Monday, December 15, 2014

Football Fundamentals: Zone Blocking Schemes

Zone based blocking schemes have become the primary blocking scheme of many modern day football teams. As defenses have made their formations and run blitz packages more complex and confusing for offensive units to block, the zone blocking scheme provides simplification in some ways. While it may take more reps to get the feel for how to come off combination blocks, secure the first level, and attack the second level than a traditional man/gap blocked scheme does, it provides a relatively straight forward plan for how and who to block after the snap has been made. In this post, we are going to look at the basics of the zone blocked scheme before we get into some of the greater intricacies at another time.

Two Types of Zone Runs
There are two primary runs schemes when someone is talking about zone blockings schemes: Inside Zone (Tight Zone) and Outside Zone (Wide Zone or Zone Stretch). The two types of runs maintain two different goals.

The inside zone is a powerful blocking scheme that looks to attacks (primarily) between the tackles and with the intention of providing gaps through vertical displacement. The outside zone run – which can work as a compliment or as a primary run play – looks to provide horizontal displacement of the defense. In both schemes, the objective of the blocking is to produce movement in the defense. By doing so, gaps in the defensive front are formed and reads are made clear for the RB. While many man blocked schemes reduce the number of quick reads the RB needs to make, the zone blocked scheme puts more emphasis on the RB to make his read before creasing the LOS, but also gives him options for where to attack the defense.

In each case, all the blockers on the LOS will generally initially step to the playside of the play. Rather than being assigned to a man or a gap, they will be responsible for a zone and will be responsible for blocking anyone that enters their zone. That zone depends a bit on if it’s inside zone or outside zone, but in either case, that zone is toward the intended running direction. So each blocker steps playside and then generally works to secure the first level and continues to work to the second level of the defense in unison with the blockers around him.

Blocking Zone
This could be a full piece alone, and by that I mean this could be a full piece for inside zone blocking and a second full piece for outside zone blocking. On top of that, there isn’t just one way to skin this cat. In fact, it’s hard to say there is even a primary way of doing it. Based on offensive style, the coaching, the goal of the mentality/philosophy of the coaching staff, or just different backgrounds, how the zone blocking scheme is accomplished can greatly vary.

Blocking Rules
To really simplify this section, we’ll treat the entire line as if it’s the same, rather than splitting apart the front side and back side of the OL. There are two primary rules: covered and uncovered. Covered means that you have someone lined up over top of you or in the gap playside; uncovered means there is no one over top of you or in the playside gap.

If you are covered then you have some responsibility for the person over the top of you. There is something many coaches talk about called the 90-50-10 rule. If you are covered but the defender is lined up playside, there is a 90% chance you will be tasked with maintaining the combo block on the first level. If he is lined up in a heads-up position, there is a 50% chance. If he is shaded to the backside of the play, there is only a 10% chance you are responsible.

If you are uncovered, you will look to the blocker playside of you and work in a combination blocking from the first to a second level defender. Again, it is important to note that you continue to block your zone while working to the second level. Leaving your zone results in creases for the defense to penetrate through, so you should never chase with your block. Depending on the type of zone called, the first level is secured with combination or single blocks and the works to the second level to block the LBs.

Here’s where teaching techniques can begin to really vary. Let’s look at a simplified schematic of the steps:

A: This is a drive step typically associated with inside zone, particularly when a defender is lined up heads up or to the backside of a covered blocker. This is a quick step only looking to gain 3-6 inches of ground.

B: This is a 45 degree step known as a lead or zone step, typically between 3-6 inches. This step attempts to gain some horizontal leverage. Many coaches will teach this for uncovered blockers on inside zone and covered blockers on inside zone or outside zone. Whether the foot remains perpendicular to the LOS or in the direction of motion will change based on play type and coaching technique.

C: This is a horizontal or slide step that is parallel to the LOS. This is about a 6 inch step that looks to gain leverage on the defense. Some coaches will teach this step for inside zone if a defender is lined up in the playside gap, and it is often used for uncovered blockers in either inside or outside zone schemes, and in all cases for outside zone. Again, how the foot is placed down (perpendicular to the LOS or in the direction of motion) will depend on the play call.

D: The drop step is used to gain some depth and is used in outside zone schemes and is a 45 degree step in away from the LOS and to the playside. This provides a bit of a gap in the neutral zone and provides space for the OL to work horizontally, particularly for defenses that are very quick to attack vertically.

E: This bucket step is a short backward step that allows lineman to open their hips and gain some depth away from the LOS. This is primarily used by uncovered lineman in an outside zone scheme.

There are two primary types of blocking with your “hands”, or should I say, with the upper body. That is a hands technique and a flipper/shoulder technique.

With a hand technique, the OL will have aiming points with their hands, will punch with their fists and thumbs up and elbows in. In this way, they can generally grab the breast plate and do a really good job of controlling the first level. Hands, in general, also provide more power on the first level to gain more displacement in that way.

Flipper technique is generally faster to get to the 2nd level. Contact is first made with the shoulder to provide an initial pop so that the defense can’t initiate that pop and get leverage. The hand is balled into a fist and tucked close to the armpit, forming a flipper shape with your arm. You can then block with your shoulder and forearm by extended to flipper up and gaining leverage on the defender, while maintaining your eyes on the 2nd level defender and working toward them.

The flipper/shoulder is a broader surface area, and in that way it generally is preferred by coaches that emphasize getting into the 2nd level. It is harder for defenders to get off an blocker who isn’t keeping his eyes on the first level blocker because the shoulder/flipper is so broad, and the flipper keeps the feet moving forward and into the second level naturally. By contrast, the hands technique really allows the offense to control the first level and initiate powerful contact, thus tending to be better at displacing the first level and opening creases wider.

It’s very much a preference thing, and the type of method of upper-body blocking that a team wants to employ likely depends on their overall scheme and philosophy as an offense. And while either method can very well work, coaches tend to be rather persnickety about which method they believe is superior.

Inside Zone
While it isn’t always the same for each team, most generally prefer to have the initial aiming point of the RB by the outside foot of the playside OG (though this depends on the rules and scheme, some will attack the A-gap as well). Some coaches prefer what is termed a slow approach, which slows the RB’s approach to the LOS in order to force the defense to commit and allow the RB to make his reads. Others (including myself), prefer to have the initial footwork of the RB delay them enough to force the defense to commit to their gaps. By doing this, the RB can attack downhill with a head of steam into the LOS (thus forcing the defense to really commit vertically) while still allowing himself to make his reads. Either way, it is essential that the RB is patient with making his cut, and optimally he shouldn’t make his cut until he’s on the heels of the OL. In other terms, he must “press the LOS”.

The RB has a two-man read. It starts with the first down DL playside of the Center. If this DT is sealed inside, the RB will take his eyes to the next DL playside. If the DT wins playside, the RB will find the next DL to the backside of the play. In this way, the RB has three options: Ram it, bounce it, or cut back.

Most teams still prefer to run at the numbers advantage, simply counting the defenders in the box, starting at the heads up position over the center toward the playside, and counting out. If the offense has more numbers (or a greater number advantage on that side), they'll run to that side. If the advantage is in the other direction, they'll attack that direction. Other teams, such as Urban Meyer at OSU, will attack the open 3-technique position.

Below, the red square is the first read, while the green square is the second read, depending on the first read.

Note here that the backside TE is simply sealing off the backside pursuit so that the DE isn't able to crash down on the play. This helps provide the cutback for the RB. Because of the alignment of the defense, the playside OL is more likely to come off and go to the second level (remember the 90-50-10 rule).

Here, the offense is actually running at the 3-Tech. The B-gap being the nominal hole for inside zone, running at the 3-tech isn't a running killing concept because of the bang, bounce, and cut rules. Just like before, the first read for the RB is the 1st DL playside of the Center. The RB must read him within his first two steps. By his third step, he needs to be onto his second read. If the DT gets washed inside, the RB's eyes go outside (in this case, to the DE). If the DT gets sealed in the B-gap or pushed into the C-gap, the RB will take his eyes to the backside DT, where he will read if he should cut to the backside or keep the play frontside.

Outside Zone
Outside zone stretch teams will have the RB’s initial track anywhere from 4 yards outside of the EMOL to the inside foot of the TE (or ghost TE). Again, this is typically a two-man read for the RB, the first being the EMOL (or the force defender), the second being the next DL inside. Just like the Inside Zone run, the RB must be patient and not cut too early, or risk the defense being able to swarm the RB. “Press the line” is just as applicable.

While the play is designed to get to the edge, it is very rare that the ball is able to actually bounce outside and reach the edge (unless the defense is unsound); still, that is the first goal of the RB, on what is termed a “bounce read”. If the edge gets filled and the play is forced back inside, then that is considered nominal. This is called a “bang read” and goes inside the EMOL. Lastly, if this cut is taken away, the RB can make what is called a “bend read”, and cut it all the way back to the playside A-gap.

Note that, because of the alignment of the defense, the SAM (or possibly the Strong Safety) is the force player here. While the safety almost likely has alley fill based on pre-snap alignment, it is likely that the SAM is the primary force player in the outside D-gap. Thus, the RB will key that defender (or any defender that flashes to that spot) before reading back inside to determine is bounce, bang, bend read.

[Some claim you shouldn't read the OLB in the case above because the SAM, from his off position, is forced to cover essentially one or two gaps (for instance, he could stunt inside and the SS could replace); I disagree. With the DE aligned inside the DE, the best way to handle this is to try to determine the force defender. If the SAM wants to take himself out of the play by himself, the Y can just move onto the SS, and the "Bounce" run is still appropriate]

Here is a more conventional front to run into. Again, the first read for the RB is the force player, this time, being the DE (if you want to simplify the read for the RB, make the read the defensive EMOL, or the 2nd defender outside the Center (shading the center doesn't count) on the LOS). In this alignment, it is quite difficult for the Y-TE to seal the DE outside, and more often than not, the DE will maintain a free outside arm. In the event that happens, the RB takes his eyes to the next defender on the DL, that being the DT. If the DT is sealed, the RB can "bang" it up into the C-gap. If the DT gets outside and maintains a free outside arm, the RB can cut it back inside the the B-gap or A-gap as the defense over-flows the designed run.

Working Together
Neither play needs to be the base of the offense, but both can be. It is more common for the Inside Zone to be a base, as it likely takes more reps to perfect how to come off the combo blocks and get into the second level, however, numerous teams including Iowa, Carr era Michigan, Northwestern, Bill O’Brien PSU, used outside zone as their primary run scheme.

In either case, the options provided by the run make it very difficult to defend, even if you know it’s coming. And that’s why it can be used so well as a primary running attack. By being able to cut it off of three options, it is a very versatile run scheme. And when used in tandom, it is two run plays that initially look similar from a blocking scheme standpoint, and stress the defense to both get horizontal and anchor or attack vertically in a very violent fashion. Taking the wrong approach on defense can leave you either sealed inside or washed outside.

Obviously there is a lot more intricacies. There are more intricacies in the blocking, in the combination blocks, in the reads playside and backside, in the backfield play, in adding more counters and looks to the playbook, but in general, this blocking schemes provides a singular scheme (or two schemes) that is very versatile.

Looking Forward
We’re going to be looking at quite a bit of things going forward, starting with implementing a FB or H-back into the backfield and how you can provide a lot of looks in terms of backfield flow and lead blocking. Then we’re going to look at implementing a read based scheme, and how you can provide similar looks and pick on multiple players from similar alignments. After that, we’ll reintroduce the backfield blocker but keep the read aspect, and show how it can really attack defenses. Then we’ll look at the multiple ways zone based teams can keep defenses honest with a few man/gap based blocking schemes and play action.

Inside Zone Video
Teaching Inside Zone

Minnesota - Inside Zone

OSU - Inside Zone

Inside Zone Texas Cutups

Outside Zone Video

Gibbs (Denver)

I'll just get this out of the way, because there are seemingly hundreds of zone blocking links out there. This is a good dumping point before getting into more detail.

This link provides most of them already.

Eleven Warriors put together a look at the tight zone. Part IPart II, Part III.

Ravens All-22 LINK

James Light Outside Zone Primer

I'm sure there are more that aren't captured in those links, but I think you can do some pretty decent high-level damage with just those.

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