There's a reason zone blocking has become commonplace in most college systems...it works. Although the average football fan might not know what it is, zone blocking is fairly easy to understand. In this report I will go over the elements of zone blocking, how it works, why it works, and the keys to defeating it. I'll also take a more focused look at Minnesota's running game, how it stacks up against the Michigan defense and the keys for the Wolverines success.
What is zone blocking?
Zone blocking is basically multiple (usually two or three, but can be up to four) offensive linemen/tight ends working in unison to block an area rather than a certain man. One of the main points of the scheme is to create double teams on down linemen. The down linemen at the point of attack (play side) is engaged by two blockers...for example (center, guard) or (guard, tackle). That begins a lane or crease in the designed hole because the defensive lineman isn't able to penetrate while being doubled. The double team is only temporary though. One of the engaged lineman will leave the double team to pursue and block the linebacker while the other stays home to finish blocking the lineman. The player who stays with the lineman is helped out immensely by an effective double team because the defender is easier to drive away from the play once the double team has gotten him off balance and directed away from the action.
Here you see the defensive end who has outside contain gets doubled because the run is inside the right tackle. The right guard doubles the down end, and then releases to engage the linebacker. How fast the linebacker reads and reacts, and how fast he gets to the hole will determine when the lineman will peel off to block him.
(see above) Here is another great thing about the zone scheme. This play is an outside sweep to the right side. Since the defensive end slanted in, he becomes the right guards responsibility after the tackle doubles him. In this instance it would be the tackles responsibility to swing out and block the scrape linebacker. This differs from man blocking where the play could be blown up if guard's path is disrupted by the end‘s penetration (see below). Again it all comes from the zone scheme using multiple linemen to block an area rather than each individual lineman assigned to a man.
Zone blocking was basically created to handle the variety of defensive fronts seen in today's game and the evolution of the moving (stunting, twisting athletic lineman). The scheme itself isn't hard to learn, but it's real test is in getting the offensive lineman use to working in unison. Their reads and the techniques involved. A seasoned athletic lineman is what a zone concept requires because he must be able to make on fly decisions and quick enough to execute them.
Does this affect pass blocking?
Yes, it does because again the zone scheme allows multiple lineman to block an area rather than be designated to a man. The zone concept helps prevent penetration by stunting, twisting or slanting defensive pass rushers because it allows the offensive lineman to "pass off" the defender to another linemate.
In figure 1 you see the defensive line scheme. This is difficult to block if the guard is assigned to the defensive tackle and the right tackle to the slanting end. However, with the zone scheme, the right guard neutralizes the defensive tackle, when he releases to loop around the end he picks up the slanting end. Same with the right tackle who initially blocks the slanting end once his man goes inside, he passes off the end to the guard and picks up the looping tackle. It's also effective in preventing an effective zone blitz because instead of being assigned to a certain man, the lineman can better see who is rushing and who is falling back, allowing them to detect the rush better.
Well Minnesota won't be the only one running the zone blocking scheme on Saturday, Michigan does it too, but the difference is Minnesota chop blocks, and they do it well. Obviously the only real way to defeat the chop is to play the blocker then play the ball, which isn't something that comes naturally. It's important because a player on the ground creates a lot of open running space and one less body pursuing the play. Also, big men like Gabe Watson and Larry Harrison will be pretty winded if they are hitting the deck 40+ times in the game.
There are some ways to defeat the zone scheme, the main one being penetration up front. Gabe Watson is a perfect mold of the guy needed to beat this scheme. He's big and fast which translates into him being able to break double teams and cause penetration in the backfield. Watson will be doubled A LOT in the this game, and on practically every inside run. He and Alex Ofili will need to have a big game in the middle. Because the linemen disengage to block the linebackers, it is crucial for the backers' to diagnose the play quickly and get to the ball fast which will get the lineman out of position that come out to block them.
Another key will be the ability to take away the cut back lanes. Ernest Shazor and Ryan Mundy will play a big role in filling the alley and containing the Minnesota backs from cutting it back. Stopping Laurence Maroney will be the main key. Marion Barber can be stopped, as he hasbeen before. But Maroney has only averaged under 4.0 yards in a game twice in his career and one of those was only off five carries. He's the playmaker of the offense and can reel off big plays one after another.
The zone scheme can be stopped and Michigan does matchup well against it, but they must execute well to come away with a victory Saturday.