by Ben Muth
One week after a suffering a one-sided loss to the Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers came back and beat down the Oakland Raiders. The offensive line was decent if unremarkable, and the Steelers cruised to a 35-3 win. Rather than go into great detail about Sunday's impressive but ultimately dull game against Oakland, I'd like to explore in depth one concept: the Inside Zone. First, a few quick thoughts on Sunday's game:
- Jonathan Scott is not the answer at left tackle. I understand that you may not be able to get anyone this late in the season. At the very least though, Pittsburgh will need to adjust the scheme to protect Scott, and I'm not sure if the rest of the offensive line can shoulder that responsibility.
- Chris Kemoeatu did not look healthy, even before he left the game. I think that Pittsburgh would be best served to start the healthiest two of the four guards (Kemoeatu, Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, and Doug Legursky) and let the other guys rest and heal. I haven't seen much difference in the play of any of the four, so they might as well play the guys that are functioning at full capacity.
- Flozell Adams is nowhere near as washed up as some people are claiming. Having had the benefit of watching Doug Free some this year, I think it was more Free being ready than Adams being done.
- Maurkice Pouncey played better this week than he did against the Browns despite being banged up.
With that out of the way, we can get to the focus of this week's article. I'm going to break down the basic Inside Zone concept versus the most common defensive front. Note I said concept, not play. There are a bunch of different plays off this concept -- too many to mention -- but we can get the broad strokes of what most of them try to accomplish. For the purpose of the article, the play described will always be a single-back formation, with a single tight end lined up to the right. Also, the play will always go to the right as I'm describing it.
A 4-3 over defense is a 4-3 defense (four down linemen, three linebackers) with the two defensive tackles shaded towards the strength. This means you have a backside nose tackle, and a strong-side three-technique. We'll start outside with the play-side tackle and tight end (wide receivers won't be discussed because they never block anybody anyway). The tackle and tight end are going to double-team the defensive end up to the Sam (strongside) linebacker. This is a block that should get some vertical movement.
The key is for both guys to be able to block the down linemen while looking at the linebacker. If you can do that, you'll be able to stay on the double team for much longer, before someone peels off for the linebacker. In an Over defense, either the defensive end or the linebacker usually will have outside contain. If it's the defensive end, he will fight hard to get across the tight end's face and maintain his leverage. That means the linebacker will be free to shoot a gap and try to blow the play up in the backfield.
Once the tackle feels that defensive end really fight outside, he needs to be ready to come off and pick up the Sam at any time. If the Sam linebacker has contain, the block actually gets easier. That's because the Sam is forced to sort of slow-play the run. He can't shoot any gaps, because of the possibility the running back could bounce it outside. Since the Sam has to wait to see where the running back goes, the offensive players can stay on the double team for a long time and drive the defensive end into the linebackers' lap.
|Figure 1: Inside Zone|
The right guard has the hardest and most critical block of the play. He has to stick his helmet on the outside number of the three-technique and move him somewhere (whether it's off the line of scrimmage or wide doesn't really matter). Simply put, he has to win. This may be the most common running play in football, and the 4-3 Over is the most common defense. This matchup is why Steve Hutchinson and Albert Haynesworth got such lucrative contracts. If you have a guard that can control a three-technique by himself, if you can gain a lot of yards on this play. If you have a three-technique that has to be double-teamed, it's going to be tough to run the Inside Zone.
There really isn't much finesse to this block either. When I was in school, a younger player asked which techniquehe should use. My offensive line coach got a slight grin and said "GATA technique. Get After That Ass. It's the only way to do it." Hilarious coach-speak aside, he was right. This isn't a technique block, it's a power block.
The center and the left guard have a block that is probably just as crucial but gets a little less love because there are two of them. They have to double-team the nose tackle to the Mike (middle) linebacker. Except in goal line situations, you never straight double-team a guy, you always are also working to a linebacker. This is another block where you would like vertical movement, but with some of these 330-pound nose tackles, that isn't likely. If you have a bigger guy, often you just want to get him to start moving on his own. Once he gets going, you push him as hard as you can in that direction -- and hold the crap out of him inside. The nice thing about those really big nose tackles is that they have a hard time stopping and changing direction once they get going. Of course, you still have the Mike linebacker to worry about.
The running back is the key to getting the Mike linebacker blocked. It's up to the him to press into the line of scrimmage as deep as possible and not make his cut until the last moment. If he does this, the Mike should get caught in the double team, or in the mess of his own defenders. Of course, the running back can't press the line if there is any penetration. That's why it's important all offensive linemen keep their opponents on the line of scrimmage.
The backside tackle has the easiest block on the play. His job is to go straight up and block the Will (weakside) linebacker. Once he gets there, he wants to put his facemask right between the guy's numbers, because the offensive tackle will have no idea where the running back has decided to run by this point. His best bet is to cover his man and move his feet when the linebacker tries to escape.
It's important that he's is very deliberate in his movements to get there, however. He doesn't want to be in too big of a hurry to get there -- if the backside defensive end does crash across his face on a stunt, it is his responsibility to wash him down as far as he can to create a cutback lane. This is actually where a lot of big inside zone runs come from. The defensive end crashes down, and the tackle washes him way down across the formation. The blitzing linebacker is blitzing outside where the defensive end was originally lined up, and now there is a huge crease for the running back to cut back.
The observant among you may notice that the backside defensive end is not blocked unless there is a stunt. Well, there are a couple of ways to deal with this. First, you can use a slice concept. That means either have a fullback, a second play-side tight end, or, in hours of extreme desperation, a wide receiver hold off the backside defensive end. Or you can just line up in a two tight end set and have the backside tight end block him. And finally, there is always the bootleg. Whether you throw out of it or you have mobile QB who can keep it, if you boot out enough it will keep d-ends honest -- and out of the play. In college, you just run the zone read.
That's the basic blocking scheme of the play. The genius of the play is that you get two double teams, and it forces the defense to be extremely disciplined in their run fits. All it takes is for one defender to lose gap control, and the running back can hit it for a big gain. It's a scheme that is really simple to install and run against any front, but it is incredibly difficult to contain. Unless you got a war daddy at three-technique, in which case, it's good to be a defensive coordinator.