Zone blocking & the football season

The NFL season is upon us.  I’m a Packer fan, but one can hardly be in an area with a professional sports team without getting drawn into its orbit.  The Washington Redskins have a new head coach, Mike Shanahan, who is trying to implement an interesting new approach with the offensive line:  Zone blocking.

Offensive linemen, instead of taking on the man in front of them, head to an area and hit the defender who occupies it.

“It’s the difference between a guy lined up six inches off your head that you’re blocking,” said former Broncos guard Mark Schlereth, now a commentator for ESPN, “and pulling and having a full running start at eight yards.”

The result is the beginning of what Shanahan wants: Fatiguing a defense. If, in a zone scheme, offensive linemen are getting out toward the edge, defenders must follow them there.

“It wears you down,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith, whose Buffalo Bills at times battled Shanahan’s Broncos for supremacy in the AFC in the 1990s. “It’s a lot of pounding on the body, that zone blocking.”

So against the Cowboys, watch the initial first-quarter handoff to Portis, but dismiss how many yards it gains. Pay attention, instead, to how far the defenders have to run – and how many end up on the ground. Shanahan’s teams have long used a technique known as “cut blocking” in which offensive linemen take out players on the back side of a play – the side away from where the ball is headed.

Say, for instance, Portis’s initial run goes to the right. The Redskins’ offensive linemen on the left side will try to cut off defenders – legally – below the waist, essentially eliminating them from a play and allowing a running back, if he so chooses, to cut back in that direction with one firmly planted foot.

By design, if the zone blocking is carried out correctly on the front side of the play – drawing linebackers with the flow – and the cut block is executed on the back side, a giant running lane can open. The effect can be devastating – and not only on that play.

“As an offensive lineman, if I cut you and get you on the ground, I get to lie on the ground on my fat belly and watch the play,” Schlereth said. “You have to pop up and you have to chase. You’re going to spend a heck of a lot more energy. So in the fourth quarter, when it’s third down and 12 and we have to make a play in the passing game, the odds of you having a lot of pass-rushing energy is not very good.”

via Mike Shanahan brings his well-refined offensive system to the Washington Redskins.

Since local newspapers mainly cover local teams, it’s sometimes hard to get a sense of how other teams are doing. This forum can help us remedy that situation. What are the prospects of your favorite team for this year? (What changes has it put in place? Who are the players to watch? Will this be a “rebuilding”–a.k.a. “losing”–year for your team, or do you expect great things?)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • BW

    I’m a Packer fan like you, Dr. Veith, and frankly, nearly “everyone” on the sports channels or shows is talking the time up pretty highly. Now it makes me a little nervous, because I hope nothing bad happens and they completely tank during the season. That’s the superstitious thinking in sports for you I guess.

    But after an 11-5 season, where they can only hope to improve on it this year, having lost no key pieces, except for Johnny Jolly on defense, but having proven effective starters in his place, it’s hard not to see why everyone expects big things from the Packers. Favre keeps getting older in football years, and if the Packers O-line can hold up and come together this year, they ought to be able to beat the Vikings at least once and win the division.

  • BW

    I’m a Packer fan like you, Dr. Veith, and frankly, nearly “everyone” on the sports channels or shows is talking the time up pretty highly. Now it makes me a little nervous, because I hope nothing bad happens and they completely tank during the season. That’s the superstitious thinking in sports for you I guess.

    But after an 11-5 season, where they can only hope to improve on it this year, having lost no key pieces, except for Johnny Jolly on defense, but having proven effective starters in his place, it’s hard not to see why everyone expects big things from the Packers. Favre keeps getting older in football years, and if the Packers O-line can hold up and come together this year, they ought to be able to beat the Vikings at least once and win the division.

  • PJE

    To call zone blocking a “new approach” is not very accurate. Zone blocking has been around for decades. Almost every team in the NFL uses zone blocking at some point during the game/season.

  • PJE

    To call zone blocking a “new approach” is not very accurate. Zone blocking has been around for decades. Almost every team in the NFL uses zone blocking at some point during the game/season.

  • http://www.brandondutcher.blogspot.com Brandon Dutcher

    Fun fact of the day, Dr. Veith: Did you recall that in 1975 Mike Shanahan was an assistant coach at … [drum roll] … the University of Oklahoma?

  • http://www.brandondutcher.blogspot.com Brandon Dutcher

    Fun fact of the day, Dr. Veith: Did you recall that in 1975 Mike Shanahan was an assistant coach at … [drum roll] … the University of Oklahoma?

  • nqb

    Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming season, a la Onion:
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/onion-sports-2010-nfl-teambyteam-guide,18023/?slide=5

    My favorite (though I’m a Bears fan) is the Packers’s strength:
    After giving up 50 sacks in 2009, Green Bay’s offensive line appears to have forgiven Aaron Rodgers for whatever he did.

  • nqb

    Here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming season, a la Onion:
    http://www.theonion.com/articles/onion-sports-2010-nfl-teambyteam-guide,18023/?slide=5

    My favorite (though I’m a Bears fan) is the Packers’s strength:
    After giving up 50 sacks in 2009, Green Bay’s offensive line appears to have forgiven Aaron Rodgers for whatever he did.

  • Porcell

    The first NFL coach to use zone blocking was Vince Lombardi. His running backs including Hornung used zone blocking to great advantage . Lombardi termed it “running to daylight.” In an article, Origin of the Species: Zone Blocking, Lombardi is quoted as follows:

    The guard and the center do-dad, or area-block, the defensive tackle and middle linebacker. Do-dad blocking is used against stunting lines or lines that stack one defender behind the other. In the case where the defensive tackle has the inside charge and the middle linebacker is keying the fullback and has the outside responsibility, the middle linebacker will, with the snap of the ball, move immediately to the hole, making it impossible for the center to cut him down because of the middle linebacker’s key on the fullback. In this case, we will use do-dad blocking.
    The center is the lead blocker — the apex. He will lead-step, the same technique as for the down block, for the crotch of the defensive tackle. The offensive guard, using the same technique as he does in the drive block, will aim for a point which is outside the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle has an inside charge, the guard immediately releases the tackle, picking up the middle linebacker who would be moving with the key of the fullback toward the hole. The center, since the tackle is moving into him, would pick him off.

    Parcells used zone blocking and taught it to Belichick.

  • Porcell

    The first NFL coach to use zone blocking was Vince Lombardi. His running backs including Hornung used zone blocking to great advantage . Lombardi termed it “running to daylight.” In an article, Origin of the Species: Zone Blocking, Lombardi is quoted as follows:

    The guard and the center do-dad, or area-block, the defensive tackle and middle linebacker. Do-dad blocking is used against stunting lines or lines that stack one defender behind the other. In the case where the defensive tackle has the inside charge and the middle linebacker is keying the fullback and has the outside responsibility, the middle linebacker will, with the snap of the ball, move immediately to the hole, making it impossible for the center to cut him down because of the middle linebacker’s key on the fullback. In this case, we will use do-dad blocking.
    The center is the lead blocker — the apex. He will lead-step, the same technique as for the down block, for the crotch of the defensive tackle. The offensive guard, using the same technique as he does in the drive block, will aim for a point which is outside the defensive tackle. If the defensive tackle has an inside charge, the guard immediately releases the tackle, picking up the middle linebacker who would be moving with the key of the fullback toward the hole. The center, since the tackle is moving into him, would pick him off.

    Parcells used zone blocking and taught it to Belichick.

  • http://enterthevein.blogspot.com J. Dean

    Agreed. Shanahan is just building on Lombardi. And I am also a Packers fan, as well as a Michigan college football fan (Go blue!).

  • http://enterthevein.blogspot.com J. Dean

    Agreed. Shanahan is just building on Lombardi. And I am also a Packers fan, as well as a Michigan college football fan (Go blue!).

  • Another Kerner

    I hope the Green Bay Offensive Line protects their talented quarterback this year…..
    Many in Packerland have high hopes for the season.

    My father started taking me to Green Bay Packer games when I was a very little girl. (No, I don’t remember seeing Don Hutson play, but I did watch Sid Luckman quarterback for the Bears against the Packers.) :-)

    I do remember several Green Bay/Los Angeles Rams games. Seeing Wisconsin born Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsh play “flanker” is a good memory, even when they beat the Packers.

    Kerners have been Green Bay fans for generations.

    It is a good thing my Pastor loves the Packers too.
    We are really in Accord.

  • Another Kerner

    I hope the Green Bay Offensive Line protects their talented quarterback this year…..
    Many in Packerland have high hopes for the season.

    My father started taking me to Green Bay Packer games when I was a very little girl. (No, I don’t remember seeing Don Hutson play, but I did watch Sid Luckman quarterback for the Bears against the Packers.) :-)

    I do remember several Green Bay/Los Angeles Rams games. Seeing Wisconsin born Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsh play “flanker” is a good memory, even when they beat the Packers.

    Kerners have been Green Bay fans for generations.

    It is a good thing my Pastor loves the Packers too.
    We are really in Accord.

  • Another Kerner

    My goodness, Nathan….you surprise me.
    Lutherans love their neighbors…. even when they are wearing Viking Purple
    :-)

  • Another Kerner

    My goodness, Nathan….you surprise me.
    Lutherans love their neighbors…. even when they are wearing Viking Purple
    :-)

  • kerner

    Porcell, I salute you. I have been a Packer fan all my life, and I did not know that.

    I love studying great strategists in any discipline. A long term strategy designed to make your opponent exhaust his resources faster than you do is brilliant. But there are probably counter strategies. Rotating defensive linemen (if your bench is deep enough) or relyig on line backers to do a lot of the work otherwise done by linemen might be possiblities.

    Or a page could be taken from the NBA solution to the zone defense. Figure out some way to make it a rule violation. Now there’s a brilliant strategy.

  • kerner

    Porcell, I salute you. I have been a Packer fan all my life, and I did not know that.

    I love studying great strategists in any discipline. A long term strategy designed to make your opponent exhaust his resources faster than you do is brilliant. But there are probably counter strategies. Rotating defensive linemen (if your bench is deep enough) or relyig on line backers to do a lot of the work otherwise done by linemen might be possiblities.

    Or a page could be taken from the NBA solution to the zone defense. Figure out some way to make it a rule violation. Now there’s a brilliant strategy.

  • Porcell

    Kerner, I’m a great fan of Lombardi; picked up the zone blocking bit a few months ago in a biography of Lombardi. Lombardi was good for Green Bay and Green Bay was good for Lombardi. He really appreciated the solidity and work ethic of the folks in that part of America.

  • Porcell

    Kerner, I’m a great fan of Lombardi; picked up the zone blocking bit a few months ago in a biography of Lombardi. Lombardi was good for Green Bay and Green Bay was good for Lombardi. He really appreciated the solidity and work ethic of the folks in that part of America.


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