The 3-4 season that the Baltimore Ravens have put together thus far has led to much finger-pointing..the wide receivers, the secondary, the coaching…all have been the object of fans’ scorn at one point or another. But no part of the team has garnered (and warranted) more criticism than has the offensive line.
One of the strong points that helped aid the Ravens in their Super Bowl run last season, the offensive line has been nothing short of a disaster in 2013.
Is that the personnel, coaching or both? It’s a combination of the two, but new “run game coordinator” Juan Castillo has been an easy scapegoat this season, as his new zone-blocking scheme has failed to work, and fans are getting impatient.
Now, what exactly is a zone blocking scheme (ZBS)?
It is an offensive line game plan that is a complete hit-or-miss ordeal.
The first thing you need in a ZBS is athletic offensive linemen, which the Ravens have. All five starting offensive linemen for the Ravens can be categorized as average-to-above average athletes, a necessity for this type of scheme.
In terms of execution, linemen are given multiple blocking assignments, and must use their athleticism to pull or get up field for most run plays to work. The inside zone and outside zone are the bread and butter of a perfect ZBS, and many teams can be more than effective with just those two derivations of run plays.
It is a way to put the numbers game in the offense’s favor, as each run play relies on several of the linemen taking on multiple blockers at the first and second levels. But failure to account for all defenders ruins the entire concept, as does failure to reach the second level in timely fashion.
It’s a complicated process – much more difficult to learn and execute than a simple man blocking scheme. But when perfectly mastered, the benefits are prodigious.
Let’s take a look at how a ZBS is perfectly executed.
One NFL team that has made star running backs out of lesser talent is the Houston Texans, and that can be largely credited to their blocking scheme.
The Texans run a simple zone play against the Tennessee Titans.
The guards are the key on this play, which is designed to go to the weak side of the offensive line.
Both guards immediately head to the second level, while the tackles, center and tight end occupy the four-man defensive front.
With each lineman occupying the correct defender, open lanes develop for running back Arian Foster.
With three lanes opening, Foster uses his quick cutback technique to capitalize on the biggest opening, which is in the middle of the field.
The only thing preventing the play from resulting in a touchdown is the tight end’s inability to hold his block long enough for Foster to get into the secondary.
But, the huge running lane was there for Foster, and the play still resulted in a 10-yard gain.
The key to this play is the fact that every Texans lineman found a man to block, the most important aspect of a ZBS.
As you’ll see with the Ravens, finding a man to block is sometimes easier said than done, which has led to the run-game troubles this season.
Here’s a look at some of Baltimore’s ZBS struggles.
Against the Cleveland Browns earlier this season, blocking a man at the first level and then heading toward the second level was an issue.
The Ravens line up in the shotgun with the tight end to the left.
On this play, right guard Marshal Yanda has two blocking assignments.
Running lanes begin to develop, with center Gino Gradkowski and right tackle Michael Oher occupying areas, but not necessarily blocking anyone right away. Still, if Yanda can execute his two-man blocking, Oher won’t matter on the play, and Gradkowski would be a complement.
Ideally, Yanda would block defensive tackle Phil Taylor enough to get him out of the run play, and then get to the second level to block the inside linebacker.
Also, Gradkowski blocking the inside linebacker on his side helps.
However, Yanda can’t get a hold of Taylor, and the run play is halted before he even gets to the second level.
Gradkowski was able to block his linebacker, but Yanda’s failure on the play leads to no gain.
As noted in the Texans example, the ability of the guards to get to the second level is key, and without that, it is nearly impossible for a ZBS to be successful.
Here’s another look at Baltimore’s struggles, with this being a case of not being able to occupy every defensive player.
Against the Packers, the Ravens have a one back, two tight end set.
Running back Ray Rice has two running lanes, but the one between the right guard and tackle is wide open, and therefore the most intriguing.
The Packers have two linebackers moving toward the lane, and Yanda must choose which linebacker to take on.
Yanda takes on the closest linebacker, neglecting AJ Hawk.
Predictably, Rice has nowhere to run, and is taken down by Hawk.
On this play, Yanda took on the wrong linebacker. Even if he took on Hawk, though, Rice still would have had a tough running lane, but realistically he could have gained at least five yards before being tackled, due to the angle.
The Packers outnumbered Baltimore’s offensive front, so the running play never had much potential to begin with.
Ultimately, the Ravens simply haven’t mastered the ZBS yet, which isn’t a sign to give up.
When executed to perfection, there may not be a better run scheme in football. Seven games isn’t enough time to learn a complicated concept, and the offensive linemen have had to learn on the fly this season.
Has the Ravens’ run game been embarrassing this season? Yes. Would a man blocking scheme improve the offense? Most likely.
But that would be an action to help right now, neglecting the future. If the Ravens can master the ZBS within the next month or so, the run offense will be much improved.
Installing a ZBS and Castillo having the Ravens perfectly executing it by midseason is a lofty expectation.
Right now it’s frustrating watching the Ravens attempt to block for running backs Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. But with some patience, and some improved learning on the offensive line’s part, the ZBS should be working soon.
The Ravens are committed to the ZBS right now, and completely abolishing it midway through the season would mean the past several months have been a waste for Castillo and the offensive line.
Maybe man blocking in high-pressure situations would help the offense’s success short term, but in the long run, the ZBS is (likely) here to stay.
(Note: It’s just coincidence Yanda is in both examples; the focus is on the scheme in general. However, he’s been MUCH worse than the past few years this season – in my opinion – and he has had as tough of a time adjusting to the new ZBS as anyone on the team, so he works with the article. Still, this piece was not meant to finger-point at him specifically. – Kyle)