Notre Dame Run Blocking: Positives and Negatives of the Zone Blocking Scheme
As discussed before, three topics contributing to the success and demise of the 2008 Irish offense will be discussed this off-season. The first installment, Part 1, detailed the positives and negatives of head coach Charlie Weis’ offensive philosophy and play-calling approach. The second installment consists of three segments detailing Notre Dame’s struggles running the football.
The first segment, Part 2a, outlined the level of rushing offense needed to compete at a national championship level and how Notre Dame has failed to achieve this level of production during Weis’ tenure. Looking at the numbers, it is obvious the Irish running game must become more productive in order to consistently compete against elite competition.
Many Notre Dame fans rightly point to a lack of physicality in the offensive line play as the guilty party for the woeful ground production. While partially culpable, toughness along the front five will not be the focus of this discussion. Many also blame the poor Irish rushing output on the zone blocking schemes that are a staple of Weis’ offense.
This discourse (Part 2b) will focus on the positives and negatives associated with zone blocking schemes, saving how the Irish use these schemes and the improvements needed to remedy the Irish ground game for the final segment (Part 2c) of this second off-season topic.
Let’s Get Fundamental: What Is Zone Blocking?
Offensive blocking schemes can basically be broken into two types: zone and man. Similar to offensive philosophy and play-calling, both are valid to different degrees.
Fundamentally, zone blocking is similar to a zone defense in basketball. It is a strategy where the offensive players are assigned an area, or zone, rather than a man. This creates a simplified scheme that can be more effective than man blocking, a strategy predicated on each offensive player blocking a prescribed defender.
The concept of zone blocking was originally developed to simplify blocking against multiple, aggressive, and blitz-heavy defenses. Changing defensive fronts require complicated rules for man blocking schemes to effectively operate. As such, man schemes are often ill-equipped to handle these types of defenses.
In a zone scheme, however, the defensive alignment is virtually irrelevant. As an offensive player is assigned a zone, the defensive set doesn’t dictate which offensive player blocks which defender. To this end, zone schemes are most effective in pass blocking where it is advantageous to utilize a simplified strategy when facing multiple defensive fronts. In fact, nearly all teams use zone schemes as the primary strategy in pass blocking.
Zone schemes then extended to the running game, where it is typically employed to a lesser degree. Some running plays use zone blocking play-side, but not back-side (or vice versa), but nearly every college football team utilizes zone run blocking schemes to some extent. For some, it is even the basis of a productive ground game.
Despite being so prevalent, there are many common misconceptions about zone blocking schemes. Zone blocking is often inaccurately described as a passive, finesse-based blocking method that lacks physicality and does not allow for good leverage.
For the most part, these adjectives are incorrectly associated with a brand of offensive line play, not inherent hallmarks of zone schemes. The rather emotionless performance of the Irish offensive line over the past two seasons is more about attitude and less about their particular blocking assignments.
In fact, zone blocking schemes have many beneficial characteristics, as detailed below. Generally speaking, the positives of zone blocking are the negatives of man schemes and vice versa. For this reason, the positives will be listed here with corresponding comments pertaining to the negatives itemized below.
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive list, but it does cover the main aspects of zone blocking schemes and is expansive enough to serve its purpose. Most of the positives and negatives listed below are generalities aimed at characterizing the overall aspects of zone schemes. Obviously, there are always exceptions to the rule. Finally, this list is focused more on the running game rather than the passing game where zone blocking is, by far, the preferred scheme.
1. First and foremost, zone blocking is simple and adaptive. As noted above, the scheme does not changed based on the defensive alignment. This effectively nullifies complex defensive blitzing and stunting schemes designed to pressure opposing quarterbacks and penetrate against the run, and the magnitude of this benefit should not be understated.
2. The objective of zone run blocking is not to create a predetermined running lane. Rather, zone schemes rely on delaying and obstructing defenders. This translates to reach and speed blocking techniques that depend on quick, play-side movement.
In other words, offensive line play is more about technique and less about strength. Agile, athletic linemen are more suited to execute a zone scheme as leverage is determined by placement rather than push.
In many ways this makes an offensive lineman’s job easier. Rather than being tasked with moving a defender in a particular direction, he merely has to engage and shield the defensive player from the ball carrier. The running back is tasked with finding the openings.
3. Since running lanes are not predetermined, the defense is, at least in theory, always wrong. While there is usually a prescribed running direction and area, the ball carrier is given the freedom to adapt as the play progresses. This flexibility is exceptionally powerful if the blocking is well executed.
Running backs are able to pick and choose a hole based on how the defense reacts. Against aggressive defenses, cutback lanes are often open for large gains. This adds a valuable element of improvisation typically not available in man blocking plays.
Due to this, backs that are patient, read and anticipate play development, and can accelerate through running lanes thrive in zone blocking schemes.
4. Zone blocking typically does not employ pulling linemen, making it more difficult for defenses to read and react. Pulling interior linemen (a tactic commonly used in man run blocking) frequently alerts defenders to the play direction and hole, but zone schemes rarely call for this type of technique.
But There Are Some Negatives
While not always true, there are negatives associated with zone blocking schemes that occur in the majority of ways they are implemented.
1. There is virtually no downside to the most substantial positive of zone schemes. Simplification translates to better execution.
2. Zone schemes require more athletic offensive linemen than man blocking. Depending on personnel this can be a positive, but at other times it is a drawback.
Additionally, similar to pulling linemen, reach and speed blocking techniques telegraph the play direction with the first step. Cutback running can negate this to a degree, but is only effective if back-side blocking is proficient and defenses over-pursue.
Because cutback runs are an option on every play, there is little planned misdirection in zone running schemes. Counters and other similar misdirection plays are rarely prevalent in zone run blocking schemes.
As noted above, zone schemes ease the burden of execution by requiring blockers to shield defenders from the running back. On an individual basis, this is true. However, this comes with a negative side effect.
To create running lanes zone schemes require every blocker to fulfill his assignment. This means a high level of teamwork and multiple-player execution is requisite for success. To some extent, man blocking schemes are more forgiving, as execution at the point of attack is more crucial than back-side blocking.
Finally, as zone schemes are primarily predicated on engaging the defender, hand placement is of vital importance. Closely linked with agility and athleticism, good hands are essential to effectively execute zone runs.
3. Zone blocking places a higher burden of execution on the running back. Since there is no predetermined hole or running lane, the running back must exercise a patient running style, waiting for the play to develop based on how the defense reacts.
This has two subtle, negative effects.
First, zone running plays typically take longer to develop than their man blocking counterparts. Most zone runs start from a deep backfield to give the back more time to read play development. Additionally, handoffs typically occur deep in the backfield. The result is slower play development that dictates longer blocks from offensive linemen.
Second, the same zone play may appear different nearly every time it is run, making a complementary set of plays difficult to execute as the defense doesn’t repeatedly face the same post-snap motion. This limits the capability to execute complementing runs as well as the play-action passing game, a drawback that should not be underestimated.
Finally, bigger, more powerful running backs that lack speed and quickness are less suited for zone blocking schemes. The ability to cut and accelerate through open running lanes is a coveted skill often missing from larger backs.
4. In many cases pulling linemen lead defenders to the ball. However, this can also be used for deception, and not using multiple offensive linemen does sacrifice some capability to double-team at the point of attack.
While zone blocking schemes utilize combo blocks, they don’t usually involve double-teams at the point of attack like man blocking schemes do, i.e. they aren’t as physical moving defenders. In short yardage situations this can be detrimental.
Weis has yet to field a truly effective rushing attack during his four years in South Bend, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the zone blocking schemes used in the Irish run game. Many college football teams employ the same or similar techniques with great success.
In other words, zone blocking isn’t the primary problem with Notre Dame’s running game. It may not be the preferred method of run blocking for Irish fans who cherish the smash-mouth style of Lou Holtz, but it can be successfully used at the college level.
How—and to what extent—the Irish use these schemes within Weis’ offensive philosophy and play-calling approach is the true culprit. Stay tuned for a future segment detailing these aspects of Notre Dame’s ground game.