As we crawl closer to football season, Alabama fans are waiting with bated breath to see just what the offense will look like under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. It will be particularly interesting to see what type of blocking scheme is favored in the run game.
The difference between a “zone” blocking scheme (ZBS) and traditional “man” blocking (also sometimes called a “power” or “gap” scheme, the terms are interchangeable) is often a point of confusion for fans. Today we are going to go over the basics of each strategy including some pros and cons. For the junkies, SBNation’s Pittsburgh Steelers site has an outstanding longform explaining the blocking assignments within the ZBS and the New England Patriots site explains that the scheme Daboll comes from leans more toward man blocking.
In general, there is one key difference between the two schemes. In a man blocking scheme, the runner is instructed to attack a pre-determined gap in the line and the offensive linemen are tasked with opening that gap. To that end, the two linemen in that gap will block their assigned man in opposite directions. Conversely, the ZBS strategy tasks the linemen with blocking a particular area and the back with finding the natural crease that is created. Let’s take a look at a few examples, shall we?
While former offensive coaches Lane Kiffin and Mario Cristobal generally favored the ZBS, there were times late in the season when Alabama went old school, mostly when battering ram Bo Scarbrough was in the game. Below is the first touchdown of the Peach Bowl and man, is it sexy. This is a basic “off-tackle” lead play, by definition designed to run off the outside hip of the offensive tackle, in this case Cam Robinson. At the handoff, note that the linemen have fired off the ball and Bo’s pads are square to the line of scrimmage. He is looking at the back of O.J. Howard, his lead blocker, and Robinson has pummeled the defensive end inside.
The results speak for themselves. Bo got the ball five yards in the backfield and no one touched him until he was three yards past the line, so he had plenty of time to get up to full speed. Good luck getting him to the ground at that point. This film isn’t particularly kind to Calvin Ridley who should have engaged his man, but watching Bo give him a ride into the end zone is fun:
The vaunted 2012 line ran a lot of zone, but there was a healthy mix of power stuff mixed in as well. This is a basic “iso” play on the goal line, which simply means that the play is intended to isolate a single linebacker with the fullback, in this case matching up poor Manti Teo with the Monstar. This is the most basic of football plays, usually called “24 iso” when it’s run by 9-year-olds playing Pop Warner ball. Sit back and reminisce a bit as we enjoy the carnage:
Linebackers are never supposed to “pick a side” and effectively dodge the block when a fullback comes through their assigned gap, but it’s tough to blame Teo for this bit of self-preservation.
Another staple play of the traditional man blocking scheme is called “Power O.” This is another off-tackle run that incorporates a pulling guard as a lead blocker with the tight end (or fullback, depending on personnel grouping) tasked with kicking out the end man:
Nobody did it better than Chance Warmack, folks.
Lastly, you have the “counter” play which is a run designed to get the linebackers moving in the wrong direction. In this particular play a jet sweep motion is used to freeze the backside linebacker. Four of the five offensive linemen block to the right, but right guard Alphonse Taylor and Howard pull around to the left as lead blockers for Harris:
Great stuff. You may notice that in all of the above plays, there is zero hesitation by the running back. His job is to get the ball into the designated hole as quickly as possible. This is one of the pros of man blocking: your running back doesn’t need great vision, as power and burst will suffice. This type of scheme also tends to instill something of a mean streak in your offensive line since their job is simply to blow people off the ball in an assigned direction, and the play action pass works especially well since linebackers and box safeties have little time to react in the run game.
On the flip side, this scheme requires your offensive linemen to be able to win their one-on-one battles and requires some creative play-calling lest it become too predictable. Also, since the offensive linemen are firing out to the second level on run plays and thus have to know whether a play is a run or pass, it greatly limits the use of RPOs. Lastly, the defense can guess at the playcalls based on formation and, if correct, create negative plays by overwhelming the offense’s numbers in the gap.
Unlike man blocking, the zone scheme is not designed to open a particular gap. Instead, the idea is to get the defense moving in one direction and allow the running back to find daylight, either on the front side of the play or in a cut-back lane. You can typically identify zone runs by the behavior of the linemen, since they will all step in the same direction initially and usually at about a 45-degree angle while leaving one man unblocked on the back side of the play to create a numbers advantage on the front. Running backs will often receive the ball with pads angled to the line rather than square.
The most easily recognizable zone run is the outside zone or “stretch” play. Quite simply, this play is designed to make the linebackers beat the running back to the edge with blockers in the way. The running back reads the block of the end man and makes the defender “always wrong” by cutting on the inside hip of the blocker or taking the edge:
The line did their jobs and Bo made the extra defender miss for a big gain.
There are several variations in the zone game. One staple of the Alabama offense has been the “split zone” run play, also known as “slice.” Split zone is an inside zone play where the H-Back goes against the flow of the offensive line and blocks the unblocked defender to help create a cut-back lane. Note in the next play that the line has stepped left but O.J. Howard is headed right:
In this case, Damien Harris correctly decides to keep the ball on the front side of the play. Cam Robinson has every intention of riding the end to the sideline, but he does the offense a favor by getting too far upfield. Robinson just takes him where he wants to go and Harris exploits the massive hole:
Here is the same play with the cut-back:
Once again, the defense is always wrong. If they flood the front side of the play, the RB can cut back against the grain. If they stay home on the back side, the offense will have a numbers advantage on the front.
Another constraint in the zone game is called “bluff,” designed to get the ball to the edge against undisciplined defensive ends. This play is particularly diabolical when a running quarterback is involved. As shown below, it starts out looking just like slice:
In this case, however, H-back Miller Forristall is going to dodge the unblocked defender on the line and head to the second level (known as an “arc” block.) Jalen Hurts is now going to read him. If the defensive end is underneath Forristall when they pass one another, he keeps the ball. If Forristall goes underneath the end because he’s upfield setting the edge, Hurts gives the ball to Harris. As you can see, the end bites underneath and now gets to race Jalen to the edge:
Bless his heart, he tried. Great block by Miller there.
Of course, “zone bluff” can also be a RPO. Rather than keep when the end ducks inside, Hurts gets the ball out quickly to Howard.
This is a pass play but it’s nothing more than an extension of the run game.
There are several pros to ZBS. First, because the linemen aren’t firing out upfield as quickly, RPOs with the ball thrown beyond the line of scrimmage are possible. in that case, the offensive linemen will not know at the snap if a play will be a pass or a run. A great QB who is on his game can destroy a defense with these. Secondly, on running plays your linemen don’t necessarily have to be able to blow defenders off the ball in one-on-one situations since they are blocking an area rather than a man. Depending on how defenders line up, combo blocks are common on the line of scrimmage, affording help against elite defensive tackles before moving to the second level. Zone blocking better utilizes a running quarterback as well, particularly when he is faster than the other team’s ends. Lastly, because the defense has to flow hard to the play side, cut-back lanes that lead to big plays are abundant.
The cons to ZBS mostly come down to attitude and communication. Because it is more of a finesse scheme, the linemen have a tendency to lose their edge a bit. More importantly, zone blocking has a tendency to be more boom-or-bust. Since there are angles involved and so many of the blocking assignments are decided on the fly, more assignments get missed allowing penetration to happen more frequently. Too commonly last season, a guard or center would head to the second level too quickly, abandoning a combo block before the defensive lineman was secured. In the clip below, Bozeman bails on Korren Kirven, leaving him to deal with Carlos Watkins without proper leverage:
Defenders reacting to a cut-back often draw holding calls if the linemen fail to let go quickly as the defenders change direction. Zone blocking also requires better vision from your running backs along with the burst to take the crease once it’s identified. In short, zone blocking can create more explosive opportunities in the run game but is more difficult to execute.
It will be interesting to see what type of mix Coach Daboll comes up with. In theory, Scarbrough is better suited for a traditional man blocking scheme while Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs are more suited for ZBS, but each can be very successful in either scheme. Considering Jalen’s athleticism, one has to assume that zone blocking will still be a large part of the offense, but in Daboll’s years running an offense he was almost exclusively a power guy.
Considering the talent on the roster, which scheme would you like to see most utilized? Answer the poll and elaborate in the comments.
Should Alabama lean more toward zone or man blocking in 2017?
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