking scheme at the University of Memphis, a system that made him the fourth-leading rusher in NCAA history. "So, yeah, if we do it right, it will help us a lot."

Coming off a 2006 campaign in which the offense was sporadic, and finished in the bottom half of the league's statistical rankings for a second straight year, the Panthers seem to need some help to get back on track.

Last season clearly was an enigmatic and confusing one. The Panthers had exactly the same number of first downs (278) as they did in 2005, and their total offensive output in terms of yardage was just 27 fewer yards than in the previous season. They averaged 3.9 yards per run, a half-yard improvement over 2005. But the offense registered 64 fewer rushing plays than in 2005, and the ground attack managed only an anemic 1,079 yards, nearly 600 fewer yards than in the 2005 season.

Part of the disparity can be attributed to game situations because the Panthers often played from behind and were forced to throw the ball. Fox, though, isn't using that as an alibi for the shortcomings of his offense.

"We just didn't run the ball enough," he said. "And when we did run it, we didn't run it efficiently enough."

For the Carolina offense to succeed, Fox and general manager Marty Hurney emphasized, it's imperative the running game get into high gear. Quarterback Jake Delhomme is most effective when bolstered by a strong ground attack. Wide receiver Steve Smith's potential for big, vertical plays is enhanced by a running game the opposition defense is forced to honor. And there is simply a natural rhythm to the way this team likes to use its personnel that flows better when the ground game is in concert.

Thus the implementation of the zone-blocking scheme, which can be a demanding one to assimilate. The basic zone-blocking tenets force the linemen to work more in tandem on blocks, emphasize getting out to the second level to block linebackers and stress the need to seal off the backside so runners can cut back into the void.

Standout right tackle Jordan Gross said the changes in the Carolina system have forced the linemen to study harder, take more notes and review considerable video of other zone-blocking teams in the league. But the benefits, he said, are beginning to show, even early in camp.

"As a lineman, it allows you to come off the ball hard, full-tilt all the way," Gross said. "And the bootlegs and play-action stuff all looks more real because it spins off the running game, so that makes pass protection a little easier."

Certainly there also are ancillary benefits of the zone-blocking package. Defensive linemen in the league universally detest the blocking design because its emphasis on cut-blocking and chopping players on the backside of plays imperils their knees. So there is a natural tentativeness on the part of defenders when they play zone-blocking offenses.

There has been no hesitancy from Panthers blockers and runners, though, in buying into the new design. Davidson has sold it well, and as the Panthers continue to work out the kinks in camp, it is growing on them.

"Myself, I believe in an 'adapt and adopt' philosophy, you know?" said Williams, who rushed for 501 yards in his debut season and expects more while playing in the time-sharing arrangement with starter DeShaun Foster. "We're adapting pretty well to the changes, and I think guys are really embracing it as something we can be good at, really."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.