Getting a read on the situation
Patriots likely to utilize more zone schemes
The experience of linemen such as Logan Mankins (left), Matt Light (72), Dan Koppen (67), and Stephen Neal (61) will help the transition to zone blocking. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)
They sound like the unsuccessful result of a word jumble, anagrams gone awry -- on, play-side gap, second level. However, they are a rushing Rosetta stone, the key to deciphering one of the most effective run-blocking schemes in football, zone blocking.
As opposed to man blocking, where the play calls for a lineman or tight end to block a particular player, zone blocking forces them to make decisions about whom to block based on the defense's alignment before the snap, and then work in unison to keep defenders blocked.
The Patriots have both zone- and man-blocking plays in their offense, but this season fans could be seeing more zone plays. Running back Laurence Maroney, who is being counted upon to carry the load as a feature back following the departure of Corey Dillon, excelled in a zone-blocking scheme at the University of Minnesota. In his final season with the Golden Gophers, Maroney rushed for a school-record 1,464 yards. To maximize Maroney's potential, New England could zone in more often.
All teams have some form of zone blocking in their playbook, according to Boston College coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who ran the scheme in the NFL as the Green Bay Packers' offensive coordinator last year and as offensive line coach with the Atlanta Falcons in 2005. The Falcons and Denver Broncos are pure zone-blocking teams.
There are major differences between man and zone blocking, according to former Patriots guard John Hannah. The Hall of Famer, who never played in a zone scheme, said when he played, the blocking scheme gave the running back a choice of one or two holes on a play. In zone blocking, the hole could emerge anywhere along the line, which alters the way linemen block.
"[Zone blocking] is more the back is kind of sliding along and he's looking and he could go anywhere," said Hannah. "You're still getting into [the defender] and still pushing him, but you're not so much trying to drive him as staying into him and cutting him off. It's a whole different approach."
Jagodzinski, who in Atlanta worked with zone-blocking savant Alex Gibbs, the architect of Denver's scheme, said the primary advantage of zone blocking is the ability to create double-teams.
That's where "on, play-side gap, second level" comes in. They are the buzzwords for zone blocking, a three-rule progression for offensive linemen to follow.
"On" refers to the first responsibility of the lineman, which is to see if there is a defender lined up directly in front of him. If there is, this is his first block.
"Play-side gap" -- If there is not a defender lined up directly across the line of scrimmage from the lineman, his instructions are to block in the direction the play is going, double-teaming a defender on his play-side shoulder.
"Second level" -- Sometimes this is called "linebacker" because that's who most often is blocked at this point. While double-teaming a defender at the line of scrimmage, the linemen will keep their eyes on the next level of defenders, usually linebackers. One lineman will break off the double-team and block the linebacker.
"You've got to read the defense," said Patriots left guard Logan Mankins. "You don't know who you're going to end up on. In man, you know who you're going to end up on before the play starts."
The running back doesn't know where he'll end up, either. However, he must choose one hole decisively. Dance in the hole and you'll be ushered to the sideline.
"The back only has one cut," said Jagodzinski. "He's allowed to make one cut and then he has to get vertical and go get 4 yards. But 4 yards turns into 44 yards if you're patient."
The zone scheme slows defenders, forcing them to remain disciplined or risk overpursuit. "It's hard for the defense to read because it gives you so many cutback lanes that the defense really doesn't know where it's going," said Maroney.
The same principle makes zone-blocked plays effective in the use of the play-action pass.
When executed properly, zone blocking is difficult to defend. The Falcons have led the NFL in rushing each of the last three seasons and the Broncos have had six backs (Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, and Tatum Bell) rush for more than 1,000 yards since 1998. The redoubtable running play that is the backbone of the Indianapolis Colts' rushing attack, the stretch play, is another example of zone blocking.
So, why don't more teams use it?
While zone blocking is potent, it's also difficult to master. It requires athletic, agile linemen who can secure two blocks in a short period. It also demands communication and coordination among the linemen. If one leaves too early for a double-team or both leave a defender to double-team a linebacker, the running back is likely picking turf out of his facemask.
Fortunately, the Patriots have both athleticism and experience on the line. Outside of right tackle, the team has had the same players in the same spots for three years now -- Matt Light (left tackle), Mankins (left guard), Dan Koppen (center), and Stephen Neal (right guard).
"We've played enough plays together where we know what to expect from each other," said Mankins.
Still, Jagodzinski said the most successful zone-blocking teams are the ones that do it full time.
"You have to make a commitment to it," he said. "It's not something you dabble in a little bit here and there, in my opinion. If you want to be good at it, you have to major in it."
Neal said people shouldn't get caught up in whether the team is man blocking or zone blocking. "The game has evolved so much it's not as easy as just man or zone," said Neal. "Everything has elements of zone and man."
Jagodzinski agreed. He said regardless of the blocking scheme, the desired result is the same.
"It's just a different technique," said Jagodzinski. "Blocking is blocking."
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com