The Steelers could be depending on a 300 lb Beachum playing RG and trying to block a 345lb Haloti Ngata. :GULP: Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A Steelers Zone Blocking Scheme Would Be Death Trap For Roethlisberger and Offense

Jonathan Dwyer attempts to escape three pursuing Ravens defensemen.

If there was ever an omen that struck a cold chill down my spine was when Jack Bicknell Jr. became the offensiveline coach for the Steelers just mere days ago.  There’s a certain style of blocking that Bicknell favors – zone blocking – and based on some comments he gave cited from Gerry Dulac of the PPG, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Bicknell may just implement in the coming season.  That spells trouble the current line, the running game, and Ben Roethlisberger.

The zone block in a run attack pretty much dictates that all of the offensive linemen are smaller and quicker linemen.  That means LT Max Starks, G Ramon Foster, and G Willie Colon are in danger of not returning (Starks and Foster via free agency) this offseason.  All three are over 300 lbs. (Colon is the smallest at 315), and all three have speed issues that could prevent them from having success in a zone blocking scheme.

Starks had his best season in 2012 and was the best lineman of the entire offense.  He started all 16 games and helped protect Ben’s blind side very effectively.  In a running attack, the tackle is to secure the edge by either sealing off a blitz and allow the ball carrier to run inside the tackle or pull to the outside and allow the ball carrier to break outside and upfield.  Starks does well sealing blitzes, but is not fast enough for most outside runs.  With a healthy David DeCastro, Foster’s only option would be LG.  Foster is probably the slowest of the guards, and that is too much to ask on a position that needs to be the strongest pulling blocker.  Colon is the fastest of the three but is still bulky.  In reality, it will be more than likely his history with injuries and a pricey salary that will knock him off the team.

If those three go away, the lineup could be (from Left to Right) Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, Pouncey, DeCastro, and Mike Adams.  Five very young players, and all very talented.  Adams, the biggest of the five, is a very good run blocker and played the right side when the Steelers had three games in a row with a 100-yard rusher.  This lineup, or some variation of it (don’t forget about Doug Legursky) could be a good combination for a strong running attack.  Could be.

So the Steelers could lose veteran linemen for the younger and smaller type.  Check.

What’s the trade off of having smaller linemen?  Well for one thing, the passing game could suffer.  Smaller linemen mean a smaller pocket.  Smaller linemen mean 300 lb men go up against 340 lb or greater defensive linemen.  After the last several years of trying to beef up protection for Ben Roethlisberger, it seems that making your linemen smaller is a step in the wrong direction.  It certainly means that a dink & dunk offense will be in order for the passing game.  Will five linemen on the smaller side really be able to defend monsters like Haloti Ngata all game long?

Dulac points out that all 11 players and all the coaches of the offense need to be on board for this type of scheme – which includes having your quarterback step up and serve a block or two.  As much as I love seeing receivers and QB’s throwing out blocks, watching Big Ben lower that shoulder (alarm bells!!!) or head to stop a pursuing linebacker on the outside does not give me that warm squishy feeling inside.  Queazy maybe.

So with a line this small, albeit fast, it could be trouble for Roethlisberger’s long term health.  Check.

The zone blocking scheme also favors the ball carrier running sweeps to the outside on a regular basis.  That does not bode well for the Steelers current lineup of running backs.  Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman are hands down between the tackle runners.  They are the pounders and grinders.  The only player who could benefit from this type of blocking scheme is Rashard Mendenhall, who is a free agent this offseason.  Even if a scheme like this benefits a runner like Mendenhall (speed), I doubt it would actually benefit Mendenhall in applied situations.  Mendenhall is a hesitant runner and can’t make up his mind fast enough where he wants to take the ball – even when there’s a hole staring him right in the face.  One of the few teams that uses the zone scheme and uses it successfully is Houston.  And, I can tell you that Mendenhall is no Arian Foster.  Mendenhall being the free agent that he is will be too pricey for the Steelers to consider – his poor attitude and his monetary price tag will be too much of a drain on the organizational coffers.  But, do the Steelers really have a choice if their other options are Bruiser #1, Bruiser #2, and ummm Baron Batch?

So now we don’t have a running back that can actually do well in this scheme.  Check.

This is starting to turn into a very messy situation even in just the speculation phase.  With a draft that needs to focus primarily on the defense and a backup QB to Ben Roethlisberger, I don’t think the Steelers can afford using a first or second or even third round draft pick on a running back that might work in a system like the zone block.  It might be a good system to implement in the near future – like when we have a much faster and more dedicated running back and a QB that isn’t worth $102 million dollars.  Just feels like the wrong system at the wrong time.

I applaud Bicknell and Haley wanting to better the running game, but perhaps the team should stick with the man to man blocking for now.


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  • Dom DiTolla

    I’m not sure that I agree with you on this one, Craig.

    In fact, now is as good a time as any to switch schemes with Starks, Colon, and
    Foster all likely on their way out of town. Plus, overall size is not necessarily the determining factor regarding an O-Line and an O-Linemen’s success. Technique, leverage, and footwork also come into play, and if Bicknell does his job, these athletic youngsters could flourish no matter how big or small they are.

    And so what if the Steelers draft a RB early (Rounds 2-4) who can fit the scheme and become an every-down Back (Gio Bernard, Joseph Randle, Johnathan Franklin, and Mike Gillislee)? That is a definite “team need”which must be filled this offseason. And hey, there are some talented Zone-scheme players and ones who could be capable in the scheme that could be had on Day 3 like Ray Graham, Jawan Jamison, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Zac Stacy, and Dennis Johnson. Even if the Steelers stay with aMan-based scheme, they will still need to find a capable every-Down Back regardless, because Dwyer and Redman are most effective in “battering ram” roles.

    If the team was suggesting this after the 2010 or even after last season, I would have to question their logic. But I for one will keep an open mind if said change occurs.

  • bruce donohue

    Randle and Franklin but no Gillislee we dont need another soft rb from florida. Not sold on Graham only 1 1000yd season and he was injured in 2011. Rather try to trade a 3rd or 4th rd pick to NO for Ivory. He is worth it and we know what he can do. We have no idea on what these rookies will do if anything thats why we wait till late and draft Ellington he is similar to Willie P with speed.Ilike Le’veon Bell and Ball but we have other pressing issues like ILB and S

  • Eric Castiel Walters

    I like some of your points here but totally disagree with you. You speek of the Zone blocking and personel being a disaster as though we will play a game tomorrow against the Ravens. Ummm NO.

    They have all offseason to prepare for this which includes a free agency which we will not perticipate much in unless Kevin Colbert has a win now philosophy this year; doubtful. The draft always is a tricky thing that when we know our direction, such as transitioning to the Zone blocking scheme, can benefit us in the long run. The Defense is not as bad off as ESPN says it is. This happened last year, ESPN throws drama to the wind about how this team would be terrible if they didn’t go out and get a playmaking ILB in the first round to start on day one. Ummm if I’m not mistaken we didn’t did we? oh thats right we didn’t get a defensive player till the 3rd round and he got hurt in training camp. So I guess our defense was terrible last year. (#1 overall, #1 against pass and #2 against run, Terrible right?????)

    Actually the team was even worse on the Offensive side of the ball than what got Bruce Arians out the door. Which was all do to conditioning and injury problems. Which have hurt us since the Super Bowl run against the Green Bay Packers. This draft will see a 50-50, or 3-4 split of Offense and Defensive players.

    Look for a QB, RB, WR, OL with a OLB/DL, CB/S, ILB in the draft.

    I do agree that it will effect our pass protection but our pass protection isn’t exactly perfect with man to man. Ben has been hurt in the last three seasons which have put our teams chances for a SB in the hospital bed next to him. So possibly it could help. And as they say when it is brock, fix it with duct tape. Well that has been the last three years or more for us. When one goes down throw another. And having a makshift O-Line only makes things worse. So perhaps have smaller more physical guys up front will give us more stability to move on a grow with an evolving league.

    From what I have seen I love Randle and his explosive and powerful play. He would be worth the pick no matter what round he ends up in. Although Bruce I will say that Gillislee is somewhat soft, but he does have a very fast cut and is very good with decision making. I was there when he put up what seemed to be 250 years (more like 150, but whatever) on my school the first game of the season. And my school had a top 10 defense in the country in an offense happy conference. He is deceptively fast and can out run about anyone. But I would take Randle in a heartbeat over him.

  • zyzak

    They already run 35-40 zone

  • Niyi Delano

    I have been praying for Zone for the past few years and to see this team finally commit to it is awesome. So with that said, i am 100% opposite from your assessment.

    First, the over powering your opponent with your O-line doesn’t truly exist anymore. There is always a draw-back somewhere. Also with the O-line the Steelers will be switching to, we have the 2 guys we drafted to play tackle, we still have our center, and Decastro. Beachum will be the only one playing a new position while the others play the position we drafted them to play.

    Second, zone running backs are easy to draft and you don’t even have to pick them up early. Like Arians foster who was undrafted, or Ryan Torrain for the Redskins who was drafted in the 6th round who rushed for over 1600 yards. I don’t even think the steelers as a whole rushed for 1600 yards.

    Third, with our dink and dunk offense, a zone blocking scheme works better, because you have O-Line men with speed. It will also help if we put in screen plays, since you have more athletic linemen blocking down the field.

    Finally, smaller doesn’t mean weaker, it just means the player doesn’t have a lot of fat on him. The extra fat works when run blocking not pass blocking when you are going backwards.

  • Erik

    This is one of the dumbest posts I’ve read in a while. Talk about false dichotomies. He’s clearly trying to drum up extra readers with an inflammatory title, I’m ashamed it worked on me…

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