In The Zone

The Steelers have a new breed of blocker for their zone schemes, and a former coach breaks down those schemes in simple terms.

LATROBE – How do you fix a running game that seems to have lost its way? By fixing the guys playing in front of the backs, those responsible for opening holes.

That's the approach the Steelers are taking to fix their running game.

The Steelers aren't abandoning their straight ahead power blocking for this month's new flavor, but they are adding a zone blocking scheme that's all the rage around the NFL.

Gone, for the most part, are the road-grader offensive linemen, replaced by faster, more athletic, smarter big guys who can move.

No better time to switch up than now, as the Steelers come off a season when they had vowed to re-implement the running game into their plan for success, only to fail miserably. Injuries and fumbles conspired to derail not only the Steelers running game, but also the 2012 season.

"Jonathan Dwyer led the Steelers in rushing last year, but Adrian Peterson from Minnesota had 200 more yards in December than Dwyer had the whole season," said former Penn State coach and Clear Channel radio personality Tom Bradley. "This zone blocking is just another wrinkle to help them run the ball effectively."

It's also a good time to implement zone blocking given the relative youth of the Steelers' offensive line. Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey are the two carryovers, but are joined by David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Markus Gilbert.

The best way to describe the nuances of zone blocking is to go back to the 1970s, when the Steelers trap-blocked their way to four Super Bowl wins in six years. A trap sends linemen in one direction, but peels off a guard to go the other direction with a running back close behind. Zone blocking is more akin to "student body left" or "student body right" in that all linemen move in the same direction. The back follows them, looking for a hole to run through.

"A lot of the older offensive linemen say it's not a tough man's blocking scheme," said Bradley. "But on defense it makes you defend every blade of grass because the offense stretches you out and can bring it back on you. You have to have a back with great vision and good speed. He has to see the edge of the tight end and decide, can I make that edge or should I cut it back inside? It really works well against an aggressive defense.

"This is like a pulling technique almost, except that everybody is pulling in the same direction."

Foster, the biggest and perhaps most "old-school" of the linemen, has shown that he can adjust. He's shown his ability on the move when perhaps he was the one question mark to the change.

"I did a lot of running this year," Foster said. "I wanted to be good as far as distance and stamina are concerned. That's key with this outside zone blocking we're doing. We all have to be able to run and be able to recover after we run those plays. I want to make this go. We really want to be a dynamic offense."

"When you get really good at it, the big thing is not only the cutback, but also the play action that you can run off of it," Bradley said. "It keeps people honest on the back side."

Many NFL teams and some college teams run some variety of zone blocking. The Denver Broncos did it ably for years and made Terrell Davis a household name. Washington adopted it when Mike Shanahan became their coach and made a star out of Alfred Morris. The Chiefs, with Jamaal Charles, and the Raiders, with Darren McFadden, are other zone-blocking teams.

While zone blocking is not a new scheme, not by any stretch, the Steelers are not abandoning the road-grader straight-ahead blocking that kept them famous in the 1990s.

"We are still a power team," Foster said. "We're just adding in this outside zone to complement what we do best. This is just another thing in the playbook."

In a copycat league, zone blocking is a pretty thing to be adding.

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