The helmets move in sync, across a straight line, moving diagonally to the right side of the field as soon as the ball is snapped.
Running back Mark Ingram is handed the ball. Senio Kelemete misses his assignment, letting a defensive lineman get into the backfield. Right tackle Thomas Welch takes off up the field to block someone in the second level. Everyone else keeps pushing right.
Ingram follows his men and immediately hits the hole opened by right guard Jason Weaver and tight end Josh Hill. Defenders are closing in. It looks like the play will go into the books as a gain of 6 or 7 yards. Instead, Ingram spins out of an arm tackle by Rams safety Cody Davis, turning a decent run into a gain of 22.
This is the latest, greatest example of the Saints’ outside zone-blocking scheme coming together to harvest positive results for the running game. It wasn’t always like this. Last August, the scheme was hailed as the savior to all that ailed an anemic New Orleans running game, but it took at least half the season before the scheme looked like something other than a failed experiment.
There’s a reason many of the teams around the league that operate out of zone schemes use it exclusively. Unlike more basic man schemes, which require offensive lineman to block the man across from him, zone schemes require the offensive line to operate as one unit and move in sync. It’s a series of choreographed steps. Not seek and destroy.
According to offensive lineman Zach Strief, players need to get a feel for the scheme for it to become second nature. The only way to get there is by going through countless repetitions — something New Orleans was not initially afforded last year.
Unlike some of the other teams that operate exclusively out of zone, the Saints have adopted the outside-zone scheme but still employ down, power, and other blocking schemes. It’s a lot to keep up with and meant that the zone scheme installed wasn’t given enough time to fully come together after it was installed last offseason.
“I’ve talked to guys that have played in it for their whole career and they say a lot of it is just feel — the ability to know when to leave the down guy, when to climb, how far you need to go,” Strief said. “There’s a lot of nuances in that scheme. That’s why the teams that run it only run it. It’s all they do, because there is a lot of feel and it took time.
“We have a very multiple offense. We do a lot of stuff, so sometimes we’re not getting the amount of reps at that as a zone team would.”
The multiples haven’t felt so complex this camp. Things have slowed down and the feel is there. It might not have been obvious during the second preseason game against the Tennessee Titans (27 carries for 78 yards), but the line’s increased comfort showed up in the first one against the St. Louis Rams (24 carries for 123 yards).
And, really, the axis began to shift several months ago. The Saints averaged 79 rushing yards over the first eight games of last season. The second half of the slate saw them pick up an average of 104 yards per game. Then there was a playoff game against the Eagles in which New Orleans racked up 185 rushing yards.
Now, averaging 104 yards per game — a figure that would have placed the Saints 22nd in the NFL if they had maintained that figure over 16 games — is not something to celebrate. But the increase of nearly 30 yards per game was a point of pride for the Saints and has given the offensive line more confidence in their ability to run block.
“Guys understand landmarks, footwork, how we’re trying to hit these guys,” offensive line coach Bret Ingalls said. “The runners are doing a great job, tight ends are doing a better job. I just think over time it’s improved because you work at it and things get better.”
“I think we are much better than we were last year,” guard Ben Grubbs said. “We understand what the coaches want. As far as an offensive unit, I think we’re all on the same page.”
The question now is if a full season of zone will better help running backs such as Ingram. He ran behind a zone scheme while at Alabama, where he rushed for 3,261 yards over three seasons and claimed the Heisman as a sophomore.
He hasn’t had the same success in New Orleans. Over three seasons, Ingram has rushed for 1,462 yards on 356 carries, though he did average 4.9 yards per carry last season.
“Yeah,” Ingalls said when asked if Ingram looks more comfortable running behind a zone scheme. “If it’s blocked better, it’s even better.”
The Saints aren’t exclusively a zone team like Alabama, but the hope is that another season with some familiar blocking elements will help Ingram achieve his potential and alleviate the burden carried by the passing game.
In some respects, even though outside opinion differs in some corners, the Saints feel Ingram finally met the bell last season after a somewhat disappointing start to his career.
“It’s funny how sometimes it feels like somebody is jinxed,” Ingalls said. “Suddenly they’re having some production and yet there might be a negative player or two in there and that’s all anyone remembers. But, boy, this camp he’s been really productive.”
There’s a reason Ingram has looked so good. The answer lies in the trenches.