Understanding The Dallas Cowboy’s New Zone Blocking Scheme


Nov 22, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Bill Callahan (center) with the offensive line during the game against the Washington Redskins during a game on Thanksgiving at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Offensive Coordinator Bill Callahan’s arrival in Dallas he has been called an offensive line guru. Based on his professional resume Callahan has proven he can turn average O-lines into great O-lines. Yet, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line failed to perform in 2012.So this season Callahan installed his legendary Zone Blocking Scheme (ZBS). And on Sunday night that ZBS appeared to be the answer for the Dallas Cowboys offense.

This morning we discussed the success the run game had on Sunday night. we briefly overviewed what the ZBS is and why it fits for the Dallas Offensive Linemen here in this article: Dallas Cowboys Finally Have Run Game Thanks to Offensive Line. Now let’s dive in a little deeper and explain what a ZBS can do for a team like the Dallas Cowboys.

Oct 28, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Zone Blocking in the Running Game

In the running game a ZBS is ideal for a team with quick athletic linemen. It’s no longer about just blocking the guy in front of you. In fact, many times it requires you to block the guy in front of someone else.

The first task of an offensive lineman is to identify whether he is “covered” or “uncovered”. This will determine exactly who the offensive lineman will block. Whether an offensive lineman is covered or not is based on the direction of the play and the technique (or positioning) of the defensive linemen.

For instance, if the play is going left and the center (Travis Frederick) has a defender lined up on his left shoulder (the direction of the play) he is “covered”. So in this case when the play begins, Frederick will block this DT lined up over his left shoulder. Easy enough, right?

Here’s the twist. If that same DT lines up directly over Travis Frederick’s head in the zero technique, the assignment can change. If the other defensive lineman is lined up directly over the Left Guard, Travis Frederick would be responsible to block that player rather than the player directly over him. It sounds strange but think of it like this:

The offensive line is required to flow in the direction the ball is moving. Who they block depends on the positioning of the defense. So the offense could run the exact same running play two times in a row and the offensive linemen could block entirely different players both times. That is because the defense dictates how they will be blocked and by whom.

What this does is it opens multiple running lanes as the play develops. The runner is required to run patiently and find the right lane to burst through. Often times a cutback lane becomes available because of over-pursuit and cunning offensive linemen using a defenders speed and aggressiveness against them. This also keeps linemen from blocking someone who will probably not be a factor in the play. The linemen just focus on the direction and will double team rather waste time blocking an unimportant player.

In 2012 the Dallas Cowboys were frequently beaten at the point of contact. 8 out of 10 times the Cowboy’s O-line was manhandled by their opponent across from them. Playing a ZBS can tip the balance back in the offenses favor if executed properly because it doesn’t relay solely upon strength.

Aug 24, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) signals with center Travis Frederick (70) in the second quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at AT

Zone Blocking against the Blitz

Zone Blocking is often times more effective against the blitz too. In a typical Man Blocking Scheme, running a stunt or blitz can be extremely difficult to handle. Last season defenses knew this so they frequently blitzed and stunted (up the middle mostly) against the Cowboys. With a ZBS, even the most exotic blitzes can be effectively handled. The offensive lineman is responsible for blocking a zone and if two players blitz through the zone it no longer ends in certain tragedy.

As long as the ZBS is executed correctly it can succeed. TE’s are required to double team, seal the edge on the backside, and/or get downfield to block the next level. ZBS is ideal for a 2 TE offense because of the versatility they provide. Everyone’s assignment is based on what the defense does so it’s inevitably adaptable. Pre-snap it looks the exact same as a MBS so the defense isn’t sure what to expect until it’s already happening.


A change of scheme on the offensive line like this is substantial. It’s one of the hardest things to do. It often requires a change in personnel, running style, and a ton of practice and application to make it work.

New Offensive Line Assistant Frank Pollack brought his expertise to the table to help speed this transition. Pollack has experience with the ZBS from his days in Oakland and Houston. Callahan has experience with both MBS and ZBS and began to install a little ZBS last season. This season he really emphasized it making it a key to success in the Dallas Cowboy’s run-game

Most teams in today’s NFL run a combination of ZBS and MBS. Like most things in the NFL, if your opponent knows you always run a MBS they can easily find ways to take advantage (typically by stunting and blitzing). Likewise if you run all ZBS, opponents will expect the double teams and adjust accordingly. Trickery and deceit are no longer solely for defenses now. Offensive linemen use it too. They did so on Sunday and for the most part it worked.

Dallas’ rookie center gained great experience in a ZBS playing at Wisconsin. He has experience calling the blocking assignments for his teammates and executing the assignments himself. Frederick is making this transition work for the Dallas Cowboys. The obvious physical short-comings of the personnel are no longer fatal. This takes practice to successfully implement so staying healthy and installing Brian Waters early is a must.

Is this success in the run-game a fluke or merely a sign of things to come? We will find out next weekend against KC. But things look good this morning.

Do you have questions or comments regarding Dallas area sports? Email Reid at permaximum@hotmail.com. You may be included in the next weekly mailbag. Follow Reid on twitter @ReidDHanson