LATROBE, PA. -- The early days of training camp are all about the nitty gritty, and it does not get any grittier than the hills of Western Pennsylvania, where the Steelers toil through rain and shine.
There is nothing sizzling in Steelers camp. There are no quarterback controversies or coaches on the hot seat, no sudden racial flare-ups or headline grabbers. It's not even all that hot, though the sun brought a languid swelter to Thursday's practice after a day of wind and drizzle. The Steelers are doing their summer dirty work. They are redesigning their running game, with the help of some new players, a new coach, and a new scheme.
Stretching the Run. The Steelers run the ball a lot during their 11-on-11 drills. It can get monotonous to the fans on the bleachers and hillsides of St. Vincent's College -- though being Steelers fans, they are as excited about defensive stuffs as they are about Ben Roethlisberger bombs. Look carefully, however, and you can tell that the running plays themselves have changed. Linemen open their stances and move laterally, stretching the defense. Running backs start to the outside search for cutback lanes. The Steelers are practicing the outside zone stretch running play, over and over, from a bunch of different formations.
All of those practice reps are essential when installing the outside zone, a play that looks simple but has a lot of technology hidden under the offensive line's hood.
"Just like every other play, but especially with the outside zone, you have to stick with it, and then the players start to understand the nuances of it," offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. said. "Pretty soon, it starts to look good."
Pretty soon hasn't happened yet. In the grand, early-August training camp tradition, the defense is ahead of the offense, and most outside stretches (and running plays overall) are stopped for a loss or a tiny gain. "We had a couple of good looks at it, and a couple of nasty looks," running back Isaac Redman admitted.
But there are moments. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell started left during one Wednesday drill, found a Steel Curtain in his way, then cut back in search of daylight and found a long gain. "Those guys played every gap perfectly," he said after practice. "I tried to cut back, broke a tackle, and once you break a tackle in the outside zone, you can make a big play."
Bell is experienced in outside zone tactics: Michigan State used the concept often. Running backs have to read the defense while stringing the play out laterally, which can be counterintuitive to backs used to hitting an assigned hole as hard and fast as possible. "It takes time to get comfortable with it," Bell said. "You have to have patience with the outside zone because you read hole to hole. It takes a lot of vision."
Bell is one of the few Steelers with much experience in the system. The team ran it early in the season last year, then quietly abandoned it. "We tried it at first, but then we just kinda got it out of the playbook," All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey said. "It didn't work well early and we didn't stick with it."
"I don't think we got enough work on it," Redman said of last year's abortive outside-zone experiment. "We tried to put it in after training camp. We didn't really get a good mesh on it."
The key to success with the outside zone is repetition, and a willingness to stick with it while blockers and runners adjust. That's the biggest difference between this year and last in a Steelers camp where not a lot else has changed. "This year, I think we made a full commitment," Pouncey said.
Staying Multiple. Bicknell's presence is part of that commitment: he successfully adapted his zone blocking concepts for the Super Bowl-winning Giants in 2011, as well as other successful college and pro offenses. Bicknell is not of the Alex Gibbs-Gary Kubiak-Mike Shanahan school, coaches who use zone blocking almost exclusively on running plays and build most of their play-action passes from it.
"Our philosophy is to try to be multiple, give teams different things, and see what best matches up against different opponents," Bicknell said. "Sometimes outside zone will be the best. Sometimes, it will be our double play where we power it up on the guard."
The "double" and "power" plays have been Steelers staples forever. When Pouncey and a guard simultaneously block a defender, he stays blocked. Unfortunately, that leaves 10 other defenders. The Steelers were one of the worst teams in the league at running up the middle, averaging 3.44 line yards per carry according to Football Outsiders. Yet they ran up the middle constantly: 75% of their rushes went between the guards, the highest figure in the NFL and well above the league average of 52%. The Steelers kept doing something they were terrible at, over and over again. "It makes it hard when you are trying to run a power, and there are eight, nine guys in the box," Pouncey said.
How can an "outside" zone play help the inside running game? Thanks to cutbacks, outside zones often result in inside runs. And giving the defense a variety of looks can keep it from loading up. The Steelers fell back on their traditional plays when their running game faltered last year; this year, they hope to be less inclined to fall back. "Through the years they had fantastic success with that," Bicknell said of the old power tactics.
"We still work our double play, our power play," Pouncey added. "We're really good at it. Other teams watch us to see how we do it. This year, we've been watching other teams to see how they do the outside zone."
Drill and Kill. Zone blocking drills are not that interesting. Bicknell admits they are not that useful. "The biggest adjustment is the small nuances, different problems," he said. "You don't get that in drill work. It has to be full speed."
In a typical drill, two blockers line up against two "defenders:" a defensive tackle and a linebacker. (Actually, two fellow offensive linemen pretend to be defenders during position drills.) At the snap, the blockers step laterally, double team the defensive tackle, and watch the linebacker. Depending on which way he goes, around the outside or slashing back inside, either the center or guard peels off the double team to stop him. No one is trying to drive anyone off the ball: it is all quick motion and sudden adjustments.
In another drill, a blocker quickly engages a defensive tackle, then releases his block and rushes out to hammer a linebacker. The blocker is simulating the critical "second level" block of the outside zone: the play does not work unless offensive linemen can slip through the cracks in the defense and eradicate linebackers, creating those cutback lanes that backs like Redman and Bell are trained to search for.
Second-level blocks and sudden adjustments require quickness, and the Steelers line is quicker this year than it has been in many years. David DeCastro, healthy after missing most of his rookie season with a knee injury, is a prototype zone-stretch interior lineman: powerful enough, but more quick than brutal, with a technician's eye for the game. DeCastro played in a very multiple Stanford blocking scheme which, like the Steelers scheme, combined zone concepts with power principles and asked lineman to block on the move. "It's simple to learn but it's hard to master," DeCastro said of the outside zone. "But that's all of football."
Right tackle Mike Adams, who recovered quickly from a June stabbing (someone tried to jack the 6-foot-7, 323-pounder's car; there are easier legal ways to make a living), is more of a mauler, but he also has quick feet. Like DeCastro, he saw limited playing time because of injuries last year, so 2013 is something of a redshirt season. Holdovers Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster are not prototypical zone blockers. Wednesday and Thursday were days two and three of padded practices, so everything is a work in progress. "It's a little early to say, hey, 'we're this,'" Bicknell said, though he noted that young players are picking things up quickly.
Then there is Pouncey. He is great enough to excel in any scheme, but a system that emphasizes quickness and decisiveness seems perfect for a relative featherweight among NFL linemen. Pouncey's weight hovers around 285 pounds during the season; he lists at 304 right now, but probably isn't. He beats defenders with leverage, quickness, and technique, making him the ideal weapon for stringing a defender toward the sideline or smashing a linebacker in pursuit. All he needs are the precious reps that will allow him and his linemates to quickly counter whatever the defense throws at them.
"It's the split of a hair, it happens so fast," Pouncey said of the decisions a lineman makes in a zone blocking scheme. "You have to be able to adjust and always keep your eyes on the linebacker, because you never know what he is going to do. He's reading the running back, and we're trying to read him."
All of the reading takes practice, and patience. "You have one play, but you could have 55 different things defensively that they could do to that one play," Bicknell said. "And we don't have that many reps."
Zone of Emphasis. The buzzword for the Steelers running game and the outside zone concept is "commitment." The team scrapped the scheme too quickly last year. Head coach Mike Tomlin, coordinator Todd Haley, Bicknell, Pouncey, and everyone else involved in the running game is preaching the practice-practice-practice sermon. The Steelers will test-drive the outside zone often in preseason games. It will probably look ugly at times. No one wants to scrap it at the first sign of stuffed ballcarriers. The team cannot afford to be impatient with a strategy that is all about patience.
"It's a great complement to the inside run game," said Bell, the rookie who knows the outside zone better than many veterans. "When teams load up the box you can run outside now. When those teams try to beat us outside, that's when the cutbacks happen."
Simple stuff, but that is what early-August practices in the foothills are all about. Back to basics, and all the other clichés. With an established quarterback, still-formidable defense, and Super Bowl-tested coaching staff, the Steelers can return to the playoffs quickly if their commitment to the running game pays off. "Have a base plan of what you're doing, and then rep the heck out of it," Bicknell said.
It is grimy, unglamorous work. The Steelers would not have it any other way.