Football 101 - Offensive Line Schemes

So when an announcer or a fan tells you that the offense is utilizing a "zone blocking" scheme, do you know what they are talking about? When someone mentions that a particular offensive lineman is blocking the "stretch", do you know what they are doing? If you are curious, read on.

OFFENSIVE LINE SCHEMES: Zone Blocking vs. Man-on-Man

Zone blocking is a type of scheme that is most effective for creating lanes for a running back to run through. It places a premium on smaller, quicker, but more athletic linemen, rather than size. You are most effective running a zone blocking scheme when you have a roster filled with very coordinated, quick linemen. When you implement zone blocking, you have to have guys that can move in a coordinated fashion and that are able to run quickly to spots on the field and deliver blocks.

In a man-on-man scheme the idea is to move the defensive line backwards or to occupy the defensive tackles and ends to create holes to either side of the lineman. That is far different than a zone blocking technique, where the idea is to create movement on the defensive line such that running lanes are created. The running back picks his holes by virtue of the lanes that are created for him.

Thus, when you are going with a man-to-man scheme, the idea is to get your huge 325-350 pound beasts in front of smaller defensive linemen and move them out of the way. But when you are going with smaller quicker 295-300 pounders up front, and you want to take advantage of their quickness edge over their counterparts, you might go with a zone blocking scheme.

Another real attraction to using the zone blocking technique is the simplicity. On every running down, the offensive line's job really doesn't change from play to play. No matter how the defense lines up in front of them, the offensive linemen's task in a zone blocking scheme remains the same. Create movement from the guys in front of them so that running lanes come open.

In a man-on-man scheme, offensive linemen are facing defensive linemen with very specific assignments in terms of getting the person in front of them out of the gap. Thus when they face a defensive front that employs a stunt (the defensive tackle in front of you runs to the side of you and then another defensive lineman runs at you from the other side), it can confuse an offensive lineman much easier. If the defense decides to blitz (putting more than one man through one hole), it can create bad mismatches up front much easier than if the offensive linemen were just blocking zones.

Zone blocking, for the most part, doesn't change. Even when the defense stunts or blitzes. You take care of your zone and you've done your job. Therefore, there are much fewer nuances to learn in a zone blocking scheme.

A lot of offensive teams that run the spread make their living on offense using zone blocking techniques. West Virginia, Oregon, and Iowa all use zone blocking to great effect on their running attacks. They obviously mix in some man-on-man schemes to keep defenses honest, but for the most part, these teams use zone-blocking, and their mastery over the scheme is why they run the ball so well.

If you have a zone-blocking scheme as your base rushing offense, you are obviously going to recruit smaller, faster, and more athletic players to fit your scheme. That is how a college team can succeed running the ball with 290-pound offensive tackles. Those linemen are not asked to overpower huge offensive linemen, but rather use their quickness to influence the men in their zones to run away from the area where the running lane is designed to open.

Current Husky linemen such as Micah Hatchie and Erik Kohler are prototypical zone blocking guys because they are athletic and can run. Colin Porter is a prototypical man-on-man beast that can overpower defensive linemen because of his sheer size and strength.

It is important to be good at both because obviously as you get closer to the goal line, you are going to have to utilize some power man-on-man schemes to move the football. Particularly inside the 10-yard line.

Generically, zone rushing plays can be grouped into three types of zones where the play will be run:
Inside Zone - this is a play that is designed to be run inside the two offensive tackles.
Outside Zone - this is a play where the running back is going to be running the ball just outside the offensive tackle.
Stretch or bounce - this is a play that is designed to be run wide, often times it is designed to be run just inside the split end.

On each type of play, the offensive linemen will look before the snap and see whether or not there is anyone in his zone to occupy. If there is someone there, it is his job to make sure that defender is occupied so that the running back can pick a lane and run through it.

If the offensive lineman has no one in his zone, he is free to help a teammate block. He will go help by creating a double-team on the defender that is in the target zone where the play is going. Then the player that is helping can move off of the double-team and then go get into the linebacker's face and create more diversion. The running back, once he gets by the double-team, can either follow the flow of the play and take it into the linebacking area, or can do what is called a "cut back", where a running back will change directions after getting through the lane and running against the flow of the play.

Cut-back plays work extremely well on zone-block schemes where the quicker linemen have gotten into the linebacking area and are occupying them.

One zone scheme that was utilized to perfection by the Carolina Panthers in their hey day was something called a "train track" zone. Instead of creating double teams, in this scheme the unoccupied offensive linemen will run out ahead and to the sides of the running back and will attempt to block anything that is in their way, thus creating a "train track" for the running back to run through. You have to have extremely athletic offensive linemen to employ a scheme like this one though.

So the next time the Huskies are recruiting offensive linemen, watch for their body types and athleticism. If they are loading up on 275-290 pound guys that can run 5.0 40-yard dashes or even lower, those guys are being taken for their ability to run a good zone blocking scheme. If they are loading up on 320-pound guys that run 5.4 40-yard dashes but can bench press a house and squat a small car, those guys are going to be utilized in man-on-man power schemes.

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