Steelers will utilize cut-blocking as part of outside zone scheme

Vincent Pugliese-USA TODAY Sport

Cut-blocking and the outside zone running scheme are synonymous, much to the chagrin of defensive linemen - including the Steelers'.

It's the dirty not-a-secret of the outside zone running concept.

Backside blockers are going to cut backside defenders. Where there's a party, there's a mess afterward. Where there's a zone run, there's a cut-block.

It ticked the Steelers off something awful in their season-opening loss to Baltimore in 2011, as Ed Bouchette of the Post Gazette points out in a feature Wednesday. Baltimore had implemented the concept in the offseason, foregoing their traditional power scheme to get the aging Steelers' defensive linemen on the move. Part of it was the legal cut-blocking of dominant nose tackle Casey Hampton.

Cut-blocking is one of the more hotly contested concepts in pro football. It can result in significant knee injuries if the lineman goes at the knee of the defender at a poor angle - as demonstrated last season when Houston lost inside linebacker Brian Cushing to a low block by an offensive lineman on the Jets.

NFL rules state an offensive player can go at the knees of a defensive player provided the offensive player started no more than one gap down from the defensive player. Meaning, if the center is engaged with the nose tackle, the guard from either side can go low at the nose tackle.

Defensive linemen hate it. It's perfectly legal, although some would say unethical. Proponents of the design usually point to the success of the scheme as justification, which does little more than fan the flames of animosity of defensive players.

The zone scheme looks to accomplish a simple goal; get defensive linemen to move laterally. A power scheme is designed to double-team defensive players in a certain hole, which gives defensive players a target as the play is developing. This is often the purpose of a fullback; he attacks the target, which is a seam opened up by a double team, and clears out the defender in that seam.

Zone running removes that one specific gap, and forces defensive players to pursue laterally, which makes it easier for a running back to cut back away from the defender's momentum. That cutback is further accentuated when the backside defenders (the ones pursuing the play) are surprisingly taken down by low blocks from offensive lineman to their outside.

Steelers offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. wasn't quite as infamous for these tactics as Redskins offensive coordinator Alex Gibbs (who ran this scheme with great success in Denver, despite picking up the reputation of having a dirty group of players), but the Chiefs ran with a high level of success as well.

The Steelers aren't quite saying "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," but the zone concept is appearing more frequently in the NFL to combat the behemoth defensive tackles teams employ to own the A gap of the offensive line.

The key is getting them to move, and use an offensive line's athletic ability and a running back's vision to let the defense over or under pursue, thus letting them find a hole and accelerate ("a one-cut-and-go" style).

The Steelers drafted athletic lineman, like center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro and right tackle Mike Adams, seemingly built to block this style at the pro level. Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster aren't the athletes the other three are, but they aren't one-gap plodders either. Kelvin Beachum, a reserve lineman, is a good athlete as well.

This system can work well for the Steelers, even if it won't likely be well-received by their opponents.

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