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"We don’t care if that first step is a bucket step, open step, etc. That’s not important. Getting the helmet to the outside number is critical.

The Covered and Uncovered Concept

By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs [email protected]

At X&O Labs we feel strongly about this subject.  The inside zone play is taught at all levels of ball all across the country, but it’s teaching differs among coaches, which is why we were curious to find a common thread among your methodology.  It took us some time and a good deal of research, but we eventually found how this play can be successful at any level.  But, before getting into the specifics of the scheme, it’s important to first address the reasoning as to why coaches are running it.

Why the inside zone: It’s teaching progression is universal: whether you’re a tight end or a center you only have two rules:  covered or uncovered, it’s that simple.  Many of the coaches we spoke with set up three man drills where ANY two offensive lineman work against a defensive lineman and a linebacker on their zone steps.

It’s injury proof: we’ve found that if you teach the zone scheme, it’s much easier to replace a lineman if someone gets injured.  In gap-oriented schemes like the Wing T, a guard’s job description is nothing like a tackle.  They execute totally different blocks.  In the zone a guard can fill in for a tackle, a tackle can fill in for a center, etc.  They all run the same steps. It’s "plug-in and play" relevant.

It takes what the defense gives up: In this day and age it’s fair to say that defensive lineman as a whole are much better skilled (and more sought after) than offensive lineman.  Just a simple research check on recent NFL draft reports will show the disparity between selections in offensive and defensive lineman.  So why bang your head against the wall asking your offensive tackle to drive block a stud defensive end into the water coolers every down?  A zone scheme teaches lineman to knock defenders on the angle that they’re on, making it a much more simple assignment.

It limits negative plays: if you go back and research inside zone schemes, you will find a very low percentage of plays that lost yardage.  Trust us, we did the work. It’s good against zone pressures: Since you are blocking gaps instead of people in zone schemes, you are protected against that type of first level movement.  We’ve found that the most difficult thing to teach high school players is that they are not blocking people just zones (which are why teams will man block outside zone plays – something we will delve into in an upcoming report with the outside zone).  But once your kids get the concept, the play is productive.

It has tons of complementary action of it: Once you master the techniques of teaching the zone scheme, it really gets fun as a coach.  Off the inside zone action, you have the zone read principle (the QB reads the C gap defender), the orbit reverse principle (slot comes in motion to get reverse or hold C gap defender), the split zone or slice principle (FB or backside motion player seals the C gap defender), the lead zone principle (two back concept, in which the FB lead blocks the front side linebacker) and the bootleg or screen off it. You end up with five plays by teaching one scheme.

But excitement overwhelms you and you begin to put a new page in your spring installation manual – there is one universal truth you must understand before going further.  In order to be effective in running the scheme, you MUST COMMIT TO IT.  You must major in the zone, not minor in it.  Based on our studies, 75 percent of coaches feel the inside zone must be your top run in order for it to be successful.  Because most coaches teach the zone by covered and uncovered techniques, that’s what we will focus on for our report.

Case 1: "Covered" Lineman Technique Before highlighting the specific techniques of the covered and uncovered linemen, it’s important to note the differences between covered and uncovered.  Typically speaking, the covered offensive lineman is the player that has a first level defender (or down lineman) from his nose to the nose of the adjacent offensive lineman next to him to the play side (Picture 1). This means that his adjacent gap is occupied by a down lineman, at least pre-snap.  Sure, by the time the ball is snapped, this player can move into a different gap but players are blocking gaps in zones, not so much defenders.

We’ve found that the covered principle is universal, though the verbiage may change, most coaches disregard an inside shade to be a covered lineman. But while the assignment is understood, the technique may vary from coach to coach.  Some coaches, like Mike DeBord, once the offensive coordinator at the University of Michigan and now the tight ends coach for the Chicago Bears, believes more in hat and hand placement for the covered lineman than footwork.   "We want to control the front half of the defender.  Once we get to the front side number, we want to run him at an angle to the sideline," says DeBord.  "The blocker wants his nose on the outside number of the defender.  We do not want the head down the midline, in the armpit or outside the defender.  Helmet placement is more critical in zone blocking than footwork.  We don’t care if that first step is a bucket step, open step, etc.  That’s not important.  Getting the helmet to the outside number is critical."

DeBord cares so deeply about the hat placement of his linemen; he doesn’t stress footwork on that first step.  We’ve found that many coaches have gone back and forth on the debate of whether use a bucket step or an up field step gaining ground when teaching zone blocking.  Generally, there are two schools of thought on this topic. One of the forefathers of zone footwork, Jim McNally who has had 28 years of experience coaching in the NFL, always believed in the bucket step (a backward step) as a first step.  It’s a philosophy where lineman "lose ground to gain ground" in their assignment.  While this may be used for offensive tackles to handle wide five techniques in the NFL, our researchers have found that 73 percent of coaches believe more in an angle or lead step to the target rather than a bucket step.  We’ve found that it’s more of psychological thing to some coaches, because the words "losing ground" can be construed for some form of blasphemy when dealing with offensive linemen.

Another zone coaching legend, Alex Gibbs, who spent 26 years in the league, was more of a lead step proponent when teaching the zone.  Gibbs was synonymous for having smaller lineman, rumor has it he never coached a lineman over 300 pounds, so it was probably imperative for him to teach his guys to get off the ball with quickness.  "If you’re covered, your responsibility is for the outside half of down lineman if your inside team mate is uncovered," says Gibbs.  "Our first step was always a lead step with the play side outside foot eyeballing outside number of down lineman on you.  The second step is through the crotch of opponent."  It’s that second step that offensive line coaches harp on being the most imperative step.  After hearing Steve Loney, another longtime NFL coaching veteran most recently with the St. Louis Rams speak at a clinic, I remember him talking about taking "any step necessary" to get to the landmark of the defender, which he taught was the middle of the play side number.  He wanted to force the down defender to make a decision by reaching him.  Most of our coaches felt that the second step should be more of a foot to crotch step than any form of crossover step for risk of losing strength and balance.

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Case 2: "Uncovered" Lineman Technique

Regardless of the defensive front, an uncovered offensive lineman is one that does not have a first level player shaded from his nose to the nose of the lineman next to him play side (Picture 2).  It may also mean you have a defender that is an inside shade or second level defender stacked on you.  According to our coaches, the uncovered lineman in zone schemes needs the most attention because they are essentially blocking a gap, not a man, something that can be foreign to younger players.  In zone combinations, the block of the covered lineman essentially becomes a man block while the block of the uncovered lineman is more of a gap block.

Before discussing the post-snap techniques of uncovered lineman, Gibbs drills his players on their thought process pre-snap.  Gibbs emphasizes the importance of understanding which player the uncovered lineman will be responsible for when the ball is snapped.  While it may be true that most uncovered lineman will end up working on a double team, players can move, so a lineman needs to know if he’ll be involved in a solo (one on one) block or a double team.   "A crucial phase of teaching zone blocking is for the uncovered man to know the technique of the down lineman on his covered play side teammate.  For example, if I’m the right guard and I’m uncovered and my play side teammate has a man on the inside shoulder, it is a 90 percent chance that I will end up taking him over.  If he stunts, he will stunt to me. If there is a man head up on him, it is a 50 percent chance that I will end up on him.  If there is a man on his outside shoulder, odds are only about 10 percent that I might end up taking him over.  This all has to be diagnosed pre-snap."

Rich Alercio, the former head coach at Castleton State University in Vermont, talks more to his players about what he calls an uncovered open gap (Picture 3).  In Alercio’s zone system, players that are uncovered that have an open gap to the play side are expected to be second level blockers, meaning they will eventually climb to linebacker level. "This means that there is no defender between your nose and the nose of your adjacent lineman play side," says Alercio. "This means on snap you reach and climb to second level."

When Alercio teaches the open gap principle, he emphasizes feet, not so much hands.  "It’s a no-hand punch because I’m anticipating working up to a linebacker. If the defensive lineman slants, I have time to engage him.  If the defensive lineman doesn’t slant to me I shimmy up to linebacker depth.  We want to stay even and not chase anything.  If he works over the top that’s fine, I don’t chase."

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Staying with the uncovered principle, now if there is an immediate first level threat to the play side of the zone, Alercio teaches the uncovered closed gap technique (Picture 4).  "Now there is a defender in my play side gap.  When I step to my adjacent gap, my eyes stay on near shoulder of the down lineman.  If that shoulder disappears or if it engages with my teammate then I’m climbing."

When Alercio talks to his players about getting to the second level, he doesn’t mention bucket steps, and 64.9 percent of coaches agreed.  "We don’t want to turn our body at all," says Alercio.  "We want everything to stay square." He does this because of the path of the back in the scheme, which we will explain a bit later.  He also has the uncovered lineman on a near shoulder key of the down lineman, whereas the majority of coaches, 52.8 percent teach a near knee principle when determining whether to double team or not.   This means when the near knee of the down lineman comes to you, you engage.  If it goes away from you, you are climbing to the second level.  DeBord gives the Bears a landmark of the helmet of the down defender.  "He doesn’t think numbers, he wants his helmet in front," says DeBord.  "His first step must be for depth. Don’t be in a hurry – check the angle of the linebacker you’re climbing to."

When climbing to the backer, DeBord tells his guys to work to get to the inside number, just like blocking a down defender, but never chase.  "The technique is the same as the down defender.  They just need to get their feet under them on contact.   Those backers are better athletes.  They move better."

Case 3: Techniques on the Play Side (the Double Team) Just some clinic talk here before we go further.  If you get just one thing out of this coaching report this week make sure it is this:  When executing a double-team block at the point of attack, nothing is more important than gettting movement on the down man. I’m sure you may have heard this before, but speaking from experience this is vital.  Some coaches call it "MFGF," an acronym for "Move the Fat Guy First."  Some coaches will say "get your fat on his fat."  Whichever way you verbalize it to your kids, no double team is successful without getting movement on that first level defender.  We’ve all seen numerous instances where our players have been so anxious to get to the linebacker that they don’t do a good enough job of taking care of the 3-technique tackle and he makes the play.  Remember this; a four yard gain is always better than a two yard loss.  If you block the down defender and the back gets his read, you’ll pick up yardage.

Now how you block that down defender varies from coach to coach.  Different coaches have different philosophies on when to attack that first level defender.  Traditionally, the covered lineman is the post player who will work to execute a play side shoulder or crowther block to get "lift" on the down defender, while the uncovered lineman will look to take over.  Some coaches refer to it as the "hip" position (Picture 5), because both uncovered and covered linemen are getting their hips together to create a bigger blocking surface.  Once they get fit in this hip position, they are asked to drive the down defender until the linebacker is at their level, and never before that.  Gibbs tells his covered lineman to always expect a man block, only to come off when they are "wiped off" by their uncovered partner.

According to Gibbs, there will only be three scenarios when zone blocking.  His players must know each of these:

  1. Down lineman is in an outside shade and stretches outside – you stay on him and uncovered teammate works through to linebacker (Picture 6).
  2. Down lineman is head up and anchors (doesn’t move) on you – use double team technique driving him into linebacker. Stay on him until wiped off by uncovered teammate then work straight up to linebacker (Picture 7).
  3. Down lineman head up or inside shade and slants inside – force him to flatten his slant and stay on him until wiped off by uncovered teammate then work straight up to linebacker (Picture 8).
As for the uncovered lineman, most coaches talk about reading the near knee or hip of the first level defender (as mentioned previously), but DeBord gets a little more technical with his teaching progression.  "As the uncovered lineman steps into his area he looks at the defender on the covered lineman.  If there is a piece of the defender showing inside of the covered lineman’s block, he knocks him over to the covered lineman and continues to push off and climb to the linebacker," says DeBord.  "But if the uncovered lineman steps play side and there is three-fourths of the defender’s body showing, the uncovered lineman takes over the defender.  He tries to get to the front side number just as if he were covered.  If the defender works outside, there is not much of his body to see, so he goes to second level."
Case 4: Techniques on the Back-Side (Scoop or No Scoop) On the back-side of inside zone schemes, a decision needs to be made as to whether or not to scoop it or full zone it. In most outside zone schemes, coaches tell their back-side to run to reach or cut-off all back-side defenders.  But because of the potential of the inside zone play to cut-back, some coaches want to stress the idea of getting separation. Both DeBord and Alercio have differing opinions on how to handle the back-side of zone.  DeBord feels the best way to be effective is to work on getting depth by drop stepping his lineman in an attempt to cut-off defenders.  "The back-side takes a drop step.  They take a step so that their toes face the sideline.  They have to get their hips and shoulders going down the line of scrimmage. Their aiming point is the inside armpit of the defender.  They try to dip and rip his back shoulder through the outside defender to get to his block (Picture 9).   If they get their back-side shoulder too high, they will not get through to the block.  Once he gets to his aiming point, they starts to work his shoulder up field.  He continues to run to the sideline once he gets his leverage established."

As mentioned earlier, Alercio doesn’t buy into any form of a drop step when his players can lose ground.  Any time his player is covered an on the back-side, he talks about taking a base step with the play side foot in order to keep his shoulders squared. "If you’re in a combination block, you’re going to block half the man.  You can’t commit the play side shoulder because that will turn the body.  If the defender stays in the gap I’m blocking, I’m going to try and lift that shoulder and get him vertical but I won’t be turning my shoulders," says Alercio.  "You never know if that play can come back.  Plus, once you turn your shoulders you give the back a one-way go.  We want that two-way go off your block."

Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.

Concluding Report

The inside zone scheme has been a staple of productive offenses ever since its inception – when coaches like Alex Gibbs and Jim McNally implemented it in their offensive schemes.  When X&O Labs first got the results of the survey, we found that while many coaches were using the zone scheme, 75 percent say it is run more than 15 times per game, the teaching behind the footwork of the running backs and lineman differed from coach to coach.  As always, we try to provide you with the varying viewpoint of the scheme so you can make your own decision to what fits your program.  After all, isn’t that what coaching is about?

Question for You: Does your program teach the Bucket Step? Tell us what footwork you believe works best with the inside zone - post in our "Comments" section below.

Copyright 2011



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