Are Pittsburgh Steelers set to use zone-blocking scheme?


It's no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers were inhibited this season by their inability to run the football.

Mike Tomlin's team finished 26th in the league in rushing in 2012, averaging a meager 3.7 yards per carry. It's been a three-year downward tick in Pittsburgh, which finished 14th in 2011 and 11th in 2010.

With the offseason officially under way, Around the League will examine what's next for all 32 teams.

AFC East
» Bills | Dolphins | Jets | Patriots
AFC North
» Bengals | Browns | Ravens | Steelers
AFC South
» Colts | Jaguars | Texans | Titans
AFC West
» Broncos | Chargers | Chiefs | Raiders
NFC East
» Cowboys | Eagles | Giants | Redskins
NFC North
» Bears | Lions | Packers | Vikings
NFC South
» Buccaneers | Falcons | Panthers | Saints
NFC West
» Cardinals | Niners | Rams | Seahawks

This will lead to wholesale changes along the line. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote Sunday the team isn't expected to pursue left tackle Max Starks and right guard Ramon Foster as they enter free agency. The team is also expected to cut left guard Willie Colon.

But changes will likely go beyond personnel. Dulac wonders if offensive coordinator Todd Haley and new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. are heading toward a zone-blocking scheme. Bicknell told the Steelers' site last week he wants the team to get away from linemen "who get huge and then they can't bend and move." The new preference is players "who can move, run and have the quickness off the ball 'to get into people.' "

Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey is ideally suited for a philosophy shift, as is right guard David DeCastro, the 2012 first-round pick who missed most of his rookie season with a knee injury. According to Dulac, Pouncey and DeCastro "epitomize the long, lean body type the Steelers seek to employ on the offensive line."

The zone-blocking scheme can be extremely effective, but it's not easy to pull off. In an essay from his great book "Smart Football," Chris Brown explained how the scheme requires total committment from a coaching staff and all 11 offensive players. Linemen must be agile, wide receivers and even quarterbacks are expected to block, and running backs need to make correct cut-and-go decisions.

Rashard Mendenhall has the skill-set to thrive in this role ... if the Steelers decide to bring him back (far from a sure thing). Meanwhile, a schematic shift could be bad news for Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, straight-ahead runners who fit a mold the Steelers could be set to break free of.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter @DanHanzus.