When the Pittsburgh Steelers face the Oakland Raiders on Sunday they will face the new zone blocking scheme that offensive coordinator Greg Knapp has implemented for this season.
While the Raiders, and more specifically running back Darren McFadden, are still in the early stages of being accustomed to it, the Steelers defense has struggled recently against defending it.
We all remember the week 1 and week 4 games last year against the Baltimore Ravens and the Houston Texans. In those two games the Steelers defense allowed a total of 350 yards rushing in those two games and lost both of them.
While the Raiders are nowhere close to executing the zone running scheme the way both of those teams do, they are staying committed to it according to Knapp, even though McFadden is considered a much better straight ahead runner.
"Let\'s keep things in perspective for a second here," Knapp said this past week. "We\'ve played two games in the regular season on offense. We\'ve had two different centers and a right tackle who played half a game last week. We need some patience."
Like Knapp, McFadden is also optimistic about the Raiders running attack improving as time goes on.
"Going with the zone scheme is one of those situations where you\'re going to have to keep hitting it until you get going," McFadden said. "It\'s going to be one yard here or two yards there, but eventually it\'s going to start popping."
The key for the Steelers to stop the moving scheme on Sunday will start up front with the defensive line as they must keep their feet, stay square to the line of scrimmage, and maintain gap control in order to let themselves or the linebackers make the play.
Raven head coach John Harbaugh talked about the Texans zone blocking scheme last year prior to facing them in the playoffs, and more specifically, what needs to be done to stop it.
"It challenges the whole width of the front," said Harbaugh. "It gets the whole front moving and it challenges them to expand and move with the front to stay square, maintain gap control and control blocker. What they do is basically expanded the area that you have to cover horizontally and find a crease. A back like Arian Foster finds that crease a lot of times. So it\'s not like he\'s running in one hole. It can basically run anywhere from the tight end to the backside tackle."
On Sunday the Steelers defense will once again be without outside linebacker James Harrison, so Jason Worilds and Chris Carter will be relied upon to force McFadden to cut back inside. Nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is still rounding into game shape after missing all of training camp and most of the preseason, will have to keep his feet better this go around versus the zone scheme and it would not be surprising to see the more athletic Steve McLendon get more snaps than he did last week against the New York Jets as a result. Both Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have make sure that they are able to shed whatever blockers are coming at them to the second level in order to string the run out and backside protection from the outside linebackers has to be solid to prevent McFadden from cutting back, the way Foster did last year in week 4.
Should the Raiders be able to run early using this scheme, it will force the Steelers defense to over commit to the run, which would then allow Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer the ability to run play action off of it and/or bootleg out to the other direction in an attempt to take advantage of single coverage on his receivers, in addition to being able to use a tight end or released running back out in the flat.
Should the Steelers offense jump on top of the Raiders early in the game, the Raiders offense will have to abandon the run and at that point they will become one dimensional as an offense and much easier to defend.