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Jets new offensive system breakdown: A zone blocking scheme

Los Angeles Rams v New York Jets Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Jets have a new offensive coordinator, Jeremy Bates. What sort of system will he install? It has been a long time since he has been in charge of an NFL offense, but we can take a look at his past and his influences. Rather than write one megapost with a zillion details, I want to offer a series of articles looking at key concepts.

One of Bates’ influences was Mike Shanahan, under whom he worked early in his career with the Broncos. Shanahan ran a distinctive offshoot of the West Coast Offense. It was built on a zone blocking rushing attack.

Every team has both zone blocking and man blocking run plays. Shanahan type offenses are no exception. They have man blocking plays, but the ratio for run plays in a Shanahan offense tends to be heavily skewed in favor of zone plays. That was true for his offenses, and it has been true of offenses run by his longtime disciple Gary Kubiak and his son Kyle Shanahan.

Like Bates, new Jets offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison is a Shanahan discipline. In fact, outside of his brief recent stint as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, he had worked under either Shanahan or Kubiak for his entire NFL coaching career.

I am sure that at some points within this article I probably will overgeneralize, but the name offers an accurate description. On a man blocking play, offensive players are assigned a specific defensive player to block. On a zone blocking play, they are responsible for an area of the field or zone. They block whoever goes into that area.

The main objective of zone blocking and man blocking are the same, to produce a successful run play. They way they approach the problem is different, however.

On a man blocking play, the objective is to use brute force to drive the defenders back. (Only key blocks are diagrammed for the sake of simplicity.)

It’s all about who can win a battle of physicality. Can the blockers move their men and open a hole?

Zone blocking goes with a different approach. The entire offensive line moves laterally in the same direction at the snap. This forces the players on the defensive front to move with them. The defensive players have assignments to stop the run if it goes into specific gaps. When the offensive linemen move, so do those gaps so the defensive players must follow.

What purpose does this serve? There are some really strong 300+ pound run stuffers in the NFL. It isn’t easy to drive them straight back off the snap.

These big guys don’t like running, though. They aren’t nimble. If they have to start chasing the ball carrier, they are at a disadvantage.

Once the defender is on the move, an athletic offensive lineman can gain leverage by beating the defensive lineman to a spot and driving him back. The defensive lineman is already moving. It is a lot easier to drive back a 300 pound guy who is already moving than it is a stationary 300 pounder off the snap.

Because the offensive line is moving, the zones where linemen are supposed to block are moving as well. That means a defender might start off in your zone and move to somebody else’s zone. Your blocking assignment might change as the play progresses.

You can see how the assignments change on this play from the 2014 Playoff game between Baltimore and New England. Kubiak was Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, and Dennison was on the coaching staff. Note how pink box defender is originally blocked by orange box lineman. As the play progresses, the offensive line moves, and pink box defender ends up in red arrow’s zone, which yellow box defender drifts and becomes part of orange box’s zone. (Note: These are not the actual names of the players.)

Now that we have gotten some of the basics out of the play, I am going to provide you with another zone play Kubiak’s Ravens ran in the Playoffs, and this single play can show all of the different things that make a zone run work. I’ll provide you with both a real time and a slow motion view so you can continue going back to it as we explore all of the aspects of this play.

A lot is happening on this play.

You’ve got everybody going in the same direction on the snap. The offensive blockers go right, and the defensive players have to follow.

You have one offensive lineman beating a defensive lineman to the spot and gaining leverage, which allows him to get a push.

The defender is so slow that he ends up in another zone, which means the original blocker gets help from the lineman the next zone either.

They wipe him out.

Let’s rewind a bit. We have talked exclusively about the blocking portion of zone concepts, but the running back also has a key job. He has to read the blocks and decide which hole to hit. He has numerous options.

This tends to be a difference from man blocking plays, many of which are designed to go to a specific hole. You can go back to the top of the post to see the man blocking play outlined. The assignments and the flow of the blocks are drawn up to open one specific area of the field.

In a zone scheme, the back has to make his choice. Which one of those holes would you choose? The actual winner is in pink.

That doesn’t seem like a good choice. Does it? He’s running right to an unblocked defender. Well as it turns out, the defender overruns the play and takes himself right into a block.

He took himself right into the zone of a blocker.

This teaches us a few more things about zone blocking. First, that lateral movement has other advantages. It gets defenders moving, and sometimes those defenders get undisciplined. They run themselves right out of a chance to make a tackle and into a block.

Second, it shows how important vision and patience are for backs in this system. This isn’t like a man blocking scheme where you are told which hole to hit, and your job is to hit it fast with authority. You have to read the play. Sometimes you have to be patient, but you can’t be too patient. Once that hole opens, you have to be decisive. Sometimes the right hole requires waiting for a cutback lane to open.

I want to point out one last thing about this play. It involves our friend Steve McLendon, who was with the Steelers at this point.

Let’s go back before the snap and see how he is taken out of the play.

McLendon starts the play closer to the direction where it is going than the blocker.

But he gets beaten to the spot.

The lineman looks to cut McLendon’s legs out. The cut block is a staple of zone runs. McLendon isn’t put on the ground, which would be ideal. The lineman, however, beats McLendon to the spot and obstructs him just enough to prevent him from making the tackle.

If we showed you previously why patience and vision are important for a back in this system, this aspect of the play shows why decisiveness is important. You might have to wait for the running lane to emerge, but once it does you need to hit it. McLendon would have made the tackle if the back had delayed even a half second.

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That play shows what the zone blocking scheme is all about.

It gives the back options, but the back needs to be able to read them correctly. Speed and power aren’t the most important traits. Sure, they help. Marshawn Lynch’s physicality was an asset when he ran through arm tackles in the Seahawks’ zone heavy run game a few years back, but physical attributes aren’t the most critical things in the world.

There is a reason Arian Foster led the league in rushing in a scheme like this 4.68 time in the 40 and all. Being successful is about reading the flow of the play and timing your cuts to avoid solid contact. It isn’t running as hard as you can into that one spot like in other schemes.

For offensive linemen, athleticism is more important than strength and size. You could see why above. This system is about movement and gaining leverage by beating a defender to a place and then using leverage as he is off balance trying to catch up. You don’t even need to push a defender back. Sometimes you can throw a successful block simply by getting to a spot on the field quicker and slightly obstructing him. In that context, it is easy to see why some undersized linemen might be deemed as good fits for a scheme like this, while some physical road graters might not be.

A lot of this was oversimplified. We can and will dive deeper into the nuances of the zone blocking scheme in the weeks and months ahead, but this was the first element of the Bates offense we had to discuss. There are others to come.