At the 13:33 mark of the third quarter during Saturday's preseason game against Seattle, the Broncos defense found themselves in a familiar position: facing a team that, like their own offense, runs a zone blocking scheme. On the first of back-to-back zone-blocked running plays, Nate Irving sliced through the OL to stop the run, and then David Bruton came up from his safety slot to stop Robert Turbin for a four-yard gain on the second.
Following that second play, Ed McCaffrey made a comment about something that I'd like to cover - he noted that along the Seattle offensive line, each of the players was performing a reach block. What the heck is a reach block, and what does it have to do with zone blocking? Let’s use the first of these two plays as our example. I’ll talk about the second in a subsequent piece.
A reach block is a simple technique that’s used when a lineman has to block an opponent who's either in the gap next to him, or lined up on the teammate next to him. It’s employed when the play is going to require the second blocker (the RG in the diagram below) to move towards a different responsibility - either as part of a full-line zone blocking scheme or perhaps when the second blocker is going to be pulling toward the play side. The reach block is an essential skill for an offensive lineman.
The simple example illustrated here is a center who takes on the strong-side defensive tackle because the guard has to pull on a sweep or toss to the outside. If done right, the center will not only block the DT, but will hook him and prevent him from reaching the play. I set up a diagram illustrating a reach block on a simple running play to show the basic technique:
To perform this technique, the center takes a drop step with his right foot and throws his right elbow back to get his body turned in the right direction. His second step is also in that direction, but on the third step it’s imperative that he makes contact with the DT, turning into him, locking his hands on him, and getting face to face with him. If the center achieves this, the DT is effectively removed from the play. It’s even better if the center is able to control the tackle and run him into traffic - in this case, either into a linebacker or into the right defensive end. If you’re interested, my favorite reference for this is Playing the Offensive Line by Nelson and O’Connor (McGraw Hill pub.), pgs 42-45.
The basic reach block is the foundation of the full-line zone-blocking scheme that Alex Gibbs developed his own wrinkle on (here are links to part one and part two of a lengthy tutorial on his system, via Chris Brown), and of which Denver still runs a variant. In the zone blocking scheme that we usually talk about now, all of the players are using the technique described for the center above in order to get the defensive line all moving in one direction. There are always chances to run the defenders into each other, and into the linebackers who try to crash the line and make it to the backfield. You want to use that motion to help create cut-back lanes for the running back, but it can go both ways - offense or defense.
Nate Irving made it work for him.
On first and ten, the Seahawks are lined up in an I formation with Robert Turbin (22) at RB: they will zone block to the offensive right. The Broncos are in a base formation with Steven Johnson (41) at Mike, and Jerry Franklin (42), on the closed side over the tight end Anthony McCoy (85). Nate Irving (56) is at Sam.
One of the realities of zone blocking is that openings come and go in a split second, and the running back has to the have the skill to read and burst through them instantly. If you want to stop them, your players have to be able to do the same. After the snap, Nate Irving moves with the line and spies his gap...
...and then shoots through so fast that the right tackle Alex Barron (73) misses him cleanly.
Irving gets a hand on Turbin in the backfield. He can’t quite grab on, but it’s enough to slow the big RB...
...which permits the other defenders to swarm to the ball, ending the play with a gain of only two yards.
Irving’s vision and quickness made the play work. It was particularly impressive since, as McCaffrey pointed out, Seattle was blatantly holding on the entire play, something that they did all game. My kingdom for a trained ref...
In the meantime, kudos to Nate Irving for an excellent performance on the play. Denver struggled at times in stopping the run, but Irving did well, and is probably a lock to make the team. It’s the performance of players like him that will dictate how well the Broncos stop the run in the upcoming season.
With the rise in fans’ familiarity with the zone blocking scheme that’s performed by the full OL, many fans aren’t aware of the nuances between inside zone blocking techniques and outside zone blocking techniques. I’ll walk through them if they appear in games later this season.