I’m back with more zone blocking zealotry (see: last week). I’ve decided to make this into a series until all my zealotry for zone blocking has been adequately expressed to all of you. Last week’s diary is thereby retroactively labeled Episode 1.
This week’s episode expands upon some of the arguments made last week about Inside Zone, examining in more detail the various ways teams can use Inside Zone from under center to wreak havok on opposing defenses. To that end, I’ll concentrate on assignments, reads and what options an offense has once Inside Zone has been called.
(Later episodes will tackle, in unspecified order, Inside Zone vs. Power O; Inside Zone from the shotgun and pistol; how to build a coherent offense around Inside Zone; how to defend Inside Zone; how to run Outside Zone better than we did in 2013; and the intricacies of zone blocking technique.)
So without further ado, let’s start with a few elements of Inside Zone that help explain why it is so effective, and why I think it’s the way forward for us (as our base run play).
Inside Zone…isn’t that just another straight-ahead run?
Yes and no. Sure it goes straight ahead, but operates from a different logic and set of priorities from, say, Power O. Power O, as you’ll recall, starts with the mindset that your OL can get at least some push against their DL and, moreover, that everyone is disciplined enough to get to their man and not leave the wrong person unblocked in the process. It’s kind of awesome when it all works as planned, but when that doesn’t happen, you can end up with a TFL (see: 2013).
Inside Zone, by contrast, is specifically designed to reduce the frequency and severity of negative plays. It does this in part by getting the RB to the LOS very quickly, and in part by aiming everyone at the point(s) of attack more or less forward (i.e. no pulling). Even if we don’t end up running Inside Zone as well as Alabama or Wisconsin (and it’s unlikely we will in 2014), eliminating TFLs would itself constitute a net win. I mean, think about how much easier it is to consistently convert 3rd and 4-7 than 3rd and 9-12.
Inside Zone is also incredibly flexible. Though not a true read-option play, Inside Zone also isn’t a scripted play with one basic outcome unless you audible into something else. Rather, it is something in-between the two, and may result in several outcomes without an audible. Under center the primary options are: RB inside, RB cutback and QB bootleg (from the shotgun or pistol these are: RB inside, RB cutback and QB outside).
The decision to alternate from the default (RB inside) is based on three reads. Pre-snap, the OC or QB reads whether to hand off or keep on a bootleg. The second read—whether the RB runs “playside” (i.e. the direction the play is designed to head) or performs a cut to the “backside”—can come pre-snap (by the OC/QB) or post-snap (by the RB), but lot of offenses just leave it up to the RB to make that decision post-snap.
Since the blocking assignments are attuned to the playside, though, the RB has to avoid the temptation to cut backside too frequently. Like the QB bootleg, cutting backside is a constraint or counter play—a way to punish defenses for keying in on the inside run. As such, it works best when the defense is overly fixated on the inside run.
Assuming there’s no cut backside, success on the inside run now relies on the RBs ability to hit the gap at full-speed. The RB is allowed one cut (and one cut only) based on the position of the block on the first defender outside center, relative to his own position. Additional cuts and bounces are viewed, philosophically, as disruptive to timing, generative of negative plays and potentially leading to a breakdown of blocking assignments. As a consequence, your RB must be very decisive—you do not want someone who takes their time getting to the LoS, or someone who never saw a juke or bounce they didn’t like.
But that's not all! Here's a small selection of what you can run out of Inside Zone:
Once you master the techniques of teaching the zone scheme, it really gets fun as a coach. Off the inside zone action, you have the zone read principle (the QB reads the C gap defender), the orbit reverse principle (slot comes in motion to get reverse or hold C gap defender), the split zone or slice principle (FB or backside motion player seals the C gap defender), the lead zone principle (two back concept, in which the FB lead blocks the front side linebacker) and the bootleg or screen off it. You end up with five plays by teaching one scheme.
How do you block for that?
Without getting into too much detail on technique, here’s a primer on blocking assignments for Inside Zone. If you are lined up right across a down lineman, you block as if it were a man assignment. The rest block in zone, with assignments determined by the position of the OL on the man block. In zone blocking jargon:
Almost all zone blocking follows the "Covered/Uncovered" rule. If a defensive lineman is "covering" an offensive lineman (lined up directly across from him or slightly shaded to the playside), that defensive lineman is the offensive lineman's responsibility. No ifs ands or buts. If all five offensive linemen are directly covered by defensive lineman, the scheme essentially turns into five "drive" (for Inside Zone) or "reach" (for Outside Zone) blocks across the line of scrimmage.
Other than goalline situations, though, it's rare for every offensive lineman to be directly covered. An uncovered offensive lineman is referred to as a "bubble" in the defensive front and those "bubbles" determine who helps double/combo block to the second level…These combination blocks/double teams that occur at the bubbles essentially turn into a game of two-on-two between the offensive linemen and a defensive lineman and linebacker.
To illustrate, consider the following question. If playside is to the left, and your C puts a block on the opposing NG, while your LT puts a block on the opposing DT—where does the LG go? The read is based on where the LG perceives the greatest need for extra protection and/or where he sees the most unblocked shoulder visible. Since the play is going left, but is run inside, the blocks are going to angle ever-slightly to the left. So if the C has that the left half of the NG covered well enough, the LG can double the DT. But if the C doesn’t really have a good angle on the NG, then the LG can double the NG, thus creating space for the RB to run through. If they are both blocked well, he can release to the second level and take on the nearest LB. If they are both blocked poorly, he picks up the one who appears the most imminent threat to the play.
The next question is: which of the OL on the double releases to the second-level defender? In some cases, this will be determined by the nature of the double—if one of the OL has a bad position on the defender, he will release. But if it’s a good double, where either OL could sustain the block, the releasing OL will be determined by the danger posed by the nearest second-level defender. Take this example from the Jaguars link:
As you can see, zone blocking introduces a degree of uncertainty into the play that you don’t really get with more scripted inside runs. This uncertainty can manifest either as flexibility or chaos, depending on how well you run the play. But generally speaking the gap is something of a moving target—and that’s fine, according to Inside Zone’s internal logic. But it also isn’t completely fluid .
Consider the following (illustrated!) scenario of an offense running Inside Zone from under Center, with 2 TEs and no FB, up against a 4-3 Over/Under. The advantage of this 2TE set, of course, is that it doesn’t project a strongside and weakside, and thus doesn’t give the defense any information about which side is playside—a useful mechanism for dealing with 4-3 Over/Under. But you’re also wasting a TE and lose the opportunity to goad the defense into over-committing (a perfect setup for the RB cut backside or a called Counter Trey). But anyhoo, the defense doesn’t know where playside will be, guesses left and thus Inside Zone goes right. The target gap is between the RG and RT; the cutback lane is probably going to be between the C and LG, though it may also be between the LG and LT. A bounce outside is possible but not advisable, given the unblocked FS and C lurking in the area.
As you can see, the blocking assignments are:
U-TE blocks DE
LT blocks DT
LG blocks DT
C blocks NG
RG blocks NG
RT blocks DE
Y-TE blocks DE
Note that, because playside is to the right, the WLB on the left edge is left unblocked. Meanwhile, three of the defensive linemen are double-teamed. Depending on the position of the blockers relative to the doubled linemen (that all important shoulder thing again) and the RB, one of the OL on each block can release and move to the second level defender. In the illustration, LG moves on to the MLB and C moves on the SLB (though RG could just as easily release to take on the SLB).
The intended gap emerges between the RG and RT, and with both SLB and MLB held up, the only defenders left between the RB and the end zone are the safeties. The RB can now choose whether to cut left or right—right if the YTE releases and arrives in time to help; left if not (given more space for the SS to make up).
Ross Fulton of 11W explains the significance of this:
By making an offensive lineman responsible for an area rather than a man and having the linemen work in tandem, zone runs allows an offense to better account for the myriad of blitzes and stunts used by modern defenses. Zone run plays are thus ubiquitous for both pro-style and spread teams.
Formations and Wrinkles
As I mentioned in the last diary, one of the advantages of Inside Zone is that you can run it out of almost any formation without changing much about the OL blocking scheme (though of course a speed/spread team like Oregon will emphasize somewhat different things than a power/pro-style team like Wisconsin). That said, the traditional I-Form does pose specific problems for Inside Zone, which may explain why we never ran it all that well (or often) under Borges.
The primary reasons for lining up in the I-Form are: A) to send the FB to the LoS in advance of the RB; and B) or to pick up an unblocked defender before he trashes whatever play you're trying to run. In a zone blocking scheme, the FB would either double one of the down linemen (allowing an OL to release to the second level), pick up an unblocked man (either a DE/edge crasher or interior gap crasher) or simply move forward to the second level himself, thus theoretically giving the RB an extra block to work with.
In practice, though, sending the FB to the LoS can create “clutter,” reducing the number of gaps for the RB to choose from and thereby simplifying the decision-making process for opposing LBs. Plus with Inside Zone, as with the Zone Read and Inverted Veer, you really don't really care what the backside edge rusher does--so why waste offensive personnel blocking him? After all, if you run the play as it's supposed to be run, there's little way for him to get to your RB in time to affect the play.
Also remember that Inside Zone depends on the RB getting to the LoS with a head of steam, and trying to do that when there’s a bigger, slower FB in front of you isn’t easy. The result is a play that develops too slowly to do the things it’s designed to do. The RB gets to the line without much momentum, with fewer holes to choose from, and facing LBs more likely to be crashing the one gap left for the RB to run through. It can still work if the OL does its job and gets to the LBs, but the brilliant thing about Inside Zone is that it can still work really well even if they don’t.
Consider this video of Eddie Lacy running Inside Zone for Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame, which Ross Fulton featured in his primer on Alabama’s offense for 11W:
Alabama has six on the line, with a U-TE on the left edge and an H-back lined up behind him. Notre Dame is, I believe, in a 4-3 Over with a cornerback aligned close to the LoS. Alabama runs the play and scores on a 20-yard scamper. But pause the video at 0:08 and notice the gaping hole outside—which Lacy ignores. Also notice that the blocking isn’t actually all that good: the RT gets a terrible angle on the DE he’s assigned to block, the RG falls down en route to the nearest LB and there are 3 defenders unblocked and in position to make a tackle--and then remember that Alabama fielded an OL of n00Bs just like we did.
Meanwhile, back at 0:08, the LBs have not committed yet and are holding their zones. If Lacy dithers, they can close the gap. If he chooses to bounce outside, the MLB can probably catch him before he turns the corner, as well as expect support from the cornerback (who is out of our view). So Lacy just flies through a gap that’s near imperceptible from the viewing angle, but which goes right between the C and LT—and also just in front of the LG, who is now occupying the MLB. That gives Lacy one LB (WLB) to beat by the first down marker and the SS in space, neither of who have much of an angle on him, given the kinetic energy he has accumulated by this point. The free safety is too far back to help much.
I remember Bob Diaco’s defenses being hyper-aggro gap shooters, which begs the question: why don’t they shoot the A-gap from the snap, as happened to us so often this year? The answer: because of a few things made possible by Inside Zone and the specific formation Alabama uses. Recall that gaping hole outside that Lacy does not run through, the one between the Y-TE and LG/LT. If the MLBs does shoot the gap, Lacy can perform a cutback. The WLB, meanwhile, is constrained by the H-back, who looks as if he will (and does) run into the flat. If it’s a bootleg or playaction pass, and the WLB shoots the gap, the H-back will be wide open. This isn’t even taking into account the threat that Alabama will call a screen—that whole “constraint theory of offense” thing again—or an Al Borges-style playaction pass, rendered more frightening by the fact that this is Alabama 2012 and not Michigan 2013.
The H-back is also worth lingering on, as I assume Nussmeier will import this position to our 2014 offense. Rather than anticipate the RB to the line, the H-back runs across the LoS to playside, where he either picks up a block or releases as a receiver. This opens up the possibility of a QB run off the bootleg, or a Bo-approved Waggle.
You can think of the H-back as a converted TE or FB—basically a blocky/catchy type. And that’s pretty much what he was under Nussmeier at Alabama. But I like the idea of using a little speedy guy who can block like a mountain goat—someone who can get lost in there, and even take a handoff or two. Think Vincent Smith (but fast!) or Dennis Norfleet (but blocks like Vincent Smith!).
If you add the threat of a handoff to the H-back, then Inside Zone starts to take on characteristics of the Triple Option. (Note: you can do with with a WR as well, a la our paltry attempts to get a running game going against KSU with Funchess, or Texas at 0:48 in this video.)
Does that sound tempting, Brady Hoke? I bet it does! After all, you get that whole flexibility and constraints thing that differentiates the modern from the paleolithic offense, but you still get to push people around at the LoS like big, bad Alabama does. Come to think of it, that's probably the exact thing you had in mind with this whole Nussmeier hire...
Next Time on Zone Blocking Zealot…
That’s probably enough for this week. Next week I’ll compare Inside Zone to that other base inside play: Power O. I will elaborate on the distinctions between these two staple plays, both in theory and practice, while expounding on the case for Inside Zone as the most functional approach for Michigan 2014. See you next time!