Sakamoto: 49ers OLC Pat Flaherty Brings Zone Blocking Mentality To San Francisco

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The success for any offensive scheme is largely predicated on the team’s offensive line. A quarterback can’t be successful without time in the pocket. A running back can’t be successful without running lanes to hit. And a wide receiver can’t be successful if he’s constantly breaking off his route. For these reasons alone is why I believe the offensive line is of the utmost importance.

It’s no secret the San Francisco 49ers struggled in this area last year. A unit that gave up the 2nd most sacks (53) in the NFL while finishing 21st in rushing, it’s no wonder 49ers GM Trent Baalke traded up for OG Joshua Garnett in this year’s draft. 

A mauler in the run game with the strength to hold the POA (point of attack), Garnett is a nice building block the team can work with moving forward. However, while talent is needed to win their one-on-one battles on the field, it’s the team’s offensive line coach, who’s responsible for putting his players in the best position to make plays.

Luckily for the 49ers, they have a good one, as long-time New York Giants OLC Pat Flaherty has joined forces with new 49ers HC Chip Kelly.

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Known for his work ethic, dedication, and high football IQ, “Coach Flat” continues to be well respected inside NFL circles. From being named a finalist to coach the Tennessee Titans to being a top candidate for the Indianapolis Colts and Minnesota Vikings coaching vacancies, Coach Flat had his choice of places to work for in 2016.

However, Coach Flat chose the 49ers in the end. And as a result will have the tough task of re-establishing the zone-blocking scheme in San Francisco.

A paradigm shift from former 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh’s power scheme, the ZBS (zone blocking scheme) is founded on the principles of generating movement both vertically and laterally while keeping their quarterback upright.

What does that mean? Good question.

While there are many intricacies to the ZBS, I will instead focus on the fundamentals of playing under this system. And it all starts with players asking themselves three simple questions.

The first question an offensive lineman needs to ask is “Am I on the play-side or back-side?” A player who is on the play-side means that the running back will initially run to his side. If the offensive lineman is on the back-side than that means the running back is not running to his side initially.

The second question an offensive lineman needs to ask is “Am I covered or uncovered?” An offensive lineman who is covered means that there is a defensive lineman lined up directly across from him. If there is no defensive lineman lined up across from him, he is deemed uncovered.

The third question an offensive lineman needs to ask is “Is the person on my inside shoulder covered or uncovered?”


Mind you this is all pre-snap recognition, which means the offensive lineman need to have a high football IQ. Once an offensive lineman answers those three questions, he can then focus on his blocking assignment at hand.

Playing under the ZBS requires smart, athletic, and fundamentally sound offensive lineman. Why? Because under this system requires more blocks being relied on out-leveraging your opponent rather than over-powering them. Which leads me to the variation of blocks needed for the ZBS.

Drive Blocks. Reach Blocks. Combo blocks.

These are the three most common blocks used in the ZBS. The drive block is designed to drive a defensive lineman backwards in a straight line (Watch video above). The reach block is designed for interior offensive lineman to block defenders outside their area (usually covered defensive lineman or uncovered linebackers). The combo block is designed for two offensive lineman to double-team a defender while one of them then hits the second-level.


If an offensive guard is left uncovered, chances are he will throw a reach block while then hitting the second level. This is the exact reason why the 49ers signed OG Zane Beadles this off-season.

I asked Beadles if playing in a ZBS was what attracted him to sign with the 49ers. Beadles admitted it was a scheme fit.

“It was a big deal for me. It fits my strengths,” Beadles told me after signing with the 49ers.



Shortly thereafter, 49ers Pro Bowl OT Joe Staley had high-praise for his new teammate calling him, “really smart,” while asking “really good questions in the film room.” Combine that type of player personnel with Coach Flat and things are looking up in San Francisco.

There’s a reason why Coach Flat was one of only two coaches to remain at the hip of Tom Coughlin during his entire 12-year tenure with the Giants. And it wasn’t because he was a suck up but rather his football knowledge of back-end schemes.

“Coach Flat knows as much about defenses as he does about offenses, which is something a lot of guys aren’t used to,” Shaun O’Hara said.

“He understands safeties, coverages, schemes and exactly how defensive guys are going to play us. So we’re not just studying fronts. We understand the concepts of why they’re doing what they’re doing. That alone makes us better offensive linemen than other guys.”

From the types of leverage blocks comes two basic types of zone plays; IZ (inside zone) and OZ (outside zone) also known as zone stretch.


The IZ run play requires the two uncovered offensive guards to pinch the NT and DE to their right (strong side) while then delivering a downfield block in the second-level.

The running back has a decision to make. He can either hit the walled off lane the RT (right tackle) created, cutback inside behind the center, or stay outside following a sealed off wall the fullback created. Whatever decision the running back makes, he will have to be patient and not make his move until he’s at or near the line of scrimmage, as his offensive lineman up front need to first clear out the fast, quicker, linebackers.


The OZ or zone stretch is the more popular of the two plays due to multiple offensive lineman pulling laterally before crashing up-field. The formation is unique. In the play above Philadelphia Eagles OT Jason Peters is lined up outside the tackle box while TE Brent Celek is lined up at tackle.

On the initial snap the LG and RG will bucket step (step backwards while opening their hips) and then pull to the left to create a running lane for RB LeSean McCoy on the second-level. A favorable formation as an extra offensive lineman is lined up on the left side, look for that to be used in abundance in San Francisco, as Coach Flat makes life easier for his guys up front.

In a team sport, the zone blocking scheme requires a clear line of communication among the offensive line. A unit that needs to work in unison in order to successfully function, Coach Flat appears to have his lineman moving in the right direction, as he installs his scheme, his way.

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.