Understanding Zone Blocking and Florida State's Offensive Line

Today I will try to teach you something about offensive line play.  Specifically, I will discuss Florida State's offensive line.  In this article, I'll cover the questions "why zone blocking?", "what is zone blocking?", and "what type of players do we need to run a zone system?"  In future editions, I'll cover specific plays and the passing game.

First, you may have heard that Florida State is primarily a zone blocking team.  This is a departure from the days of Mark Richt and those who preceded him, who favored "man blocking" schemes.

Zone Blocking developed as a response to the increasingly athletic defensive linemen seen over the past 20 years.  These defensive linemen would kill plays before they even began by achieving penetration in the backfield.  The more traditional style, "man blocking", required players to block a specific player, often one of those elite defensive linemen (think FSU beating on Kansas in the Meadowlands in the '93 Championship year).    It was very difficult for teams to find five offensive linemen who could man up and block their specified player, particularly when that assignment was shifting before the snap and running in all different crazy directions after the snap.  To do so would require exceptionally strong, smart, and athletic offensive linemen, and those type players do not come around too often.  As a counter, coaches began to devise ways for their players to deal with these freak defensive linemen.  Instead of blocking each lineman one on one, what if the entire offensive line blocked the defensive line, functioning as a unit?  Instead of each lineman having to adjust to the pre-snap movements, stinting, and post-snap twisting and stunting, the offensive line adjusted as a unit?  What if linemen worked as a unit instead of chasing around these freaks that teams were now employing at defensive tackle?  Welcome to zone blocking; the thinking man's way to block.  Again, the entire goal is to eliminate penetration.


Before I get into the mechanics of zone blocking, I want to establish a few philosophical goals.  Think of these goals as Florida State's end, and zone blocking as the means the 'Noles will use to reach that end. 

According to the father of zone running, Alex Gibbs, the man who designed the Denver Broncos running game with Terrell Davis (orchestrating one of the biggest super bowl upsets in the modern era), the entire key to the running game is to stay positive:

WE WANT NO NEGATIVES!  We look at pass as yes/ no, big/ little, big plays and zero plays (w/ negatives).  Out of a certain number of passes, we expect a certain number of failures.  That is the nature of the passing game.

But the run game the exact opposite.  We want NO negatives.  We do not want to run plays that are big/ little, even at the expense of big plays, we do not want it.  We want the system where even the "bad" play gains something.  The entire objective is to stay out of 3rd and long.  We throw out the run plays with which we cannot consistently avoid negatives.

Screw averages.  We want medians.  The back might average 7 yards per carry, but how often did he get stuffed and put us in 3rd and 10, causing a turnover.

And we do this by eliminating penetration and running a limited number of plays to perfection.

Gibbs was way ahead of his time.  NFL and college teams are now spending a lot of money to reach the same conclusion that Gibbs reached:  it's not what you average, it's what you consistently gain.  It is better to have a back average 4 yards per carry with minimal carries going for 0 or negative yards, than it is to have a back average 6 yards per carry but attain that average on a mix of long and bust runs.  This concept of staying out of unfavorable down and distance (2nd and 8+, 3rd and 5+, etc) is known as "leverage".  No matter the talent of the team, we now know that disaster is hugely correlated with poor leverage situations for the offense (high leverage situations for the defense).  By avoiding those situations, the offense can play with favorable leverage, and in turn, the frustrated and tired defense will begin to take unnecessary risks, allowing big plays.  I am not saying that big plays are not important, but rather that they will come if you build the proper foundation for them.  The big plays are a combination of execution and alignment, NOT design.  All of Florida State's base running plays are designed to go the distance if the defense gives a favorable alignment and the execution is good.  FSU does not run big/little running plays (outside of some situational stuff).    Bill Connelly has done some of the best publicly available work in the field for the college game, and I suggest you peruse his work here.  What causes offenses to fall into unfavorable leverage downs?  Penetration, of course!  And what do we want?  No Negatives. 

I know that you grew up on yards per carry, but I am here to tell you that it is time to change.  Know why Emmit Smith was more effective than Barry Sanders?  Consistency.  Barry often had the better yards per carry, but Emmit never lost yards and never put his team in a bad situation.

Florida State runs as a team.  The running game is not solely a function of the running back and the offensive line, bur rather every player has a crucial role in the successful execution of the rushing attack.  Running is a mentality.  The offensive line coach must be able to get on the wide receivers and their coach.  The head coach must allow the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator to get the wide receivers blocking.  The wide receivers coach must be on the same page, and the ultimate effect is that the receivers must be a desirous participant in the run game.  The quarterback is also a huge part of the scheme, carrying out fakes which allow designated defenders to stay unblocked but at the same time out of the play.

I believe there are three important principles of zone running.  First, deny penetration.  Second, re-establish the line of scrimmage.  Third, render the playside linebacker ineffective.  The ultimate goal is to stretch the defense laterally, providing secure creases for the runner.


What is zone blocking ("ZB")? 

It's actually exactly what it sounds like.  Offensive linemen are looking to block zones instead of assigned men.  Each lineman, either by himself or in conjunction with an adjacent linemate must account for and block a designated space.  This is different from man blocking, in which each lineman must block a specified man.  Zone blocking is very socialist.  It it a team concept, not a collective individual concept.   With zone blocking, the lineman will advance to their designated area, and block any player in that area in an attempt to "win" the zone.  If the zone is initially empty, they will continue through their zone, possibly help out an adjacent lineman, or proceed to the 2nd level, (LB's and defensive backs).  You may find it useful to think of this in basketball terms, with zone and man defense.  The concept is for two adjacent linemen to come off in unison and attack a defensive lineman to the play side.  Unlike man blocking, where each player has an assigned man to block; zone blocking creates an initial double-team with two players blocking a single defensive lineman. This allows the offensive linemen to be very aggressive because they know they have help from their linemate..  It is this initial team that creates movement at the point of attack, and from which the runner will make his read and find the developing hole.. 

This is an image from an old Bob Davie article that no longer exists on ESPN.


The "W, M, and S" are the Weakside, Middle, and Strongside linebackers.  They are aligned in a traditional "under" front, which is similar to what Florida State runs.  You can see the backside guard and tackle double team the defensive tackle, while the playside guard and tackle double team the playside (right) defensive and.  It's almost impossible for those double teamed players to achieve meaningful penetration.

A double team, however, takes two players, and eventually, one of the offensive linemen will disengage (after the other double team partner has secured the doubled defender) to attack the linebacker.  Teamwork, experience, and trust are key here.  Again, back to the diagram:  


Davie has two good examples of this teamwork, which I have condensed into a single diagram. 


This seems simple enough, but being able to gauge when your doubling partner is in position to gain sole control of the target defender is not easy. 


The zone scheme is designed to create organized chaos at the LOS. The location of the running lanes are impossible for the D to predict from play to play. This variability strains the flexibility of every defensive system, making the location of run fits more difficult to predict and preparation more complex. It challenges the mental discipline of the defense, which is particularly difficult for college defenses, who often depend on athletic talent alone.  It increases the likelihood of an error leading to a large gain.  Fear of such errors can make the defense less aggressive and give the initiative to the O-line; or can make the defense too aggressive, allowing better cut back lanes for the diligent runner.  Just as QBs who are able to run through progressions are more successful in today's game than QBs who run a set play, the zone system gives a quality runner, the man with the best view of the action, decision making power to choose from multiple options dictated by his reads.  From PatsFans.


This youtube video is a pretty good explanation of some of these principles:


Zone blocking takes a specific type of offensive lineman

Ideally, you want a lineman who is 6'6 320lbs, stronger, faster, and smarter than anyone else.  Unfortunately, reality takes over, and we realize that there are probably only 7 or 8 men in the world who fit that bill and most of them play on Sundays.  (Bill Parcells calls this the planet theory).  From the remaining group of lineman, each probably have a few good traits and a few less desirable attributes.  The key with any system is determining which attributes are critical and which are not, and then focusing on exploiting a market inefficiency, if any.

What do we look for in an offensive lineman?  Let's take this from a speech by Alex Gibbs (legendary Zone Blocking coach of the Denver Broncos and one of the closest guys I've seen to Florida State line coach Rick Trickett in terms of technique and demeanor).:  (roughly transcribed from a video someone sent me)

Above all, we want guys who want play so bad they could die.  We want guys who can run, who are athletic, who have "recoverability", but who maybe lacks bulk and strength.  Maybe doesn't know what his body is about yet.  We want guys who are going to take advantage of that redshirt year. 

TACKLES:  Tall, length, maybe no basic strength, but he can run, and we're willing to let him add that power. 6'5 1/2" is usually the max we want.

GUARDS & CENTERS:  height and length doesn't mean ****.  Marginal height, but plays with great leverage.  "LOW WAISTED" (long torso short legs), with leverage under our bodies.  Healthier by not being heavy.   RARE for them to play early.  Nobody over 6'3".  My center must be football brilliant.

Very intelligent on the inside.  The "test score limit would SCARE YOU."  We make calls from the inside out (centers call guards, guards tell tackles what to do, tackles tell tight ends what to do.  Thus, there's a chain of decreasing responsibility)

No introverts for any position (communication.  Low power-distance culture guys between each other and the coach).

All of them must have the ability to step laterally while keeping their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage (or risk allowing penetration).

Injury history is very important.  don't want guys who miss games, because of the importance of continuity.  4 of the 5 usually get offseason surgery.  NO EGO.   INSIDE 3 must be brilliant.  huge amount of time is spent on these guys making decisions.  Guards must be able to decipher intricate details from the opponent's stance. 

But, there is a minimum threshold of strength that a guy must have.  Cannot have guys who get driven back.

Now, FSU played the youngest line in football last year, and that was effective thanks to Rick Trickett, the best offensive line coach in college football.  Our offensive line scheme is not designed for young kids, in fact, it's the opposite. It's an absolute testament to Trickett's coaching job that FSU's line did what they did last year.  In a normal recruiting year in which FSU will not count on freshmen to play the offensive line, we are looking for smart athletes.  Not big hulking slobs, but athletes.  If you'd balk at a recruit playing third base or left field for your company softball team, he's not the type we want.  And he needs to be smart; possessing both football intelligence and book smarts.  He must understand not only his assignment, but also the defense's alignment and tendencies.  That player must be able to correctly give and receive adjustments at the line.  Also important is his commitment to the system.  Even if his block makes little sense individually, he must be willing to do it because he understands it is but one piece in the puzzle that is the running game.  Strength bulk do not matter in a recruit, because we feel we can add that, and when we do, we want that kid to retain his athleticism (quickness and agility). 

Here is a Venn Diagram to illustrate the point. 


Again, last year Florida State was woefully undersized: 


This man is not a tight end!

That's Andrew Datko, freshman All-American Offensive Tackle.  He was 6'5 1/2", 270lbs soaking wet.  Now ideally we do not want to play a 270lb tackle, but last year did not leave FSU with an alternative.  We want him to play at about 290lbs.  Datko fit the bill, however, because he worked very hard, played through injury (separated shoulder), executed his assignment even when it seemed pointless, outquicked a lot of defensive ends, and played with great technique.

I'd be remiss if I didn't add this excerpt from Gibbs:

Your group and your chemistry is more important then your plays.  The ability to get the guys to function as a unit is paramount and is often not achieved.  [Trickett is great at this.]   I don't get Christmas cards, but I do get handshakes and head nods.  Been to a lot of topless bars with my guys guys.  I did whatever it took to get these guys comfortable with each other and with me.  My guys talk all the time.  They are closer with the guy next to them than they are with their wives.

Experience is absolutely crucial.  Even int he NFL, I'll take our draft picks and put them on our scout team for two years before they can play for us, and these are guys we drafted because we think they fit our system!


We also look for a specific type of running back. 

The zone scheme can be frustrating for a running back at first because he was usually the best guy in high school, never had to know what to read or look for, and just typically did whatever he wanted.  The zone scheme is very professional in that it asks the player to perform a specific task and be part of a greater plan.  The runner must understand the system.  He must be focused on his point of attack read and then his secondary read.  This can often be very boring for him.  As we've seen countless times, however, that player will reap the benefits of a well run zone system and he will get his yards.  The runner must stick with the system, trust the system, and not deviate from the system.  When the light comes on, bam!, he will reach a point where his eye's light up and he understands that the defense's pre-snap alignment is primed to get absolutely shredded.

Backs in zone schemes need to be "One Cut Runners", or "1C" runners.  For more on this, let's turn to Denver

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.  [Neither of these are desirable in this system.  Antone Smith dedicated himself to a direction way too early.]

But 1Cs must have patience and vision.  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, but rather it is based off a read or series of reads.

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 methods), but a 1C usually faces tackles in confined spaces where other methods don't work (confined because the second level is full of OLs, not just LBs).  This is another reason why Antone did not run well in our system; he went down when his legs got tangled.  Here again, the 1C does what does not come naturally to most RBs.

In addition to the above, we require a runner with  Precision (in their cuts), Patience, Vision, and Determination  

The runner must be decisive and confident, both in himself and his system.  He has to trust the system.  Occasionally, there will be a huge hole opening up where the play is absolutely not designed to go.  The player must be disciplined enough not to fall for the trap.  Sometimes it might work, other times it might not, but cutting to a hole that is not based on the runner's read is a recipe for bad habits and negative plays (see above).  Deviating from the system turns the running game into big/little, which we cannot tolerate.  Again, our running game is all about having no negatives, even at the expense of bigger plays.  As discussed above, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that avoiding unfavorable leverage situations is more beneficial to an offense than turning a 5 yard run into a 10 yard run, for example. (see above).  This type of deviation can cause the system to lose structural integrity.  Our runners get one precise cut, and they must make the best of it.  There is a minimum level of discipline we require in our runners.  Some lesser runners have it and some supremely talented runners do not.  There are both philosophical and schematic reasons for this, and they play off each other. 

We cannot have an indecisive runner, either in choosing the hole or IN the hole.  By that, I mean that the determination of the running path must be made before the runner hits the hole.  Some backs do very well cutting inside holes, but our system kills players who depend on moving laterally within the hole.  There can be no decision making in the hole.  We are not looking for a runner who wants to make everyone miss.  That is a recipe for disaster in this system (and for fumbling).  Improvisation, at least in the formative stages of the play, is not tolerated.  

Coachability is a major factor as well.  One of the reasons you saw Denver and New England run this system so well without highly touted runners (at the time), was that their runners did not have the luxury to do it their own way.  5th or 6th round picks in the NFL must listen to everything a coach says and do everything right, absorbing all of the finer teaching points.  If they do not, they will be cut.  Star runners, however, can afford not to listen because they know they are under a huge contract and will not be cut.  You'll recall that the Broncos traded Clinton Portis away for Champ Bailey, in large part because they valued a corner over a runner, but also because they knew they could find another runner to function within their machine.  Applying this to college, we find that things get easier.  While a runner may be very highly recruited, there is no general manager pressuring the coach to play the highly recruited runner over a lesser recruited runner.  The only emphasis is on playing the runner who can best excel in the system.  In this way, it can force a star player to be more of a team player.  This is very important when you consider that this system, at least to the level FSU executes it, will be very new to almost all new college runners.

The runner needs to be able to understand what is being asked of him.  For instance, he may be asked to plant and explode to a hole that will not open for another step or two.  You may think this does not mesh with the patience requirement, but it does.  This is not a loaf scheme, we want the runner to spend the minimum amount of time in the backfield as possible, without running outside the constraints of the play.  We want the runner hiting the hole as soon as possible- but not too early.  Do not confuse this with guessing.  Ideally, we want him bursting through it right as it opens up.  We need him to see things based off the system, not through sight!  We want him to burst through the hole just as it opens up, and by judging his point of attack double team block, studying the system, and having good patience and a decisive cut, he can do just that.

Speed is not overly important in this system, but momentum quickness matter.  If the runner is small, he needs to be fast.  If he is a power runner, he can be slower.  In both situations, the runner needs to be able to clear the arm tackles in the hole without dancing, be that by running by them quickly, or running through them.  In either case, the runner's legs cannot stop at contact.  It is important to remember that because the runner initially runs parallel to the line of scrimmage as he reads his blocks and determines the hole, he is not able to build his momentum/ speed over a long stretch.  Our runners must reach their top speed (whatever that level is) quickly.  Obviously, making a decisive cut helps the player to gain momentum and build speed.

Some highly recruited runners do not fit Florida State's system, and that is okay.  This isn't about finding all the best pieces.  It is about finding the best pieces to fit what Florida State does.



In reviewing last year's runners, it's easy to see that Antone Smith did not take well to our system, and freshman Jermaine Thomas did.  Let's review their numbers:

Name No Gain Loss Net AVG
Smith,Antone 177 868 76 792 4.5
Thomas,Jermaine 69 492 10 482 7.0
Jones,Carlton 11 106 7 99 9.0
Sims,Marcus 23 68 4 64 2.8

The average are not what I want to focus on.  Instead, let's look at the average yards lost per carry.  First, with Antone Smith:


Many don't think Antone was very good.  He was never great, but he was decent.  Smith struggled to learn the Seminoles zone run scheme. Smith did not have the patience or understanding needed for our scheme.  He consistently ran into the backs of his blockers, and did not hit the hole as it opened.  Further, he was not able to keep his legs moving through the hole, often being tripped up.  Let's look at a chart for Antone

Game (ACC Only)
Rushes Yds
Wake Forest 8 24
at Miami (Fla.) 27 92
at North Carolina St. 20 89
Virginia Tech 9 57
at Georgia Tech 9 35
Clemson 8 57
Boston College 10 19
at Maryland 13 45
104 418

That's about 4 yards per carry in ACC play.  There's a hidden advantage to losing Smith, however, and that is variance.  Smith was a big/ little back.  He had 104 carries in ACC play on which he gained 481 yards and lost 63 yards.  That's a pretty high loss number for having only 104 carries.  Smith gained 5.23 yards per carry and lost .61 yards per carry.  That's probably  a new stat to you.  I like to use it to look at how often a back puts his team in a negative leverage down after he has a run (like 2nd and 9, for instance).  Modern football scholars almost universally agree that the median carry is a much better measure of running back value than yards per carry.  Part of this it is very much attributable to an offensive line that exceeded expectations, but was far from great.  Smith was frustrating in that never seemed smooth in his approach and often struggled to find the hole in the zone scheme.

Jermaine Thomas, on the other hand, was everything that Antone was not, albeit in a reduced role.  Antone was faster and stronger than Jermaine, but Thomas was better.  Smith was more experienced than Jermaine, but Thomas took to the scheme quicker.  He was just a better fit for our scheme.



via cache.daylife.com

Jermaine Thomas was made to be a running back in the zone scheme.  Thomas understands the need to make one cut and get up the field.  He is more quick than fast and hits his top speed within a step or two of committing to the hole.  At 6-1, 190lbs, his upright style is a thing of beauty to watch.  Let's watch Thomas key on the doubleteam block and cut off the play.  

I will discuss the design of these plays in a later piece.


Personally, his running style reminds me of Ricky Watters.  Both Thomas and Watters played a fair amount of wide receiver in their prep days and both have a very upright gait. Here's Watters:

Longtime Tomahawk Nation contributor Fsued compared him to:

Jeff Cheaney.  Both seem real wiry and don’t look very strong, but seem to have a knack for contorting to shed tackles.  

Last season, Thomas went for 279 yards on just 31 carries in ACC plays, which is an amazing 9 yards per carry, but the key was his ability to be a NO NEGATIVES PLAYER.  Unlike Antone, Thomas was not big/little.  In 69 carries, Thomas only lost 10 yards total.  That's a paltry 0.14 yards lost per carry.  Compare that to Antone's 0.62!  Thomas did not put Florida State in bad situations.  I think Thomas will have a great year in 2009.


If you have any questions, do not to hesitate to ask.


In parts two, three, four, and five, I will review the "inside zone", "outside zone/ stretch", the "zone read", and some various pass plays and protections. 

Oh, and if you enjoyed this story and learned something, send it around on the FSU fan e-mail lists.


Until next time...


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