Baltimore running back Ray Rice slammed off the left side and rambled 36 yards on the first play from scrimmage during the Ravens’ season-opening 35-7 win over the Steelers last year.
The play was part of Baltimore’s zone blocking scheme that’s given the Steelers fits over the years, including the handful of times they’ve faced it this year — Oakland, Philadelphia, Tennessee, Washington and Kansas City.
Both times the Steelers allowed more than 100 yards rushing this year was against zone blocking scheme teams — Raiders (119) and Chiefs (142). Last year, they struggled against zone running teams as well in losses to Baltimore (170) and Houston (180).
The version the Ravens have had the most success with is the “outside zone fullback lead power,” which is designed for Rice to follow the lead block of fullback Vonta Leach.
It’s a play the Ravens have used a lot this year in helping Rice rush for 657 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It’s a copycat league, and everybody likes to run it,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said.
The zone running scheme became popular because of the success offensive line coach Alex Gibbs had in Denver during the late 1990s.
The biggest upside is that the assignments don’t change for zone scheme teams because of the defensive front. And the scheme isn’t easy to defend, thus explaining its popularity as half of the 32 NFL teams run some version of it.
The scheme tests the whole width of the defensive front. The offensive line forces the defense to maintain gap control and control the blocker at the same time.
The Ravens have been doing that with a lot of success lately.
They line up in a strong left formation with wide receiver Torrey Smith split to the left and Anquan Boldin to the right. Leach sets up in the slot to the right of quarterback Joe Flacco.
Leach motions from left to right and sets up behind left tackle Michael Oher right before the snap.
At the snap, the entire offensive line — Keleche Osemele, Marshal Yanda, Matt Birk, Bobbie Williams and Oher — slides to left and engages a defender. Yanda cuts the nose tackle, creating a backside crease while Oher double teams the right defensive end and slides off to get the inside linebacker.
Tight end Ed Dickson chips the right outside linebacker and scrapes off to block the strong safety. Leach fills the hole and cleans up Dickson’s initial block on the linebacker.
Rice wants to run behind Leach in the hole between the tight end and tackle but has the option to cut back.
The running back is not running to a hole. Instead, he is looking for a crease. The Ravens can run the play from the playside tight end to the backside tackle, usually to equal success.