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Zone Blocking in the Option Defenseby: Dan Weil
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For teams that run an option offense, zone blocking is often a key to making it work effectively. We talked with Brian Hughes, offensive coordinator at C.W. Post College in Brookville, NY, for a detailed explanation of the strategy and X’s and O’s of zone option blocking.
Hughes emphasized that he didn’t come up with these schemes by himself. He worked off the ideas of Jim McNally, offensive line coach of the Buffalo Bills; Doug Marrone, offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints; George DeLeone, offensive coordinator at Temple University; and Bill Muir, offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“The initial teaching is zone play itself,” Hughes said. “We began with our quarterback under center and then taught the technique to the front, running a split back zone. The reason it’s good to start in this way is that you’re taking young offensive linemen who are new to the concept and teaching them the basics of zone blocking.
“You have to work up from man blocking. Teach players how to block a guy by himself and then work in cooperation with other players. We want to take the technique that a lineman uses blocking man and translate that into cooperation/combination blocks.”
So first you must teach basic zone blocking. “After we’ve mastered the zone, we introduce the double option zone read – some call it the ride and read,” Hughes said. “You’re reading the defense just like you’re under the center, only now you’re five yards off the line. Instead of reading the front side end, now you’re reading the backside.
“The quarterback will react the same way as in a generic option. If the defensive end plays the dive, the quarterback pulls the ball. If the defensive end chases the back, we’ll pull it, and the quarterback runs the football. It’s the same thing in the shotgun as under center.”
And once your players can handle the double read, you can add in the speed option – the front end of the play. “By teaching the double option, you get the zone read and the front side speed option,” Hughes said.
Quarterback Player & Backside Tackle
“Throughout that, there are two more complicated points. You must be able to account for the quarterback player, since it’s only a double option. Second, it’s a more time consuming concept for offensive linemen and receivers to block because of that quarterback player. You must train the backside tackle to handle the quarterback player. The only assignment that’s different in a zone read than a regular zone is that offensive tackle.
“Teaching the backside tackle takes hours and hours. You have to show him all the different angles. He has to be athletic enough to block a linebacker that has a vision of where he wants to go, and the offensive tackle doesn’t know where the ball is. He has to recognize where the ball is through reading the defender, so that’s time consuming. Now you’re ready for the zone triple option. It’s like a zone read – you’re reading the backside defensive end.
“Some teams put the receiver in motion or begin with two backs,” Hughes said. “The quarterback is going to his right, reads the end and seats the ball in the belly of the back. It’s the same situation where the rest of the offensive line blocks with zone concepts. The backside tackle reads.
“We make a decision in the game plan about how we will block the pitch player. Assuming the quarterback player is blocked by the tackle, then the option is to block the next man out. Receivers have a rule that if it’s a double option, they block on their man. If it’s a triple option, they leave the guy on them to go to the safety.”
Bottom line: “We want to leave one defender to cover two players. The quarterback runs to the inside shoulder of that defender. If the defender comes to him, that’s his pitch key. And if the defender moves to play the pitch, then he tucks it and runs.”
The Blocking Scheme
(See Diagrams 1-4)
Here’s how the blocking scheme can work from start to finish. “You begin with basic reads on a 4-2 defense,” Hughes said. “Say the offense has four wides, two by two. In a 4-2, there will be only one safety to cover over the top. The quarterback pulls in according to the side we want to check. We may want to go to the one technique or the three technique. Depending on which side we go to, the quarterback calls one WR from the other side into motion, and that man becomes the pitch man. “When the receiver gets even to the other running back, the quarterback snaps the ball. Once the ball is snapped, the running back takes the drop step and comes across the face of the quarterback. The quarterback will seat the ball in his stomach. This is to the three technique tackle – to the right.
Diagram 1. Triple Option Shovel
Diagram 2. Reading the DE
Diagram 3. Left Action Pass
Diagram 4. Shovel/Left Action Pass
“The right tackle blocks the defensive end. The guard blocks the defensive tackle in the three technique. Because it’s a zone, everybody is stepping in the same direction. The center goes toward the three technique in combination with the guard. They are responsible for the defensive tackle and the front side inside linebacker.
“The left offensive guard blocks the defense tackle on him, usually with an inside shade. The backside tackle will work with the guard to go through the B gap to make sure there is no line stunt. He is looking for the quarterback man, who is the backside inside linebacker.
“That’s if the defensive end is bending. If the defensive end respects the dive, then the linebacker will stay flat. The backside tackle has to go through the B gap regardless. But he also must stay square, because if the defensive end crosses his face, he must take him. If not, and the defensive end goes behind him or upfield, he’s responsible for the linebacker inside.
“The quarterback is responsible for the last guy. If that guy bends toward the dive, the quarterback pulls it. If he goes toward the quarterback, he hands off to the dive. As for the slot receiver that’s left, we leave one man unblocked, because it’s a triple option. So he would continue down to the safety. The No. 1 wide receiver would block the cornerback.”
That same blocking scheme works for any scenario of the triple option. “It gives you the opportunity to put the confidence of a well coached defense on trial. You should be left with two guys on one,” Hughes said. Thanks to the potential of the quarterback running the ball, “11 defenders have to account for 11 offensive players instead of 10,” he noted. “It gives us a lot of motion and forces the defense to play balanced. The blocking rules are consistent except for the backside tackle.”
Then there’s the shovel option, or inverted option as some call it. “Instead of the quarterback faking to the running back across his face, the guy comes in motion from the right, and the quarterback attacks to the right. The quarterback is between the running back on the left and the pitchman on the right.
“Now we’ll read the defensive end, and everything is blocked the same. If the defensive end plays down on the inside guy, then the quarterback continues out and runs the regular option. If the end plays toward the quarterback, you shovel underneath to the back who was on the left at the beginning. Up front, we’ll incorporate a little of a down scheme because we pulled the backside guard, but everything else is the same.”
Hughes noted that you don’t need to use any running backs in the play. “You can have no backs because you’re putting the receivers in motion. The blocking remains the same. You can do it from the spread look. You have the opportunity to get your faster receivers the ball through a shovel pass, rather than just throwing the ball down the field. It’s an answer for the blitz, and once it’s running, you have incredibly explosive play action possibilities.”
Hughes gave some hints about play action blocking schemes. “You incorporate big-on-big in the pass protection. The linebackers are accounted for by the backfield fakes. The key is doing a great job of selling the run up front by keeping your pad level low and using an aggressive approach to pass protection. You must convincingly make it look like run blocking. Once your offensive linemen hear play action, every one of them wants to put his shoulder pads up, so you must stress this continuously.”
As for blocking technique, Hughes teaches it progressively from an original man-to-man base. “Within that there are only certain places where the defensive linemen can line up. You need to give your offensive linemen the opportunity to block any combination. The defensive guy can be head up on us, inside or outside. We have three angles of departure to deal with those set-ups.
“First is a lead step into the line of scrimmage. If the guy is head up on you, you go very aggressively into the line of scrimmage. We use that on a head-up man when it’s a quick hitter situation or short yardage or goal line situation.
“Second, if a guy is tightly aligned to the inside or outside of you, you can’t step into the line, because that would only get half of him. In that case, we’d want to take a flat step to get him square to us again.
“Third, if the guy is wider, then even a flat step is not enough. Take a drop step or bucket step. We want to be able to open the hips and take an angle that will prevent him from beating us to the edge inside or outside.
“Within each of those three cross boundaries, if you’re covering a linemen in a zone concept, you’ll use one of these three angles, depending on where your help is coming from. If you’re uncovered, you’ll incorporate a drop step or bucket step. A big selling point of the system is that it translates over boundaries.”
And what about the stance of your offensive linemen? “We use a slightly staggered two-point and three-point stance,” Hughes said. “Our stagger depends on the side of the line. If it’s the right hand side, then we use a right hand stance. If it’s the left side, then we use the left hand. If we have a player that’s right-handed and can’t put his left hand down, we let him use his right hand and a more balanced stance.
“We want our heels on the ground and want great flexibility in the knees, ankles and hips. We have to have a balanced stance that lets us move in any direction with ease. When you step with one foot or the other, you have to get your weight on that other leg without being discovered. So we work on doing it with the hamstring or butt, instead of the feet.”
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