Understanding Urban: Zone blocking

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 04/04/2012 3:12 AM
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Football
Understanding Urban: It Takes a Special Man to Block Zone

By Ken Pryor

“What we’re trying to get is a seal here…and a seal here…and run the play in the alley!”
                                                                                           ----Vince Lombardi

(Editor’s Note: This column is part 1 of a 3-part series on zone blocking courtesy of Ken Pryor, an offensive coordinator who works with the wide receivers at North Point High School in Waldorf, Md.)

For a couple years now, we have witnessed the Ohio State offense transition from the longstanding tradition of the “man blocking” scheme to what is commonly known as a “zone blocking” scheme for its run game.

You might recall the Denver Broncos introduced the world to the zone-blocking concept during the early 1990’s. They turned a lot of heads with their ability to seemingly take guys off the street and turn them into 1,300-yard rushers.

Of course they had studs like Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis, but they also took a flier on a former U.S. Marine named Mike Anderson, who played well enough to be named AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Denver had similar success with such non-household names as Tatum Bell, Selvin Young, Reuben Droughns, and Olandis Gary, who rushed for just under 1,200 yards in his best season after replacing the injured Terrell Davis. 

The point is that teams don't have to have the superstars to have an effective run game in this system. While having a superstar always helps, zone blocking was an advent indeed created to atone for talent shortfalls. 

How did zone blocking come into existence?

It was Urban Meyer who stated the following: “In the offensive line, we are looking for angular, athletic tackles. You have to move. You have to run. We don't want big slow guys. We just don't. There's no room at the inn for those guys.” 

The catch is this: big, hulking offensive linemen who are agile enough to keep up with defensive shifts are hard to come by. There are not enough quality big linemen for every team to assemble a dominant offensive line.

Instead of competing against the entire college football world for a precious commodity, some have found ways to use smaller, quicker linemen effectively. However, the weight disadvantage these linemen would face is clearly an issue. Thus the goal is to scheme away from the hand-to-hand trench warfare that is the ‘man-blocking’ scheme while finding ways to maximize leverage on the opponent.

The ideal offensive lineman in the zone blocking scheme possesses the following qualities:

  • Smart, able to recognize and adjust with defensive shifts before the snap.
  • Quick, even at the cost of size.
  • Consistent in his actions, never giving visual cues to the defender as to his intention.
  • Disciplined, even if the assignment seems pointless.

How Does it Work?

Conceptually, offensive linemen block gaps, or areas of the field between blockers, and not necessarily one specific defender. What this really means is that linemen are looking for specific areas of the field to block; if a defender arrives at that location, they block the defender in such a way as to hold or control the spot. 

The linemen merely want to wall off that defender. If a defender never arrives at the spot, they continue along, offering double-team assistance to a teammate if the opportunity should present itself. Once they control a zone, if they're not fully engaged, the linemen can then look to the "second level" for somebody in the defensive backfield to block.

Principles of Zone Blocking

While individual schemes seemingly vary, zone blocking relies on a few general rules/principles.

Covered

In a zone blocking scheme, the offensive lineman's responsibilities change depending on whether he's covered—whether a defender is lined up directly in front of him.
 
In some circles, we call this alignment “head-up.” A covered lineman still must block his assigned defender, just like in a traditional blocking scheme. However, because it's a zone, the offensive lineman blocks the gap on the play side.

For example, if the play calls for the run to go right, the lineman will step into the gap and block the right side of the defender, creating a seal.

Uncovered

If the offensive lineman is uncovered, meaning that no defender is in front of him, his job in a zone scheme is to slide into the play-side gap, secure the area, offer double-team assistance to his play-side teammate and then quickly move into the second level to engage any free linebackers or defensive backs.

This is referred to as tandem blocking. Uncovered offensive linemen, and the decisions they make, are critical to zone blocking success.

Outside

Zone blocking may be either inside or outside. In outside zone blocking, the offensive linemen try to gain leverage on the outside of the defender, forging a seal for the runner along the sideline.

Defenders may recognize the outside movement and beat the lineman to the spot, thereby overplaying in that direction. The offensive linemen’s job becomes simple at this point—he uses the defender's momentum against him, driving him all the way to the sideline and opening a cutback lane for the runner.

Inside

Inside zone blocking also attempts to use the defender's momentum to create a cutback lane, except the designed hole falls between the tackle and guard and not outside the tackle.

The same basic rules govern inside zone blocking, with the linemen double-teaming according to whether or not they're covered. The main difference in inside zone blocking is that the running back reads the outside hip of the play-side guard, ideally cutting the ball between the guard and tackle.

Not All Fun and Games

Zone blocking features a lot of double-team blocks, with an uncovered lineman stepping in to help his play-side teammate. When moving across to block the already engaged defender, the double-teaming lineman must block the defender above the waist.

Cutting an engaged defender below the waist or knee can be extremely dangerous for the defender, creating an increased risk of injury. Because of the seriousness of the infraction, officials will call a chop block and penalize the offensive team 15 yards.

In the next installation of this series, we will get into the real meat and potatoes of the zone blocking scheme. We will probe the inside zone as well as outside zone and many of the nuances that go along with them.

Stay tuned.

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