Inside the Buffalo Bills Playbook: Zone Blocking

Updated: June 23, 2013

We’ve talked a little bit about some of the passing concepts that Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s offense will utilize. However, both of the coaches have said the Buffalo Bills will be a run first offense, which is consistent with the duo’s time in Syracuse, where they ran more than they threw the ball (also, it’s hard to argue with run first logic when you have CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson in the backfield). With that in mind, we thought we’d take a look at how the Buffalo Bills run game might look this year, while setting the table for why the Bills are in a good position to introduce read options concepts to their offense.

But first, we must start with the run game. The simplest explanation is that the Buffalo Bills will likely prefer zone blocking concepts, but won’t rely on them exclusively. You’ve heard the term “zone blocking” more and more frequently in recent years, as the scheme has allowed Mike Shanahan to turn many undrafted players in to 1,000 yard rushers and is at the center of Arian Foster’s apparent inability to rip off anything less than a 5 yard run. Buffalo had heavily utilized zone blocking under former head coach Chan Gailey, so both the backs and offensive line will be in a good position to continue last year’s success.

But what is zone blocking? Where man/gap schemes focus on which blocker is responsible for which defender, zone blocking schemes are built on blocking different areas, or zones. However, this difference doesn’t change the responsibility of linemen who are “covered,” or lined up opposite a defender. In either man or zone, that lineman will block the defender opposite him.

The difference in the two schemes is in the responsibilities of “uncovered” players. For instance, if a guard has no defensive linemen across from him, he is considered uncovered. At the snap, the uncovered guard will step to the nearest defender and help the covered blocker with a double team, before peeling off and blocking a second level linebacker. Below, Andy Levitre is an uncovered lineman, because there is no defensive lineman opposite him.


Levitre fires at the nose tackle and helps the center get inside of the NT and seal him off…

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…before moving to the second level and blocking the linebacker.

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If the Bills had been using a gap scheme, Levitre’s blocking assignment would be based entirely on a set of rules that changes with each defensive front, so the scheme requires the player to memorize many different scenarios. Furthermore, the defender designated to be blocked may not be in the same place after the ball is snapped, which can lead to wasted blockers. Zone avoids these situations by giving lineman locations to protect rather than defenders.

None of that is to say zone running is simple. Zone blocking has many more coaching points about where to aim at a defender, what direction the initial step should be, and the entire offense must move cohesively in order for the scheme to work.

The above play was an inside zone run; the other bread and butter play of zone rushing teams is the outside zone. The outside (or wide zone as it is sometimes called) is unique in that rather than asking offensive lineman to drive defenders up the field, the play has blockers use the defenders own movement and aggression to put them in a bad position to make a play on the running back.

Below is an example of the best outside zone run team in the league, the Houston Texans, achieving this lateral movement to put the Pittsburgh Steelers front in an extremely poor position to tackle Arian Foster. Foster makes them pay with a perfectly timed “cutback” to the backside of the play where there are no Steelers because, with some help from the Texans offensive line, they have completely over pursued.

This play also highlights another major benefit of zone blocking schemes, which is that there is no predefined “hole” that the back must run through. Based on the pursuit angle of the defense, a number of lanes may open up. Therefore, zone run schemes require running backs that are able to read the defensive lineman, choose the appropriate lane based on that read, and time the cut to leave defenders sealed off from the chosen running lane.

Fortunately, the Bills have a couple of running backs that are well suited to this style of running. Neither Jackson nor Spiller are bruising punisher backs, but more cut and go type players. And as great at CJ Spiller played last year, there is still room for improvement as far as cut selection and timing.

Another intriguing facet of zone running is that is particularly well suited to read optioning off the back of the play, hence the “zone” in “zone read.” We’ll talk a little more about this in a future post, but for know, just keep in mind that a team with sound zone running fundamentals has a good foundation to add read option concepts on top of the zone run.

Until then, take comfort in the fact that the thing Buffalo has done the best in recent years- running the football- shouldn’t be changing drastically. The major differences are Marrone will use fullbacks and tight ends more than Gailey did, and run more frequently. Zone running will be a key part of any offensive success the Bills have this year.

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