The Mike McDaniel Offense Makes the Run Game Cool Again

The Miami Dolphins have hired Mike McDaniel as their new head coach, and his scheme brings a potentially dangerous run game to Miami.

Miami Dolphins new HC, Mike McDaniel (Photo via Getty Images)
Miami Dolphins new HC, Mike McDaniel (Photo via Getty Images)

The Miami Dolphins have just hired San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel to be their new head coach, and their offense will be receiving a much-needed makeover.

The Niners focused on running the ball through zone blocking schemes and pulling linemen from a Kyle Shanahan system. This has led to top-end production, as San Francisco ranked seventh in rushing yards this year.

However, compared to the power schemes found in New England and elsewhere, McDaniel’s system is much more entertaining. The explosion and variety of looks they run the ball out of is a breath of fresh air from years past.

Miami has seen a bland run game for the better part of the last 20 years, with struggles on the offensive line and backfield. Since 2012, Miami has only had two 1,000 yard rushers in Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi. In Brian Flores’ first year as Head Coach, Miami’s leading rusher was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

It was clear that Miami needed to address one of their most prolonged stretching issues with those previous struggles. Thus, he will present the Dolphins a chance to bring an actual presence in the backfield they haven’t seen since the Ricky Williams era.

Outside zone overview

While many offensive systems involve the power run philosophy, the scheme McDaniel brings has consisted of primarily outside zone runs.

As opposed to blocking the nearest defender, the idea of this scheme is to secure a “zone” of the field. Linemen typically work together to double-team the defenders labeled most likely to engineer a big stop. In doing so, they can get out on the edge quickly and stress defenses out horizontally. This opens up various holes and cutback lanes for the backs to run through.

Outside zone-blocking diagram from Youthfootballonline.com

The 49ers have been among the pioneers of the modern zone offenses, using a variety of formations, personnel groupings, and pre-snap motion to make sure the defense doesn’t know what’s hitting them.

Pulling blockers role in OZ concepts.

McDaniel’s scheme utilizes among the league’s most pulling blockers to get outside as quickly as possible. Rather than having the lineman go directly to the lineman, a pulling tackle may attempt to get after the next level of defenders. These blocks are crucial in setting up big plays, freeing up the second level with open lanes.

Another crucial aspect of the pull block is the idea of misdirection. The outside zone scheme that McDaniel and the Niners run relies heavily on reading leverage and light boxes. To get these looks more often, they will often bring pre-snap looks that give the appearance of a different play, such as a run to the opposite side. Once they get the look they want, the lineman will pull from across the formation and get up the field.

Trent Williams, now on the 49ers, is among the league’s best pull blockers at tackle.

Now more than ever, Miami will be utilizing pull blocks, and they’ve brought in the right coach for those philosophies. There will undoubtedly be concerns about whether their current personnel can run this scheme, but the ideas fall into place.

The Deebo element is an extra layer.

While their ZBS is among the league’s best, the Niners have added another layer in their comprehensive rushing attack.

Wide receiver Deebo Samuel provided 502 rushing yards for San Francisco last year, but the threat he instilled in defenses is just as significant.

Many teams around the league run different wide receiver run plays. End-arounds and jet-sweeps are commonplace in a league looking for the next excellent rush concept. However, what McDaniel has done with Deebo is quite different. With rookie standout receiver Jaylen Waddle, he possesses another weapon that can be just as explosive as Samuel.

The Mike McDaniel offense can maximize workhorses in the backfield.

San Francisco has employed Samuel in the backfield rather than out wide or in the slot. As a result, he comes out in a variety of motions and pre-snap looks as essentially another running back. By coming out of the huddle in the slot, defenses are best equipped to stop a lighter personnel package. This means fewer defenders in the box and more defensive backs along the boundaries. When they move him inside pre-snap, however, defenses cannot adjust.

Moving Deebo into the backfield helped the Niners run game against the Rams.

This means San Francisco not only has a weapon in the backfield but also faces defenses ill-equipped to stop them. In addition, Deebo will often have at least one other running back in the backfield, along with tight end George Kittle. This means that a look that defenses saw as 11 personnel quickly becomes a heavy 21 personnel set.

Samuel found his stride as the season went on and was in the backfield for an average of nine snaps per game since week nine.

Deebo Samuel is in the backfield often.

Mike McDaniel’s offense was at the forefront of a movement that has changed a league. More and more teams will be looking for the next Deebo Samuel, and it feels good knowing that the new trend started with the Miami Dolphins’ new head coach.

The fullback revival will happen soon.

When the news broke of Mike McDaniel being hired in Miami, one of the first to sing his praises was fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Juszczyk has been among the league’s best fullbacks for a while in a league running low on the position. However, as teams move away from run-heavy systems and towards air-raid or spread systems, fullbacks have lost much of their former glory. In McDaniel’s approach, however, the position serves a crucial role.

As mentioned earlier, the outside zone scheme prioritizes getting out in front of defenders and the importance of lead blockers. Therefore, the fullback is among the most significant components in effectively operating the Mike McDaniel offense. In addition, Juszczyk and others have been used a variety of looks, getting outside and up to the second level, further sealing off second-level defenders for the backs. When combined with pulling blockers and strong wide receiver blocking, San Francisco provided a barrage of explosive run plays.

This new Miami offense will be to get to the second level, and finding a fullback capable of handling these responsibilities will be among the first steps of the rebuild.

An important role for WR’s in the Mike McDaniel offense.

Throughout McDaniel’s press conferences, it’s clear that one of the core values of this scheme is timely blocking from wide receivers. With a unit that prioritizes getting outside, it only makes sense that they expect nothing from the best from their perimeter blockers.

Their draft philosophy has consisted of getting big, physical receivers like Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, who thrive in run-blocking. In doing so, they can get out on tosses, zone runs, and screens, out-muscling the smaller DB’s.

The lanes opened up by these bigger receivers are just one small part of the big picture, but they play a crucial role. Miami already has big receivers such as Mack Hollins and DeVante Parker and very well may target more this offseason.

The bottom line on the Mike McDaniel offense.

The 49ers’ run game has been a top-flight unit since Kyle Shanahan, and Mike McDaniel arrived. Likewise, the attention to detail on their outside zone scheme has been second to none and has many different components.

Whether it’s the pulling blockers, maximizing weapons such as Samuel, the use of the fullback, or perimeter blocking, they have always been at the forefront of run-game innovation.

Miami has lacked a consistent running game for the better part of two decades, and it only got worse under Flores. It was clear a change was needed on offense, and Mike McDaniel shows promise of being the guy who can bring that change.

Nothing is set in stone, but the system he brings is proven to work, and Miami may just see a dominant rushing attack sometime during his tenure.

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