Steelers vs. Bengals: Cincinnati's zone running scheme modified to face 3-4 defenses like Pittsburgh's

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati's Cab/Tab play will be on display in Week 16 when the Steelers host the 8-6 Bengals with the playoffs on the line for both teams.

Paul Alexander is one of my favorite coaches in the NFL. Alexander has spent the last 18 years as the Bengals offensive line coach. Alexander is a great coach because he is not afraid to think outside of the box. He is unconventional in his thinking, but very successful with his results. Alexander self-published a book that was based upon his experience of learning the piano under the tutelage of a concert pianist, and how those lessons could be applied to coaching sports.

On the gridiron, Alexander is famous for not being afraid of going against the grain with his thoughts and ideas. For example, for years offensive linemen were taught to keep their hands high in order to quickly punch the oncoming defensive lineman in pass protection. Offensive lineman were being taught essentially the same as boxers or MMA fighters (by the way, the pioneer of the application of martial arts into offensive line training was none other than Tunch Ikin).

Alexander is a big believer in studying great offensive linemen. When he studied some of the best offensive lineman at that time (Jon Ogden and Tony Boselli), he noticed that they often keep their hands low and simply absorb the oncoming force of the defensive linemen instead of trying to displace the force. He tried this technique with Willie Anderson, and they were both very pleased with the results. Today, if you go to a college or pro practice any where in the country, you'll probably hear an offensive line coach yelling at their pupils, "low hands, low hands."

For as long as Alexander has been with the Bengals, they have been a zone running team. This is apt since the zone running scheme was first popularized in the NFL with the Bengals. James Brooks and Icky Woods were very successful running behind the schemes of the godfather o zone blocking, legendary offensive line coach Jim McNally.

Beginning last year, the Bengals began to tweak with the blocking of their outside zone (stretch) running play.

The Cab/Tab Play

If you watched any of last Thursday's game against the Eagles, you saw the Bengals run a lot of stretch to the tight end side. Also, you saw them employ the "pin and pull" technique. With this play, the tight end and the offensive tackle would block down on the defensive end and the defensive tackle. Rookie guard Kevin Zeitler would then pull around each down block and look to block the force.

The running back on this play has two reads. His first read is the the first person head up to inside the tight end. If the the tight end is able to secure the down block and create the edge, the running back takes it now. If the tight end does not secure the down block and the defensive end is expanding the edge, then the read goes to the next down lineman. In the Ealges' 4-3 this would be the defensive tackle lined up over the guard. This is where the back makes the famous one cut and go. If the tackle is able to secure the down block, then the back plants his outside foot and just hits the hole. Because of the running back's original aiming point (inside leg of the tight end), it doesn't even look like a cut back. If the defensive tackle defeats the down block, then the running back looks to cut it back further.

Of course, the Steelers don't run a 4-3. This presents a few problems to the Bengals. First, when we discussed the reads for the running back, we said the first read was head up to inside the tight end. As we know, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley do not line up there. Normally, they are outside the tight end. Basically, there is no way the tight end is going to reach an outside linebacker. So, the first read now becomes Brett Keisel or Ziggy Hood. The problem has always been the second read: Casey Hampton. The Bengals have never been able to consistently block him. Alexander came up with a tweak last year.

When blocking the stretch against a 3-4, Zeitler will not pull. He'll work with the tackle on the defensive end. This leaves the center one on one with Hampton that has always gone bad for the Bengals. What Alexander did was to have the center work with the fullback. The center and fullback area block (Cab) the nose tackle. The center tries to get around Hampton to the linebacker, and the fullback looks to cut Hampton. Nasty stuff.

And effective. Another tweak that Alexander did was to man block the backside. The backside guard and tackle aggressively attack the defensive linemen in the hopes of making them play more square. That is where the huge cut back comes in. The nose tackle is cut and the backside defensive linemen are not pursuing down the line. You've separated the defense, and you've created a big play.

The Bengals will also run this play to the weakside. When they do, the fullback will area block with the tackle (Tab). To the weakside, the Bengals would probably put slot receivers in order to try to pull either Harrison or Woodley out of the box. If they stay in the box, Andy Dalton would probably kill the play and audible to a pass play,

The Bengals are somewhat limited with this play because of personnel. They need to put a fullback on the field, so the Steelers can combat this with their base package. Most teams try to get the Steelers out of their base package, and then they run the ball. The Bengals placed starting FB Chris Pressley on injured reserve this past week, and signed John Conner of "Hard Knocks" fame.

Steelers defensive coordinator LeBeau has done a great job game planning for all of the divisional foes this year. The Steelers have been able to take away what each team does best. That trend will need to continue in order for the Steelers to be successful on Sunday (Pittsburgh Steelers Tickets).

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