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. But, this week, instead of giving you 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, the “Cover 3” means an in-depth look at the three top running backs in this draft class and the three different types of blocking schemes they run in.


In last week’s Cover 3, we took an in-depth look at offensive line play. We established some terminology for offensive line work, and then categorized each type of running play into the three main concepts of blocking schemes: zone, man and gap.

Each scheme comes with its own set of requirements, not only for the offensive linemen that do the blocking, but also the running backs that run the ball behind them. We identified, not only the kind of offensive linemen the Buccaneers currently have on the roster relative to the types of blocking schemes their skills favor, but also discovered some tendencies of Tampa Bay’s run game itself. We found out that the Bucs liked to stay versatile in all three blocking schemes when it came to their line, but also had certain blocking concepts they favored for each of their running backs.

That brings us to this week’s Cover 3 and part 2, if you will, of the blocking scheme breakdown for the Buccaneers. With Doug Martin’s future in Tampa Bay murky at best, if given the opportunity to add one of the top running backs in the draft, there’s a good chance the Bucs would pull the trigger, even in the first round – even if drafting a running back in the first round is often a bad use of value, if you ask me.

By now we all know who the Big 3 running backs are in this class who could be possibilities in that first round range: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey. Each are very talented in their own ways, but each have styles that would certainly get the “most” out of their skill sets, too. Most of that has to do with blocking schemes and formations, something that rarely seems to be explained well when debating the selection of these three.

The Buccaneers do like to stay versatile in the blocking schemes they call, so they don’t have one specific preference over another that would eliminate one of these running backs from being their choice. But, we also established last week that the Buccaneers are at an in-between with the type of offensive linemen they have and the type of running backs they have. Though staying multiple is good, to an extent, if they are to take one of these three back in the first round, I think that will say a lot about the direction this team wants to go in the theme of their running game.

So, let’s take a look at how all three of these players performed in each blocking scheme during their college careers, and the direction or theme their selection to the Buccaneers might mean in terms of the future of the running game.

Zone Blocking Scheme

Let’s start with the player who has already been crowned king of the Zone Blocking Scheme, Christian McCaffrey.

Zone Blocking Schemes require unique skills from a running back. First and foremost the ball carrier has to have above-average vision. With ZBS plays, there is no designed hole for the running back to go through. Rather, the play is designed to create multiple points of entry that may or may not form depending on how the defense is both aligned in the pre-snap and how they flow with the offensive line once they see they’re all moving one direction. So, it takes good vision from the ball carrier to recognize which running lane is going to be open even before the yards can start to rack up. This is where McCaffrey thrives.

It seems as thought the more chaos and more movement is going on at the line of scrimmage, the more it benefits McCaffrey. Not only does he have the vision to see where the running lane is going to form, he also has the skills to get there and react to it before defenders do, which is key. 

The play above is one that we saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers call for Doug Martin on more than one occasion. Because of how fluid Martin was with his cuts and his hips, he was able to succeed on plays like the one above. With outside ZBS plays (above), even though they may be designed to move one way, there are times when they will call for a complete cut back to the other side of the field. Not all running backs have the skill to pull this off; McCaffrey does. Coming from the shotgun set (which is important to note), McCaffrey had the vision to put his foot in the ground and change direction first, then showed off good agility, fluid hips and good short-area burst to get up through the cutback lane. These traits are key if you want to call ZBS plays from the shotgun set.

Cook also had his fair share of ZBS running plays, but for him, most of them came from the single back or I-formation. 

In the play above, Cook didn’t really have a point of attack. The reason I chose it is because I wanted to point out that calling zone blocking runs to the outside requires a running back to sometimes make the smallest of spaces the ones they have to go through. I also wanted to highlight the fact that Cook has some of the best balance in the country with the ball in his hands – which is odd because he also trips over his own feet more often than you would think for a guy who has such great balance through contact.

Cook seems to be at his best in those stretch zone runs where the offensive linemen are moving to the play side and he can either spring a block or get all the way to the sideline. When Cook can get moving on outside zone runs, the advantage goes to him. The Buccaneers ran some of that with Doug Martin, but not as far to the outside as Florida State did when they had success with Cook. Since Martin was the only back they really trusted to run zone blocking with, I’d say McCaffrey’s style was closer to Cook’s in that regard.

When it comes to Fournette, the narrative around him is that he’s a Power back, and because of this, he didn’t run any kind of Zone Blocking Schemes. That is false.

Fournette’s power running narrative comes from where he lines up in the formation, as he’s mostly (or, ideally) lined up in a single back and I-formation set. However, the play above is evidence that you can still run a power back in a ZBS, as long as you keep it close.

On inside zone runs like the one above, Fournette can be unstoppable. When he’s able to get a full head of steam, and when that inside running lane is the one to open up, you won’t find many plays where he’s taken down before 20 yards. Fournette is very much a momentum runner in that he has to be going north-to-south to be as effective as you’d want him to be. This, at times, requires some assistance (or limitation) in what plays are called from each formation. Drafting Fournette wouldn’t completely eliminate the possibility of calling ZBS plays, and, in fact, some of his biggest runs came on when he could time the running lane on those plays. However, that style doesn’t cleanly line up with the kind of zone blocking run plays we’ve saw from Tampa last year. So, if they were to take Fournette, they’d be shifting in that direction more.

Turn the page to see what each of these three backs were like in Man Blocking Schemes.

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About the Author: Trevor Sikkema

Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at:
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4 years ago

I would also see Joe Mixon applied to this criteria.

But the BIG question I have is which RB is the best in pass protection. If they can’t do that, they can be on the field very often.

Hank Scorpio
4 years ago

This breakdown makes me wonder if the Panthers might take Cook instead of Fournette like some places have projected. Don’t they operate more out of the shotgun?

Reply to  Trevor Sikkema
4 years ago

When I look at the Panthers, I cant see how they do not take Fournette. The combo of Newton/ Fournette look pretty formidable.

4 years ago

I would have to think that Mr. Licht would be willing to give up assests in next years draft to secure one of these backs for the offense and might be worth it.