Zone blocking is a style of blocking for offensive linemen that was created by offensive coaches in response to a new style of defense that had emerged.
For years, offensive linemen were given man blocking responsibilities. This was very similar to a man-to-man defense.
Man blocking schemes gave each offensive lineman the responsibility of blocking a specific defender on every play.
In theory, this was great...
It simplified the roles and responsibilities for each offensive lineman since he was only asked to worry about one defender.
This made it very easy to teach, especially for younger football players who were just learning to play the game.
But then, a hole in the man blocking system was exposed by smart defensive coaches.
They designed what’s called a slant and angle scheme that threw a big wrench in the man blocking approach.
The new defensive scheme completely disrupted the thinking of man blocking, and it found many holes in the approach.
That caused offensive coaches to try to come up with a new blocking scheme that’d counter the slant and angle scheme and also protect against future defensive schemes that coaches might create.
That's how the zone blocking scheme was created.
Let's take a closer look at what the zone blocking scheme is, starting with the problem in man blocking that was created by the slant and angle defense.
The slant and angle defense exposed one fatal flaw in the man blocking scheme -- that offensive linemen were asked to follow their assigned defender wherever they went.
This meant that if the lineman's assignment went to the left, he’d be required to follow him and vice versa.
So, what defensive coaches did was ask all of their defensive linemen to slant one way or the other after the snap.
By slanting the defensive linemen a certain direction, it’d cause the offensive linemen to follow them, which would then cut off other offensive linemen from being able to block linebackers.
In turn, this would allow the linebackers to roam free, unblocked, to make easy tackles in the run game or get to the quarterback in passing plays.
Here's how it works.
First, all defensive linemen would line head-up on an offensive lineman.
At the snap, they'd all either slant to the left or the right, depending on what defensive play was called, heading to the gap between two offensive linemen.
Since the offensive lineman assigned to that defender was asked to follow him based on the man blocking scheme, he’d knock the offensive lineman next to him off course.
He then would need to try to fight through or around the defender who was now in his space to get to his blocking responsibility, which is the linebacker.
The easiest example to see how this works is to talk about the defensive end.
The end would line up head-up on the offensive tackle.
On this play, the offensive tackle would have man blocking responsibilities for the defensive end, while the offensive guard would have man blocking responsibilities on the Sam linebacker.
At the snap, the defensive end would quickly slant to his right, going through the B gap -- between the guard and tackle.
The tackle would have to follow the end, based on his man blocking responsibilities.
This would result in one of two things -- both of which were good for the defense.
In both of these cases, the guard wouldn't be able to get to the Sam linebacker in time to make a successful block.
That’d free up the Sam to make a big play.
As you can see from the description and illustrations, the slant and angle defensive scheme posed a big problem for man blocking schemes.
Offensive coaches needed to come up with a solution, and that solution was zone blocking.
With zone blocking, all the offensive linemen will work in tandem to block the defenders, rather than each lineman being responsible to block an individual defender.
Depending on the offensive play called, at least two offensive linemen will work together in their blocking scheme on each side of the field.
Some offensive linemen may still have only one blocking responsibility, again depending on the offensive play and defensive scheme being used.
What this does is result in a lot of double-team blocks at the line of scrimmage.
This gives a nice initial push at the point of attack to prevent defensive linemen from breaking free into the backfield.
On running plays, this is especially important.
The first stage of this example is the double team blocks.
In our example, the offense will have a fullback and running back in the backfield, a quarterback under center, and one tight end lined up to the right.
The defense counters with four defensive linemen, as well as the Sam linebacker lining up in tight toward the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, the center is responsible for blocking the nose tackle lined up head-up on him.
The tight end is responsible for kicking out the Sam linebacker.
The fullback is responsible for picking up the defensive end on the left side of the field.
The guard and tackle on each side of the center will combine for the zone blocking double teams.
On the left side of the line, they'll double team the defensive tackle. On the right side, they'll double team the defensive end.
What you'll see in this illustration is that there’s no set blocking responsibility for either the Mike or Will linebackers.
You might think this is a poor design, as it’d allow the linebackers to roam free just as they did with the man blocking scheme.
But here comes the beauty of the zone blocking scheme.
The next step in the zone blocking scheme deals directly with how to block these two linebackers -- the Will and the Mike, in our example.
This is referred to as the second level of the defense.
The responsibility of blocking these two players will land with either the offensive tackles or the offensive guards.
One of these players on each side of the field will come off their initial double team block to get to the second level and pick up the Will and the Mike, respectively.
Which player comes off the initial double team block will depend on where the defensive lineman is lined up and where the initial push goes.
Again, the zone blocking scheme will start with the offensive tackle and guards combining for a double team block at the line of scrimmage, followed by one of these linemen peeling off to block a second-level linebacker.
Now let's zero in on the right side of the field to illustrate the example of which offensive lineman will peel off to block the Mike linebacker.
In this case, the defensive end is shaded to the outside shoulder of the right offensive tackle.
Where the defensive end goes -- and how the offensive linemen double team him -- will determine which offensive lineman blocks the Mike.
If the defensive end stays to the outside (through the C gap), then the offensive tackle will stay on him while the offensive guard peels off to pick up the Mike.
If the defensive end goes to the inside (through the B gap), then the offensive guard will stay on him while the offensive tackle peels off to pick up the Mike.
The zone blocking scheme allows the offensive linemen to take a wait-and-see approach with blocking, allowing the play to develop before determining who’ll block the linebacker on their side of the field.
For the zone blocking scheme to work properly, there are some keys that offensive linemen need to follow.
First, the linemen who are double team blocking in tandem must stay hip-to-hip.
This will close any holes between the linemen and prevent defenders from busting through them.
Second, the offensive linemen must keep their shoulders square. This will allow them both to peel off successfully to the second level.
Third, the offensive linemen must keep their eyes on the linebacker.
If they lose sight of him even for a minute, it’ll delay their ability to pick him up on that second-level block.
This could ultimately lead to catastrophe.
Fourth, the offensive linemen must know which one will stay on the defender and which one will peel off to pick up the linebacker.
This takes some work and some practice, but they'll be able to easily pick it up over time.
The zone blocking scheme is a great way to counter any defensive play that might be called.
It provides a lot of advantages for offensive linemen, no matter what defensive play is called.
While it’s a little more complicated to teach and learn than the man blocking scheme, it isn't too difficult that it’d be hard for younger players to learn.
The earlier you teach the zone blocking scheme to your players, and the more often you practice it, the easier it’ll be for them to master it.