How the Zone-Blocking Scheme Impacts the San Diego Chargers

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystJanuary 31, 2013

How well Ryan Mathews adjusts to a new scheme might determine his future in San Diego.
How well Ryan Mathews adjusts to a new scheme might determine his future in San Diego.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

The San Diego Chargers have hired Joe D'Alessandris to coach the offensive line. D'Alessandris spent the last few years with the Buffalo Bills running the zone-blocking scheme and it’s only reasonable to assume he’ll try installing the scheme in San Diego.

A change from the man blocking to zone blocking may or may not be an auspicious change depending on a variety of factors. Changing something like a blocking scheme is pretty significant, and not changing that should be taken lightly.

When Mike McCoy was hired he said he would fit the scheme to his players, but a change to the zone-blocking scheme might tell you all that you need to know about what he thinks of the players on the offensive line. Players than fit a man blocking scheme aren't always poor fits in the zone-blocking scheme but many are.

The Raiders tried changing to the zone-blocking scheme in 2012 and failed miserably. The offensive line struggled initially and Darren McFadden never took to the scheme. McFadden was one of the better running backs in the league in a man-blocking scheme. It should serve as a cautionary tale for the Chargers on how not to do things.

D'Alessandris broke down how the blocking helped the Bills in Week 2 of 2011 against the Raiders. As anyone who plays fantasy football knows, C.J. Spiller turned into an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses. If executed properly with the proper personnel and coaching the zone-blocking scheme will really help the Chargers establish a running game. McCoy was a run-heavy coordinator until Peyton Manning arrived in Denver and don’t be surprised if he tries to lean on the running game a lot more than Norv Turner.

The zone-blocking scheme is a productive scheme when executed properly, but it can be harder for offensive linemen to pick up. The challenge is finding the right linemen and running back to execute the scheme properly. The coaches also need to be able to teach the scheme as it’s significantly more complicated than man blocking.

Zone-blocking linemen are usually lighter and more athletic because getting to the second level is a requirement for the scheme to be a success. The Chargers have a lot of big offensive linemen that aren’t exactly fleet of foot. Louis Vasquez was probably Chargers’ best offensive linemen in 2012 and he’s not a particularly mobile guard at 335 pounds.

The good thing about the zone-blocking scheme is that linemen for the scheme are usually a little easier to find than an offensive lineman for man blocking. Man blocking is just as it sounds and requires the offensive linemen to win one-on-one blocks against defensive linemen who are often the best pound-for-pound athletes on the field.

The other good thing about the zone-blocking scheme is that unproductive man-blocking linemen can successfully make the transition. With Tyronne Green, Rex Hadnot and Vasquez all hitting free agency in 2013, the Chargers can shop around for the right scheme fits. Nick Hardwick and Jeromey Clary also might be able to transition to the scheme successfully.

In your typical outside zone run, the offensive linemen are trying to reach to the outside by moving laterally. To do this the offensive line initially double team the defensive linemen before one of them disengages to block a linebacker. The back-side linemen deploy cut-blocking techniques to slow down the back-side pursuit. The Chargers will have to decide which of their offensive linemen can be successful in the scheme and which free agents would fit that mold.

Since the zone-blocking scheme is not designed to run through a specific gap the running back has much more responsibility for the success or failure of a run. Running backs must be patient and decisive, but they also need to make good decisions. Arian Foster is the prototypical running back for a zone-blocking team. Before Foster it was Terrell Davis.

A heavy burden will be placed on Ryan Mathews to learn the scheme and don’t be surprised if the Chargers bring another zone-blocking running back as opposed to a bruiser that seems like the appropriate complement to Mathews. The Raiders are transitioning back to man blocking and Mike Goodson is a free agent who is a great scheme fit.

What a lot of people don’t realize is the zone scheme can help the Chargers in pass protection to an extent. Since in the zone scheme linemen step laterally or even backward, there are pass plays that can be used that mimic the same look. There are also several passing plays that can be used to play off the defensive line’s fear of the cut block and D'Alessandris demonstrated one such play in his breakdown.

It might take a few years for the blocking scheme to get established, but once it does the Chargers can expect a productive ground game year after year. The Chargers certainly brought in the right teacher in D'Alessandris and the next challenge will be finding personnel.

The Raiders made the mistake of trying to force McFadden to run a scheme that didn’t fit him, but the Chargers have a much cleaner slate. The Chargers aren’t tied to Mathews as a feature back and the pressure will be on him to adjust.

The other mistake the Raiders made was making the transition all at once and using the zone almost exclusively from the start of the season until around Week 6. The zone scheme is tough to practice in non-game scenarios and it took the offensive line some time to get on the same page. D'Alessandris should be mindful of how their offensive line is taking to the scheme and adjust accordingly.