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Montee Ball isn’t a particularly special runner, and in an offense managed by Peyton Manning and a run scheme devised by Alex Gibbs, that doesn’t really matter.
Ball, selected by the Denver Broncos in the second round of April’s NFL Draft, isn’t a shifty runner and won’t outrun the secondary. The former University of Wisconsin stud, at 5’11” and 212 pounds, is by no means the kind of running back who will create yards by himself.
You know who else fits that description? Knowshon Moreno. You know who averaged 117 total yards and scored three times in the final four games of the 2012 season as the workhorse in Manning’s backfield? Moreno.
Joseph Addai wasn’t special either, and he cracked the 1,000-yard mark as Manning’s lead back in back-to-back seasons. Dominic Rhodes did that same as the bellcow on Manning’s 2001 team, gaining more than 1,200 total yards in 15 games. Rhodes, in case you forget, wasn’t what he’d call an athletic freak.
The lesson, in short, is that anyone toting the rock for Peyton Manning has instant and significant fantasy value. Manning’s ability to read and manipulate a defense, and his freedom to audible into run plays when he sees fit, has served fantasy owners well for a long time.
The Broncos hired Gibbs, the godfather of the zone-blocking scheme, as an offensive line consultant this week – a development that should not go unnoticed in fantasy circles. It was Gibbs’ adherence to and teaching of zone blocking that generated unholy fantasy seasons from Terrell Davis and a series of no-name runners who simply followed the script of the zone scheme: the followed their blockers and they made one cut, not unlike Arian Foster does so masterfully in Houston.
Gibbs’ scheme translated to Atlanta too, where he coached the Falcons’ offensive line for three seasons that saw the Falcons gain more rushing yards than any time in the NFL. The Falcons, during Gibbs’ stint in Atlanta, were the only team in the league to average more than five yards a carry.
Simply following Gibbs, drafting guys running behind his offensive lines, has been as good a strategy as any. His scheme is designed to use defenses’ innate aggression against them. It’s when defenders pursue Gibbs’ ball carrier that they are most often and successfully exploited.
The success of Gibbs’ blocking schemes has been predicated more on what’s known as the outside zone play instead of the more common inside zone, in which offensive linemen move defenders backward and have the ball carrier chug (almost) straight ahead. Linemen in Gibbs’ outside zone scheme push defensive players to the outside, sometimes moving them toward the sideline depending on their positioning. Once the defense is stretched, running lanes appear (for the patient runner with decent vision) and the ball carrier hits a crease with no hesitation. This doesn’t work everywhere, as Darren McFadden showed in his flame-out of a 2012 season in Greg Knapp’s zone blocking scheme, but with the right runner and a total commitment from his blockers, Gibbs’ zone system is deadly.
Gibbs’ successful outside zone approach – also known as wide zone – is reliant on lateral movement, with linemen stepping to the side with their initial move off the line of scrimmage, rather than forward.
Wisconsin’s run game used quite a bit of one-cut running, a style that suited Ball well during his collegiate career. Many of his most impressive runs – as seen below – were on the one-cut-and-go variety. A back of his size and power was made to thrive in Gibbs’ zone blocking scheme. Ball doesn’t shimmy and shake and juke in the backfield. He rarely tries to create with east-west runs. He’s very much a straight-ahead runner. All he needs is opportunity.
Either Moreno or backfield companion Willis McGahee are expected to make their exit from the Mile High City sometime in the next couple months. This, of course, will go a long way toward clearing up the Broncos’ backfield situation. No matter who stays and who is released, I think Gibbs’ return to Denver is a boon for Ball’s fantasy prospects, even if he splits the workload in the early going.
Whoever gets the honor of taking handoffs from Manning will likely avoid defenders stacked at the line, as Moreno last season saw eight men in the box on just 7.4 percent of his carries – one of the lowest percentages of any back in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
No one can say what Ball’s fantasy value will be come September. Probably he won’t be had at the same value he has today – not even close – but keeping tabs on the pecking order of Denver’s backfield paid major dividends in 2012, and it certainly will again in 2013.
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