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X's & O's: Zone Blocking Scheme

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X's & O's: Zone Blocking Scheme

Frequent Cheesehead TV commenter "Paul Ott Carruth", a former player and coach, breaks down a different aspect of the Packers and their opponents from an X's and O's standpoint. Today he looks at the much-maligned zone blocking scheme as it is employed by the Packers.


Much has been made about the shortcomings of the Green Bay run game this year.   The question is “Why?”  Is it the scheme?  Is the players within the scheme?  To answer the questions, in this X and O segment we’ll uncover just exactly what the zone blocking system entails.  By the end, hopefully, the picture will be clearer.


Zone to the 3 Technique

Center: The Center will take a 45 degree zone step (sometimes called a “bucket step” to the playside).  He will be looking for the 3 technique defensive tackle to either widen outside with the  RG or stick inside to the A gap.  If the 3 tech. widens, the Center will look to engage the fast flowing Mike.  The Center will remain at 1st level depth until the Mike begins to make a downhill path to the ball.  If the 3 technique comes at the Center in the A gap, the Center will maintain contact and try to “run him” laterally.

Right Guard: The Right Guard will take a 45 degree zone step (“bucket”) toward the 3 technique.  If the B gap is the gap of responsibility for the 3 technique DT he will be taught to play behind his hips and keep them leveraged in his gap.   This means he will widen outside.  If he does this, the RG will “make contact and run him to the side line.  In the event the DT shoots inside toward the Center, the RG will then look to work up on the Mike who should be reading backfield flow and flowing over the top on a gap exchange with the 3 technique (the Mike would now assume the B gap in the run fit).  Again, the RG will not work vertically up field to chase the Mike until the Mike commits to a downhill path.

Right Tackle: The Right Tackle will take a 45 degree zone step (“bucket”) toward the TE.  At the same time, he will punch with his inside hand to help out the RG who is working against a widening 3 technique DT.  With his eyes on the 9 technique DE aligned outside of the TE, the RT will either:  a) “duck walk” to second level once the Sam commits to his run fit or b) run the 9 tech. DE to the sideline if the DE chooses to shoot the C gap between the RT and TE.

Tight End: The Tight End will  zone step toward the DE in a 9 technique.  If the DE widens, the TE will run him laterally to the sideline.  If the DE shoots inside to the C gap, the TE will maintain contact and then peel off on the Sam who should be working outside of the DE in a gap exchange.

Left Guard: The Left Guard will zone step to the play side and look to cut-off the 1 technique defensive tackle, known as the shade.  This is the most difficult block in the scheme.   The LG will try to reach but most likely will run the 1 technique to the sideline.  In many cases, the tailback will end up running right behind this block as he is washed down the line of scrimmage.

Left Tackle: The Left Tackle will zone step playside and look to pick up a fast flowing Will linebacker.  Again, he will stay flat until the Will commits downhill.

QB: The quarter back will drive the ball deep to the tailback and then boot away from the play.  He has to do this to force the backside DE to honor him on naked runs.  If the DE closes down off the hip of the Left Tackle that means he isn’t honoring the QB.  This is when you see the QB naked or boot pass.  If the DE honors the QB he leaves open a potential cutback lane for the ball carrier.  It’s essentially blocking a man with your QB without having to make contact.

Fullback: The full back is reading the first defensive player on the line of scrimmage head up to outside of the TE (within the box).  This player is called the “read key.”  At the snap of the ball, the fullback will look at that man.  If he widens, the fullback automatically knows the ball is going to be run inside of that man.  At this point, he then gets his eyes on the “cut key.”  The cut key is the next defensive player on the LOS moving inside to the ball (3 technique).  If the “cut key” widens laterally, the fullback will adjust his course and run inside of that man and look to block a linebacker.  If that “cut key” should shoot inside or get reached by the RG, the fullback will run his course inside of the initial “read key” and outside of the “cut key” and most likely run in to the Sam.

Now, if at the snap the “read” key is reached by the TE or shoots inside, the fullback will run his course outside of the “read key” and the “cut key” is disregarded.  In this case, the fullback will end up blocking the force player who is most likely the Strong Safety coming down in to the box from a depth position.

Halfback: See rules for Fullback.  It is the exact same process.  Both the fullback and ball carrier are reading the exact same people.  The tailback will know even before he gets the ball if the ball will be placed outside of the TE or inside of the TE.  The operative phrase is “slow to the hole” or “press the line of scrimmage.”  Well, the back gets his eyes on that “read key” as he takes his zone step.   Once he receives the ball from the QB he is either staying outside or looking for his “cut key” depending on what the “read key” has told him.  Toss action out of this is extremely tough on the back because his focus is on catching the toss instead of looking at his “read key.”

Zone to the Shade (1 Technique)

Center: The Center will step playside on his zone step and attempt to reach and overtake the 1 technique DT shaded on him.  If the 1 technique shoots to the B gap (crossing the face of the LG), the center will turn his attention to the Mike who would gap exchange and flow throw the gap vacated by the DT.  If the 1 tech. anchors in the A gap, the Center will receive help from the LG to get the DT’s shoulder turned to make it easier for the Center to overtake the DT.  This is the key block of the stretch to the weakside.

Left Guard: The Left Guard will first chip on the 1 tech. DT shaded on the Center.  He will then get his eyes on the Mike that should be fast flowing in to his area and will come off and try to run the Mike by the play.  This does not have to be a “bone crushing” block.  The movement of the Mike will be used against him.  If the DT should shoot hard across the face of the LG, slanting in to the B gap, the LG would maintain contact on the DT.  The Center would then look for the Mike in the gap exchange.

Left Tackle: The Left Tackle zone steps at the 5 technique DE.  The idea is to get the DE to widen.  If he doesn’t, the LT will still maintain contact with the DE instead of passing him off to the Guard who is working with the Center.

Right Guard: The Right Guard will zone step to the playside and aim at the Mike, however, he will most likely end up picking up the Sam as he tries to attack downhill.  He will first give a token punch with his right hand to help turn the 3 tech’s shoulders for the zone stepping Right Tackle.

Right Tackle: The Right Tackle takes a flatter zone step to try and cut-off the 3 tech.  He basically does a short flat pull on the line of scrimmage.

Tight End: The Tight End will zone step and try to cut-off the Sam but will most likely end up working to 3rd level and get a safety.

QB: Same rules as before only flipped.

Fullback: The full back still maintains “read key” and “cut key” reads.  The “read key” is the 5 tech. DE.  If he widens, the fullback will look to run up inside and lead on the Will.  If the DE jumps inside, the fullback will look to block the Will on the outside of the LT.  In the case that the 1 tech works outside too much, the FB may have to bend it back inside of the Center to pick up the Mike while the Guard would then go to the Will.

Halfback: The halfback has the same keys, with the read key being the DE and the cut key being the 1 tech. DT.


When looking at the diagrams, the brown diamond shaped object indicates where the ball was placed prior to the snap.  In the outside zone, the ball carrier may often cut back past the original ball placement.  The rose colored boxes indicate where the ball carrier should be making his cut and running through.  I’ve showed an initial line up with the lines drawn and then slides that show how it would look depending on the movement of the defense.

Diagram 1: Pro I formation with lines showing the zone scheme

Diagram 2: Outside Zone to the 3 Technique.  The DE and DT to the playside widen telling the fullback and halfback the ball will declare inside of the DE.  The DT (cut key) has widened telling the ball carrier that the running lane will be on the other side of the 3 tech.  The 1 tech DT also runs flat on the playside and gets washed to the sideline.  The backside DE honors the QB boot, creating the running lane all the way past the Left Tackle (“run where it’s rosey).

Diagram 3: The read key (DE) jumps inside and is overtaken by the RT.  The TE works up to the Sam.  The fullback now knows there will be a safety coming down to play the primary force.  The fullback will lead on the force player (“feet and face”).  The halfback sees the read key jump inside and knows that the ball will now be run outside.  The “cut key” is now a non-factor in determining where the ball will declare.  Even though a cut-back lane is opened up backside (black box), the intent of outside zone is to be run as it says, outside.  If one on one can be established on the edge, you take it, regardless of the cutback.

Diagram 4: This would be outside zone to the shade (1 tech.)  The DE has outside leverage so the ball will declare inside of him.  The fullback sees this and leads up on the Will.  The LG works to the Mike after helping on the 1 tech. DT.  The Center overtakes the 1 tech. and the seam is created outside of him and inside of the OG.  The backside DT is cut-off, but because the 1 tech was secured, the ball stays frontside.

Diagram 5: The DE leverages outside so ball declares inside of him.  This time the 1 tech. DT jumps outside to the B gap.  The Guard works on him and the Center works to the Mike.   The backside gets their cut-offs and the seam is to the right of the center.

Diagram 6: Much like diagram 2, this shows how the defensive front plays flat along the line of scrimmage.  The DE leverages outside and the 1 tech jumps to the B gap.  The backside 3 tech DT is not cut-off this time and the Sam charges the backside B gap hard creating a pile.  The backside DE honors the QB opening up the seam on the far backside of the play.

Zone Animations 7 & 8 (1)

Diagram 7 (Animation): This diagram shows us how the cut back lane occurs all the way to the backside of where the play was intended to go.

Diagram 8 (Animation): This diagram shows the ball carrier actually has two options with his cutback.  However, the most ideal cut would be behind the Center and the cut-off block of the RT.  Even though this might be a more narrow lane it gets the ball carrier moving “north and south” quickly.  Whatever the ball carrier decides to do he must do it decisively.  As Alex Gibbs, the refiner of the zone blocking scheme, has said, “one cut and go.”  Even if the cut isn’t to the best lane, it still needs to be one cut.  Indecisiveness leads to lost yardage plays.

In summation, the zone blocking system can provide a team that is short on size and girth and answer to facing a big and aggressive defensive front.  Technique and a “pitbull mentality” (sticking to the block and running the guy to the sideline) are the key traits for the offensive line.  Decisiveness (i.e. vision) and toughness are the important traits needed in the ball carrier for this scheme to work.

All in all, I’m a big fan of the zone blocking system.  It reminds me a little bit of triple option football run at the high school and college levels, leaving defenders unblocked (QB boot to hold DE) and giving the OL and backs “if this, then this” rules (think midline option reads).  Most teams in the NFL run a combination of zone and gap type run plays.  Only a few run the zone blocking scheme exclusively (Houston and Green Bay to name a few) but that is also misleading as Alex Gibbs liked to run the Counter Trey to attack the 3 technique while preferring to run the zone scheme at the 1 technique side of the front.  Both schemes can be married together and I would argue, that’s not a bad thing, especially when you go from a good zone back (Grant) to a back that is more suited to gap style plays (Jackson).

I don’t believe the zone blocking scheme will be going away in Green Bay anytime soon.  However, the return of Ryan Grant to his primary role and the development of James Starks are two major factors in determining the success of the system.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (29) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

BigbyATTACK's picture

Love it, POC. Very in depth, and fun to read. Thank you!

Chad Toporski's picture

I think I am going to have to devote a good chunk of time to digesting this one... Maybe I'll do it when the NO @ SEA game is on.

Charles's picture

Well done. Great read, and a great piece to rewatch some tape along side of!

misterj's picture

SWEET, now I know WTF is going on when people say ZBS.

PackersRS's picture

Ok, so, dumbening things down, it doesn't work because:
a) Jackson
b) Olinemen not named Sitton
c) James Campen
d) All of the above

PkrNboro's picture

e) old linemen retained past their prime (and paid too much).

f) no new talent acquired/developed as evidenced by Barbre, Giacomini, Moll, and Meredith.

g) Colledge.

h) a head coach that is a passing addict/gambler -- who is unwilling to develop a running game to bail-out/balance his passing game.

cpheph1's picture

PkrNboro, IIRC:
[e] - WRT current starters, Clifton is the only "old" guy (32+) and his LT salary is on par w/ a PB player.

[f] - What about Sitton & Bulaga being relatively new?

[g] - agree

[h] - I don't have a problem with my play caller being pass happy or an occasional gambler...big plays win games. The pass game does not need to be "bailed out" IMO & works just fine when the players execute/make plays. Could they run the ball or use dump-off pass more frequently?...sure, but it's ARodg who needs to make that pass as a 2nd/3rd option.

PkrNboro's picture

e) WRT current starters? sorry, but we've had to pay Tauscher a chunk of change, whether he starts or not.

f) Sitton & Bulaga don't discount a number of previous misses.

h) there have been a number of occasions this season, where we've been unable to pickup one or two yards on the ground. That's pathetic, and likely factors into McCarthy going pass-nuts.

Last game it was cold -- the ball was slick, cold, hard and the players were gloved and/or chilled. Both teams had problems in the pass game. It would be nice to have a running game that could net you more than 60 yards.

nerdmann's picture

MM was requesting "smaller, quicker" Olineman when he got here. That's what wasn't panning out. Now he's requesting the bigger stronger guys, and TT has been providing them. See: Sitton, Josh; Bulaga, Brian; Newhouse, Marshall. Giacomini was an experiment with the bigger lads that didn't work out, but it was a step in the right direction.
They've been trying to replace Scotty "The Fireplug" Wells too.

KCNYC's picture

This is why CheeseheadTV is the BEST source for Green Bay Packer coverage. You all ROCK!

BamaCheesehead's picture

Great Article

Roll Tide! Go Pack!

MarkinMadison's picture

So in the off season, you keep going and break down other types of common schemes. Throw in some info. about how particular players with different skill sets enhance or require their coach to modify the scheme. You put this into book form. Have some review chapters where you compare and contrast the strenghts and weaknesses of the schemes you just explained. Get someone you trust to help edit. You can use a fake name if you like; your name does not have to be out there if you're still looking to be active in the coaching profession. If you don't know anyone who can shop it Nagler can shop it around the New York publishing houses, or Carriveau appears to know how to publish. I've got a friend who pulled down $50K in royalties for a book two years ago, and believe me, I don't know anyone who has ever read it. All you need is your niche market, and you got one. Just think about it.

c.d. angeli's picture

Paul, a great microscope study of the Zone Blocking Scheme. There's a reason why it worked for so many years in Denver, and you hit it on the head.

Conversely, it hasn't worked here. Ever. Ted's drafted 12 OL in 6 years, and we're still hanging on to Clifton and Wells (if not Tauscher).

I actually do understand the premise of the ZBS (though nowhere near the intensity of what Paul presented, until now) but the better question is how is it working and is it still successful anywhere else in the league?

Any scheme looks great on paper. It all matters on whether or not the other side can scheme it properly. The ZBS took advantage of the massive defensive 4-3 personnel that was pervasive through the 90's. As more and more teams adopt smaller, quicker defensive linemen and 3-4 schemes, they are able to negate the impact of the ZBS.

Think of it this way. A basketball team that is facing some twin towers in the middle is going to wisely avoid going with a low post game. Instead, they're going to try to score with a quick-passing outside game. But, if you're the team with the height advantage, you may choose the banging-down-low approach.

There's nothing wrong fundamentally with either offensive just matters who you're playing and what is the highest success rate. The ZBS used to be that quick outside game. But now that defenses are keen to it, it simply isn't the wisest scheme anymore, and its why so many teams have adopted it and scrapped it since 2000.

PkrNboro's picture

So much for theory.

How about a follow-up article about how the Packers fail to implement it?

I still say that whatever the Packers run shows little resemblance to the Broncos of yesterday or the Texans of today.


Also, what's up with the "animation"?
Two slides??

Looks pretty inanimate to me -- but, hey, maybe that accurately portrays GB's running game...

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

Are you referring to the fact that it's only two slides and would like more? You have to download or open the link and then run the slides as a show (view slide show). Right click and the diagram should animate.

PkrNboro's picture

Sorry -- it wasn't 2003-friendly.

Usually F5 starts slide shows -- but, additionally, I had to either (1) RC, and click "next" or (2) hit the space bar.

With the font being "Calibri", I knew it was either 2007 or 2010. I checked file properties for the version -- didn't see anything definitive. I may have to d/l a viewer.

Oppy's picture

Yeah, I thought the same thing when I first grabbed the Animations- being that I'm powerpoint/business software impaired.

But I figured it out, and yes, they really are animated!

PiedmontPackerFan's picture

Sounded impressive. Couldn't make it past the first two paragraphs, though. If a surgeon can communicate in a non jargon - laden manner, so can Mr. Carruth.

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

I apologize for the football jargon. It's the only way I really know how describe these things without turning this in to a novel. I prefer to use the nomenclature native to the coaching realm and intersperse non jargon. Think of it this way: Instead of saying "the outside linebacker takes his arm farthest away from the ball and swings it inside to make contact with the puller to get the ball to bounce outside" I prefer to say, "the Will far arms (wrong arms) and spills the ball." I'll try to do much better in the future but this is the best way I know of keeping these posts from becoming longer than they already are. As always, if you have a question about what something means, please don't hesitate to ask.

Glorious80s's picture

Most enlightening. Thank you.
Perhaps a posted key to what some terms mean would help and still keep the explanations concise.

Oppy's picture

Love the animations, great stuff.

POC, I think the next step is discussion on shading, reach blocking, cut blocking, etc.

Now that we know who the blockers key off of, and who they are responsible for blocking as a result of their reads, the next progression is the techniques they use to actually block their man.

You are really cranking these things out at an alarming pace. You may want to consider cataloging these lessons and pull together a Fan's guide to football strategy book as MarkinMadison has suggested. I have a friend who is an editor and author of educational texts, and he has worked on projects where pseudonyms were used. It's more common than you'd think.

Keep up the good work, we all appreciate it.

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

That's a fantastic idea. The actual "nuts and bolts" (ie. zone steps, hand placement) of how a particular scheme is accomplished. I would caution, however, that those types of discussions might become....well, let's just say, boring to the average reader. I could see a coach being very interested in something like that. I'll certainly give it a shot down the road. I'd like to present some things on fire zone blitzes in the next installment.
As far as producing a book....well, all I can say is I'm flattered. I've often thought about doing something along those lines and it's certainly not out of the question. As for now, I'm just glad I can provide a view in to a game that not many get to see or may understand by watching the game on TV on Sundays. Thanks for the kind words and suggestions.

Oppy's picture

We're all diggin' what it is you're doing, and your fears of boring the average reader? Well, we're not average readers.

We're CheeseheadTV readers, commenters, viewers and listeners, and most importantly, Packer obsessed fans. Anyone who clicks on your articles is doing so because they have a desire to learn the details and intricacies.

I suppose you could create a running document, like an appendix, that lists the football terms in alphabetical order, such as "Spill, Spilling the Ball: Forcing the ball carrier to take a path to the outside of the formation". Etc, etc. for easy reference.

I understand It's easy for me to make the suggestion and let you do the work :) but I definitely see an undertaking like that as being a chore that initially would take time, but in the long run adding in new bits here and there as necessary would be quick and painless, and would keep your main articles free of the cumbersome explanations you are worried would overtake the piece.

Glorious80s's picture

Lombardi has instructional materials available on the blocking techniques used in his day, very clearly illustrated, as Cheesehead TV earlier posted. How does what he did compare to what is going on now? Are any still in use?

Paul Ott Caruth's picture

In my honest opinion, I believe Lombardi's videos were way ahead of their time. In them you can see why he had success as a coach, not only in Green Bay, but in is short time in Washington. What an excellent teacher of the game.

As far as what he did comparing to today...well, interestingly enough, in my opinion, he is the father of the modern day zone blocking scheme. Gibbs gets the credit for the success of the zone but Jim Taylor was running a weakside zone play for the Packers in the 60's.

Oppy's picture

Oh, bejeezus, I know you didn't say that out loud...

There's going to be a number of Packers fans that have screamed bloody murder about how awful the ZBS is, and how it's garbage, and a waste of time, that are now going to feel horribly conflicted.

"What? NO, that's not possible!! LOMBARDI ran a zone run?? It's a lie. I feel dirty! Can't Be!".

They might then start rocking back and forth and chanting "What the hell is going on out there!" over and over.

Cuphound's picture

POC: I second Oppy's motion. We're football geeks who would like some real knowledge of how this game is <I>really</I> played. You really and truly can't bore us. In fact, I'd worry more that we might bore you. But I don't think you'll find a more willing group of students.

I had some trouble with the idea of "technique." This <a href=" rel="nofollow">link</A> might help anyone like me who was having trouble.

But POC, you represent a lifetime learning opportunity for a guy like me. Thanks for all your hard work. I admire greatly the Powerpoint. I'd used animation in Powerpoint before, but I had no idea it could get so sophisticated.

The source is somewhat ironic.

Cuphound's picture

The source of the link is ironic. Not POC, obviously! Sorry. Busy day. My brain is fried.

BLACK HAWK's picture

Hey Paul,

I have never been a big fan of the ZBS, with that said...any interest in getting back into coaching? Thinking James Campen needs to be replaced.

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