It’s no secret that the Minnesota Vikings had one of the worst running games we’ve seen in some time. For much of the year, the Vikings were flirting with comparisons to the 1953 New York Giants, who averaged 2.64 yards per carry. While the Vikings improved their running game over the course of the season, it remained a clear priority heading into the offseason.
To that end, the Vikings drafted Dalvin Cook, Pat Elflein and Danny Isidora while also signing two tackles in free agency. Improving the talent at a position is a tried-and-true method of revitalizing one aspect of play, but the Vikings might also be changing how they block.
Every team in the NFL runs some mix of zone running and man blocking schemes (sometimes called “gap” blocking — we’ll use those words interchangeably here but many coaches strongly believe there is a difference while some coaches do not). There’s no clearly superior style of running, but some approaches fit better into a player’s strengths and weaknesses than others.
Made famous in the mid-1990s by Alex Gibbs at the Denver Broncos, zone blocking — which had been around for decades before then — zone blocking has become much more familiar to fans in recent years and has been foundational to some of the most successful running games in the NFL today, including with the Seahawks, Packers, Broncos and Falcons.
The Vikings are no stranger to the blocking scheme either. Under previous offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, they employed a mix of zone and man blocking, choosing to emphasize one style of blocking based on the opponent they were playing against. Prior to that, with head coach Brad Childress and offensive line coach Pat Morris, they employed a primarily zone blocking system.
This year will be a return to that emphasis in part to play to the strengths of Cook. Florida State also ran a mix of blocking schemes, but Cook always seemed most comfortable on zone running plays.
“We are running the same thing,” Cook said, referencing the similarities between the Florida State and Minnesota Vikings offense. “Zone, inside zone, outside zone, utilizing me to catch the football.”
Ethan Young with OaSIS Intel and Inside the Pylon summarized why Cook is such a great fit for a zone-running scheme:
Dalvin Cook is the full package of what you look for in an open field zone back. He is a patient runner, who wins with slow play followed by stellar feet and lightning change of direction skills. He sets up his moves well too, and has great vision to boot. His natural feel as a runner is close to unparalleled at times, and that is vital to bring together that skillset in zone heavy scheme.
Not only that, zone schemes tend to emphasize a runner’s vision and feel more than they do his athleticism. That’s not to say burst and agility are unimportant for zone backs, but the one-cut running style typically found in zone-style systems may resolve the concern some may have for Cook’s poor athletic testing — especially his explosion scores.
What is zone blocking?
Broadly speaking, it’s a system of rules designed to accommodate two running plays (inside zone and outside zone) as well as a few wrinkles and counters. While gap schemes can call for dozens of plays, zone schemes are designed around very few.
Because it’s a system of rules instead of specific assignments, it’s meant to be an all-purpose approach to running that creates many lanes. In that way, the running back is responding to conditions as they develop instead of having a gap pre-delegated for him before the snap.
That’s an extraordinarily simplistic way of putting things, and the truth of the matter is that gap schemes are really just rulesets themselves, but this captures much of the differences in approach between the two.
Another difference is that they may ask different fundamental techniques from offensive linemen. The footwork in zone schemes is often lateral instead of straight ahead, and some coordinators ask their linemen to take their first step backward instead of forwards (resulting in the phrase “lose ground to gain ground”).
Early in camp, it seems as if Sparano’s philosophy of first contact — something he asks of his players in pass protection, too –means that the first step may be a “lead” step where linemen step forward at a 45-degree angle.
There are a number of approaches to zone running, and the important thing here is that they remain consistent throughout, because it’s critical that all the linemen are on the same page. Gibbs’ zone running used a lead step, while Jim McNally’s zone running uses a backward step (an angled backward step is called a “drop” step while a pure backwards step is called a “bucket” step) and both were incredible effective.
If zone running is understood as “rule running,” what are the rules?
Essentially, zone runs ask if a blocker is “covered” or “uncovered.” If a blocker has a defender immediately in front of them or on their playside shoulder (playside, predictably, is the direction the play will run in), then they are “covered.” Covered linemen will block the player they are covered by and will attempt to seal them off their playside gap — essentially, get ahead of them. That part is not particularly complicated; it only increases in complexity when a play is “uncovered.”
Any lineman that is not “covered” is therefore “uncovered,” though the rules among those systems tend to diverge. Generally speaking, those rules will determine whether or not to help out an adjacent lineman on a double team or head directly to the second level of the defense to take out a blocker.
Because of this emphasis on movement over power, there’s long been an understanding that quicker linemen — often undersized — are better fits for zone schemes. That’s not always the case, and the inverse is not true 100 percent of the time either; powerful linemen without much speed may be better suited to zone schemes than power schemes for a number of reasons — the way their body naturally orients itself against contact, which types of footwork are more comfortable, their hand placement off the snap, etc.
Slow-footed Phil Loadholt was equally adept as a run blocker in both schemes, and Richie Incognito was dominant in a power-blocking scheme despite a smaller, quicker frame than his contemporaries. The smaller, quicker Jack Conklin is doing significant damage as a power blocker in Tennessee.
These physical traits are certainly suggestive, but they aren’t determinative.
There are additional benefits to running a zone system besides just accommodating Cook and the potential athleticism of the roster.
First, it’s often safer and easier to sell play action. In man schemes, teams will often pull a guard to sell the action while making sure the other plays drive off the ball… but not more than one yard from the line of scrimmage. On the other hand, linemen don’t have to restrict themselves on zone action — they can continue flowing laterally to the sideline as if they are blocking a run. At the same time, there’s no missing blocker from pulling.
Teachability is often touted as another benefit, although that doesn’t really matter as much at the NFL level, where every lineman is likely to learn every scheme at some point in their careers — and will have often come from a run game featuring one or both.
Instead, a related advantage comes from versatility. In the run game, switching sides of the line doesn’t matter as often, but it will sometimes lead to changes in footwork and what foot to drive with, depending on a number of variables involved in each play. In zone schemes, that’s not as much of a problem, as the play side steps and backside steps are similar on either side of the line.
There’s also an argument that zone plays will lead to fewer negative yardage plays. This isn’t a proposition I’ve tested with rigor, but it’s notable when testing against Jeff Ratcliffe’s breakdown of runs by scheme that teams that ran zone plays more often were slightly more likely to have negative runs. When comparing yards before contact, the numbers are about identical.
It seems as if that particular reasoning doesn’t hold up at the NFL level.
The switch in emphasis should be interesting to track as the season progresses. The Vikings may have run more man blocking plays than almost anyone else in the league, so as they move back towards a zone-heavy style of running offense, they might be able to resolve their running woes.