A big part of the Miami Dolphins' ability to run the West Coast offense will stem from whether their offensive line can successfully execute a zone-blocking scheme.
That's a big switch for an offensive line that was once predicated on bulldozing offensive linemen who could execute a man-blocking scheme for a smash-mouth running game.
With zone blocking, it'll be less bulldozing and more twinkle-toes-ing. Light-footed offensive linemen who are agile and quick are more the taste for new head coach Joe Philbin.
The 6'7", 317-pound tackle Jake Long, the 6'5", 349-pound guard John Jerry and the 6'3", 324-pound guard Richie Incognito are just the most egregious examples. But for years, from top to bottom and left to right, the Dolphins built their offensive line around three words: bigger and stronger.
Now, in one offseason, they're hoping to change that. They'll look to integrate new guys; that became apparent when the team didn't re-sign tackle Vernon Carey and drafted tackle Jonathan Martin in the second round.
But how do the holdovers fit into the new scheme?
First, let's get a feel for what exactly a zone-blocking scheme is. For that, we turn to Ben Volin of The Palm Beach Post:
In a zone blocking scheme an offensive lineman is responsible for an area of the field instead of a specific man. The offensive line usually flows in the same direction – all five players moving left or right – and relies heavily on double-teams and cut-back blocks on defenders. Offensive linemen have more horizontal movements than just straight down-field.
The running back, in turn, must be more patient to let the holes develop. The zone blocking scheme generally results in a "one-cut" run for a running back, in which he plants his foot and darts up-field after patiently waiting for his hole to form.
The Dolphins were building toward a man-blocking scheme when they drafted offensive tackle Long and center Mike Pouncey. Both are athletic enough to execute a zone-blocking scheme, but there are question marks at the other offensive line spots.
Pouncey isn't concerned.
"I think it's gonna benefit [us] great," Pouncey said, according to the Sun-Sentinel. "We have a lot of athletic guys up front that can run. I think the zone scheme is better for us instead of the power scheme."
This offseason, they've added a few linemen who can execute their scheme.
Martin's scouting report reads like the gospel of zone-blocking offensive linemen.
National Football Post scout Wes Bunting says Martin, "Exhibits good short area quickness when working in tandem on a combination block and then quickly reaching a defender off his frame at the second level." Renowned scouting website FFToolbox says, "Martin's strengths revolve around his high football IQ, quickness and ability to move well in open space."
His experiences in blocking for quarterback Andrew Luck and Stanford's passing game as well as his physical skill set should make him a great fit in the zone/slide protection scheme.
They also added journeyman offensive lineman Artis Hicks, who takes journeyman to a whole new level, having played multiple spots on the line in multiple NFL cities.
As Volin points out, one thing that has stayed largely the same is the scheme he has played in; the zone-blocking scheme has followed Hicks everywhere he's been, from his early days in Eagles head coach Andy Reid's West Coast offense, followed by a four-year stint with Brad Childress' Vikings from 2006-2009. One-year stops with Mike Shanahan's Redskins in 2010 and the Browns under Pat Shurmur and Mike Holmgren in 2011, and all Hicks has ever known is the West Coast offense.
Guard Eric Steinbach is an underrated addition to the line. The former Pro Bowler has started 124 games in his nine-year career, missing four games total before missing all of 2011 following back surgery. His frame (6'6", 303 pounds) suggests he could be a fit, but it's all about the athleticism. Has he lost any athleticism following that procedure?
The Dolphins let Carey walk, likely because they didn't see him as a fit, so the open spot at right guard could be filled by Hicks or Steinbach if the younger Jerry isn't able to finally live up to expectations.
One holdover the Dolphins are really counting on is Incognito. He always has been known as a tenacious run-blocker who is at his best when he can be aggressive at the point of attack. He was a big reason Reggie Bush was able to run for more than 1,000 yards last season, so his transition to the zone scheme will be pivotal for the offense.
If he's able to make that transition, the switch in scheme could be seamless for the Dolphins without too much turnover on the line. Even if it's not, though, the Dolphins have at least given themselves a chance to field the five best offensive linemen for the job.
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