X's and O's Mailbag: Zone Blocking

In our new weekly series, GoBlueWolverine tackles your questions about anything football. Josh Turel and Victors Club Message Board poster "CoachBt" break down the onfield X's and O's. In this edition the Coach explains the fundamentals of zone blocking and how it differs from drive blocking.

This week's question was submitted by Victors Club Message Board poster, "mgoblue0072"

Question: "What are the pros and cons for running plays with zone blocking versus downfield blocking? What kind of personnel is more favorable for each? Which is more successful against certain types of defenses? Does Michigan tend to run more of one versus the other?”

Before taking a look at CoachBT's commentary, we suggest reviewing Josh Turel's Zone Blocking 101 piece from October of 2004. The diagrams and explanations may make the following piece easier to understand for those that are not familiar with the concepts.


Zone blocking and drive or blast blocking are very different and each presents different challenges when teaching/coaching. Zone blocking has two basic principles; the first is you are either covered or uncovered. The second is block for a double team and then work to the linebacker only after you control the LOS (line of scrimmage). There are two different types of zone blocking, inside zone and outside zone (also referred to as the stretch play). The difference in the two is the aiming point of the offense linemen. On the inside zone play, the offensive lineman's aiming point is the middle of the body of the defensive linemen. On the stretch play the aiming point is the outside shoulder or far arm pit of the defensive lineman. This is sometimes called pulling to overtake.

In the zone blocking scheme, offensive linemen do not block predetermined men. They block an area depending on what the defensive linemen do. An example is as follows. I am playing center and we are running 32-zone (3 back through the 2 hole). I will step hard to the right keeping my head up. If the guard is covered I am working to the guard with idea of doubling the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle plays a hard three technique/outside shade on the guard, he will block the defensive lineman one-on-one. Then, I (the center) will work to the next level and try to get on the middle linebacker. If the middle linebacker disappears I will go the next level and try to get the free safety. At no time does any offensive lineman go backwards down the LOS. They always go either to play side or up to the next level.

In another example, we'll use the same play (the 32-zone). If the defensive tackle angles hard into the A gap (gap between center and guard) the guard will punch hard with his left hand to try and slow down the defensive lineman and keep him from getting penetration. The center will then punch with his right hand and both the center and guard will drop their hips and try to drive the defensive tackle backwards. The guard will now be responsible for picking up one of the linebackers depending on which one shows. The center, knowing the guard is going to work to the next level works his hips and tries to cover the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle lines up in A-gap, the guard punches with his left hand, but knows the center is going to step hard punching with right hand and covering the defensive tackle so he can start looking for middle linebacker. This type of interaction happens along the LOS with all the linemen.

It would take an entire book to go over every individual combination. Drive or blast blocking is reliant on either offensive tackle or center making proper calls and setting blocking schemes. More and more, teams are leaving tackle calls and using centers to set blocking schemes. Teams use different systems. Some have colors and others use numbers. It's all a matter of preference. There are usually three calls… the first determines the scheme. Are you reaching or down blocking etc? Next is determining double teams. In our example we'll use names as opposed to numbers. If the offensive tackle is covered by a tough defensive end or tackle…and is going to need tight end help on the block, he makes a “Tom” call. If the guard needs help he calls “Gary".

We also make pull calls. For example, if we are running a counter we can block it four different ways; G block means the front side guard pulls and TAG means backside offensive tackle and guard pull etc.

As you can see both types take tons and tons of reps to perfect. That is why most teams specialize on one type of blocking or the other. Neither is necessarily easier to teach or more effective. It is a matter of philosophy and personnel. Most zone teams prefer smaller more athletic linemen, whereas drive blocking teams put more of a premium on size and power. Both types need linemen who can bend their knees and play with leverage. In my opinion zone blocking is more effective blocking 4-3 fronts. In 3-4s the covered nose tackle can be a real pain to account for, especially if the opponent is playing an angle front. The defensive linemen try to tie up offensive lineman and this really can stymie a zone blocking scheme. The nose tackle's job of not letting center block anyone else really makes zone blocking tough. On the other hand I have had much better luck zone blocking a 4-3 than blast blocking it.

UM has gone back and forth between the two types of blocking schemes. Jerry Hanlon was a huge proponent of drive blocking, as was Coach Les Miles when he was at UM. Coach DeBord started making UM more of a zone team. In recent years seems like UM has gone more to drive blocking again. For this year I’m not sure what to expect. From what I saw UM is going to stay with drive blocking for this year, but I would not be surprised if eventually Coach DeBord gets UM back as zone blocking team.

Be sure to check back next week for another mailbag feature.

Want to submit a mailbag question? Join us on our Victors Club messageboard or in our weekly chats held every Monday night at 9pm.

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