Offensive linemen have one of the roughest and toughest jobs in the NFL. They are responsible for helping the offense produce yards and points by protecting the quarterback from the rush and creating open gaps for the running back. Still, they receive little recognition. Hopefully, with this guide, that will change.
The Offensive Line
Many fail to realize is the skill, technique and knowledge that goes into this position. Even more fail to realize that pass protection and run blocking are different skills and require different skill sets. Often, these skills are determining factors when deciding to place that newly acquired offensive lineman at tackle or guard.
As a tackle, your primary objective will be maintaining speed rushers, even on run plays, so you need to be better at pass protection. Guards, lined up inside, are expected to deal with the bigger run stopping forces, and thus, often need to be better at run blocking.
Doing any blocking is easier said then done. The defense is always scheming to take advantage of the offensive line and to confuse them with different fronts or blitz schemes in an attempt to conceal the blitzer. As a result, is up to the quarterback or the center to call out the blocking assignment adjustments if they feel any are neccessary. They need to sync up and be sure of their assignments if they are to have any form of success blocking.
This is a different position altogether in explaining how skill sets work within the position because all players need the same skills, if even at varying degrees. Footwork, balance, leverage and smarts are the main prerequisites for an offensive lineman.
Working within the scheme
The most important concept for any offensive lineman is to work within their scheme. This cannot be stressed enough by any coach to their player. All play designs begin and end with determining which blocking assignments are given to each offensive lineman.
Obviously, it would take all day to explain how every blocking scheme works. And, to be quite honest, some of the professional blocking schemes are beyond my expertise as a high school coach.
Zone-blocking schemes (ZBS)
Zone blocking is a type of scheme used by coaches to have their offensive lineman block opposing players. In this scheme the offensive lineman block an area of the field, or zone, as opposed to a particular man as seen in the Man Blocking Scheme (MBS).
The ZBS requires a different type of player than the MBS. A lot of fans just think "light" players when it comes to ZBS, but that’s not necessarily the case. You need linemen who are "light on their feet", and have better balance than average linemen. You still need the mass and muscle that is a requirement of the position to begin with.
Now it is important to remember that all teams use a combination of both schemes, but generally favor one or the other. Teams use ZBS in an effort to help neutralize stunts, slants, and blitzes without having to identify and/or adjust first. It can eliminate 30-50% or sometimes even more of the adjustments that need to be made or called pre-snap. However, in the run game it can be used to create larger gaps in one area at the sacrifice of a bit of protection elsewhere on the line. More on that later.
The ZBS, when used for running, is when two or three offensive linemen work in tandem as opposed to each offensive lineman having a specific, predetermined man to block. The key is for two linemen to come off in unison and attack a single defensive lineman to the play side. Then, as the play progresses, one of them leaves and moves to the second level to block a linebacker. The key is for the linemen to have chemistry so they can decide who and when one of them will leave to block the linebacker.
This it will create a "crease" for the running back, but often times leaves one defensive lineman opposite the play side free to get into the backfield. That is why ZBS schemes often run counters. They attempt to draw the defense away from the play side first to allow the runner to "cut-back" and run into the crease. That is why teams like Denver rely on one-cut runners with a really strong cut back ability.
Now the linemen must do 4 key things for this to work.
- They must stay hip to hip with each other. Without enough repetitions together, you will probably see offensive lineman tripping over each other. This, interestingly, is why offensive linemen in this scheme rank among the highest in high ankle sprain injuries.
- They need to keep their shoulders square to the line. This keeps their arms within reach of making a play and help conceal any potential foot movement, as well as help explode into their block.
- Most importantly, both linemen have to keep their eyes on the linebacker. They must know where he is at all times and be aware of his assignment based on his first few movements.
- Finally, they must communicate with each other and know who is going to take over the defensive lineman and who is going to move to the second level.
Now, for the individual linemen, there are two basic techniques for the linemen when running a ZBS: Zone Block Right and Zone Block Left. As the names indicate, Zone Block Right is for plays and the double teams to be run to the right of the center. Zone Block Left is just the opposite. Then you put this together and run Inside Left and Inside Right, or Outside Left and Outside Right.
Basic Steps in ZBS
As for the actual footwork there are four basic steps, depending on what side of the play you’re on and where your zone is.
- The Drive Block is when the offensive lineman fires straight out and drives the man in front of him back. This is used if you are on the front side of the play (the play is on your side, such as a left tackle or left guard on a Zone Block Left) and your zone is directly in front of you.
- The Turn Step is where you take your play side foot and step about six inches at a 45-degree angle away from your body and to the play side. The second step is a long forward step with your backside foot putting you at an angle to the play. This is used if you are on the front side of the play and your zone is not directly in front of you. Generally, this is used by the second man on the double team.
- The Scoop step is where the blocker takes a short step laterally, away from the play, to block the back side blocker. This is used if you are on the back side of the play and the zone is not directly in front of you. This is generally where the cut block is used to cut off backside pursuit.
- The Bucket Step is a short backwards step to the outside where the foot lands at a 45 degree angle to the outside putting an offensive lineman on a 45 degree track up field. It is basically a backwards turn step. This is used if you are on the back side of the play and the zone is directly in front of you. Unlike the Scoop Step, these players generally don’t use the cut block. Instead, they continue on an angle looking to block the player who shows on the next level in the event that the defender beats him to the inside.
Now that you understand the concepts of Zone-blocking schemes and how the linemen must work within them, the concepts behind man-blocking schemes are relatively easier to understand. Man-blocking often relies on more play-specific assignments per player and is heavily determined by the adjustments that are made pre-snap.
For instance, it's possible for the left tackle and the left guard to have completely different assignments, such as the guard "pulling to the outside" (moving to the outside to make a block on the end or backer) while the tackle is then assigned to the defensive tackle left free by the pulling guard. Every offensive lineman is assigned to a defender in an MBS, but their assignments for that block will always vary and is predetermined by the play and any adjustments that were made.
With offensive lineman, it all comes down to playing with leverage and within your scheme. It is the most scheme-determined position on the offense, relying heavily on the players to do what is mapped out for them. While some offensive lineman are devastating players, it's quite possible to have average talent on the offensive line but still have one of the best in the game if they play within their scheme, work well together and don't make any mental errors.