The Moron’s Guide to Football – Episode 5: The Zone Run Game (Zone Blocking)
1. The Basics
In the NFL there are two predominant philosophies for running the football: power and zone. There is also a third blocking scheme called gap. These terms refer to the way that the offensive line blocks for the runner on any given play, not specifically to the style of the running back (RB), though certain backs are better suited to certain run schemes (more on that later).
Other names for the power run game are man or angle because each offensive lineman will take a man on the defensive line and try to move him out of the way to create a lane for the RB. The basic philosophy, as Hall of Fame offensive lineman Russ Grimm put it, is to impose your will on the opposing d-line: “there’s no greater feeling than to be able to move a man from Point A to Point B against his will.” That’s what the power run game is all about.
Gap blocking is built upon the concept of “down blocks.” Down blocks are blocks designed to move defenders laterally, rather than the more traditional focus pushing them backwards up the field. Every offensive scheme in the NFL employs down blocks, but the gap blocking system is the only one that relies almost entirely on them. Traditionally, each member of the o-line will block the player in the gap away from the side of the field the play is going to. After the 2016 change to chop block rules, however, this scheme has gotten much more difficult to run effectively.
In terms of the history of football, zone blocking as a concept is still an infant. It arose in the 1990s to combat defense’s (particularly the Pittsburgh Steelers) use of zone blitz schemes. As we looked at in previous posts in this series, NFL defenses using zone coverage and zone blitzes make man-to-man assignments difficult for the offensive line since they don’t know who is actually coming and who is dropping into coverage.
Interestingly, recently retired Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak was there at the inception of zone-blocking when he worked as an assistant to the Mike Shanahan-helmed Denver Broncos in the 1990s. Shanahan hired Alex Gibbs as the offensive line coach, and he developed the concept of zone blocking on the offensive line as an antidote to the zone blitz. Here’s how Kubiak explained its inception:
I remember Dom Capers running all of those zone dogs,” Kubiak said. “When you’re in a man scheme, you’re getting picked off and you look bad. In zone schemes, when defenses start stunting, you don’t stop and go back and block them. You just keep running into your area and pick people off. So all of it was probably a reaction to the zone blitzes, and it just became part of football.
The beauty of zone-blocking, once the concept had been installed and explained, was that it really simplified the game. On every play, regardless of what the defense got up to and what tricks they pulled, the o-line knew what their assignment was and who they had to block. Kubiak continues, explaining how quick the system is to install:
As the zone-blocking scheme developed, it grew beautiful in its simplicity and effectiveness. It boiled the running game down to two essential plays: outside zone and inside zone. Coaches taught one on the first day of practice, the other on the second day. By the third day, Kubiak said, the foundation of the run offense was installed.
Former Fresno State HC and Atlanta Falcons OL Coach Pat Hill does a great job breaking down the basics of the zone blocking scheme:
Instead of blocking the player lined up closest to you, or being responsible for a specific man, each member of the OL is responsible for blocking a specific zone.
Here, Hill describes that relative to the inside hip of the o-lineman. All members of the OL move in the same direction in a zone-blocking scheme, so if the opposing defender moves outside and into my zone, then I block him. If, however, he moves to my inside (which would give him a leverage advantage in a man-blocking scheme), he is no longer my responsibility and the player to my inside hip will pick him up. If there’s nobody in my zone I move upfield and block into the second level, taking whichever linebacker or defender happens to be there. This means that even if the opposing nose tackle or LB drops into coverage, or tries to run a stunt, or jump inside, it doesn’t affect the goal of each member of the OL.
This diagram from DraftBlaster breaks it down quite well. Each player on the OL moves in the same direction in unison, they describe it as if they are “one synchronized marionette.” Each player takes a similar series of “steps” and each player ends up blocking a “zone” and taking whichever defender happens to be there. If no one is in their gap, then the player moves upfield to the next level of defense. This can create massive running lanes, and often provide more effective blocking downfield than a traditional man scheme.
Or, to put it another way, Chip Kelly summarizes zone blocking this way: “Covered linemen block the guy in front of them. Uncovered linemen take a step toward the play side and help double-team block with the linemen next to them before proceeding to the next level. Usually to block a linebacker or crashing safety/corner.”
Zone blocking thrives with RBs that have great vision and lateral quickness. Unlike traditional man blocking schemes there often isn’t a true “hole” for the RB to hit. Instead, they need to be patient and disciplined and attack with speed when a hole opens up, while also having the lateral quickness to take advantage of blocks displacing defenders in the second level.
The NFL Today
As with defensive coverages, every team in the NFL runs some mix of man and zone blocking schemes on offense. Zone blocking favors slightly smaller, more athletic offensive linemen. As zone blocking grew in popularity throughout the second half of the 90s and into the 2000s, it seemed like the game was changing forever. But, as we know, it’s cyclical.
Teams adapted to the smaller, quicker offensive linemen by using and drafting athletic LBs and DEs. This led to teams again shifting towards bigger, more powerful offensive linemen to bully undersized defenders. Then the process begins anew.
The NFL today is really characterized by hybrid schemes, and run-blocking schemes are no exception. Every team runs some amount of man, zone, and gap blocking schemes. In 2019 (the most recent year we have full data for), 3 teams used zone blocking on over 70% of their rushing attempts: the Cincinnati Bengals (76%), our much-beloved, long-suffering Minnesota Vikings (73%), and the Tennessee Titans (71%). The Titans being on this list surprised me because when I think of the power run game I think of Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans just pounding the rock down people’s throats. I also think of his terrifying smile while running people over.
So I went back and checked the tape. On Henry’s most famous (90+ yard) TD scamper the Titans actually aren’t using zone blocking, most likely because they’re backed up deeeeeeep in their own territory and aren’t looking for a home-run play and are just trying to get a little breathing room. Obviously, though, Henry had different ideas.
On a lot of other spectacular Derrick Henry runs though, the Titans are definitely using zone blocking schemes. Take a look at this overtime walk-off TD run against the Ravens from this past season:
When the ball is snapped the entire offensive line, in unison, begins to move towards the outside. The linemen pick up defenders as they encounter them, throw combo blocks and then work to provide blocking upfield.
By the time Henry breaks free, the majority of the o-line is between 8 and 10 yards past the original line of scrimmage. This is a perfect example of an outside zone run. The entire line moves in unison to the playside and gets penetration deep downfield. Once breaking through to the second level, Henry cuts back inside and the defenders are left scrambling trying to set the edge while Henry’s already moved back inside. Then he just turns on the jets and that’s the ball game.
(For an awesome breakdown of how the Ravens stopped the Titans zone running game in the postseason – after losing to the Flaming Thumbtacks on this play in the regular season -, check out this piece.)
Establishing the outside zone run will cause defenders to start cheating to the outside to gain a leverage advantage against the offensive line. When that happens, teams will usually start dialing up what is called the inside zone. The inside zone is the power version of the zone run game.
On this play from a game against the Jags this year, Henry once again breaks off a long TD run, but this time off the inside zone. As the ball is snapped, the offensive line once again takes the lateral step outside, but rather than pushing upfield and blocking into the second level, they build a wall by using the defenders’ own momentum and leverage against them and forcing them to the outside, while Henry runs inside. The tackle for the Titans, Dennis Kelly (#71) does a great job sealing the linebacker outside and then Henry makes a quick cut and is once more off to the races. (Worth noting, possibly, that the Titans got away with a pretty egregious hold by WR Cameron Batson on this play.)
Take a look at the Next Gen Stats Air Hockey Puck View (no clue what it’s actually called) of the play and notice how much closer to the line of scrimmage the Titans o-line is by the time Henry crosses the 30 yard line compared to when he breaks free in the previous play.
Alright alright, Vikings faithful, I can hear you now! Enough about King Henry, talk about the people’s running back: Dalvin Cook. Well, ask and ye shall receive.
As illustrated above, the Vikings absolutely love the zone running game, and Dalvin Cook is probably the best zone runner in the league. What makes Cook’s success even more spectacular is that the Vikings sported the league’s 26th-ranked offensive line this season (the OL of the Titans was ranked 15th). Or, as PFF themselves put it:
Ezra Cleveland’s 6.9% pressure rate allowed ranked 37th out of 40 qualifying right guards in his first year at guard after starting three seasons as Boise State’s left tackle. In that same vein, Garrett Bradbury’s 5.1% pressure rate allowed ranked 34th out of 36 qualifying centers, and Dakota Dozier’s pressure rate allowed of 8.0% ranked 36th out of 39 qualifying left guards. None of their three starters on the interior cracked the top 32 at their respective position.
Though pressure statistics apply more to the passing game than the running game, they stand to illustrate just how bad the interior of the Vikings o-line was this season. To reiterate: None of their three starters on the interior cracked the top 32 at their respective position. Oof. That’s the analysis.
The fact that Cook was the league’s second leading rusher with over 1500 rushing yards behind that line is remarkable. How did he manage it? Well, he has elite talent that perfectly matches with the outside zone scheme the Vikings run.
The Vikings are deeply tied to both the current iteration of zone run blocking through Stefanski, but also tied to its history through Kubiak. The two have also been big influences on one another, and the Browns were one of the best outside zone run teams this year. Stefanski, after being turned down for the Cleveland Browns job in favour of Freddie Kitchens (lol), returned to the Vikings for Kubiak’s first year back from retirement. Stefanski, as I’m sure you are well aware, dear reader, was the OC, while Kubiak was the Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Advisor.
In a recent interview, Stefanski opened up about the influence that Kubiak had on him, and it highlights the focal points of the Vikings offense:
Stefanski soaked up as much knowledge as he could of Kubiak’s offense, specifically nuances of the play-action game and the wide-zone scheme that he’s known for. […] “For years, that scheme has been very hard on defenses, when you talk about defending the run game and the play-action game,’’ Stefanski said. “And I had never been in that scheme specifically. I’ve been in other ones, and I had my own thoughts about the run game and play-action game, but to be able to be exposed to coach Kub and the different nuance that he had into those plays was incredible for me. The devil, he said, is in the details, and “that’s where I think coach Kub’s impact on me, was huge.’’
Bootlegs, play-action, and outside zone concepts. That’s the Vikings offense alright. Let’s take a look at Dalvin’s TD scamper from Christmas Day this past season:
The Vikings offensive line wasn’t great this year, but this is a really solid snap and demonstrates the way the Vikings want their outside zone scheme to work. The play action and bootleg game will ideally keep the defense from stacking the box against the run, and here the Vikings face a 6-man front with 6 blockers. There’s an uncovered edge rusher on the weak side of the line, but the play is moving away from his side of the field so he should be a non-factor (and is).
As soon as the ball is snapped, the entire o-line moves in unison to the outside, picking up their blockers along the way. Riley Reiff (#71) moves laterally to his left, sets to help throw the combo block on the Saints defender to prevent him from getting inside, but he’s already being manhandled so he moves to the second level and forces the LB to the outside, while the other linemen keep their defenders moving backwards and upfield, which creates a massive hole for Cook to break through.
This is a great read by Cook, who, in addition to his elite vision, shows off his footwork, lateral movement, and burst on this play. On these outside zone plays, the RB is responsible for reading the gaps from the outside in meaning his first read here should be the gap between Irv Smith Jr. and Reiff. Cook immediately identifies the defender’s outside leverage on Smith Jr., which could create a running lane, but he sees the LB moving up to cover the gap (the one who Reiff picks up). Because this defender is also outside of Reiff, Cook looks to his second read which is wide open. Dozier ties up his man just long enough to let Cook break through.
After that this is all Cook, it’s nowhere near clear-sailing yet. The Saints LB is unblocked and looking to stop Cook around the line to gain. In order to hit the hole Cook makes a quick lateral step inside before accelerating again. At almost the same time he makes a subtle shoulder fake to freeze the LB for a half-step (he has to worry if Cook cuts all the way back inside) before continuing to run to the outside and running right through Pro-Bowl CB Marshon Lattimore.
Take a look at the Next Gen Stats Air Hockey Puck View of the Cook run and compare the depth of the OL at the end of the play to the first Henry run we looked at earlier. There is a lot of work to do on the offensive line if the Vikes want to have a real shot next year.
On the right side of the line on the above play, Ezra Cleveland is a bit of a mess. Cleveland correctly reads that he should move to the second level (he’s supposed to help O’Neill throw a combo block first but just breaks upfield) but then he just falls down. O’Neill clearly expects Cleveland to at least pause for a second to help block the Saints defender (look at O’Neill put his hands up to throw a block for a split second before he realizes what’s happening) and when he doesn’t he just has to try to sprint inside to prevent the whole play from getting blown up. Unfortunately, the situation leaves the LB, Demario Davis (#56) completely unblocked and if not for Cook’s footwork and shoulder fake this play doesn’t get to the end zone. This kid is special. Let Dalvin Cook!