Posted: 10:03 am Thursday, March 29th, 2012
Days of ‘bigger and stronger’ on offensive line are gone as Miami Dolphins switch to zone blocking scheme
By Post Staff
New Dolphins coach Joe Philbin quickly identified an area of his team on Tuesday that needs to improve in 2012.
“My feeling as I watched the tape, the offensive line needs to get better if our quarterback position is going to play better, and so that’s going to be a priority,” he said at the NFL owners meetings.
Philbin, a former offensive line coach in Green Bay and the University of Iowa, won’t just look to improve the Dolphins’ line, which allowed 52 sacks in 2011, third-most in the NFL. He’s going to change the entire approach.
The Dolphins will be switching to a “zone blocking scheme” this year, which will give the offensive line – and especially the running game – a much different look than in the previous four years under Tony Sparano.
Gone are the days of “bigger and stronger,” which was the motto of the Dolphins’ power running game under Sparano and Bill Parcells. That running game, which Parcells rode to great success with the New York Giants in the 1980s, used a “man-to-man” blocking scheme that required a lineman to identify his man before the snap, then use his power to push the defender downfield to create running space.
For four years, the Dolphins’ criteria for offensive linemen was size and strength: Jake Long is 6-7, 317; Richie Incognito 6-3, 324; John Jerry 6-5, 328; Vernon Carey is 6-5, 340.
But the days of big beef on the offensive line are over in Miami. The zone blocking scheme, which Philbin coached for the last eight years in Green Bay and for four years at Iowa before that, instead places greater emphasis on speed and athleticism on the offensive line.
The concept is fairly simple: In a zone blocking scheme an offensive lineman is responsible for an area of the field instead of a specific man. The offensive line usually flows in the same direction – all five players moving left or right – and relies heavily on double-teams and cut-back blocks on defenders. Offensive linemen have more horizontal movements than just straight down-field.
The running back, in turn, must be more patient to let the holes develop. The zone blocking scheme generally results in a “one-cut” run for a running back, in which he plants his foot and darts up-field after patiently waiting for his hole to form.
The zone blocking scheme is common with teams that run the West Coast Offense. It was made famous by Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos in the 1990s, and has taken hold throughout the league. Teams that use the scheme include Washington (where Shanahan now coaches), Houston (whose coach, Gary Kubiak, is a Shanahan disciple), Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Oakland, Carolina, Seattle and Green Bay. The “stretch” play, an outside run made famous by Peyton Manning and the Colts, will become a staple of the Dolphins’ offense.
The switch to the new zone blocking scheme is a reason why the Dolphins signed Artis Hicks in free agency. Hicks, who has started 71 games in his 10-year career, has played exclusively on West Coast Offense teams that utilize zone blocking – Philadelphia under Andy Reid, Minnesota under Brad Childress, Washington under Shanahan and Cleveland under Pat Shurmur (and Mike Holmgren).
And the zone blocking scheme is why the Dolphins re-signed backup running back Steve Slaton. He saw little action and was mostly ineffective in the Dolphins’ power running game last year, rushing for just 64 yards in three games. But as a rookie in 2008, Slaton rushed for 1,282 yards and nine touchdowns in Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme. Slaton also ran behind zone blocking in college at West Virginia.
“He’s a guy we think fits our system of running the football very, very well,” Philbin said. “That’s his training. That’s kind of his background in the league, so we really felt he was a good fit schematically.”
Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, a fantastic athlete who stands 6-5 and 303 pounds and was the team’s first-round pick in 2011, should excel in the zone blocking scheme.
And if the Dolphins target any offensive linemen in the draft, they will almost certainly come from teams that run “spread” offenses and/or utilize zone blocking – West Virginia, Texas A&M, Michigan, Iowa and Florida State, among them.