Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.


If you were paying attention, you probably noticed the title of this section of the Cover 3 is different this week. If you’d like to know why, allow yourself to recite the tune of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” when reading: It’s my column and I’ll do what I want to.  I’m partially kidding, but not entirely.

The idea for this came from a brainstorming session about what to do with this week’s Cover 3. As I pondered over what Bucs fans have been debating on lately, one debate stood out in my mind with no in-depth answer and that is who the Bucs would rather have between Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette if all were available, and even if all weren’t available, what should the team’s big board ranking of those backs be, if they were to take one in the first round?

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook – Photo by: Getty Images

Most of the answers I’ve seen for this question have been production-based. The evidence used in the debates are fans recalling big runs by each and how they happened. But, that’s not the whole story with these three. Though talented, each has a different style and skill sets. So, as a response, I thought about breaking down each of the three back’s styles of play and making a Cover 3 about it.

But, as I began to map out what such an article and breakdown would look like, I couldn’t get far into any of the three without having to explain the type of offensive scheme – more importantly, the offensive line scheme – needed when properly describing how effective each could be on the Buccaneers and as future pros.

So, what I have decided to do is give you not just pieces, but the whole pie – apple pie, preferably. We’ve heard draft experts and NFL personnel members talk about these backs and reference the “system” they need to be in to get the most out of their certain skill sets, but those systems are hardly ever explained when giving such an answer.

This week I’m going to change that. We’re going to start this week by breaking down the three types of offensive line schemes: zone, man and gap. We’ll analyze what each looks like technically, and which run plays fit under each scheme. Then, on the next page, we’ll look at some Buccaneers game tape from 2015 and 2016 to identify which of the three systems the Buccaneers are running with the kind of offensive line they have. 

Following our offensive line breakdown this week, I’ll dive deep into Cook, McCaffrey and Fournette next week – and perhaps some other running backs – identifying skill sets, styles and tendencies, seeing which offensive line scheme is ideal for each player, then be able to make a *final* conclusion on where each of these three would rank on the Buccaneers’ big board to determine if any are worth a first round selection when it comes to marrying their running styles with Tampa’s current running scheme.

With all of that in mind, let’s start our X’s and O’s journey where the game begins: the trenches. 

Intro to Blocking Schemes

A lot of the terminology and images from these three concepts is courtesy of Rich Alercio, who is an Offensive Line Researcher for X&O Labs. In his article explaining the 101’s of each blocking concept, Alercio identifies that not all running plays have a place in all three blocking concepts – not that they can’t, but they shouldn’t, if you’re looking for consistency.

Like most areas of the game of football, confidence elevates play. If you’re playing confident, chances are you going to get the best out of your own talents and the talents of the players around you. No place on the football field is that more important that in offensive line play. If the unit of five players are all gelling together with confidence, it’s hard for any front seven to neutralize what they’re doing. With that in mind, confusing an offensive line by throwing in multiple blocking schemes and different run plays within each can affect confidence by confusing or disrupting chemistry. To avoid this, it’s much better to establish an identity and build the pieces to best execute that identity instead of trying to do everything. You don’t have to use all three blocking schemes to throw a defense off. It’s better to be elite at one thing than be average-to-good at all three – much like Chipotle proves against their competitors, but I digress. Not that if you’re a good man blocking team that you’ll never run zone or vice versa, but knowing what your offensive line is best at and marrying that with the type of ball carrier you have is what makes the best running teams the most effective ones. 

Here’s how each run play can be categorized by the three schemes. I’ve attached links to each play so if you click on them, you’ll see the design. I’ll explain some of these plays in more detail when I get into the three schemes below.

Lead DrawMan
Inside ZoneZone (Inside)
DiveZone (Inside)
BellyZone (Inside)
Outside ZoneZone (Outside)
Belly KeepZone (Outside)
Load OptionZone (Outside)
SweepZone (Outside)
TossZone (Outside)
StretchZone (Outside)
Counter TreyGap

The more you watch football under a microscope, the more you’ll realize that a player’s first step is everything. For defensive backs, when and where a first step is taken could be the difference between making a play or not. The same can be said with offensive linemen.

Football is very tedious, and before we dive into what the three blocking schemes are, we have to understand what they ask their offensive linemen to do in terms of footwork. There are five different kinds of steps an offensive lineman can make off the snap. All five are premeditated and usually tell whether or not the play will be a success or a failure.  

Before we get to explaining each first step, let’s explains some terms. “Play side” means whichever side the ball is being run to, right or left. “Back side” or “shade side” is the opposite direction of where the ball is being run. Got it? Cool.
A: Drive Step. This step is used for Base blocking. In it, the play side foot always steps first and is a completely vertical step where the distance of the step is about the length from heel to toe.
B: Lead Step (Zone Step). This is a forward step at a 45 degree angle used mainly for the inside zone plays. This is used for zone blocking plays that require an offensive lineman to move laterally, but still make their way up field and possibly to the second level.
C: Slide Step. The side step is used for outside zone running plays like stretch plays which has offensive linemen go almost completely horizontal for their first few steps to the play side. This allows them to cover the most ground and gets the front seven to shift as far as possible.
D: Drop Step. The drop step is a backwards at a 45 degree angle. It is used on an outside zone plays where the defender is not on the play side.
E: Bucket Step. Finally, the bucket step is used to completely open up an offensive lineman for outside run plays and or when the blocker is uncovered.

So, now that we’ve properly identified which run plays can be categorized where and the footwork it will take to pull them off, let’s get into why each run play is categorizes the way it is by breaking down the three main types of blocking schemes.

Zone Blocking Scheme

On paper, a zone blocking scheme is the easiest to perform because it’s all just dependent on where the the run play is going. If the play is going to the right, the entire offensive line’s first step will be a lead step or side step to the right, and they will take the gap and/or assignment that is directly to right right. If it’s to the left, they will first step left and take whichever player is aligned closest to the gap on their left.

The point of this is to get the entire offensive line (and, as a result, the entire defensive front) to move horizontally so the ball carrier can have an easier time running vertically.

(Images via Washington Post)

One of the differences between zone and power schemes is that in a power scheme there will be a designed hole for the running back to go through (ideally). However, in a ZBS (Zone Blocking Scheme), there isn’t necessarily a designed gap, just a point of attack in either an inside or outside design.

In a ZBS, the offensive linemen will always have their first step to the play side and will take the first assignment they come in contact with on the play side. But, what happens if there isn’t an immediate target to that play side? If that’s the case, the offensive lineman will then go to the second level and seal off the defender (who should be sifting to the play side) on their play side shoulder as to stop him from flowing in the direction of the ball carrier. This is what helps create multiple points of attack for the ball carrier to choose from.