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Football 101: The zone blocking scheme

We take a look at the "zone-blocking scheme."

Baltimore Ravens v Miami Dolphins Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Football is a simple game with many systematic complexities. We talk about these complexities, from position responsibilities to offensive and defensive schemes, and sometimes we may not fully know the specifics of what we are discussing. Bettering our understanding of the game is where our Phinsider Football 101 series comes into play. Maybe you have followed football for years, maybe you are just now learning the game. Whatever the case, there may be a term or a scheme that you don't fully grasp. We try to help by breaking down these complexities, making the game make a little more sense and hopefully helping you better understand what you are watching.

Our series turns, today, to the magical "zone blocking scheme." We have heard the term for years. The Dolphins, under Joe Philbin, were supposed to be built for the scheme, but never seemed to get the right players or master the concepts. Why? Why do some players - and some of the top players in the league - not flourish in the ZBS? Hopefully, you will have a little better understanding after reading today's article.

What kind of blocking system does my team use?

What is zone blocking and how is it different than any other type of blocking? The goal of the offensive line is just to block someone, right? Why the different schemes? Zone blocking is designed around the run game, though there are aspects of the system that work in pass blocking as well. The easiest way to know if a team is using a zone-blocking system or a man/angle system? Look at the guards.

As Pat Kirwan writes in his book Take Your Eye Off the Ball 2.0: How to watch football by knowing where to look (Triumph Books, 2015), "If the guard is pulling, your team is angle blocking. If he doesn't pull, your team is zone blocking." It is a simple way to read the offensive system - and there could be times where the system just does not actually depend on the guard - but it is a fairly effective way to determine what is happening on the offensive line.

And, it also tells you that a "zone-blocking team" is not always zone blocking, and a "man-blocking team" is not always man blocking. Teams use both systems, though they typically have a tendency to favor one over the other.

In the case of the Miami Dolphins, new head coach Adam Gase, who was previously the offensive coordinator for the Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears and will be the offensive play caller for Miami, typically has not been a "zone-blocking scheme" coach, though it does make some appearances. In December 2014, The MMQB took a look at Gase and his time with the Broncos, writing, "Gase only sprinkles in the occasional zone-blocking run. 'If you want to run zone-running plays, you have to do it over and over again. You have to have reps,' (former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike) Martz says."

The article goes on to explain that Gase's offense is more about finding ways to exploit matchups than it is defined by terms like "zone-blocking scheme," but that is for another post some other time.

Zone-blocking scheme

The modern ZBS goes back to the Broncos of the 1990s. It was designed to counter the movement of defensive linemen pre-snap and the stacking of defenders, where there could be up to eight men near the line of scrimmage, with five or six offensive players assigned to block them. If you are a guard, and you are assigned to block the defensive tackle in front of you, then the defensive tackle moves pre-snap outside, what do you do? ZBS takes away the guess work, and, if everyone is on the same page, ensures the center and tackle on either side of you know exactly what you are doing, and how they should react to the change.

The ZBS takes the offensive line and choreographs their movements. It no longer matters who is lining up in front of each offensive lineman. Instead, each lineman is responsible to block an area - of, if you will, a "zone." The ultimate goal is to double team defenders to ensure there is space for the running back. From there, one of the two blockers is then responsible to pull off the double team, and pick up a block on a linebacker.

Gase likes to play with two tight ends on the field, not tipping his hand if it is a running play or a passing play. In the example of how a ZBS run (in this case an inside run, allowing for the running back to cut back to wherever the best gap forms) could look, we have two tight ends, with one responsible for the defensive end away from the run, and one responsible for the strong side linebacker - either blocking him or feinting a pass route to draw him out of the area. The tackles and guards then double team one defensive end and one defensive tackle, with the center then responsible for the other defensive tackle. From each of those double teams, depending on which way the defender tries to move, the offensive lineman on the side of the block then peels off to go block the other two linebackers. The running back should have a clean backfield, with options to hit any hole that appears.

Going back to the pulling guard, in a ZBS, the guard is not pulling because the entire offensive line is shifting. You do not need the guard to be leading the running back, because there is someone on the offensive line already assigned to that area.

The ZBS can also simply ignore whichever player is furthest from the running back, allowing him to run free since he is not likely to be involved in the play. If, in the example above, a safety moved into the box or the offense did not have a weakside tight end, the defensive end might simply be unblocked. The offense will assume the risk of leaving him to chase behind the play, trusting the other linemen to open a hole and the running back to be able to get through the line before the free defensive end can impact the run.

Another way of looking at the ZBS, compared to a man-scheme. In a ZBS, the offensive line will be taking a step to the left or a step to the right, and then blocking whoever is in that spot. In a man-scheme, the player is stepping forward or backward, hitting the defensive player who was lined up in front of him.

Zone-blocking players

The offensive line in a ZBS is moving much more than in a man-blocking scheme. In a man (or angle) blocking scheme, players identify the player they are responsible to block before the snap, and then they hit that guy as soon as the snap happens. It's a power system (thus it also being called the "power blocking scheme"), and it usually takes the 300+ pound offensive lineman to offset the defensive lineman. The linemen are asked to block one-on-one more often, and the size helps.

In a ZBS, where you are getting initial double teams across the line, then having players move to block linebackers, you need small players, and you need players who are light on their feet. Everyone has to be able to go from the line of scrimmage into the second level, so you need the athleticism more than the power.

Of course, there are players that can do both. In a league that values versatility and offenses that use a hybrid man- and zone-blocking scheme, those players would be ideal. The Seattle Seahawks have become the next evolution of the ZBS, with power players who can move like the lighter offensive lineman of past ZBS offensive lines. It allows the Seahawks to disguise what they are doing, it assists in pass blocking, and it makes them a true hybrid blocking scheme.

Adjusting to defensive changes

The example above gives us a look at a straight forward alignment from the defense. What happens if the defensive end drops back into coverage, while a linebacker blitzes? Nothing really changes. The offensive linemen are still going to be in their assigned areas, and they will pick up whomever is there. If the middle linebacker is blitzing up the middle, the center takes him, the guard and tackle take the defensive tackle, and the tight end still has the strong-side linebacker.

It takes practice and understanding of what everyone else is doing, but it makes sure that there is not confusion when a defense disguises what it is doing, or moves a player as the snap happens.

Zone pass blocking

Pass blocking can be the weakness of the ZBS, especially if all the offensive linemen are sub-300 pound players. In passing situations, defensive linemen will simply use their size and strength to overpower the smaller offensive linemen in front of them. Where ZBS does assist in pass blocking, however, is when a defensive line stunts. Using the same basic principles of a ZBS running play, if a defensive tackle and defensive end are swapping rushing lanes, the offensive linemen can pass off the blocking responsibilities to each other. While this will obviously work in a power blocking scheme as well, the ZBS experience makes it a practiced handoff.

For example, a defensive tackle is moving outside while the defensive end moves behind him to take the inside pass rush. The guard can initially block the defensive tackle, and, as soon as the stunt is recognized, pass the defensive tackle to the offensive tackle, then move to block the defensive end. It is a quick reaction, but it is one that the rehearsed ZBS offensive line can easily accomplish.