The Vikings tried the much-ballyhooed zone blocking scheme well before gurus Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison walked through the doors at TCO Performance Center this offseason.
“Everybody tries it to some degree,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “It’s really not that complicated in theory. In fact, we were doing it two years ago.”
But not for long.
“Finally, I made them stop because we were getting beat underneath and having runs of minus-2, minus-1,” Zimmer said. “So, yeah, everybody tries it. But it’s not the same as when [Kubiak and Dennison] do it and teach it. It’s just different. They really, really know how to do it.”
There are two keys to zone blocking. The first one is easy for linemen to simulate in practice. The second one, not so much.
“The first one,” says tackle Rashod Hill, “is getting on your horse and going in the right direction.”
Five big fellas all going full blast, single blocking in the same direction in unison with proper spacing. That’s easy to simulate in practice, and the Vikings are doing a good job of it, according to Zimmer and those eyeballing the offensive line’s run blocking in this training camp. The second key?
“The backside cut,” Zimmer said. “Getting that one guy out of his gap.”
Teams don’t cut block in practice because, well, teammates and their knees are valuable commodities to be highly protected until game day. So how NFL teams simulate cut blocks in practice isn’t ideal.
As for the Vikings, they’re doing something new this training camp under Dennison, the offensive line coach/run game coordinator. During individual drills, linemen practice cut blocks against moving pads Zimmer calls “doughnuts.”
They’re shaped like big doughnuts so they can be rolled to simulate a defender moving. The linemen must get low to cut the pad.
“It’s hard to simulate [a cut block] but I think the doughnut is one good way to try it,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “There’s at least a shape that simulates it. And then there’s a safety element where [the lineman] can roll onto the mat.”
Zimmer doesn’t worry about running backs trying to simulate running in zone blocking.
“That part is pretty easy,” Zimmer said. “They have what they call the ‘dot.’ The dot is their read [point]. They cut off the read.”
The preferred seam is backside, so the running back is cutting away from the direction everyone is else moving.
“That’s when they get the big ones,” Zimmer said.
Many times, it’s the backside offensive tackle who holds the key, assuming everyone on the front side did their jobs.
“The backside tackle is responsible for cutting that three-technique [defensive tackle],” Hill said. “Not to give everything out, but people know that. There’s nothing to hide. It’s execution. The guard is going to give the ‘three’ a hand just to post him up and get his shoulder high. Then the tackle comes low and cuts him on that third or fourth step.”
Again, not something you’ll see in practice.
“[But] I think we can judge it out here on the practice field and make sure guys are assignment-sound,” Stefanski said. “As you watch it, you can say, ‘The right guard would have or is going to try and cut the nose.’ So we have those discussions and the players know when they’re [supposed to be] cutting and when they’re not. … We’ve gotten a ton of good work against our defense. We’re getting there. We’re not there yet but I think we’re making strides.”
The Vikings will have a better feel for how they’ll cut block Friday night when the preseason opens at New Orleans.
“And, actually, for the defense, it’s the same issue [not simulating how to beat cut blocks in practice],” Zimmer said. “So, yeah, it’s hard. But we’ll get some of that going on Friday.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: email@example.com