Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases. But, this week, instead of giving you a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options, the “Cover 3” means an in-depth look at the three top running backs in this draft class and the three different types of blocking schemes they run in.
ALL TWENTY-TUESDAY: BLOCKING FOR THE BIG 3
In last week’s Cover 3, we took an in-depth look at offensive line play. We established some terminology for offensive line work, and then categorized each type of running play into the three main concepts of blocking schemes: zone, man and gap.
Each scheme comes with its own set of requirements, not only for the offensive linemen that do the blocking, but also the running backs that run the ball behind them. We identified, not only the kind of offensive linemen the Buccaneers currently have on the roster relative to the types of blocking schemes their skills favor, but also discovered some tendencies of Tampa Bay’s run game itself. We found out that the Bucs liked to stay versatile in all three blocking schemes when it came to their line, but also had certain blocking concepts they favored for each of their running backs.
That brings us to this week’s Cover 3 and part 2, if you will, of the blocking scheme breakdown for the Buccaneers. With Doug Martin’s future in Tampa Bay murky at best, if given the opportunity to add one of the top running backs in the draft, there’s a good chance the Bucs would pull the trigger, even in the first round – even if drafting a running back in the first round is often a bad use of value, if you ask me.
By now we all know who the Big 3 running backs are in this class who could be possibilities in that first round range: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey. Each are very talented in their own ways, but each have styles that would certainly get the “most” out of their skill sets, too. Most of that has to do with blocking schemes and formations, something that rarely seems to be explained well when debating the selection of these three.
The Buccaneers do like to stay versatile in the blocking schemes they call, so they don’t have one specific preference over another that would eliminate one of these running backs from being their choice. But, we also established last week that the Buccaneers are at an in-between with the type of offensive linemen they have and the type of running backs they have. Though staying multiple is good, to an extent, if they are to take one of these three back in the first round, I think that will say a lot about the direction this team wants to go in the theme of their running game.
So, let’s take a look at how all three of these players performed in each blocking scheme during their college careers, and the direction or theme their selection to the Buccaneers might mean in terms of the future of the running game.
Let’s start with the player who has already been crowned king of the Zone Blocking Scheme, Christian McCaffrey.
Zone Blocking Schemes require unique skills from a running back. First and foremost the ball carrier has to have above-average vision. With ZBS plays, there is no designed hole for the running back to go through. Rather, the play is designed to create multiple points of entry that may or may not form depending on how the defense is both aligned in the pre-snap and how they flow with the offensive line once they see they’re all moving one direction. So, it takes good vision from the ball carrier to recognize which running lane is going to be open even before the yards can start to rack up. This is where McCaffrey thrives.
It seems as thought the more chaos and more movement is going on at the line of scrimmage, the more it benefits McCaffrey. Not only does he have the vision to see where the running lane is going to form, he also has the skills to get there and react to it before defenders do, which is key.
The play above is one that we saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers call for Doug Martin on more than one occasion. Because of how fluid Martin was with his cuts and his hips, he was able to succeed on plays like the one above. With outside ZBS plays (above), even though they may be designed to move one way, there are times when they will call for a complete cut back to the other side of the field. Not all running backs have the skill to pull this off; McCaffrey does. Coming from the shotgun set (which is important to note), McCaffrey had the vision to put his foot in the ground and change direction first, then showed off good agility, fluid hips and good short-area burst to get up through the cutback lane. These traits are key if you want to call ZBS plays from the shotgun set.
Cook also had his fair share of ZBS running plays, but for him, most of them came from the single back or I-formation.
In the play above, Cook didn’t really have a point of attack. The reason I chose it is because I wanted to point out that calling zone blocking runs to the outside requires a running back to sometimes make the smallest of spaces the ones they have to go through. I also wanted to highlight the fact that Cook has some of the best balance in the country with the ball in his hands – which is odd because he also trips over his own feet more often than you would think for a guy who has such great balance through contact.
Cook seems to be at his best in those stretch zone runs where the offensive linemen are moving to the play side and he can either spring a block or get all the way to the sideline. When Cook can get moving on outside zone runs, the advantage goes to him. The Buccaneers ran some of that with Doug Martin, but not as far to the outside as Florida State did when they had success with Cook. Since Martin was the only back they really trusted to run zone blocking with, I’d say McCaffrey’s style was closer to Cook’s in that regard.
When it comes to Fournette, the narrative around him is that he’s a Power back, and because of this, he didn’t run any kind of Zone Blocking Schemes. That is false.
Fournette’s power running narrative comes from where he lines up in the formation, as he’s mostly (or, ideally) lined up in a single back and I-formation set. However, the play above is evidence that you can still run a power back in a ZBS, as long as you keep it close.
On inside zone runs like the one above, Fournette can be unstoppable. When he’s able to get a full head of steam, and when that inside running lane is the one to open up, you won’t find many plays where he’s taken down before 20 yards. Fournette is very much a momentum runner in that he has to be going north-to-south to be as effective as you’d want him to be. This, at times, requires some assistance (or limitation) in what plays are called from each formation. Drafting Fournette wouldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of calling ZBS plays, and, in fact, some of his biggest runs came on when he could time the running lane on those plays. However, that style doesn’t cleanly line up with the kind of zone blocking run plays we’ve saw from Tampa last year. So, if they were to take Fournette, they’d be shifting in that direction more.
Turn the page to see what each of these three backs were like in Man Blocking Schemes.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: email@example.com
I would also see Joe Mixon applied to this criteria.
But the BIG question I have is which RB is the best in pass protection. If they can’t do that, they can be on the field very often.
Best at Pass Pro:
Fournette should be higher, he just isn’t consistent at all. McCaffrey puts effort into blocking, but his size obviously hurts him there. Cook, like his running game, is pretty all-around as a blocker. Not great, but not a total liability.
This breakdown makes me wonder if the Panthers might take Cook instead of Fournette like some places have projected. Don’t they operate more out of the shotgun?
Yep. There are plays that the Panthers run that are parallel to Florida State’s playbook with Cook. Panthers like to run a lot of Gap Scheme if they can. He would be my choice if I were picking for them out of these three for No. 8.
When I look at the Panthers, I cant see how they do not take Fournette. The combo of Newton/ Fournette look pretty formidable.
I would have to think that Mr. Licht would be willing to give up assests in next years draft to secure one of these backs for the offense and might be worth it.
Well done Trevor. Excellent article and your examples were great illustrations of your message. Enjoyed that.
I think I changed my RB preference to McCaffrey from Cook.
I have a request for one of your next 2 before draft day? Same analysis with safeties. I think it is likely the BUCS will draft 1 in the first 3 rounds. It would be nice to see the breakdown between Obi, Baker, and Maye. A lot of heated debate on who should be chosen
I might be able to swings this. Get more into a handful of comps at one position as opposed to just one. Will try to space out the time to at least get you something along those lines.
I would also like to see Peppers in that break down.
That’s a good request, especially for this particular pair of potential first round safeties.
My short version:
Obi is a guy who does his best coverage work in man calls (he’s not great there, but it’s the best he does against the pass), but who struggles badly when he has to read an entire play as it develops. He’s bad with his keys, slow to react, looks like a 4.65 guy rather than a 4.4 player a lot of the time. If your team runs primarily zone, then he should NOT be consider as your pick, IMO. But he can be an asset matched up in man, where his job is simple. You can maybe use him in a 2 deep shell, too, but he may be slow to help way more often than a guy with his speed should be. He’s a strong safety.
Budda, meanwhile, is quick, decisive, and fast to his assignment in both man and zone, but his lack of size can create an issue in man coverage against big receivers and pretty much all TEs. I think he’s got the speed, instincts, diagnosing ability, and the ball skills to be a single high safety whose job is to help sideline to sideline. He can be a force in man coverage as the nickel CB when you want to put him close to the LOS – despite his small frame, he’ll evade blockers and be a force in the running game, and with his quickness and loose hips, he can hang with slot receivers while covering them in space.
If Cook is not there at Spot 19, then the Bucs go for a Safety or TE . What do you think Trevor?
I don’t think Cook will be there at 19 – don’t think Fournette will be either. I think Howard and Njoku are two of their top targets at 19. One is more realistic than the other.
PS- I’m a Maye guy cause I’m a gator, and seen a lot from him. The draft experts only have the 3 separated by 1 point. Maye is a coverage FS versus a “thumper” which is getting penalized out of the NFL.
Maye looked good at their Pro Day. Watch Marcus Williams from Utah as well, if you haven’t yet. Seems to be getting slept on. Talented guy in that second round range. Budda will most likely require a trade up higher into the second round or could be an option if they trade back a bit from No. 19. Obi is a total wildcard at this point. His value range is vast. Some team might pick him Top 20, others might not want him until Day 2.
No RB in the first! Draft Perrine in the third.
Actually, I’d be very happy if we could get Mixon in the 2nd.
Love the article Brother Trevor, the Cover 3 segments have slowly but surely become one of my favorites on the site.
I also agree that Cook and Fournette don’t make past #8 so McCaffrey would and should be there for us at 19, while fitting our scheme the best. Of course always opens up the possibility of trading down with maybe the Giants who seem to have great interest in him also and we could pick up an extra pick
But his low bench press numbers at the combine worry me potentially about his strength and possible durability in this big man league especially if he’s asked to contribute in so many ways. I think that a back like Alvin Kamara who has extremely similar traits as a McCaffrey would be just as much of an asset, but doesn’t seem as if he’s getting much attention at One Buc Place.
I tend to think that the Bucs are unlikely to spend a first round draft pick on a ‘tween the tackles every down running back, given that such backs tend to not be productive year in and year out, and the Bucs are clearly building for the long haul via the draft, and using free agents for the short haul.
Which is exactly how you build a winning team for the short and the long hauls combined.
Given the huge investments the Bucs have made in their quarterback, their two top receivers, and their offensive line (it may not seem like it, but the’ve invested a lot of draft picks plus the FA pickup of Sweezy in the last three years), I see the Bucs more likely than not wanting to enhance their passing game. That suggests a premium on wide receivers and tight ends. The defense also needs additional talent in the draft, particularly the line and safeties, and perhaps a developmental cornerback to eventually replace Grimes.
A lot of folks say that none of the three running backs listed here are going to be available at pick 19 anyway .. that may or may not be true. But there’s plenty of good running back talent in the middle rounds, and then if the guy gets nicked like our previous two first round running backs did, then at least the cost is not that much.
While I don’t think any of these guys will be there at 19, it’s still fun to see the film breakdown. Great article. Thanks Trevor. Cook is just the most complete back in the draft. Especially how Dirk would be able to use him from different formations, like the article says. He’s a special talent and our offense would benefit greatly if he fell to us. I’ve warmed up to McCaffrey in the last couple of weeks. If we grabbed him, I’d support it, even if I don’t think he’s a RB1 in this league.
Nice job on the comparisons and explanations Trevor. At some point, it comes down to availability and preference but I can see any of the three RBs being assets for the Bucs. I admit that I hate the prospect of Carolina drafting Fournette. I also hate the idea of McCaffery in a Saints uniform. They seem like they could each be iconic assets for those teams.
What are the chances of a video being leaked of Myles Garret smoking a bong right before the draft starts, and then he falls to #19?
I’ll see what I can do.
Love watching those Dalvin Cook highlights. Dude is a special player and will quickly assert himself as one of the top backs in the league. His balance is elite. Whichever team gets him will be very lucky
I have a feeling the Bucs may stick with Martin. But, this does seem to be a good draft if you want a RB. Any other RBs you like, Trevor? Thoughts on D’Onta Foreman?
Kareem Hunt is my guy. I like him a lot. I think he’s a complete RB. Samaje Perine (power), Wayne Gallman (zone and gap), Jamaal Williams (power) and Malon Mack (man blocking) are a few other guys I like. Kamara (zone and gap) is good, but not as good for Tampa.
Foreman would be similar schematically with Rodgers, and with him on board with that two year deal, I just wonder if they’d go with someone similar. They’ve shown they like to be more diverse.
I liked Hunt, and I still do, but I’m wary. He looks fast on film, but he’s mostly running against inferior athletes from lower level conferences like the one he was in. I expected him to test out at least fairly well at the Combine. The fact that he was so painfully slow, and that he chose to pass up all drills that might measure his change of direction and quickness, worries me. I’m not generally a big combine guy by any means. I don’t jump at workout warriors because of those numbers. But I do worry about players that come out poorly. Between his level of competition and his poor testing speed, I wonder if he wasn’t just feasting on weak opponents for the most part.
In addition to that, he’s older, and he’s got a lot of wear on those tires. The dude has over 800 college touches to his name, and he’s going to be 22 in week one. Dalvin will be too, btw, which I don’t like either. For Hunt, assuming he isn’t cut during his first contract, he’ll sign his second one before his age 27 season. I think that’s a pretty rough way to set up value for the draft, even if it is just a mid round pick. We all know that RBs don’t last long. With Hunt, you’re basically going to be spending a 3rd rounder on a guy that history tells us will be notably good for four years, one contract, assuming he’s even good for that long.
I’m not saying I don’t want him, or that I’m against him. But I’ve started to question the long term wisdom of taking him in this draft due to these things.
I can’t believe the Bucs would be so stupid to keep Martin. They overpaid him and the Bucs can do a lot with his $7.5M that would be freed up.
Also I like your Freeman idea. If he fell to the Bucs in the 4th round, he would be a steal. I know Trevor said he is like Rodgers but he bigger and stronger.
I think of the 3, McCaffery is the only one that may still be on the board at 19. I too am interested in what you think about D’Onta Foreman. It seems everyone has an opinion about the first round RB’s but if we take a TE or FS (consensus top needs) we are at best going to be selecting a mid round Day 2-3 RB. We have heard a little about Kareem Hunt and the kid out of USF but very little about Foreman. Like someone mentioned above the best RB prospect this year may be Joe Mixon.
This is a great, in-depth comparison of the 3 top RBs. However, the choice should be easy for us since it’s likely that at least 2 will be gone by 19. If McCaffery is still there and we’re able to trade back and still get him, I’d say that is our best Rd 1 RB option.
I think we may be better off grabbing the top TE available and taking a RB in Rd 2 or 3 to develop behind Martin/Quiz. I’ve said it before, I’m not quite ready to give up on the Dougernaught. If his rehab goes well, I say we restructure his contract for a lesser cap hit and keep him on. The threat of our passing game will open up the run game regardless who we have back there.
I love these Cover 3 articles Trevor. At the end of the day I truly think any the of these guys would make our team better. I would prefer Cook but I’m a FSU fan. The way out drafts have been going lately out first round picks have done really good, so I have faith that the front office will bring in another gem. Defense or offense.
I’m only worried about Ross, I just keep thinking of Tavon Austin and hope he’s not just a faster version.
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