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Packers have confidence in line
By Pete Dougherty
INDIANAPOLIS — The Green Bay Packers hope joining the select club of teams using Alex Gibbs’ run-blocking systems will solve many of their offensive-line problems.
In fact, new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski insists the Packers have more offensive-line talent than the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive line he coached last season.
That’s no small statement, because the Packers’ line is coming off a bad season in which General Manager Ted Thompson failed to replace guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera after deciding not to get in a bidding war for them in free agency.
The Falcons, on the other hand, have led the NFL in rushing the past two seasons — both for total yards and yards averaged per carry — with Gibbs coaching their offensive line in 2004 and assisting Jagodzinski in his top-secret teaching methods last year.
But Jagodzinski, a former Packers assistant who is first-hand familiar with some of the offensive linemen he’s inheriting, said the nucleus of left tackle Chad Clifton, right tackle Mark Tauscher and center Mike Flanagan is better than the nucleus in Atlanta. The Falcons’ starting offensive line last season consisted of three former seventh-round picks, one former fifth-rounder and a former second-rounder, right tackle Todd Weiner.
“I know what they have here (with the Packers), and I know what they have down there talent-wise,” Jagodzinski said. “I know it. There’s some holes that need to be filled, and we’ll get them filled through free agency or the draft. And I want competition for positions. I don’t want guys to feel secure.”
New coach Mike McCarthy hired Jagodzinski as his offensive coordinator because of his experience working in Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme. Last year, the Packers finished 30th in the NFL in rushing yards and 31st in average per carry, though they also were crushed by injuries at the running back position and played most of the season without Pro Bowler Ahman Green (quadriceps tendon) and backup Najeh Davenport (broken ankle), who sustained season-ending injuries.
Though many NFL teams use zone-blocking schemes and most incorporate some zone-blocking principles occasionally, Gibbs began developing a unique way of teaching and deploying the scheme in the 1990s as an assistant with Kansas City that took off when he became an assistant with Denver.
Denver continues to use the scheme today, and it has one of the league’s best run games year-in, year-out seemingly regardless of who’s at running back. Last year, the Broncos ranked second in rushing yards and fourth in yards per carry.
Atlanta will continue to use the system with Gibbs as a consultant this year, and the Packers and possibly Houston will join that select club this year. Houston hired former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak as its coach, and he’s bringing in Denver’s offensive system.
In a general sense, zone blocking differs from gap- or man-blocking schemes in that the linemen block whoever is in their area and have guidelines to determine double-teams and changes depending on the defensive alignment. There’s rarely any pulling, which is a staple of the gap-blocking scheme the Packers used previously, and there’s no predetermined assignment of blocking a specific player.
“It should look a little like a chorus line from the back,” said Joe Philbin, the Packers’ new offensive line coach. “If you’re watching end-zone film, everybody’s stepping the same way and running the same course, so to speak.”
But Gibbs closely guards his secrets to ensure his methods don’t become common knowledge around the NFL. Jagodzinski said Gibbs’ version of zone blocking is different than others’ because of the way he teaches it, both in individual drills and in the way he fits it with the entire offense.
Jagodzinski said there’s no way other coaches can pick up on those methods by watching game videotape. So before teaching Jagodzinski the scheme last year, Gibbs made him promise not to videotape any individual drills, so there would be no instructional film that could fall into unauthorized hands.
“(Gibbs is) like the Henry Ford of it,” Jagodzinski said. “If you were going to build a car, you’d go to Henry Ford and say, ‘How do I do this?’ That’s what I got a chance to do the last two years with him. His circle of guys is so small, he doesn’t share it with anybody. So I felt fortunate to learn it.”
The offensive line Jagodzinski and Philbin inherit is in flux this offseason, because only Clifton and Tauscher are guaranteed to return to the starting lineup. Flanagan is a free agent, and left guard Scott Wells probably would replace him if Flanagan isn’t re-signed. Wells had his share of struggles after moving to left guard the second half of last season, and seventh-round draft pick Will Whitticker had a difficult rookie season at right guard, so the Packers are looking for new prospects for both positions.
But there could be new potential starters already on the roster as well. Jagodzinski said that fifth-round pick Junius Coston was a player he’d targeted in Atlanta last year as a second-day pick who could fit well in his zone-blocking scheme. If the raw second-year pro makes big strides this year, he might have a shot at a starting spot at guard.
Also, Kevin Barry intrigues Jagodzinski. Former coach Mike Sherman didn’t think Barry could play guard and thought he was too valuable in the U-71 package to play him at tackle, which then would have bumped Tauscher to guard. But the new staff thinks Barry might be able to play guard, and if he returns to the Packers — Barry is an unrestricted free agent — is worth taking a long look at as a starter at either guard or tackle.
“I think he can play somewhere, I think he can be one of your five,” Jagodzinski said. “I think he’s talented enough to do that. He’s going to have to prove me wrong on that one.”
Jagodzinski and Philbin are attending the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this week evaluating prospects the Packers might draft to their offensive line as well. Though Gibbs’ scheme doesn’t involve much pulling, it emphasizes athleticism over size, because the linemen have to be mobile enough to make blocking reads on the run.
The Falcons mainly relied on only four runs last year — an inside and outside run on each side of the line — but they’re blocked differently depending on how the defense lines up. There are numerous double-teams, or at least temporary double teams, so there’s not as much need for pure drive-blocking power as there is for linemen to keep their feet and make decisions and blocks on the move.
“If you don’t do a ton of different things, your hope is you’ll master it and it will become second nature because you practice it and do it so many times,” Philbin said. “(You’ll automatically know), ‘If he moves in, I keep going this way, or if he lines up tight and he lines up tight, let’s all three of us zone this off.’”
Some controversy also accompanies Gibbs’ system, because cut blocking on the backside is a staple. Teams routinely complain about Denver’s cut blocking of defensive linemen on the backside as dangerous and the cause of knee injuries, and in the last two years several teams have similarly complained about Atlanta.
“We will get on guys’ legs,” Jagodzinski said. “That is going to happen. It’s just what we do. They’re going to tackle our back, aren’t they? We never got called for an illegal cut block all last season. Never, ever. Everybody does it, it’s just that Denver, Atlanta and (now) Green Bay do it more and do it better.”
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