I read an article earlier in the offseason about the Cardinals shifting away from the traditional power (or man) blocking schemes that they've utilized in the past to a zone blocking scheme. Being that I had never played on or followed a team that ran the system, my knowledge of it was pretty limited. I knew that some teams (namely Denver and Indy) had run the system to perfection but had never bothered to learn what the differences and/or similarities were. So I set out to answer the question: What exactly is a 'zone blocking' scheme and why is it better for the Cardinals' ground game?
To give an introduction to the two schemes, here's the original article that peaked my interest, from Kent Somers' blog with Coach Whisenhunt breaking down the two systems:
On zone blocking: "It's easier when you're picking up stunting defensive lines because the angles are a lot easier for the offensive linemen to take on the defensive linemen. Because really, what you're doing is your working an area. So if your man stunts inside, you know the guy next to you is coming in that direction, he'll take him. So all you have to focus on is your steps and your technique. Then it's up to the back to pick the hole based on what he sees, which is what Edge is comfortable with because that's a lot of what
did when he was there." Indianapolis
On the power scheme: "The advantage...of blocking down and pulling linemen is it creates holes, because you're essentially cutting the defense in half. You're more determining where the hole is going to be, and if the blocks are done correctly, there will be bigger holes for the back to go into. In the power scheme, more of those runs are going to hit into the holes where they were designed. Where in the zone scheme, we can start in one direction and it can actually bend all the way back."
Ok, so that gives a quick overview and offers some hope that Edge could have an 'Indy-type year' with the Cardinals. Obviously I had to know more so I dove further in the nuts and bolts of the zone blocking scheme.
The biggest difference between the two schemes is the idea of a predetermined hole. In a man blocking scheme each lineman has a defender to block but in a zone a lineman has an area to block. In the zone scheme instead of a back having a hole to run through, he reads the flow of the offensive line and finds the hole. This often leads to cut-back runs but requires backs to run decisively and have very good vision. The basic principle is for the offensive line to move as a unit, laterally down the line and this in theory will lead to natural seams or creases for the back to get through. As the line is moving laterally they'll also develop double teams and one will eventually slide off the defender to get to the second level. An added advantage of the system is that it often incorporates 'cut-blocking' of the backside pursuit and this not only has the benefit of getting defenders on the ground but makes guys tentative as they try to defend their legs instead of just flying to the ball. Granted everyone hates the cut-block, but in this case it's legal as long as the lineman doesn't hit the defender in the back of his legs. So in theory the system works great, right but can the Cardinals pull it off?
The biggest problem with transitioning from man blocking to zone blocking is that it takes a different type of player, both on the offensive line and running back. It's comparable to switching from a 4-3 defense to 3-4, in that not only is it new terminology to learn but it also takes a different type of player to run the system. First, the offensive lineman are smaller, quicker players than in the traditional scheme. For example the average weight of the Broncos and Colts starting offensive line are 305.4 and 301.4 respectively, but the Cardinals average is 316.6. Just as some players are better suited for a 4-3 defense instead of a 3-4, some offensive lineman simply don't work in a zone blocking scheme. That could be why the Cardinals heaviest offensive lineman, Duece Lutui (6'4 332) has been under fire in camp so far. He's known as a mauler who excels at in-line blocking, but those skills don't necessarily translate over to a good zone blocker. One aspect that the Cardinals don't have to worry about though is if Edge can flourish in a zone blocking scheme. He's not only been highly successful in the system in the past but he's possibly even more suited to it now. Edge has never been particularly fast but always been quick and had excellent vision, two things that are vital in a "one cut and go" system like the zone. As Football Outsiders found out, the zone will often lead to more productive runs in the four to ten yard variety, but not necessarily as many long gains.
Only time will tell if the Cardinals are successful in this system or if it'll be a failed experiment, but for now it's an interesting new wrinkle to an already promising season. I'd imagine that they'll attempt to run a little bit of both schemes, the same way that they did with the defensive transition last year. So is this a promising transition or does it make sense to make such drastic changes to fit the game of a 30 year old running back? Can the Cardinals excel in this scheme, the same way that the Broncos and Colts have?