Chalk Talk: Zone Blocking

It just doesn't seem to matter who's carrying the ball in Denver. Mike Shanahan's zone blocking scheme can turn almost any tailback into a Pro-Bowler. More teams are starting to experiment with the revolutionary system, most notably Green Bay and Houston. Correspondent Jeremy Stoltz pulls out his dry erase board and teaches us more about zone blocking.

It seems as if every season the Denver Broncos churn out monstrously productive running backs, many of whom fail to reproduce their outstanding efforts elsewhere. Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson and Reuben Droughns are all examples of players whose brief time as a premiere running back came in the thin air of Denver. Fans have often wondered why backs that looked so good in a Broncos uniform look so bad once they leave Mile High.

The explanation is simple: they were average running backs working in an above-average system.

The ability of Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan to consistently produce quality runners comes from his use of the increasingly popular zone blocking scheme. Many teams – the Packers and Texans most notably – have begun to use the zone blocking method full-time and with great results. Even the Bears' offensive linemen, who work under a man blocking system the majority of the time, commonly employ many zone blocking techniques into their attack.

It is a powerful way to design a rushing offense as it creates consistent opportunities for big gains by the running back. But what exactly does the term "zone blocking" mean?

In the time-tested man blocking scheme, the offensive linemen block a predetermined defensive player. Zone blocking differs in the fact that linemen do not pick the players they will block before the start of the play. Instead, they choose who to block after the play begins. Therein lies the difficulty of zone blocking. Each lineman must work in unison to pick out the right players to block in the few lightning-fast seconds during which a play takes place. Since they are completely dependant upon one another, a missed block by just one offensive lineman may cause the play to fail.

To understand this better, isolate the right guard and right tackle in a zone blocking run play to the right side. A common NFL defense places a defensive end near the gap between these two with a linebacker stationed 5-7 yards behind. At the snap of the ball, both the offensive guard and tackle double-team the end. As they drive the defender away from the line of scrimmage, both offensive linemen watch the linebacker. After a few seconds, one of the linemen breaks away from the end and moves upfield to block the linebacker. The difficult part of this scheme is deciding which player stays on the end and which leaves to block the `backer.

The method of deciding which linemen takes on which responsibility is based in response to the actions of the defensive end. If the end pinches inside, the guard will take over while the tackle leaves for the linebacker. If the end attacks the outside, then the roles of the offensive linemen are reversed.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Unfortunately, zone blocking reads are hardly ever as cut-and-dry as the previous example. The defense may choose to overload the right or left side of the line. Or they will shift players just before the snap of the ball, throwing off the offensive linemen's pre-snap reads. Zone blocking, in an attempt to counteract this never-ending movement of the defense, states that each lineman block only the players in his zone or "track."

At the snap of the ball, the linemen move in unison in the direction the play is run. Each will continue moving upfield along that same track throughout the play. Using the aforementioned double-team or "scrape" technique, each lineman blocks only the players that cross his path. Zone blocking essentially says, "Keep moving and block the guy in front of you."

It sounds simple, but only through countless repetitions in practice can the zone blocking system be successful. The five linemen must be able to think as one inside the chaotic trenches, where enormous bodies fly at them from every direction. Their reads and reactions must resemble that of a group of synchronized swimmers, or else the play most likely fizzles.

When executed properly, the offensive line's movement up the field creates lanes through which the running back may run. Since all five linemen are working together, these lanes may open anywhere along the line of scrimmage. This gives the back multiple options. Many times the open lane is created on the backside of the play, allowing the running back plenty of room to cut back away from the pursuit of the defense. For this reason, most zone blocking plays do not designate a specific hole through which the running back needs to run. On the contrary, the back has the option of cutting into whichever lane opens for him.

And if the offense doesn't know where the ball is going, how can the defense?

This past season in Houston, Ron Dayne was able to gain 612 yards and score five touchdowns, by far his largest rushing output the past four seasons. Many fans wondered if the former Heisman Trophy winner was in the midst of a career resurgence. In a way he was, but not because he suddenly learned how to run with power and authority – something he has lacked mightily throughout his career.

Most likely, it had to do with the five linemen in front of him and the zone blocking system they executed so well.

Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and

Jeremy Stoltz's Chalk Talk Archive
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