Welcome to Football 101 presented by The Painted Lines! In this ongoing offseason series, I will be breaking down football concepts to help you better understand what you are watching on Sundays. Each article will take a deep dive into a specific component of the game. We will also be updating a cheat sheet throughout the series that you can bookmark or print out for quick reference on game days. You can also join our public discord to interact with our writers and podcasters and talk X’s and O’s.

If you have missed any of the previous articles of this series you can check them out below:

Without further adieu, let’s dive in!  Today we are going to take a look at the two main run blocking schemes: man blocking and zone blocking.


Man Blocking

Man blocking schemes, also called power or gap blocking schemes, are designed to give the running back a predetermined hole to run through and offensive linemen are assigned a man to block away from the hole.  

Each offensive lineman is aware of his blocking responsibility and, at the snap of the ball, fires upfield to attack their man.  Regardless of the angle the defender takes, the offensive player has to attack him and seal him off from the hole that the running back is targeting.  Because everyone on the offense knows the hole in advance, man blocking plays limit the time that a running back spends behind the line of scrimmage and thus limit negative plays.

Since the hole is predetermined, it removes the decision-making element from the running back’s mind.  For running backs who don’t have the best vision, man blocking schemes are a better fit.  All that is required is that the running back can run with power and can explode through the hole.

Man blocking schemes are easier to execute and limit negative plays, but there are downsides to this approach.  One big downside is that it can become very predictable for the defense.  Once a defense has seen enough to spot the tells in your play calling, they can overwhelm the hole with more defenders than the offense is able to block.  The other major downside to man blocking schemes is that it greatly limits the use of run-pass option plays (RPOs).  Because the offensive line is attacking up the field quickly, the quarterback deciding to abort the handoff and throw a pass will often trigger an illegal man downfield penalty.

HB Dive

In this example, notice how the offensive line fires forward at the snap, and Mile Sanders takes the handoff with his pads squared to the line of scrimmage.  There is no hesitation as he reads the play and searches for the hole.  This play is designed to run through the A gap (the hole between the center and guard) and the running back isn’t supposed to read anything.  He is just supposed to trust the offense to create the hole and hit it hard.

Power O

Another common man blocking run is Power O.  Power O typically pulls the offside guard across the formation to deal with the play side defensive end.  In this example, LT Jordan Mailata and LG Issac Seumalo both pull across the formation.  These extra blockers free up TE Dallas Godert and RT Matt Pryor to ignore the defensive end and get to the 2nd level.  Again, there is no hesitation from Miles Sanders as he followers his blockers into the predetermined hole for a touchdown.

Zone Blocking

Zone blocking schemes give the running back options and cutback lanes while offensive linemen are assigned an area to block instead of a specific man.  Rather than attacking upfield at the snap, the offensive linemen typically move at a 45-degree angle towards one of the sidelines, often leaving the backside defensive end unblocked to generate a numbers advantage.  The running back takes the handoff mirroring the offensive line, with his pads at a 45-degree angle rather than parallel to the line of scrimmage as in a man blocking play.

The idea of a zone blocking play is to string the defense out towards the sideline and get them to overcommit to one area while giving the running back multiple cutback lanes so he can make the defense wrong no matter what holes they chose to plug.  Linebackers essentially are forced to beat the running back to the sideline while avoiding blockers and if they overcommit then the running back just cuts behind them to get upfield.  Because of all the options available to the running back, the play can be very difficult to stop even if the defense knows what is coming.  Zone running schemes also open the door to RPOs because the offensive line spends more time behind the line of scrimmage, giving the quarterback the window needed to abort the handoff and throw a pass without drawing a flag.

So why doesn’t every team primarily run zone blocking schemes?  Because there are some downsides as well.  First of all, zone blocking is much more difficult to execute.  If 2 offensive linemen aren’t on the same page it can result in a lineman who was expecting help getting run over by a defender when the help doesn’t come.  Holding penalties can happen more frequently on zone running plays as well when a defender tries to change directions in reaction to a cut back if the offensive lineman fails to recognize it and disengage quickly enough.

While zone running plays have a bigger potential for explosive plays they also have a bigger potential for disaster in the form of big losses or costly penalties.  They also require a running back who is a quick processor with good vision to find the correct hole.  But they don’t require offensive linemen to be able to straight out muscle powerful defensive linemen.

Inside Zone

On this inside zone play call, the offensive line moves at an angle towards the top of the screen rather than attacking straight upfield.  Miles Sanders takes the handoff but isn’t concerned with getting to the line of scrimmage fast.  He is patient as he reads the blocks that are setting up in front of him and even makes a hesitation move at the 22-yard line before picking a cutback lane and accelerating through it for a 3 yard gain.

RPO Inside Zone

This is an inside zone running play with an RPO element to it.  The 2 receivers at the bottom of the screen, TE Zach Ertz and WR Greg Ward, fire out blocking while Jalen Reagor bubbles behind them for a potential screen pass.  Janoris Jenkins reads this play and dives down from the safety position so it isn’t open and the Eagles run the handoff instead.  Even the handoff itself is another read, as Jalen Hurts is reading #58 to see if he takes the running back or the QB on the option.  He goes towards the QB so Hurts hands the ball to Miles Sanders.  

Just by using this play design and reading its options correctly, the Eagles have taken 2 defenders out of the play without having to block them, thus generating a numbers advantage at the point of attack.

Miles Sanders reads that the defense is overcommitting to the play side, and he cuts back to the left, getting outside of the LT Jordan Mailata and could have had a big play if not for the athleticism of Kwon Alexander who is able to recover from attacking Jalen Hurts and get his hands-on Sanders to slow him down.

Split Zone

This play is called Split Zone or Inside Zone Split.  It is blocked just like any other inside zone play with the offensive line moving at an angle to the left side of the field.  The Center scrapes by the defensive tackle to get to the second level while the RT and RG double team the other defensive tackle, leaving the backside defensive end unblocked.  The key difference between Inside Zone and Split Zone, is the TE pulling across the formation to cut block the unblocked defensive end.  This creates a potential cutback lane all the way across the formation if the TE is able to land a good block.  In this particular play, the block is shrugged off by the DE and no cutback lane is opened, nevertheless, it slows him down long enough for Miles Sanders to find a hole on the play side of the formation for a 4 yard gain.

Stretch

Stretch is another common zone blocking play and one of the easiest to see.  At the snap the offensive line moves out to the right, engaging their targets and attempting to move them laterally to create a hole.  If the defense is too aggressive flowing to the sideline they will create a cutback lane for Miles Sanders to generate a big play.  This time they don’t overcommit, but they let Sanders beat them to the edge and he turns the corner for an 8 yard gain.


That concludes our primer on man and zone blocking schemes. Don’t forget to go back and check out our articles on defensive coverages if you missed those and click on over to the cheat sheet if you want a quick refresher. The links for both are at the top of the page.  Keep it tuned to the Painted Lines for our Football 101 series and let us know if there is something, in particular, you would like us to cover.  Next week we will continue talking about the trenches, exploring some terminology, and talking about how the offense utilizes slide protection in pass blocking.