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Offensive Line Technique 101, Part 1: “Z’s” at the Knees

Let’s learn a thing or two about one of the most unappreciated positions in football.

NFL: Miami Dolphins-Training Camp Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

We’re going to move them with the lower body, control them with the upper body.

~ Dante Scarnecchia, long-time and current OL coach of the New England Patriots, began coaching the OL in 1970

What does a 6’1’, 170 pound former collegiate basketball player know about offensive line play? More than you might think, but this article is courtesy of my good friend Derick, who is the former starting center of the football team of the same college. I asked Derick if I could email him back and forth about OL technique this summer, and before even agreeing to it, he said, “Rule #1: Z’s at the knees”. This is part one of a series over the off-season.

It immediately made sense to me — there’s a reason that basketball players can easily transition to football, and that’s because there’s technique overlap. Yes, a 6’1”, 170 pound shooting guard was taught a similar technique to a left guard. In basketball, we call it the “triple threat” position.

You can pass, dribble, and shoot from this position — talk to any of your friends or family who have elementary-aged children or teenagers at a basketball camp, and I guarantee they talked about this. The “triple threat” position keeps your opponent guessing as to your intention, all the while staying balanced and in an athletic position to do different things. The main difference between the basketball player and the offensive lineman is the hands. A basketball player will have the hands near the waist, while an offensive lineman will be higher on the chest — this is where leverage comes into play.

“Z’s at the knees” serves as the momentum strategy for an offensive lineman’s leverage. Again, the goal is to move with the legs, control with the arms. Scarnecchia likens it to moving a stalled vehicle: use the powerful muscles in the trunk, glutes, and legs to generate the force necessary to move the car, while using the upper body to steer. Moving a large human functions in an analogous way. It’s not different from shooting a 3 pointer in basketball. Generate the force from your legs, and use your upper body and follow-through to control the accuracy of the shot.

But let’s think of leverage in two different contexts: general leverage and play-specific leverage. General leverage you acquire with better pad level (AKA “pad leverage”), this tenet always stays the same — what fluctuates is play direction and “anchor points”. Play-specific leverage or positional leverage helps the OL to understand what foot to step with and where to put his hands. Hand placement will be the next installment in the series.

Play call does make a difference, however, as a pulling guard may not immediately get into a “Z’s at the knees” position until they get into the gap they are assigned to and get to the collision point. At collision, the OL will be expected to move their man with this ultra-basic principle, but beforehand, may be in a more vertical position that you are accustomed to seeing in an offensive lineman’s stance.

We’ll progressively get more complex with this series, but as we trek into the mouth of NFL Draft season, keep in mind that the guy with the biggest bench press is nothing but an outlier if the lower body technique isn’t there. Functional upper body strength is important, but a consistent frame, footwork, and flexion of the lower body to drive defenders is the hallmark of high quality offensive line play.

Please let me know if there’s anything specifically you’d like to learn about as it relates to offensive line play. The whole goal is to learn some things so if I can steer it in a helpful direction, I will!