Reggie Hayward spent his first four seasons in the league watching the Denver Broncos offensive line work every day in practice, a teammate on the other side of the ball. He saw the way they perfected their zone-blocking schemes, those dastardly cut-blocks repped over and over again.
|Fair or not, George Foster has been the poster child for cut-blocking. (Getty Images)|
"There's no way it would have been live," Hayward said. "They had to protect the defensive linemen."
Those four years gave Hayward a real understanding of the system, even if he didn't face it in live work. Now as a defensive end for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Hayward is more than qualified to talk about that controversial style of line play, a style that is becoming and more prevalent in the NFL. What he has to say isn't very nice.
"It's dirty, there's no question about it," Hayward said. "It's a dirty way to play. But they use it because it works. That's why you're seeing more teams use it. It works. That doesn't make it right. The league has tried to do stuff to make it safer, but they haven't done enough. It's a way a guy can get seriously hurt. It's a dirty system."
The Broncos have used the zone-blocking system for years, leading a running game that is always among the league's best. It is a system based on smaller, athletic linemen who reach on the front side of the play in zone blocking and then cut on the back side. The idea behind the style is for the back to take a handoff, pick a hole, with the option of cutting it off to the backside of the play where defenders have been chopped down like pine tress at Christmas.
In addition to the Broncos, the Atlanta Falcons have used the system the past couple of years, brought to them by line coach Alex Gibbs, who perfected it when he was the line coach in Denver. This season, we have two more teams going to the system.
The Houston Texans, now coached by former Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, will employ the style. So will the Green Bay Packers, whose offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski came over from Atlanta, where he served as the team's line coach last season, learning the tricks of the trade from Gibbs.
That's four primary zone-blocking, cut-blocking teams, which doesn't make defensive players all that happy.
"Last year, I got caught on one and had a sprained ankle and slowed me down the last couple of game," Carolina Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said. "What's the need for it? There are so many rules out there to protect players. What about us? One of our assets is our knees. This is a system that goes right after those. It's dangerous. It's one thing to slow a guy down, but to go at his knees and ankles. That's too much."
By league rules, the blocks are legal in close-in play, the areas extending laterally to where the tackles are positioned and 3 yards on either side of the ball. An offensive player can cut down a defensive player as long as he gets his head in front of the legs above the knee.
But getting the head in front doesn't necessarily make the block safe. A flowing defensive lineman can be looking at the ball on the front-side of the play, while getting cut down behind it. That's where injuries can occur.
In 2004, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Tony Williams was cut down by Broncos tackle George Foster in a nationally televised game, a block that broke Williams' ankle. It was a block away from the play. Earlier that year, Broncos left tackle Matt Lepsis broke the leg of Jaguars defensive end Paul Spicer when he cut him down after he was beaten with a quick inside move. It was different than a normal cut, but a cut nonetheless, and borderline cheap.