Steelers Film Room: Fernando Velasco and the zone blocking scheme

Jeff Griffith-US PRESSWIRE

Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL in the Week 1 game against the Tennessee Titans. The Steelers turned to Free Agency to search for his replacement. They chose to sign Fernando Velasco a player who started for the Titans for the entire year in 2012. Can Velasco hold up as a starter? How will he fit into the Steelers blocking scheme? These questions are answer as we look back at his play from the 2012 season.

Fernando Velasco entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2008 signing with the Tennessee Titans. With the Titans he wouldn't play a game for the Titans until 2010 when he started in three games. He wouldn't start in another game until 2012. In 2012 the Titans attempted to make the switch to a zone blocking scheme and Velasco became their starting center. He would start all sixteen games in 2012 playing 13 of them at the center position and three at left guard. Knowing he started is only half of the equation, it is also important to look at how he played.

In the first games of the season Velasco struggled. He wasn't getting the little details needed for the zone blocking scheme. As a pass blocker he consistently stopped his feet and wasn't in sync with the rest of the interior line. With each passing game he continued to improve though. Over the course of seven games in the middle of the season he began to show signs of being one of the top centers in the NFL. The following highlights some of his play and improvement.

In this play the Titans run the outside zone to the right side. Velasco has NT Casey Hampton head up him and will need to get to the right of him to help set the lane. At the start of the play Velasco takes an incorrect step. He essentially picks his right foot up and sets it down in the same spot and then crosses over with his left. This is a wasted step. The NT is head up to him so he should have taken a six inch zone step at a 45 degree angle. Velasco should have also aimed to drive his left shoulder into Hampton's left side. Once again Velasco doesn't do this and instead drove his left shoulder into Hampton's middle. Despite these flaws he was able to get Hampton moving laterally and was able to drive him back a few yards. As the play continued Hampton lost his balance and Velasco finished the block, taking Hampton to the ground.

This play was an example of Velasco's ability to stick to his blocker despite having poor technique. Three weeks later against the Bears Velasco shows much more improvement.

In this play the Titans will once again run to the outside zone to the right. The linebacker was shaded on the right side of Velasco. Having to block a defender shaded on the right for a right handed center is the most difficult block asked of by any linemen in the zone blocking scheme. As the play starts Velasco opened up with a right a bucket step and crosses over with his left. This is a very good execution of zone footwork. Velasco did his best with his aim point as well. He was a little off on his aim point but, was able to get far enough on the right side of the LB to prevent him from getting off of the block. He understood that he can still make a lane for the cutback and drives through the LB. Finally the LB loses his balance due to the block and Velasco pancakes him. This along with the backside cut block by the LG creates a big hole for the running back.

The play highlighted was only one of Velasco's plays from a very dominate performance against the Bears. In this game and in the week prior against Indianapolis, Velasco showed he understood the technique of the zone blocking. When executing the chip block on a defensive lineman he has a powerful flipper move and has enough athleticism to get to the second level. An underrated skill of Velasco's was that he was able stick to his defender and hold his block. Whether it is a defensive linemen, linebacker or safety, very few players were able to effectively disengage from Velasco's block to make a play.

As a pass blocker, Velasco improved each and every week. He began to start moving his feet through contact and played with a lower pad level. When not engaged he kept his head on a swivel and dropped back evenly with the rest of the interior line so that he could help effectively if needed. Though he was rarely challenged one-on-one Velasco was a good pass blocker. He did allow three hits and nine hurries in 527 pass blocking snaps but like his run blocking, defenders had a hard time getting off his blocks to make a play. He was one of only four centers that started every game not to allow a sack in the entire 2012 season.

The question still remains why did the Titans cut Velasco if he was so good?

He was given a second-round RFA tender worth $2.02 million in the off-season. The Titans also spent a mid-round draft pick on a center and brought in a variety of interior offensive line players including another center. Due to Chris Johnson's lack of effectiveness in the ZBS scheme the Titans also wanted to emphasize the power run game more as well as the zone running.

In the preseason they clearly wanted to see how Velasco looked at guard and at center in these power runs. He wasn't as effective driving his man off the line in the power run game as a center and was poor as a guard. When the Titans ran their zone runs in the preseason however he looked like the same player from 2012. Velasco's veteran challenger look average at both center and guard and was far cheaper. The Titans were high on their rookie center so Velasco lost out to the numbers game. He was likely not signed by another team because teams that ran a zone blocking system already had their line in place and Velasco only had a single year of starting experience.

Overall Fernando Velasco looks to be an above average center. He understands the technique required of the zone blocking scheme and executes well. As a center he has enough athleticism and strength to be effective. He continued to improve as the 2012 season went on and finished looking like a top half center in the league.

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