Steelers insist they will not abandon outside zone-blocking scheme
This might seem familiar: The Steelers offensive line ran one outside zone-blocking play with their starters against the New York Giants and didn't try another.
The one-and-done routine was similar to last year's opener against the Tennessee Titans, when right guard David DeCastro's unintentional cut block resulted in Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey's season-ending knee injury.
Out went Pouncey and with him went the zone blocking, never to be attempted again after one more ineffective play.
Convinced the Steelers must give defenses an alternative look — and prevent their linemen from getting worn down by constant power blocking — offensive line coach Mike Munchak is reinstalling the outside zone blocking. It will become more visible, he said, as the preseason progresses.
“In practice, we've been mixing it in quite a bit,” Munchak said Tuesday. “If (the starters) had played longer (Saturday), you would have seen four or five more opportunities. There may be games where that's something we stick with even more. The thing is to have it available, (that) they understand it and they can block it.”
The Titans knew how to run it under Munchak, their head coach from 2011-13 and their line coach before that, as Chris Johnson rushed for 7,965 yards from 2008-13, including an NFL-leading 2,006 yards in 2009.
DeCastro calls the outside zone simply “another tool in the tool box,” but to the Steelers, it's one unlike they have had before.
Before, they leaned mostly on a gap-blocking scheme in which their blockers used power rather than precision to create running lanes. But in anticipation of installing the outside zone, they shed bigger linemen such as Max Starks and Willie Colon and brought back tight end Matt Spaeth, an excellent blocker, to add to their collection of quicker and more mobile linemen, including Pouncey and DeCastro.
In the outside zone, the line moves as a unit in one direction to create double teams and get all of the blocking flowing toward the play. Rather than run to a specific hole, the running back cuts upfield after a lane opens.
“These are the plays (the running backs) have to get a foot on the ground and get downhill fast,” Munchak said.
The outside zone meshes well with the no-huddle offense because it can effectively be used from a shotgun formation.
“It's been a mix, and we've kept it pretty balanced: outside zone, inside zone and the gap game,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “It's not like we're going to get this many plays or this many shots at it. It's part of the game plan, and we put it in when we need to put it in.”
In June, Pouncey said the Steelers were eliminating the cut blocking aspect of the outside zone — blocking at the knees — in an apparent attempt to eliminate repeats of his injury. However, Beachum said the linemen still cut on some plays.
Expanding the zone-blocking concept isn't all that's different for the linemen in this camp, Munchak said.
“We're changing things, so these guys are adjusting quite a bit,” Munchak said. “Some people say the preseason isn't important, and I've always disagreed with that. Maybe the result isn't as important … but the technique and communication for the offensive linemen, we need all the work (possible).”
This time, the outside zone isn't going away after one bad game, one bad month or one bad injury.
“We've got to continue to repeat it and not just repeat it but repeatedly do it the right way,” Beachum said. “When it pops, everybody will be happy.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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