It is my philosophy about learning that true understanding of anything means you must first understanding how the components work individually and then take a step back to see how the components work as a whole.
If my objective is to get you to understand the zone blocking scheme (ZBS) then I must start with the little details of the scheme and work my way back up to the big picture.
On the individual level, the foundation of the ZBS is footwork, blocking rules and communication along the offensive line. As a whole the ZBS is founded on the principles of getting movement either laterally, vertically or both along the defensive front. Most importantly it is about preventing penetration across the line and into the backfield. Finally it is also about keeping the defense off balance by running multiple plays from the same formation.
The ZBS scheme relies on angles to win not power. The footwork of the men in the trenches is vital to establishing these angles. When executed perfectly the ZBS scheme appears to be a synchronized dance. However you can't dance until you know the steps.
B: Lead Step (Zone Step)- This is a six inch step at a 45 degree angle used mainly for the inside zone play. Designed help get in front of the defender when he is shaded towards the playside.
C: Slide Step- This is a six inch horizontal step towards the play side used for outside zone plays when the defender is head up to the blocker.
D: Drop Step- This is a six inch step backwards at a 45 degree angle. It is used on an outside zone play when the defender is on the outside shade.
E: Bucket Step - This is a six inch step backward where the lineman opens his hips. It is used for an outside zone play and or when the blocker is uncovered.
The Blocking Rules
An offensive lineman in the ZBS scheme has three questions to ask when at the line of scrimmage. Am I on the playside or backside? Am I covered or uncovered? Is the person on my inside covered or uncovered? Once he answers those questions he knows what is expected of him. The three basic rules are;
If the defender is head up the lineman than 50% of the time the lineman will take this defender. The other 50% time the inside lineman will take him. This usually depends on the angle the defensive lineman takes off the snap. Regardless the lineman who is covered will at least chip the defender to allow for the uncovered lineman to get to the block.
If the defender is on the inside shade of the lineman, the lineman on the inside will be responsible for him 90% of the time. Again the originally covered lineman will chip the defender to allow his teammate to get to the block.
In the ZBS how linemen work together is incredibly important. Communication and understanding of blocking roles can increase effectiveness. The following are generic calls that are made to help identify who is working in combination and who isn't at the line of scrimmage.
ACE is generally the call for a combination block between the guard and the center. It is usually dependent on the defensive lineman. Generally if the D-linemen step towards the center he is the center responsibility the guard will chip and go to the second level. If he steps into the guard the center will chip, go to the second level and let the guard take the lineman. The guard will make the call. LION is the call for a combination block with the left guard and RAM is the call for the combination block between the right guard and center the center will specify the side to let the other blocker know.
Deuce is generally the call for a combination of the playside tackle and guard. Once again it is dependent on the defensive lineman and the direction he goes. The tackle will make the call at the line but only if the playside guard is free with no one lined up in front of him.
Trey is a combination block between the playside tackle and TE. It is called by the TE but only against a seven technique. This block is rarely used since the defensive end is rarely in the seven technique on the strongside.
Base is the call made by any lineman that is covered and the teammate inside him is also covered. The blocker will take a zone step and turn his body parallel to the runners' path. This is the most common call on the inside zone play.
The Big Picture
Now that the basic individual ideas of the zone blocking have been covered it is time to look at how the entire offensive line plays together. The culmination of these steps, rules and blocking combinations is two major plays in the zone blocking scheme, the Inside Zone and the Outside Zone (or Zone Stretch) .
The Inside Zone
The inside zone is one of the main inside plays of the zone blocking scheme. This play is diagramed against the 3-4 front. The playside TE zone steps and kicks out the SOLB making sure his shoulders are parallel to the runner's original path. The playside tackle zone steps to the DE again kicking him sideways with his shoulders parallel to the runner's path. The playside guard bucket steps and aims back shoulder of the defender he chips the DE and continues at that angle looking inside for the Buck LB when at the second level he will wall of the Buck.
The center takes a slide step and walls off the NT. The backside guard bucket steps chips the NT and goes for the Mack. The backside tackle either walls off the DE or cut blocks him. The Will is left unblocked as he will likely not make the play. The runner reads helmets of the blocker and defender. If the LE's helmet is on the same side of the hole (in this case the inside) he must choose a different route as the probability of the linemen keeping the defender out of the hole is low.
He can choose to cut back behind the centers butt, if the NT is walled off, or cut to the back of the TE, if the SOLB is walled off. However he must wait until he is at the heels of the tackle before he makes his cut so that the linebackers can be effectively blocked.
The Outside Zone
The outside zone or also called the zone stretch is probably the most recognizable play in the zone blocking scheme. This play is diagramed against a 3-4 scheme. The key read is the TE block on the SOLB. The running back is reading the helmet of the defender. If the helmet is on the outside the running back will cut back on the backside of the guard.
If the DE helmet is on the outside of the guard the RB will cut to the backside of the center. If the defenders helmet is on the inside the running back will continue to the outside. The basic rules are observed. The two guards are uncovered and take a bucket step to get to the lineman covering the blocker on the playside of them. The center and tackle maintain their blocks until the guard forces them off and then they go to the second level. The design of this play is to get the RB 1-on-1 against a CB where they are expected to break a tackle.
Plays from the 2 TE Set
The two TE set is preferred by some zone blocking coaches because there are multiple plays that can be run out of it and the plays can be run to either side, Note the similarity in ever play and that is the lineman from the inside shade of the backside guard to the lineman on the outside shade of the tackle will always be double teamed to start the play. Remember zone scheme don't want to allow and penetration across the line.
As you can see the zone blocking scheme requires offensive linemen who have quick feet and can get their body in between the defender and the running back. The ZBS also requires smart offensive linemen. The blocking rules allow the linemen to figure out who they are blocking quickly which is a major advantage, however the linemen have to be aware enough to know if they are the ones who peel off from the initial double team or if their teammate should.
Most importantly the offensive line has to work in unison. Each player has to know what the man next to them is thinking and there needs to be little to no hesitation. A perfectly executed zone play is like a well-choreographed dance. Fortunately for the Steelers they seem to be filled with athletic and smart interior linemen. Pouncey, DeCastro and Beachum have all been praised by the coaching staff for not only their athleticism but their ability to learn the plays while Adams has also been shown his athleticism in the run game.
As for the running backs the Steelers need a player with quick feet and good vision. They need someone who is comfortable reading the helmets of the defender and understanding when and where he should direct his run. Luckily for the Steelers Le'Veon Bell's college tape is filled with examples of Bell reading the helmets of the defenders and making his cut based on that, despite the scheme Michigan State ran.
A running back that has this vision and quick feet, not necessarily speed, will succeed in the zone blocking scheme. This can be seen in RBs like the Broncos former fifth round pick Terrell Davis, who shined for the Broncos in the 90s despite running a 4.67 40 yard dash. More recently the Houston Texans' 6-foot-1 229 pound Arian Foster, an undrafted Free Agent is an example of the type of player who can succeed in the ZBS. Arian Foster ran Foster ran a 4.69 40 yard dash, had a 1.62 ten yard split and poor showings in the vertical and broad jumps. Despite these deficiencies Foster still managed to gain more than 1,200 yards every year he has been a starter and in 2010 led the league in rushing with more than 1,600 yards and 16 TDs.
I'd start getting excited about Le'Veon Bell future production if the offensive line can successfully learn the zone blocking scheme because he shows the patience and vision to be good in that scheme.