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Why the Miami Dolphins' Use of Zone Blocking Dooms the Offensive Line to Failure

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Why the Miami Dolphins' Use of Zone Blocking Dooms the Offensive Line to Failure
(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Easily the worst aspect of the Miami Dolphins has been their offensive line. 

Through the first seven games of the season, Miami's offensive line has allowed 26 sacks, which is ranked 30th in the NFL

A lot of that can be pinned on the poor execution of the Dolphins personnel along the line, but there's more to it than that. 

Miami's offensive linemen are merely round pegs that the coaching staff is attempting to fit into a square hole; they work best with man-to-man blocking schemes but are currently being used in a zone-blocking scheme. 

What's the difference between the two? Almost an entirely different language and entirely different roles. 

Here's an explanation of zone blocking from former Notre Dame and current New Mexico head coach Bob Davie from an article he had written on ESPN.com back in 2002: 

Zone blocking in the running game is when two or three offensive linemen work in tandem as opposed to each offensive lineman having a specific, predetermined man to block. Zone blocking involves the center, guard, tackle and tight end working in combination to block an area with an emphasis on double-teaming the defensive linemen who are aligned on the line of scrimmage.

The concept is for two adjacent linemen to come off in unison and attack a defensive line to the play side or to the side the ball carrier is going. The advantage, as opposed to man blocking, is that you create a double-team with two players blocking one defensive lineman. This allows the offensive linemen to be aggressive because he knows he has help if his defensive lineman was to pinch inside. It also provides movement at the point of attack, which can open creases for the running back.

This type of blocking requires quick and agile offensive linemen; however, the only two linemen in Miami's system that fit that description are center Mike Pouncey and right tackle Jonathan Martin. 

You could see where some difficulty could arise here, as this is how it's supposed to look when run-blocking in this scheme. 

Now here's how Miami's run blocking has looked this season, with a running play that went for no gain against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5. 

This is how the blocking should've gone. 

Instead, the play was a stretch play, which was meant to capitalize on zone blocking. But because it was so poor, Lamar Miller found himself getting stopped for no gain by Richie Incognito's man on the play, Daryl Smith. 

I could've chosen plenty of running plays from any of Miami's first five games, and you would've seen a result like that: no gain, or worse, a loss. The Dolphins seemed to have improved on that front, but pass protection remains a problem. 

Here's Bleacher Report's Matt Miller's explanation on zone pass blocking: 

Zone-blocking, or area-blocking, has become more common as the NFL shifts to a pass-first league, but it can be a dangerous principle if there is poor execution.

A zone scheme calls for one side of the line to operate without designating whom to block, but each player is responsible for an area after the ball is snapped.

This can be dangerous if the defense stunts (where two defensive players switch places after the snap to rush the passer), as the offensive linemen can be matched up poorly. 

Zone schemes work very well against base defenses, as the offensive linemen are rarely matched up in one-on-one situations and can help each other. If the right tackle is struggling, the guard can often chip the inside shoulder of the pass-rusher to assist. In a man scheme, this isn't possible.

During my coaching tenure, we employed zone-blocking for passing downs, as we had a smaller offensive line that was better at sliding to the left or right to protect a rolling quarterback. A zone scheme can be great for roll-outs and also for quick-strike passing attacks. 

Note what Miller says, and you'll see how the Dolphins offensive line gets owned on a weekly basis. While zone blocking works well against base defenses, it's dangerous if the defense stunts.

Defenses have been stunting against Miami all season long—an adjustment best seen against the Buffalo Bills in the fourth quarter when Mario Williams forced Ryan Tannehill's fumble. 

Considering that the Bills had begun that practice at the start of the fourth quarter, one would think a schematic adjustment would have been made. Alas, we're still awaiting that adjustment even though every week teams have adjusted to Miami's schemes. 

A similar play with similar blocking would lead to this Tannehill fumble against the New England Patriots in Week 8. 

No adjustments made by Miami from last week when they got burned the same way. Sure, the player was different (instead of Tyson Clabo, it was Jonathan Martin), but the scheme remained the same. 

Because of Miami's porous pass protection, Bryant McKinnie was brought in via trade after Week 7. McKinnie had a so-so day against the Patriots, including giving up the Tannehill sack and fumble shown above. Truthfully, with the schemes in place, it wouldn't have mattered who was playing left tackle at that point.  

McKinnie, like Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Tyson Clabo, is not cut out for the zone-blocking scheme, whether it's running the ball or passing the ball. Save for Incognito, these guys do not have the agility for the scheme and wind up getting burned because of it. 

Those four players are maulers, who are at their best in man-to-man blocking, which is based on each offensive lineman blocking his assigned player throughout the play.

Clabo is an excellent example with this, as Atlanta used a mixture of man and zone while Clabo was there but played man the majority of the time. 

Notice how clean the right side manned by Tyson Clabo was when he was in Atlanta last season...

While Clabo was with the Altanta Falcons, he was a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle, and last season he only gave up five sacks. 

With the Dolphins and their zone scheme, Clabo has become the punchline to a bad joke and now finds himself on the bench awaiting his eventual release. If Clabo moves onto another NFL team next year and is successful again, it is likely that the scheme will explain his struggles. 

That's what wound up happening with Jake Long. Last season he struggled with the Dolphins. This season with the Rams and their scheme, he's almost back to being an elite left tackle. 

Could a change in blocking schemes help the Miami Dolphins in 2013?

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The players have changed over the last two years in which this offensive line has struggled, but the schemes haven't. The Dolphins coaches have claimed to have worked at improving the team's blocking every week. So far, they have tried changing up everything from play-calling to the players themselves. 

Maybe they ought to look at the scheme instead, because it currently doesn't fit the players they have and won't fit them by the end of the season. 

Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise noted. Be sure to check out this week's Dolphins Central Radio, with special guest Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer joining Thomas and Albert in previewing Miami's Halloween matchup against the Bengals

 


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