Steelers offensive linemen in the zone at training camp
July 31, 2013 4:00 PM
Defensive end Ziggy Hood fights off a block by guard Mike Golic Jr. Monday at training camp. The Steelers are introducing a zone-blocking scheme this season under new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr.
The Bearded Lady: Bonnie Liska concentrates on making a catch Sunday during the Steelers women's training camp at Saint Vincent College near Latrobe.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There are videos on the Internet of Alex Gibbs detailing the intricacies of the zone-blocking scheme he made famous for those who have a spare six or 10 hours.
Or, you could allow Jack Bicknell Jr. to explain it in capsule form over the next few minutes. He is the Steelers' new offensive line coach, and he has coached a zone-blocking scheme, most recently in Kansas City.
The Steelers long have used a power-blocking philosophy with double-teams and specific holes assigned for runners to hit. A zone-blocking philosophy uses more of a flow of blockers to the right or left without specific defensive players assigned for them to block. They cut off the backside (away from the flow) -- often with the cut block that has so annoyed defensive players -- and block whomever is in front of them. The back looks for daylight wherever it might appear and cuts it up, cuts it back or heads around the corner.
Save that previous paragraph for future reference. Now, here is Bicknell on zone-blocking in a nutshell:
"It's basically, exactly what it says. [Blockers] are going to go to an area, primarily. The philosophy behind the play is that the running back can hit it in a lot of different areas, depending on what the blocking scheme is.
"The reason I like it is, if you have a running play and the defense knows how to fit it and where the ball is going, it's tough in this league in my opinion, to be successful with that.
"But, hopefully, with the outside zone, you're spreading the whole field, similar to a zone-read type of concept in college -- of course we don't want to run the quarterback. How can we spread the field and at least make it hard for them to fit? Here comes the safety, he doesn't know exactly where to fit -- 'if I fit too far outside he may cut it up, if I fit in here, he may get around the edge.'
"Those are the things that are exciting to me. The philosophy is we want to try to cut the backside, cut off the pursuit there, run guys on the front side and, hopefully, there are some seams for the running back."
One difference for Bicknell with the Steelers is they will keep the power-blocking scheme as well, using the double teams when they need to be used. They have big enough linemen, versatile enough and quick enough he believes to do both. One reason the Steelers did not pursue Max Starks again when he became a free agent is they did not think he was athletic enough to run the zone-blocking scheme.
Running backs have thrived in zone-blocking schemes. The Denver Broncos have been running the zone since the mid-1990s when Gibbs was their line coach, and it did not seem to matter who ran behind it, he was successful. Terrell Davis rushed for 2,008 yards one season. When he was hurt, someone named Olandis Gary ran for 1,159 yards in 12 games as a rookie. Mike Anderson was next and so on and so forth.
Mike Shanahan, the head coach of those Denver teams, selected Alfred Morris of Florida Atlantic in the sixth round for the Washington Redskins last year. Morris, running behind a zone-blocking scheme, set a Redskins record with 1,613 yards rushing.
Any doubt that Le'Veon Bell might like the new zone scheme with the Steelers?
"You have to have enough speed to threaten them, that's the big thing," Bicknell said of the backs running behind the zone blocks. "You don't have to be a 4.2 guy. You just have to have enough speed to threaten the outside, to make them think 'Hey, he could get around the edge,' and I think we have that.
"Then it's vision and toughness. It's not a sideways play, it's a downhill play if you run it right. What I like the best is when everybody thinks we're going outside and then we hit it right down the center of the field. That makes it tough for the defender."
Simply put, the back reads the tight end's block on the end defender. If he hooks him inside, the back runs outside. If he doesn't, the back cuts inside.
"It's kind of our job to make the reads clean for the running back, and then try to get that backside pursuit cut down, so that they can't make the play," Bicknell said of his linemen.
Holding off that backside pursuit often means a cut block, which is an offensive linemen diving at the lower legs of a defensive player. Those receiving that block hate it because they believe it carries a higher rate for a knee injury. Recall the angry response by the Steelers to Baltimore's use of the cut and chop blocks in the 2011 season opener, won by the Ravens, 35-7.
"Yes, there will be cut blocks," Bicknell said. "But it's not all the time you want to cut it. Sometimes, if you stay up, you can actually run people by the running back. So, he's running, you're blocking him and the running back can cut right off your butt."
If defensive players don't like it, said guard Ramon Foster, too bad. "We love that. There's defensive guys now who cut us when we pull. If we can give that favor back, more power to us."
The new zone-blocking scheme is popular with the linemen.
"It adds a dynamic to us," Foster said. "When you're doing power plays the entire game and they know what's coming, they can stack the box or anchor down. With this outside zone, it keeps them on their toes, keeps them honest, and it opens up to what we can do best. We're still a power team, it's just the outside zone caters to what we do most."
The Steelers signed cornerback Ryan Steed of Furman and tight end John Rabe of Minnesota and released defensive tackle Omar Hunter of Florida and cornerback Nigel Malone of Kansas State.