The keys to the basics of blocking are found in the drive block. When an offensive line player is run blocking, the drive block is going to be central to that approach.
Even a zone-blocking team uses them at times: they demonstrate a lot of keys that apply to any form of run blocking. I’m going to present a description of the how-tos of it and also provide a selection of some videos that offer useful tips. The detail that goes into this technique is remarkable. I’m going to keep to just the main points.
The goal of drive blocking is to engage a defender - defensive tackle, end, or linebacker - and to control them to the point where you can move them to the side or backwards, or put them on the ground. You can drive block from a two-point stance - firing out from a crouch - a three-point stance, or a four-point stance. It’s all dependent on which lineman is blocking and what situation they’re in.
Getting ready to block
On this block, you start with your feet just slightly more than shoulder width apart. You have to keep your head up and your shoulders back for good form; the knees are bent. Sometimes you’ll have one foot forward - it’s called a ‘stagger’ - and the back foot is cocked, with the ball of the foot on the turf and the heel off the ground. You want to keep your back flat or slightly arched. The screws on your facemask should be facing straight forward, and since you want to see what you hit, your eyes will be forward as well. That also helps you keep your shoulders back. You never want to hit with the top of your helmet, of course, and you never want to get caught standing up. Good knee/hip flex is essential to good technique. You’re going to take three steps on this block, and each of them has a specific and essential purpose..
You also want to keep your hands in front of you, palms out and thumbs fairly close together. The man with his hands inside his opponent's will usually win that battle. Equally, you want to keep the body coiled and ready to explode into movement, because ‘low man wins’ is the second rule for success.
The first step
Take a small step with your back foot, just brushing the grass about four to six inches to the front of your lead foot in order to adjust the angle of your body relative to the defender. It's usually called a 'directional', 'set' or settle' step. If you take too big a step (called ‘overstriding’), you’ll be off-balance, with your weight forward. Extending yourself forward is a written invitation for the defender to grab you and pull you off your base or even off your feet. For a visualization of the outcome of such a mistake, see here.
When you’re done with this step, your body should still have a slightly arched back, and all of the major muscle groups must still be coiled, ready to unleash your full power on a defender. Some approaches have the beginner cocking his hands back at his hips to get more power into the punch on the next step. It’s a sensible teaching approach, but at the NFL level, it doesn’t happen. The head stays up and back, and you focus your eyes straight ahead, looking at the top of his numbers.
The second step
The second step is usually called the attack step or the power step. It's what it sounds like - you're aggressively going after the defender and you want to maximize how hard you can hit him without sacrificing form. You step toward the inside (playside) foot of the defender, which aligns your body for the block. The best way to perform this step is to pretend that you’re grabbing the grass with your toes as you step forward. That engages the muscles in the feet, legs and hips.
As you take that step your hands come up and out, into the defender at the level of the numbers. You have to keep your head up and your eyes focused on your target. If the hole the runner behind you will be driving through is to your right, you want to get your head on that side of the defender, so you aim your eye focus at the top of the number of that side (the same is true in reverse for a run to the left).
Getting your hands up and into the defender lets you feel where his balance is and to control him, instead of the other way around. The hips should drop slightly as you contact the defender with your hands. The elbows are down close together in preparation for the third step, which will lift the defender and drive him back.
This is also a short step - each of them is. Timing is essential on this block, but one of the keys to success as an offensive lineman is to keep your feet moving, no matter how short the steps. They might just be churning up and down in some situations but the moment that they stop moving, your play is over. Any NFL defender, from a cornerback to the biggest defensive tackle in the league, can beat you once your feet go dormant. The smaller guys will run past or around you; the big guys will just blow you off your feet. If you perform the drive block correctly, you’ll continue to move your feet as you drive your attacker backwards or into the turf. You may need to plant him and move on to the second or even the third level, and you might pancake him and cover him while he’s down to make sure he doesn’t get back into the play. Regardless - until the whistle blows or you’re providing the defender a tegument, you’re not done moving your feet.
The leverage step
The third and final step is called the leverage step. The player - offensive or defensive - who can make the third step the fastest will win the encounter - it’s been proven over and over. That’s why fast feet in an offensive lineman will grab the coaches’ attention quicker than anything else. It’s also why you talk at length about an explosive first step with an offensive lineman: a fast first step makes it easier to get to the third step before your opponent does.
On this step, you want to drive in and up so that your hands are at his numbers and you can lock your pads right up under the defenders’. It makes sense if you think about it - the basic idea of leverage is to fit your lever under the thing to be moved. In this case, the thing to be moved is a defender’s pads. As you step in, you’re driving in, up and under his pad level. If you've done it right, you’ve got your hands inside of his, your pads are locked to and below his, and he's toast - the low man wins. Once your pads are locked beneath his, you continue your momentum in and upward with all the muscles in your body.
Contact between the two of you will be made between two-and-a-half and three steps - the defender might be moving in as you attack. Either is fine, just as long as you get your pads lower than his. Your hands - as fists, with the palm heels or with the edges of them, depending on the coach or the player - should be locked inside. You want to emboss your hands and pads into his body as you explode in and upward. At this point, there’s something called the three-inch rule involved: if you can reach a point where you can drive him upwards three inches as you’re locked into him, you’ll win the encounter every time. Three vertical inches is the point beyond which the defender cannot recover - you can put him wherever you want him at that point, whether that’s to one side and out of the running back’s way or flat on the turf. Remember - the defender has to see behind you to find the ballcarrier. When he lifts his head, he’s vulnerable. There’s room for you to drive in and take him over.
I’d like to emphasize that as you get your pads into him, you also want to drive from the hips, snapping them forward as you drive in, up and back. Why?
Power comes from using the entire body in unison. To accomplish that, you have to learn to move from the core musculature. From a western viewpoint, consider the fact that the core muscles - the hips, abdomen, upper leg, and low back muscles - are the central ‘hinge’ for the human body. If you explode from there, you’re really exploding with everything from the toes to the upper torso - and that’s a lot of muscles working in unison. If you add a simultaneous movement in the chest, shoulders and arms, you have even more force blasting outward. Like adding pulleys on a machine, each of these muscles takes some of the load off the others and helps to creates the ability to move with power. Using a sharp exhale at the moment of maximum exertion also creates more power.
We naturally do this when we ‘grunt’ during an exercise. That grunting is the body automatically tensing the abdomen and using that expulsion of breath to activate the core muscles. If you just expel air sharply, even when sitting in a chair, you should be able to feel the muscles in the hips and abdomen tighten firmly as you do. That’s a smaller version of the same effect.
Blocking for running backs
Here’s a short video of former Packers and Niners running back Del Rodgers giving his take on blocking by running backs, who are often giving up substantial amounts of weight in their encounters. Technique - and one of the most unnatural techniques in the sport - is the key to a running back being effective in the blocking scheme. Del focuses on the importance of using the hands - the edges or heels of them - to hammer into the defender’s middle. If it’s done right, the defender can’t juke you, pull you or push you. You’ve got him. If you’re fighting to block or to tackle a player, focusing on the point where the abdomen and lung cavity meet on the body’s centerline makes it tough for him to lay a fake on you. You can fake a person out with the head, the hands or the feet, but that one point always tells the truth about where the body is headed.
It’s hard to find good broadcast film of clear examples of in-game drive blocking - other players keep getting in the way and no broadcast outlet has tended to say 'Gosh, let’s ignore the ball for a couple of plays and look at the blocking technique that X is using...' I think that a lot of folks would be interested, but it's a pipe dream. At least there’s no shortage of good teaching film. Kiki was the team captain for the 2004 Linfield College football team's Division III National Championship and a two-time NWC First Team All Conference Offensive Lineman. He shared his own approach on basic blocking here:
Enjoy watching for the technique this season. I’ll be trying to add additional ones - goal line, pass pro and play action - as there’s time.