Coach's Look: Zone Blocking 101

The term "zone read" has become such a household word in Longhornland that it pops up in water cooler talk, message board vernacular, and radio discussions from Houston to Amarillo. I might be "preaching to the choir" this week, but I want to go back and explain the basics of zone blocking, how it began, and how it has evolved.

I guess it goes back to demographics. The country is getting bigger. The youth of today are much bigger and taller than the previous generation. Also, strength training has become something that everyone does. If you look at the workout facilities of 30-40 years ago, it might have been one Universal machine tucked in the corner of the gym. Today, high schools have more weights, machines, and knowledgeable strength coaches than the NFL had 20 years ago. The result is stronger athletes.

Well, the "Haves" on offense started to dominate the stale, tired, line head-up defenses of the "Have-Nots". The traditional 5-2 Okie defense, with its read-and-react tendencies, was starting to get eaten alive by offensive lines that were bigger. How could the "Have-Nots" ever catch up?

The "Have-Nots" started to recognize that they had to use speed to their advantage. In comes the University of Miami with its emphasis on speed, Florida State with its emphasis on attacking defense, and others started to follow. Within 5 years, gap control defenses were replaced with gap attack defenses. You saw more 4-3 defenses with smaller defensive tackles (not tiny, but leaner and quicker). Offensive coaches had to find a way to counteract this — and zone blocking was born.

Zone blocking on offense is the same in principal to a zone defense in basketball. Each lineman has a zone that they are to block. They don’t block men anymore, because zone blitzes and attacking defensive fronts caused too many missed blocks, confusion, and missed assignments. The mindset of a zone blocking team is to take the opposition where they want to go. Let me illustrate this point:

So, on a play designed to the right, the left tackle would block the zone or area all the way to the man lined up to his right, the right guard. That is his zone to block. Now, pre-snap, it would appear that he would be blocking the man lined up directly inside him. However, what would happen if that defensive tackle looped outside, and the linebacker on his side blitzed through the gap between the guard and the tackle? If the left tackle were focused on a man, he would be wrong. The blitzing linebacker would come through untouched and maybe disrupt a play.

How do you teach linemen to zone block? It’s really a focus on footwork. The lineman’s first step should be with the playside foot, and it should be a short step (so you don’t get off balance), and the toes should be pointed to the end zone. As the block progresses, they make their way through the different levels of their zone, line first, linebacker second, secondary third. They lock on to whoever shows up in their zone, whether it is a blitzing safety, a defensive tackle, or a linebacker off the line.

Now, I have simplified it some, but for the most part, it is a simple scheme to teach. However, it can be difficult to master. The key element is to know when to lock out or cutoff, and it has a lot to do with feel. You have to know when the defensive player has crossed your face. Let me illustrate again:

In the above diagram, the triangle is the same defensive player, not two. The first type of block, the cutoff, is when the defender has not crossed your face. You turn your head to him, put your rear towards the hole, and cut him off. However, if the defender has gotten in front of you, and crossed to the playside part of your face, you keep taking him the way he is going. This is the lockout block. You try to use his momentum to drive him past the play.

Now the running back’s job is to start to the hole or side of the formation called, find the seam, read the blocks of his linemen, and accelerate. That’s why you see more and more Dave Meggett-type of backs and less of the Ottis Andersons. A back has to have speed, vision, and cutting ability. This is an offense truly built for a type of back like Jamaal Charles. Henry Melton has a tougher time in this offense, because his size is not as important.

How has this evolved over the years? Defensive coordinators started sending their backside defensive ends on a hard pinch down the line of scrimmage. As you can see in the zone diagram at the top, the end man on the line of scrimmage is generally unblocked in a zone scheme. Defenses started utilizing smaller, quicker defensive ends to come hard down the line of scrimmage, trying to limit the cutback lanes for the running back. In the ongoing chess match, offensive coordinators had to come up with a way to take advantage of the defensive ends aggressive path to the ball. Do you block him and somehow change your scheme? Do you try to run wider to the opposite side? Many of these same questions haunted the minds of offensive coordinators nationwide.

The answer is delightfully simple and a throwback to the days of old. Leave the defensive end unblocked and option him. However, you couldn’t run your regular down-the-line option; you had to get the quarterback deeper. Offensive geniuses said, "Hey, what about that shotgun formation our passing brethren love so much? Could we….?

And the zone read was born. Now, the narrative above might have given too much credit to offensive coaches, and it might have over-dramatized the situation some, but the end result is the same.

In the zone read play, the running back (generally) lines up to the side away from the direction the linemen are zone blocking. So, if the linemen are zone blocking right, the back would line up on the left of the quarterback in the shotgun. At the snap, the running back goes to the right side, and the quarterback places the ball in the running back’s stomach while reading the crashing defensive end. If the end comes upfield, the quarterback gives the ball to the running back. If he crashes hard down the line, the quarterback pulls the ball, and goes right to where the end was lined up.

Before I go any further in the back-and-forth chess match, I want you to go back to the Missouri-Texas game from Saturday, to Vince Young’s touchdown run in the first quarter. The Longhorns ran the basic zone read play:

Before the snap, Missouri walked its strong safety (shown as the black octagon) up to the line of scrimmage and dropped the corner off (putting eight men in the box). Vince Young is reading the defensive end (shown as the black diamond), and the end comes crashing inside. The playside linebacker is cutoff by Jonathan Scott, and Vince has a seam a mile wide to run through. The tight end, David Thomas, releases outside and blocks the strong safety. Vince Young does the rest on his own, and goes for the touchdown.

The next play from scrimmage for the Longhorns is just a variation of this play. Everything is mostly the same, but instead of releasing outside to block the strong safety, David Thomas releases and runs a pattern into the flats. Young fakes the handoff to Charles, pulls up, and hits David Thomas in the flats. The strong safety was blitzing in hard to try and stop Vince Young from scoring again. Greg Davis wins that chess match by calling the pass to the tight end.

If you want to see Jamaal Charles actually keep the ball on the zone read, go to the first play of the second quarter. The defensive end takes a more upfield route, and Vince recognizing this, gives the ball to Charles.

Maybe everything I’ve told you is stuff you already know, but I still find the chess match so interesting and intriguing. If nothing else, you may be more prepared when the guy at the water cooler says, "Hey, how about that zone read?"

Mark Kissinger has coached high school football in Texas and Tennessee, coaching OL, TE, WR, DT, DE, and serving as both an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator. In high school, he was coached by the legendary G.A. Moore. Mark recently retired from coaching and received his M.B.A. from Rice University and is in his third season of writing for IT. His 'Coach's Look' column appears after each game during football season on InsideTexas.com.


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