After ranking 10th in the NFL in rushing in 2004, the Green Bay Packers plummeted to 30th in 2005. The running game's ineffectiveness served as a major reason why the Packers fell from 10-6 to 4-12 in a one-year span.
Enter new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.
As offensive line coach of the Atlanta Falcons, he guided the NFL's No.1-ranked rushing attack in 2005. Alex Gibbs, a Falcons consultant, previously served as the architect for the vaunted Denver Broncos zone blocking scheme, and that system paved the way for four different running backs in nine years to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Jagodzinski learned from the master.
"I got a chance to work under him day in and day out for two years," Jagodzinski said. "I'm very intimate with the knowledge of the inner workings of that scheme."
The scheme does not assign the offensive linemen to a specific defender before the snap of the ball. Instead they block the first person to enter their area.
"You stay on your track and block whoever shows," Packers offensive line coach Joe Philbin said. "It allows you to be aggressive."
Zone blocking schemes feature a few basic plays, which all rely on athletic players who can execute double teams. Because the system requires fleet-footed linemen, the Broncos and Falcons often use converted tight ends or players who weigh less than 300 pounds. At 6-2, 304 pounds, Scott Wells should adapt well at either guard or center. Ranked as the nation's No. 1 high school wrestler at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy, Wells has the agility Jagodzinski seeks. But behemoths like 6-4, 315-pound Mark Tauscher and 6-5, 330-pound Chad Clifton have the skills to block effectively in the new scheme as well.
"The big thing is you're looking for guys who are athletes," Philbin said. "Whether they're 320 pounds or 297 pounds, it doesn't really matter."
Some have suggested the zone blocking style would not suit the team's largest offensive lineman, William Whitticker. The 6-5, 338-pound rookie flashed potential in 2005, starting 14 games at right guard. He, however, could become even more effective in 2006. Because the new blocking scheme does not require the linemen to streak down the line of scrimmage and pull, Philbin said it could fit Whitticker's abilities.
"There isn't as much pulling in a true zone scheme," Philbin said. "There's more area blocking."
Although it will require some adjustment, Philbin said a fresh system could reinvigorate the players. He has talked to every offensive lineman on the 2005 squad over the telephone regarding the changes. The players seemed anxious.
"There is both excitement and a little bit of apprehension," Philbin said.
Zone blocking should not represent a total fear of the unknown. The Packers have some experience with those techniques. Philbin estimates the Packers blocked that way on 30 to 40 percent of their plays in 2005. The Broncos just used it more frequently -- on about 95 percent of their offense.
"Everybody runs some form of it," Jagodzinski said.
Jagodzinksi insists the version he used in Atlanta will work in Green Bay. His 2005 Falcons offensive line cleared the way for a rushing attack, which gained 2,546 yards despite starting three seventh-round draft picks, a fifth-round draft pick and an undrafted free agent. In Green Bay Jagodzinski inherits a line with several marquee players. Both Clifton and center Mike Flanagan, an unrestricted free agent, were chosen as alternates to the 2006 Pro Bowl. Tauscher did not commit a holding penalty during his first 68 starts in the NFL.
"There's more talent here on the offensive line than there was in Atlanta," Jagodzinski said.
Philbin became a logical choice to guide that group through the new blocking techniques. Before joining the Packers in 2003, Philbin coached the University of Iowa offensive linemen, including Oakland Raiders tackle Robert Gallery and Cincinnati Bengals guard Eric Steinbach. During Philbin's four years at Iowa, the Hawkeyes used a zone blocking scheme, and his familarity with the system is a major reason why Jagodzinski and Head Coach Mike McCarthy hired him.
"That was the main emphasis of our running game," Philbin said. "I feel very comfortable with it."
In time the Packers should become just as comfortable with the new blocking scheme, which had success in both Denver and Atlanta.
"There's a lot of quality kids in that offense line we have here," assistant offensive line coach James Campen said. "Those guys are adaptable."