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Making a Path: How the Offensive Line Opens Gaps

There are two types of offensive line blocking protections used: man blocking and zone blocking. In the below article we discuss how each works, the difference between the two and how they impact Miami.

The Miami offensive line plows over a few FSU defenders for Duke Johnson
The Miami offensive line plows over a few FSU defenders for Duke Johnson
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports


Each week State of the U will look at different strategies that a football team employs come gameday to outwit and outplay their opposition. Some of these different looks change play to play, other times the schemes employed by a team are philosophical staples used at all times. Whatever it is, we'll delve into it here and go over what the concept is, how does it work on gameday and if the subject can impact the Canes in 2015-2016.

Last week's article discussed different defensive line responsibilities and how each team can use different schemes to rush the quarterback or bottle up the running back, the article can can be read HERE. For this week's post we'll look into the difference between the man blocking scheme and the intricacies of the "new age" (relatively new, it's been around 15 years or so) zone blocking schemes that are used by the offensive line.

Man Blocking Scheme: offensive linemen take a predetermined person across from them on the defensive line/unit to block on a given play.

Zone Blocking Scheme: each offensive lineman blocks an area in front or to the side of them on a given play.


The man blocking scheme has been around football since its inception. Fundamentally, the purpose is to line up across from your counterpart on the defense and "punch them in the mouth." However, defenses over the years have gotten more creative in avoiding this mauling style of play. Whether the evolution of schematic changes in defenses like stunts or blitzes or even personnel changes with more hybrid rush end; in many instances the man blocking style has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Now, that's not to say the style is completely gone from today's football. It's just not as heavily used in today's game as it was say, 20 years ago. The newer style more commonly seen on today's grid iron is called the zone blocking scheme. As stated above, an offensive lineman is not asked to cover one specific person on any given play but rather a specific area. This style makes it possible for each player along the five man front to pass off defenders as they cross into another zone or even step up into the defenses second level as they pass off responsibilities of their zone to a fellow team mate.

Personnel for Each Style

Even though in the last column we discussed how interchangeable the gap responsibilities can be used with any defensive linemen; when it comes to zone or man blocking schemes, offensive linemen personnel are pretty specific. For a team that runs a man blocking scheme they'll be looking for larger, more powerful players in the trenches. This is because each lineman will be tasked to overpower the man in front of them (or whoever they're assigned). Think of the Dallas Cowboys gargantuan line from the last few seasons and the early 90s that was led by Larry Allen.

(Side note: Gary Busey is awesome)

The zone blocking style however looks for smaller, more agile offensive linemen. In college football and even in the pro's if a team runs a zone blocking scheme it's not surprising to see offensive guards weighing in the low 290s and even in the range of the 280s. Again, in the zone scheme speed is key and covering your area is the predominant responsibility, not over powering your opponent. Think of the Denver Broncos in the late 90s and early 2,000s under Coach Mike Shanahan when they churned out 1,000 yard rushers every year no matter who was in the backfield.

How Each System Works

Just like everything else in football, each play starts pre-snap and offensive line protections are no different. With both styles you'll see on almost every play the center or the most senior interior linemen (center or the two guards) calling out blocking assignments. For the man blocking scheme each linemen is given a person to block (called a primary) and a person to "keep an eye on" or a secondary assignment. The secondary assignment is usually a potential blitzer. In zone blocking it's not necessarily about planning who to block but rather pointing out who is possibly coming into each linemen's zone during a given play. Thus, studying game film for each opponent is a huge onus in zone schemes because each blocker must know or have an idea of where each defender may go on a given play to be prepared to "defend their zone."

Once the line is ready the center snaps the ball and then the true game begins.. In man blocking schemes each of the linemen start to attack their primary assignments. On a passing play they step back and provide a nice pocket (hopefully) for their quarterback. Once they take their first step they look for their potential foe. However, the weakness with man blocking assignments is that often times defenders stunt (meaning criss-cross) with one of their counter parts to confuse the offensive line. With man blocking the offensive line has to have really good communication skills to "trade" their assignment with the other linemen; so that they switch in essence. If there's a communication breakdown often times one defender will come free because one offensive lineman will block his original assignment not knowing he was supposed to switch. This is a pretty common occurrence that leads to sacks.

If the play were to be a running play in a man-to-man blocking attack the coming events are relatively simplistic but with utter anarchy. Once the ball is snapped each player has his assignment and starts chugging forward to maul his opponent into submission as quickly as possible; hence why personnel for man blocking schemes cater to big, bruising, mountain men.

In a zone blocking system when the ball is in play on a passing down the main goal of the offensive line is to occupy any defender that comes into their zones. Push them out, push them back, doesn't matter. As long as no one defender gets passed them in their zones the goal has been achieved. Spread that across the five "separate" zones and you have a potentially clean pocket. Also, what's important to note is that if a defender is getting double teamed this is usually a pre-snap read as well. So going into a play, if a defender does not use a stunt or jump to another zone, the defender will be double teamed per the pre designated call.

When there is a run play on, that's when the two schemes have the most difference in execution. Zone blocking for a running play is all about recognizing if your zone has a defensive lineman occupying it or if there's a "second level" player (i.e linebacker or safety) manning the location. If the running play is a "north/south" type run, two actions occur. First, if a defender is a defensive linemen in a designated zone he will be taken on immediately by the offensive linemen. If the defender is a linebacker or safety that are five to ten yards away from the play but "technically" occupy the zone then the offensive linemen will assist in double teaming a defensive linemen who's adjacent to their zone and then quickly move ahead to get to the next level which was his original, primary assignment. Kind of like a tight end giving a chip block on the end of the line and then going about his pass route. If the type of run is an "east/west" type of run where the running back is receiving a toss, etc. then the zone really differentiates itself. When running plays go wide the offensive linemen actually shift the line side to side with the play. Thus, their zones move with the play. The mentality of blocking stays the same, keep your section clear except now the zones are moving right to let or left to right. This is why on running plays you hear the announcers discussing "one cut backs" because the runningback is waiting for a running lane in a zone to open and then run through it.

Pro's and Con's for the Man Blocking Scheme

For man blocking the pro and con is wrapped in to one: completing the individual assignment(s). Simply put, if each linemen achieves their objective and plows over their primary target then, odds are, the play will be successful. The quarterback will have a clean pocket and the running back will have a running lane to go through. However, if a blocker misses an assignment or is overpowered by the defender then the results on any given play usually have an outcome of no gain or possibly negative.

Pro's and Con's for the Zone Blocking Scheme

The main benefit to the zone scheme is it allows for all five linemen to work as one unit to succinctly nullify the defensive lines on passing downs and on rushing downs allow the offensive linemen to get to the "second level" or the linebacking/secondary positions. As the unit works as one cog the team also has the flexibility of not needing the most highly talented players along the offensive line front. As long as they communicate and work together really well, the zone blocking scheme can flourish.

However, if communication is not good among the unit or during a play there is a miscommunication then the zone style can quickly disintegrate and be mute. The results would obviously be disastrous as linemen will leave their area and a running back could be tackled for a loss or the quarterback could be sacked by the oncoming defensive players.

How This Impacts Miami in 2015-2016

I'll be honest with you, I've looked high and low for which of the styles of blocking Miami uses and have come up short. All I know is Miami, personnel wise, will be a mess until all the recruits get into camp in the fall and that offensive line coach Art Kehoe has been at Miami forever and will probably never leave.

Based on the current roster, I'd say Miami runs a man power blocking scheme. The talent they have is young but all physically gifted. The brightest light for the group are the three road graders of K.C McDermott (6'6" 315), Trevor Darling (6'5" 318) and Tyree St. louis (6'5" 299) who could all be starters next year and lead the way for the offense even though they're going to be sophomores (McDermott and Darling) and a freshman (St. Louis).

Now, if any of the above didn't make sense or you just want to watch an informative video on the zone blocking concept, see below:

Hope you enjoyed this segment! See you back next week!