TALE OF THE TAPE: Ravens Struggle to Execute Zone Blocking Scheme

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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)

21 Raves on “TALE OF THE TAPE: Ravens Struggle to Execute Zone Blocking Scheme

  1. jman on said:

    Excellent article, and backs up what McKinney recently said about the ZBS, which is that Castillo has been telling the offense since the preseason that it would take about 7/8 games before things start to come together. The switch from McK to Monroe at LT will help, since it’s all about athletic blockers rather than big bodies. Cleveland and Cincinnati both have good run D so it’ll be tough to see whether it’s gelling over these next 2 weeks, but I guess we all have to be patient. Ozzie and Bisciotti both said after the SB that they’re rebuilding this team for long-term playoff caliber, so this and other issues (young defense, lack of receiver/QB rapport) will simply take time.

  2. Tucker: M&T Sec 527 on said:

    Thank you. Well illustrated and explained. We’ve come to expect so much of Marshall Yanda it was useful for you to show him failing to execute (albeit on challenging multi-man blocking assignments). I understand that Iowa used ZBS in Yanda’s time there. One wonders if his experience and familiarity w/ ZBS is undercut by lingering effects of his shoulder problems. I would think the issue of blocking assignment calls still is a factor in that anticipating which defensive players will be moving/stunting/blitzing on any play helps determine which defenders the offensive lineman can reasonably expect to meet and where, hence Gradkowski’s learning curve on calling blocks complicates the scheme.

    Sounds to me like very complicated choreography that over time would lead to almost as many misses as hits. I guess alll misses aren’t equal.

  3. Jim on said:

    Awesome article! Very good for die hard football fans like myself who actually never played the game. You did an excellent job of breaking down in simple terms what the ZBS is looking to accomplish.

  4. charlie on said:

    i don’t buy it-lighter, quicker lineman like chris chester (remember him) flourish in this zone blocking scheme. our guys are maulers (especially our guards) and we play in a very physical division. with our guy’s physicality come some pretty good athletisim and when the payoffs come around, you will see teams with physical lines flourish-see SF, Pitt, NE.

    • mike on said:

      Even if its a “great scheme,” which may or may not be true, I just don’t understand why we needed to change what has been working since the establishment of the franchise. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, and for this, Juan Castillo has made what should have been a great season, a pitiful and apathetic season for the team. We can still make the playoffs- go back to what worked last season, fire this incompetent coach, and reach the potential that we know this team possesses.

  5. moose10101 on said:

    When I look at the three examples, I see six Texans blocking against six Titans. But I see six Ravens blocking against EIGHT Browns, and seven Ravens blocking NINE Packers. Yes, in some cases they’re making bad choices when they decide who to block, but in these examples, we’d need multiple Hall of Famers on the line to make it work.

    • Tony LombardiTony Lombardi on said:

      Moose this is a great point and I think that play calling and pre-snap reads from Flacco have to be executed better otherwise it will be more of the same. The Ravens have forever dictated tendencies based upon their personnel groupings.

    • Kyle on said:

      Yeah, I tried to hint that problem a little in the Packers example, but should have gone more into it. Perhaps the solution could be some play action, which the Ravens have had success with when they use it this year, albeit they rarely do.

      It’s up to Caldwell and Flacco to get more play actions into the routine, but the benefits would be huge.

      • lobachevsky on said:

        You should not have used as examples plays where the Ravens OL was simply outnumbered. (Now whether you could find an example where they weren’t is a separate & distressing question.)

        Even with your hints, the article strongly implies that the main issue is the linemen being unable to execute the ZBS–when (as you correctly noted in the Packers example) “the running play never had much potential to begin with.”

        No blocking scheme in the universe can afford consistent success when there aren’t enough blockers to go around, & I think your article needs to be revised to emphasize this rather than leaving a mostly false impression.

    • Joe on said:

      This was going to be my point. The example on the Texans showed just 6 in the box (+ 1 defender in motion with a receiver?). Both Ravens examples show the opponent stacking the box. Without having the FB and a TE in to block, very little chance of success blocking 7 guys with 5 OL.

  6. DarthSizzle55 on said:

    Good article, but this is like the 3rd time we have tried it and it never works. Last year we tried and 2 years b4 that we did as well.

  7. Anonymous on said:

    Bottom Line, (as Ray would say), Flacco has to reconize when the defense has an overloaded front line…. if they press with the extra man, call a screen or a Slant 2 in their face on the overloaded side…. (which I have seen him do at times)…

    These guy have to use to brains better and Flacco needs to point our to the guards who they need to block on a given play… better communication is the key… Gradkowski needs to help the Guards too with what he his seeing.. they need to talk and coordinate this better…

  8. Brad on said:

    Kyle – If you had any understanding of blocking schemes you’d know that at least the second play is not on Yanda. There is a playside one technique. On inside zone plays with a play side one, the RG and C double up to the backside backer. Simple as that, and it’s common knowledge. On the first play, are you seriously saying that Yanda is supposed to block both Taylor and the LB? That’s moronic. If you actually look at the pictures, you can see Bajema coming across the formation to trap block the NT while Yanda goes to take the backer. Please try to learn a little something about schemes before you act like an expert and post this nonsense.

  9. Brad on said:

    Also, the first play looks more like an outside zone run by the way Yanda, Gino, and KO take their steps. In this case, it’s completely McKinnie’s fault for getting beat inside. Do your homework dude.

    • Paul on said:

      I would agree that particular play is more on McKinnie than Yanda or Gino. The first screen shot shows McKinnie barely out of his stance with only one arm on the defender. The defender is already crossing the line of scrimmage and has leverage. Pierce had no choice but to cut it back inside for minimal gain unless he did some crazy tecmo bowl spin move to get outside of that defender.

      This is why McKinnie was traded and the Ravens traded for Eugene Monroe. McKinnie is and always has been a lazy blocker, especially when run blocking. Had he done his job correctly, Pierce could have run off-tackle (which is what I think the call was intended to be) and at that point he’d have only been working against their safety and probably the corner on that side. Either way, Pierce would have been able to gain at least 4-5 yards.

  10. Chris on said:

    Brad, there’s really no need for that kind of attitude. If you have something you would like to add to the discussion, that’s one thing, but there is no need to call the person posting the article names. It undercuts your own possibly valid points about the article and makes you seem childish.

  11. Dan on said:

    Kyle,

    Neither of the Ravens plays you broke down are zone blocking plays. Both of them are man schemes. The first one is “Crunch” (works out like a Trap) and the second is “T-Lead”. Both of these are Power run schemes.

  12. Hut Guy on said:

    Kyle, your article was an eye opener to this ol’ fella’. I have been mighty rough on Castillo……so your words have made me decide to give him a second chance. Well done !!

  13. Theresa on said:

    Bottom Line its not working . we have a full blown losing season . I think at the very least season ticket holders should have been notified that the team was tanking this season so John and his buddies can run experiments that are abject failures. Yanda and Rice are pro bowl caliber players now below average players this is not what anyone wants .

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