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The Redskins’ zone run-blocking scheme

After the Redskins’ offense woke up from its season-long nap last Sunday, I figured I should go heavy this week on stories about the offense. I mean, who knows how long this production will last, right? By Sunday night, the storyline might revert to ineptitude.

So for Thursday’s paper I wrote about Sunday’s improved offensive line play. And for today, my story was about the Redskins recent success in the red zone. Check them out if you’re hungry for some Redskins positivity.

In talking to a number of players and coaches for the two stories, I realized that I didn’t know enough about the Redskins’ zone run-blocking scheme. A lot of teams run similar schemes, and this isn’t anything new with the Redskins–they’ve been doing it for a while now. But I realized that I needed a tutorial, and it helps to have access to the men responsible for coaching and executing it.

I spoke to offensive coordinator Sherman Smith (who calls Washington’s running plays) and left guard Derrick Dockery about it.

In oversimplified terms, zone blocking requires offensive linemen to block in front of the running back’s aiming point. Linemen don’t necessarily come to the line of scrimmage with a specific defender to block, as they would in a ‘man’ blocking scheme. They know the play is designed to go one direction, so they lead in that direction and try to clear a path. Then it’s up to the running back to read which hole or cutback lane will allow him to gain the most yardage.

When the zone blocking scheme is working effectively, as it was for much of Sunday’s game–especially in the second half, you’ll see two Redskins linemen double-teaming a defensive lineman off the snap in a combination block. Then, one of those linemen will break off and proceed into the second level to block a linebacker or defensive back.

If the running back can get past the line of scrimmage before making his first cut, that keeps the defense on its heels. Ladell Betts did a very good job with this on Sunday, in part because he had some big holes at the point of attack.

Here are some Q&A’s that get into more details. I found them helpful, and I hope you do, too.

Q: Describe in layman’s terms what zone blocking is?

Dockery: "Zone blocking is a combination of five guys working together. Usually you try to get as many double teams as you can, whether it’s guard/tackle or center/guard, backside-guard/center, backside-guard/tackle. Sometimes guys are going to be matched up one-on-one, so the most [important] part is trying to get two guys on one and work from a D-lineman to a linebacker."

Q: What are some of the keys to success?

Smith: "They have combination blocks to the second level, so it’s timing. Guys have to work on their timing coming off-tight ends working with tackles, tackling working with guards, [fullback] Mike Sellers working with the tight ends."

Q: So linemen are making reads at the line of scrimmage regarding which defenders to double team?

Smith: "It would be great if everyone could hear all the conversation that goes on between those guys. A lot of times if you can get people set, then guys can see their blocking combinations. Then they know: OK, here we’re going to ‘Ted’ block, here we’re going to ‘Tuss’ block, we’re going to "deuce" to this, "trey" to that. That’s what you hear them saying up there. They’re just saying here are our blocking combinations as we zone block."

Q: How is that different from man blocking?

Smith: "Most of the time if you’re running trap plays, counter plays, [blocking assignments] are more specific. There’s going to be a kick-out block, and [the running back goes] inside the kick-out block. On zone plays you give them an aiming point, but you say, ‘Read it.’ Let’s say that’s my aiming point, you could get there and the defender is going that way. That means I’m going the other way. You go to an aiming point."

Q: And you all did that better on Sunday against Denver?

Smith: "If there’s success, you did it better. And a lot of zone blocking is just getting on a guy. If you get on a guy, then a good running back can use that. The big thing you don’t want to do with zone blocking is turn people free. If you turn people free, that’s a problem. In zone blocking, we tell them: If you can stay on your guy, then a halfway decent running back can do something."