Any of us that played youth league or high school football were brought up on offenses that numbered the backs and holes, thereby giving us plays like "34 Power" in which the 3 back ran to the 4 hole. The problem with that old system is that if your OL gets its butt whipped at the 4 hole, 34 Power is dead.
What is unique about the zone play is that it does not pre-determine the hole. Instead, the back has an aiming point (inside foot of the tackle, for example) and a read (first down lineman or first backer past the center). He steps at his aiming point with his eyes on his read. If that read is neutralized, the back continues on his track to the playside. But if his read flows quickly, the back cuts the play to the backside. This is where much of the damage of the zone play is inflicted.
The faster the defense flows, the more a good zone back uses that pursuit against them. Let's use Ray Rice as an example. Unfortunately, we've all seen him gash the Steelers in the past.
Picture it in your head: the ball is snapped and Joe Flacco opens to his right and runs a handoff back to Rice, who is on a path towards his right offensive tackle. Casey Hampton swims over the center and forces a double team from the guard while the Steelers backers pursue like banshees behind him. We are flying to the football and the play looks like it's going to be strung out for no gain. Then, on a dime, Rice makes a hard cut to his left through the backside A-gap. The Steelers linebackers have over- pursued and are now getting washed across the football by the climbing uncovered offensive linemen on the backside. Rice pops through the seam, squares his shoulders and is seven yards downfield before Ryan Clark drops him in his tracks. What looked like 2nd and 10 is now 2nd and 3. It‘s a scenario Steelers fans have seen more than enough of. It is this ability to punish a defense for doing what they're coached to do (fly to the football) that is perhaps the most effective element of the zone run game.
Look at Rice's cut here in the AFC Championship game against New England.
The left side of Baltimore's offensive line does a great job of moving New England's defense back and into the second level, which cuts off the backside pursuit. Rice cuts sharply and decisively up the seam, gets low and falls into the end zone.
How would implementing a zone scheme work with the Steelers given our current roster?
The Steelers have been hanging their hat on the power and counter plays for years. These are gap schemes where linemen block back (away from the point of attack) and a pulling guard and a fullback or H-back lead the ball carrier to the hole.
Power and counter are the perfect compliments to zone since the first steps of the linemen look exactly the same to defenders but the ball is going the other way (Zone = everyone steps right, ball starts right; Counter = everyone steps right, ball goes left). So from a scheme perspective, zone pairs up nicely with what we've always done.
Personnel-wise, there and pros and cons. On the line, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert all have college experience in the scheme. Pouncey and Gilbert were at Florida under Urban Meyer, who is a huge zone and power guy - that's the offense they used with quarterback Tim Tebow en route to huge success. DeCastro was a stud zone blocker at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh (we saw plenty of Harbaugh's zone read on display with Colin Kaepaernick throughout the playoffs). And Adams played in Jim Tressel's zone and gap scheme at Ohio State.
I think all four would flourish as zone linemen. They are all young, agile and experienced in the scheme. As for the others on the line, Kelvin Beachum has good feet and may be effective as well. He was more impressive as a rookie than anyone expected so I wouldn't be surprised if he continued to impress regardless of the scheme. I'm less optimistic about Willie Colon, Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster. They are thicker guys with slower feet.
Whether some or any of them will be around next year remains to be seen but if they are, I suspect their success will be directly tied to how good a teacher Coach Bicknell is. I wouldn't hold my breath on any of them, though.
Colon is a hot-head and a brawler and seemingly ill-suited for a zone scheme heavy on technique and communication. Legursky and Foster are mediocre at best given the current scheme, which is better suited for them than zone. So draw your own conclusions as far as those three are concerned.
At tight end, I'm thrilled to have Heath Miller in any blocking scheme.David Paulson played in a zone scheme at Oregon under Chip Kelly so he won't be a stranger to it. And the two stud tight ends in this year's draft, Zach Ertz from Stanford and Tyler Eifert from Notre Dame, both played in zone offenses. We will be fortunate if we can somehow manage to land either of them.
As for the backs, Mendenhall has all the qualities to be a great zone back. He has good vision, good burst and excellent feet. But Mendenhall's situation is tenuous at best and it's very possible he's played his way out of Pittsburgh. Dwyer and Redman are not well-suited to be zone backs. Of the two, Dwyer has the better feet and is slightly quicker. But neither possesses much burst or vision. If either stays they will be short yardage or situational backs at best. And Baron Batch, though he can catch the ball and pick up the blitz pretty well, is not an option as a feature back.
It seems likely, unless the Steelers choose to bring Mendenhall back, we're going to be in the market for a new stud to tote the rock.
That said, what college backs might be of interest to us as guys who could flourish in a zone/gap scheme? Alabama's Eddy Lacy could be an outstanding option.
Alabama runs a pro-style zone/gap scheme so he'd be stepping into a situation here that would be familiar to him. He's a one-cut-and-go guy with both burst and vision who played his best in Bama's biggest games. Instinctively, he just feels like a Steeler to me. Unfortunately, I think we'll have a hard time getting him. Given the needs at linebacker and nose tackle, I don't know if we'll take him with the 17th pick. And I'd be shocked if he were still there when we picked in the second round.
This means we likely have to go up and get him. However, with playoff team that could use running back help like the Patriots, Colts and Packers picking late in the 1st round, the price might be too high.
A cheaper but not necessarily lesser option is Stepfon Taylor from Stanford. Most draftniks seem to think he‘s a mid-third rounder, most likely because he runs a mid-4.5 40. But I think he's this year's Doug Martin (Martin runs 4.55, by the way). Taylor is 220 pounds, is tough and smart, thrived in a zone scheme in college, can catch the ball out of the backfield, blocks like a fullback when needed and never seems to go down on first contact. It's not a coincidence he's Stanford's all-time leading rusher. He might not excite some people but I put a lot of stock in guys who produced at a high level at elite college programs. If we missed on Lacy but got Taylor in the 3rd round I'd be absolutely thrilled. I really believe he could be our franchise back right away.
As for some guys who might be potential Alfred Morris-types in that we could grab them late and possibly get great production, Nevada's Stefphon Jefferson is intriguing. He is 215 pounds, runs a 4.53 and had over 1,800 yards and 24 touchdowns this past year running out of Chris Ault's Pistol zone/gap scheme. He is said to be a hard worker and a high character guy and could probably be had in the 4th or 5th round.
Pitt's Ray Graham could probably be had a round or two later. There is debate as to whether he's the same back he was before the knee injury that ended his junior year and at 200 pounds he might not be durable enough to be a full-time NFL feature back. But he's an experienced zone/gap guy who sure looked explosive before his injury. If the Steelers haven't grabbed a back by the 6th round, Graham would certainly be worth a look.
Finally, although I don't see him as a feature back, a guy who could be a great addition to our offense is Nebraska's Rex Burkhead. He's a North-South power runner with plenty of zone experience who is also a good receiver and a great teammate. He could be a Danny Woodhead type for us, getting 8-10 carries a game, catching balls out of the backfield and being a high character/high energy guy. He's worth a look in the late rounds as well.
Finally, is this a scheme that will be beneficial to our offense?
Personally, I love the zone game. It provides answers for a lot of the problems defenses throw at you as far as multiple fronts and stunts are concerned and it can be run from a multitude of one and two-back sets, which adds versatility to the offense. However, you need the right back for it to be effective, and unless Mendenhall is returning I don't believe that back is currently on the Steelers' roster. Also, because of the communication required among the OL, it helps if the unit can stay healthy and build the necessary cohesiveness. This is not something the Steelers have been fortunate enough to enjoy in recent seasons. So, although the scheme is great, there are question marks as to whether it will be great here. That is for football minds far smarter than mine to decide. Here's hoping Coach Tomlin and the staff make the right call.