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Football University - Zone Blocking

Welcome to another installment of MHR's Football University.  Today we'll go over the central identity of the Broncos offense: the "zone block" system.  It is one of the least understood systems in football, and the techniques employed in the system are misunderstood to the point of absurdity.

For instance, are you aware that zone blocking is not just a "run blocking" system?  Did you know that zone blocking is not used on every down by zb teams?  Or did you know that zone blocking can not be run without the controversial "cut block"?

We'll discuss the meaning of the zone block, as well as the techniques employed.  We'll explain why some people think the techniques are dirty, as well as why the techniques are safe and approved from the NFL all the way down to the high school level.

Zone blocking is a succesful system and is gaining adherents in the NFL every year.  Click "read more" below to learn about this facinating concept.

What is a zone block?

Zone blocking is a different way of approaching the jobs of the offensive linemen.  On almost every OL, the idea is to match up with an opposing defensive lineman and to block him.

In the zone block (which we'll call "zb", not to be confused with "zone blitz") each OL stays shoulder to shoulder and starts to move in the direction of a run play.  (We'll discuss pass zone blocking a little later).  They will either block an opposing player 1:1 or 2:1.  On the 2 to 1 blocks one of the OLs will break off of the block to go to what is called "the second level".  Here, a LB is blocked.  That is the simple idea behind the zb.

Why is zb so special?

For several reasons.

  1. You don't need the big, tough guys found from the most elite colleges high in the draft to build a good group.  You need smart, fast, agile guys.  This makes your line cheaper, and easier to get.  This also means you can spend high picks on other needs.
  2. All teams (even Denver) train against man blocking schemes throughout the season.  Very little training is done at the player level against zb.  (Coaches can adjust for the zb, but it causes players to use tactics they aren't used to using.  For instance, many 1 gap DTs need to switch to 2 gap, or have to learn not to pursue tackles in confined space.  See the recent University article on gaps and techniques).
  3. The cut block (which we'll discuss in a moment) scares defensive players for two reasons.  One, it hurts to get hit on the thigh (where the common peronial nerve is the target).  Two, defensive players are not used to being taken to the ground, and this is a common occurance in the zb.
  4. It makes runs hard to read.  Inside runs do not have a specific route for the RB.  He "one cuts" a target of opportunity, making defensive plays harder to prepare (more on "one cut" in a moment).
  5. It makes RBs easier to get.  You don't need the most expensive, high round picks.  You just need a "one cut" runner.
I hear Denver "chop blocks".  What is a chop block?

Denver, like all other teams, will have penalties.  Denver doesn't chop block more or less then any other team.  What Denver does do purposely is "cut block".  Chop blocking is illegal and dangerous.  In fact, it is illegal because it is dangerous.

Chop blocking is when one player blocks an opposing player above the waist, while another player blocks the player below the waist.  It is dangerous because the opposing player will brace himself one way or the other, and the blocks are pushing the player in two directions and can injure the opposing player's knee(s).

Chop blocking and cut blocking are different blocks, but sometimes you will hear the two terms confused with each other.  Chop blocking has nothing to do with zone blocking.

Ok, then what is a cut block?

A cut block is any cut below the waist.  Some people think that cut blocks are inherently dangerous or dirty.  They are not.  There are plenty of teams (even at the high school level, such as the high school that I was defensive coordiantor for most of my coaching days) that use cut blocks.  Blocking below the knees is both dangerous and illegal.  It is not a part of zone blocking, and not a part of fair play in football.

Blocking into a player's thigh is a critical component of zone blocking, and every zone blocking team does it multiple times per game.  Interestingly enough, cut blocking is done by every team in every game, whether they zone block or not.

Remember that in a zb the OL is moving together in the direction of the run play.  What if the defensive line is moving in the same direction?  That's right; you can't square up and block a guy slanting the same direction you are moving in.  So the only way to block the opposing player is to lower your head (you should already be running with a low center of gravity) and put your helmet in front of the player's thigh.  You can tackle from the side or the front so long as your helmet is in front of the opposing player when the contact happens.  You then drive your shoulder pad into the opposing player's thigh as hard as you can.  This should bring down the opponent.

What's the issue of "dirty play" by Denver?

It's a shame I have to waste time discussing this.  The NFL has ruled that the cut blocks (as used by Denver) are safe, effective, and fair.  But if you don't like Denver and think you know better than the NFL (who has to consider liability issues), than you might ignore this point.  The fact is, the biggest complainers in the past are now using the same system as Denver, while trying to claim they use it "differently" than Denver.  There is no "difference" in the required cut block against a 1 gap DL slanting in the direction of a run play.  All zb teams will execute a block to the thigh in this situation.  For Denver to be "different" they would have to go for the knees or below the knees.  If they did this they would be penalized.  The fact is, Every team cut blocks the same way.  There is no "different" cut block.

Anyone who has taken either PPCT or defensive tactics in law enforcement is aware of the common peronial nerve.  It is a target for batons or knee strikes and is considered a safe place to strike without causing an injury.  The NFL also recognizes the upper thigh as a safe and legal (meaning "fair in the NFL") place to aim a block.

For Denver to play dirty or outside of the rules they would have to aim the block at a player's knees or below the knees.  This would not only be dangerous and against the rules, but a terrible way to block.  Anyone who has actualy played the game (and I'm not talking about Madden '07, which I haven't messed with) knows that the center of gravity you would have to lower yourself to would put you on your own knees.  You would also likely miss your block because you have further down to go to get to your block.

As an issue of "rules" or "NFL legality" the cut block is a settled matter.  It has been reviewed and challenged many times by players and teams who do not like to be hurt (and the cut block does hurt).  The NFL (which has a reputation above all other sports for ensuring safety in the game, and also wants to avoid liability) has ruled the cut block as used by Denver and other zb teams to be a safe, effective, and fair method.


Ok, back to the action...

As an issue of ethics, a thing can be inside the rules but still be unethical.  The best arguments against cut blocking as used by Denver fall into two areas.

  • Is it ethical to use a method that uses pain to gain an advantage,
  • Is there a higher probability of injury?
Pain, and the threat of pain, is a part of football.  A WR that goes over the middle has a reasonable expectation that a LB or SAF is going to hit him as hard as possible to cause a fumble.  So long as the hit is legal, the pain inflicted is an expectation of the sport.

As to the frequency of injuries, there is no evidence that Denver or any other team causes more injuries because of their method of cut blocking.  Some people will point to players who have been injured in games against Denver's OL.  But they leave out key information.

Players in Denver have made illegal blocks below the knees.  So has every other team.  To be intentional, a player would be ejected and or suspended.  In one of the most memorable cases, Igor Olshansky (SD) was penalized for attacking Tom Nalen (DEN) for what Igor thought was an illegal block.  The block was ruled illegal after the game by the NFL (and rightly so).  But it was also ruled unintentional.  Olshansky's actions (while understandable) were intentional.  As a matter of rules, what Nalen did was more serious.  As an issue of ethics, Olshansky acted with intent, while Nalen didn't.  Even though Nalen's action was unintentional, the result could have been catastrophic.  That is why he was fined.  But had his action been intentional he would have been ethicaly wrong as well.  

Denver has not been determined to be using blocks to the knees or below the knees as a part of their "dirty system", for which they would be sanctioned at the team level.  Denver has not been fined or penalized at the team level, and (since Denver switched to the zb scheme) an OL or TE has not been found to have executed an intentional block to or below the knees on a zone block play.  People will continue to point to injuries that have happened, but you could just as easily point to the number of players injured in any type of scheme or method to try and make a point.  With liability as an issue, it would not pay for the NFL to allow a method that can lead to serious injury, and the NFL has spoken.

Now that the bs is out of the way, what is a "one cut" runner?

Denver doesn't need the best RBs in the world.  They need a zb OL and a one cut RB.  A "1C" is a runner (he can be either powerful or fast) who starts to run in one direction, and when he sees a hole open up in the defense he cuts back to that opening and runs in a straight line.  This goes against the instincts of most players.

Some RBs "juke", which means they fake side to side movements, and use agility to gain yards.  Other players commit right away and dedicate themselves to a play or a direction.

But 1Cs must have patience.  They must be able to run towards the direction of the play, have the vision to not commit until the see an opening, and the discipline to make "one cut" towards the hole and to stick with it.  They must also have the confidence to pick a hole, since the coordinator doesn't pick it for him.  (There is an exception, but this is a little more comlicated.  See the link at the end of the article for more on "outside and inside" zones.  For now, let's stick with the basics.)

Another key for a 1C is the ability to keep one's legs moving during a tackle.  This is because most RBs like to spin or juke (or use other moethods), but a 1C usualy faces tackles in confined spaces where other methods don't work (confined because the second level is full of OLs, not just LBs).  I would have made a terrible 1C.  I played rugby in college, and could not (for the life of me) keep running when my legs got wrapped.  I was already preparing myself to hit the ground.  Here again, the 1C does what does not come naturaly to most RBs.

Do zb teams zb every running play?

No.  On some quick penetration plays on short yardage (by either the RB or FB) the zb team can do either method (zb or common block) to fool the opposition.  On all other run plays the team can go either way to throw off the opposition.

How does zb work in a pass play?

When zone blocking methods are employed during a pass play, the method is called "zone locking".  A combination of man and zone locks are used in each pass play by a zb team (some players are assigned a man, while others are assigned a zone on the same play).  It is also a complex subject that deserves its own article.  Information on zone locking is in the link later in this article.


The best article on the net I have found for those of you who want to read more is here:

Many articles (including wikipedia and several other mainstream sites) have articles that use incorrect terminology or don't know the difference between a defensive tackle and a defensive end.  Bob Davie is considered an excellent Xs and Os coach (as his ESPN bio states), and the best conferences I've been to included his input.  He's a college football guy, but his material is always sound and he has terrific illustrations in his article.  He's an idol of mine when it comes to preparing defenses.


As always, fire away with any questions or comments.  I'll try to get to everything as long as the article is still on page one or two.

Go Broncos!