Zone Blocking and Nebraska’s Running Game – Pt. I


With a big game coming up this weekend Nebraska fans seem more than a little concerned about the Husker running game. After a quick start against Nevada, Nebraska has been extremely inconsistent picking up yardage on the ground. This has put a lot of pressure on Sam Keller and the passing attack. The ineffective running game has also helped to account for the amount of time the defense has spent on the field. When you’re not chewing up yards and time with a power rushing game, you’re not going to control the ball. And let’s face it, while time of possession is generally a useless statistic, a TOP advantage does mean a rested defense.

One of the first things that sticks out with the running game under Callahan’s WCO is the use of zone blocking schemes. While I’ve heard people banter about the relative utility of such schemes, I’ve rarely heard the topic discussed intelligently among Husker fans. Let’s try to change that if we can. So here is my faithful attempt at introducing you to zone blocking and how it might impact Nebraska’s running game.

Drive Blocking

First off let’s start with a standard for comparison. Teams that don’t utilize zone blocking schemes instead rely upon “man” or “drive blocking”. In this scheme a lineman is responsible for an individual, and the play is designed for a running back to hit a particular hole. So as a lineman your job is pretty simple: If you have a man on you drive him off the ball. If you don’t have a man on you block down on the first man inside. Add pulling guards for trap plays and sweeps, and you essentially have something similar to what Nebraska’s option offense did for decades.

Zone Blocking

Zone blocking is a different animal. This scheme involves a lineman blocking an area instead of a designated defensive player. If multiple linemen are blocking an area one can then break off and block into the second level. Generally a lineman in this system blocks the man on them if they are covered, and if you don’t have a man on you, then you double team with the person next to you on the play side of the formation. One of the key tenets of zone blocking is lateral movement of the offensive linemen as a unit. This should create some natural seams or gaps in the defense for the running back then to exploit.

As Bob Davie explains:

“Zone blocking in the running game is when two or three offensive linemen work in tandem as opposed to each offensive lineman having a specific, predetermined man to block. Zone blocking involves the center, guard, tackle and tight end working in combination to block an area with an emphasis on double-teaming the defensive linemen who are aligned on the line of scrimmage.

The concept is for two adjacent linemen to come off in unison and attack a defensive line to the play side or to the side the ball carrier is going. The advantage, as opposed to man blocking, is that you create a double-team with two players blocking one defensive lineman. This allows the offensive linemen to be aggressive because he knows he has help if his defensive lineman was to pinch inside. It also provides movement at the point of attack, which can open creases for the running back.

Zone blocking initially starts out as a double team at the point of attack on the down defensive linemen, but the beauty of it is that one of the offensive linemen will leave to attack the linebacker while one stays to take over the defensive lineman. The key is for the two offensive linemen working in unison to double-team the defensive lineman to decide who and when one of them will leave to block the linebacker.”

Keys to Zone Blocking

In addition to moving laterally or horizontally, it is also crucial that the offensive linemen keep their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. If they open up their shoulders at all, it can create a seam for the defense to get penetration and disrupt the play before it starts. This is where I’ve really seen breakdowns in Nebraska’s offensive line. Often times it is just a matter of getting beaten off the ball even slightly that results in the shoulder turn and subsequent lane for defenders. Another key is the communication and teamwork that must occur between the offensive linemen. For one, the linemen don’t know who they will block prior to the snap. 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 often causes the play to fail. This is where injuries, position swapping or a lack of quality practice time can really hurt an O-line.

But the offensive line isn’t the only key to a successful zone blocking scheme. A lot of responsibility also falls on the shoulders of the running back. Remember that with zone blocking, the offensive lineman all are moving laterally. This movement should create lanes or gaps for the running back. But because the linemen are working in unison the hole may open up anywhere along the line of scrimmage. This can work to give the running back multiple options, but relies strongly on his ability to pick the best running lane from these options. Here’s where I notice some problems with Marlon Lucky. It is clear that he has struggled at times to find or pick the right running lane. As a preseason article noted:

“He [Lucky] encountered a difficult time adjusting to school, to being far away from home, to the Huskers’ complex West Coast offense. He especially had trouble learning the blocking schemes, pass routes as well as the “zone” running plays, said Brad Ratcliffe, his former high school coach.”

It’s extremely important for Lucky to continue to stay patient and let the zone develop, but it’s also necessary that as soon as he sees a crease – to accelerate through it. Here’s where we often see Lucky hesitate. And that hesitation is costly. A zone blocking scheme relies on the running back taking what he can get — he can’t dance around waiting for a hole to open. He needs to be agile, authoritative, and possess good instincts. Nothing fancy, just try to gain positive yardage. Lucky can also improve on finding the elusive cut-back lane. Often 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. But if the running back misses this lane, the chances for a big play diminish. Brandon Jackson was a master at finding and exploiting the cutback lanes on zone running plays. We desperately miss that type of natural ability. Overall, these types of plays take a lot of repetition in practice to run well, and the reps then should help the running back understand when and where to expect those creases to open up.

Perhaps surprisingly, the quarterback also plays a key role in a zone blocking scheme. His job is to get the ball to the running back as deep and as quickly as possible. The quicker and deeper the QB gets the ball to the running back, the better angle he will have for any potential running lanes or gaps in the defense.

So there’s your introduction to zone blocking. Stick around for some additional information later this week.

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