This is a companion piece to last week's refresher on inside zone, Michigan's new base play. Outside Zone, also known as the Zone Stretch, is one of two very common complementary plays to IZ, because the technique for the offense isn't very different, but the way the defense has to defend it is (the other complementary play is Power-O, Michigan's extremely nominal base play the last few years).
Outside Zone Defined
The difference, as made obvious by the name, is the point of attack. Inside Zone blocks "downhill"; the running back aims for the first line defender past the center, and picks a lane to either side of the guards. In Outside Zone the back is running to a point outside the five linemen. Some coaches say run to the back of your tight end, others say run to the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS); it comes to the same thing.
Here's Alex Gibbs (from the Elway-era Broncos), via Smart Football:
This is another "base" play. If the defense plays sound against it, the success of the play comes down to execution and talent. As with IZ, if the defense gets too aggressive the reaction to that is built into the play.
This isn't a play that attacks multiple sides; it threatens outside and can come back inside if the defense overreacts to that. Since we're coming into this from a fan perspective I won't get into the footwork you can't see, but you'll recognize Outside Zone immediately because the linemen start out by moving sideways.
As you can see, reps, reps, and more reps turn this into a possibly devastating play. The more you run it, the better the team will react to various things defenders do. In the video above Gibbs talks about the guards "making the read for him [the RB]". The big breaks from OZ come when a guard or center sees a defender reacting too aggressively, let that guy run himself out of the play, and then destroy a back-filling defender.
Like inside zone, the offensive linemen have to read the defensive front to decide before the play begins who they're blocking. The "covered" rules still apply: if someone's lined up over you, you're covered; if not you're uncovered:
The general rule of coveredness still applies: if there's a guy lined up over you, you have to block him. But the whole idea of a zone stretch is it slides the line, so if you're uncovered that means you have to reach the next defender to the playside of you, and if you're covered you're looking to 1) get playside of that dude and 2) combo block him with your uncovered buddy, and 3) release and get downfield.
Combo blocking is one of the things that takes lots and lots of reps. The essential blocking rule is don't let anybody cross your visor, and block the guy in your zone. Outside Zone's strength against a base defense is it creates double-teams at the point of attack
How It's Defended
Outside Zone pairs well with Inside Zone because a defense used to IZ can get caught inside, but that should be rare with a well-coached defense because the play is quite obvious from the first step by the offensive linemen, and from what's going on in the backfield (the RB isn't coming downhill). As soon as the defense realizes this they have to get on their horses and prevent the offensive linemen from flanking them, but because of the threat of the cutback, the defense also has to maintain gap responsibility.
There's gonna be a huge temptation for the EMLOS, with the play headed right for him, to square up and end the play right there, but the most important thing (unless they've given him extraordinary safety help) for him is to keep the play inside. The offense knows this, and a good tight end who can get that EMLOS skating wide can create a big hole to run through; a bad tight end will let the EMLOS get leverage and hold him inside, squeezing the hole shut.
Keys to Success
Every little thing the offense does has a potential to make or break this play. The faster the RB makes his cut and accelerates through the decided hole, the bigger this can break.
A fleet-footed, quick-thinking, tough sumbitch of an interior lineman can really make this go. David Molk could consistently get playside of a guy lined up shaded strong on him, and could react so well to defenders that he'd often make the RB's job easy, abandoning a defender running himself out of the play to catch a chasing linebacker and create a gaping hole.
Outside Zone is where a great running back can really shine and a just-a-guy can make the play barely more than a side show. Mike Hart, with his great vision for a developing hole, his super-quick and decisive cut, his great acceleration, and his tiny stature in comparison to the mountain of flesh in front of him, was an awesome Outside Zone running back; if only he had stayed healthy the one year he got to run it consistently.
[One sample play and more coming, after the jump]
Sample Play One: Null
Here's OZ if nobody does anything particularly great or awful on either side of the ball.
Step 1: Identify
The defense is in a 4-3 under, which alignment is pretty strong against Outside Zone because a linebacker starts where the play's going and the under-shifted line makes the backdoor blocks tough for the OL to execute. Some coaches won't run OZ into a front like this, but it's a base, and if you want your base to work it has to defeat base. The playside guard and the backside tackle are uncovered; they're going to have to execute reach blocks off the snap while the covered guys engage. Engage!
Step 2. Execute Combo Blocks
You'll note the linemen have barely moved toward the line of scrimmage, and the defensive linemen have already reacted to the Outside Zone. It's a quick read, but also imperative for the defense to read it quickly. That very fact makes it compatible with Inside Zone, because it prevents the defensive linemen from firing off the line of scrimmage without having to read something first.
Immediately you see the combo blocks in action, as the uncovered guys used the free release to try to get playside of the defenders. Neither was successful, and the center didn't get the nose either. The defense is in a good position to defend this at the handoff. The WLB has to respect play-action so he's barely moved.
Step 3. Decision Time
Here's the key moment as the linebackers are activated against the run, and the linemen have to block what's in front of them. The RT and RG have gained some control over the 5-tech but the backside blocks aren't going so well; the LG and LT are still engaged on the 3-tech; the U-back had no other option but to cut the WDE.
I might as well use this opportunity to talk about cuts. Some coaches find their OL don't have the size to get into a sliding shoving match, and teach their players if you find yourself with no other options, just dive at the guy's feet. The guys in yellow obviously can't do that.
Also note some teams don't always block the backside defender (on inside zone you always block him). It depends on different thing, like is that backside guy going to be coming on a blitz and cut off an inside cut. What to do with a backside defender is the question that gave rise to the Zone Read. The conservative/usual/Michigan thing is to block him. I'm sure the coach types will converse on it further in the comments.
Anyhoo the OL haven't "made the RB's decision for him" yet except in that they've given him a kind of bad option on the primary hole and no options on the backside holes. The SAM is keeping contain like a good boy; C gap it is.
Step 4: Execute
The OL can't see what the RB did but they can guess by how the blocking around them is going. The SAM is still outside and can't give up contain until the RB has passed him, so the TE can just keep riding him out of the play. The LG has spent too long on the 3-tech and the WILL is long gone, so he just keeps his combo block going as if the RB is coming his way (if the RB cut back the LG can make a gap by catching the WILL).
The RT is coming off his combo and realizes the defense has given him a gift: an under-aggressive middle linebacker. This is a spot where zone thinking really helps an offense. If the MIKE was showing in the hole like he's supposed to, the RT might have to shove him down the line; if the MIKE came really aggressive the RT might let him go and block the WLB, springing a big gain. Here the MIKE was too slow to react (possibly because he was respecting play-action), and the RT can possible get a 2-for-1 with the MIKE and WILL behind him.
Step 5: Result
The MIKE realizes this and comes downfield, opening up the lane. The RB has made his cut into the hole and will get whatever his acceleration and momentum can provide before the defense closes in from all sides.
Sample Play Two: Cutback
Step 1: Identify
Same thing as last time: a 4-3 under. This doesn't get different for the offense until after the snap.
Sidebar: Always MIKE before you HIKE.
I'm late in mentioning this, but part of the pre-snap read is to know who the MIKE is. The defense will sometimes cheat more defenders to a side, or bring a safety up. The MIKE isn't necessarily the guy the defense put in there at the nominal position of middle linebacker; he's the first guy on the linebacker level playside of the center. No matter what the playcall—pass, run, or Borgesian grab-ass—the Mike is established as the second linebacker, counting from weak to strong. So you look at the linebackers, and count them starting from the weakside. Eeny is the WILL, and Meeny is the MIKE.
Watch out for Mo.
If a safety comes down into the box, you "re-MIKE" i.e. call out the new MIKE.
Step 2: Footwork and Combo Blocks
Off the snap the defensive line is immediately slanting playside. It happens. It also screws up all of those planned double-teams. The 5-tech especially got down the line quickly; the RT can't even get playside of that guy, let alone hold him so the RG can make a play. Here we go back to the rules of zone blocking: 1) don't let a guy cross your face, and 2) if he gets across you, send him past (clear out your zone), and 3) if you nobody's in your zone move down.
The TE has the same job: skate with the SAM or if he goes upfield escort him past the play and seal him there. The RT is having trouble getting playside of the 5-tech and obviously won't be releasing past him downfield, so he skates, leaving the RG free to block someone else. Who the RG blocks will determine the play now.
Step 3: Decision Time
To turn around the block the NT is tempting but remember the point of the pre-snap reads: you identify who you've got. The RT and the RG are playing 2-on-2 with the 5-tech and the MIKE, and since the RT has the 1st level defender, the 2nd level defender becomes the responsibility of the RG.
Unfortunately he realized this a little slow. Ideally the center is skating the slanting nose tackle down the line and the RG nearly trips over the nose. Some slick athleticism by that RG gets him past the danger zone and into position to seal the MIKE.
The RB is reading the frontside block on the 5-tech and knows from running this all the time that a slant frontside means there's hopefully a cutback lane forming. He starts to cut and is watching the center's block now; whatever side the NT goes the RB will go to the other and take his chances there. Meanwhile the LG and LT have combo'ed the 3T (those quick lateral steps off the snap were huge) and the LG is releasing to the WLB.
Step 4: Execution
The NT's slant got him in good position but his momentum and his upper body are not in his favor if the RB tries to run behind him. All he can offer is an arm tackle, which our big RB's tree-trunk legs hardly feel. The RG's gotta get a block on that MIKE, and the LG is coming to hit the WLB. How fast can the RB get through this hole? Can the guards get a helmet across those LBs or maybe the linebackers are really agile themselves and can leap past those blocks and set up to tackle for little.
Step 5: Result
Success. The LG is running the WILL downfield and the RG got a seal on the MLB. The backside guy was never blocked and he's pursuing. The RB may make a second-level cut away from those guys, or just try to scoot past them.
Sample Play Three: Sideline to Sideline
This time the defense is gonna pull a stunt. Literally. They're stunting the SAM around the SDE (5-tech).
The purpose of this is to cause confusion for zone blockers when an attacker appears from nowhere. The "zone" part of zone blocking fails when the OL become overly reliant on their man-to-man keys. If the blockers do their jobs they can sometimes take advantage of this (after all the EMLOS is disappearing) though the defense is prepared for that eventuality and has given the 5-tech the EMLOS responsibilities.
Step 1: Alignment
The defense may notice that the SAM is a half-step further off the LOS than usual, or that he's pinched on the Y-TE a bit, or that the 5-tech is head-up against the RT (not unusual for a 4-3 under). The EMLOS pinching in often means there's going to be room to the outside. But you still have to make your reads, and the reads are still the same as they were before.
Step 2: Footwork and Combo Blocks
Something's not right here; the 5-tech is really hauling ass down the line, and the RT has to stay with him. The RG might even start to release when he sees the 5-tech bailing out and try to pick off the MIKE. If he does, and the RT sees the stunt, stops to kick out the SAM, and the Y-TE seals the 5-tech, they've got the edge blocked and it's yards. But that doesn't happen, because the MIKE has the tight end on this play and is already moving outside (Mattison liked to do this). There could be a backside cut here but let's come back to that.
Step 3: Decision Time
The SAM is right up in the RG's business, preventing a release. The Y found the 5-tech and sealed, coming into a combo block with the RT. This is when he notices the MLB coming across the formation. He can't release before the RT has that guy, else the 5-tech will string out the run. The rest of the DL have slanted into their holes; the LT released but can't find anything to do but pick off a safety perhaps.
The RB sees the Y has the edge sealed and is trained to go for that if he reads it. This is why he misses the backside cut developing between the C and LG. As in the Gibbs video above, the thing you really don't want is a hesitating back, so if you can give him easy things like "if you see the edge is blocked, book for it!" you might miss something else but the tradeoff in less hesitant play is worth it.
Step 4: Execution
It's now a race to the edge. The TE is coming off his block to pick off the MLB, the MLB is racing to get past the TE and stop this for no gain, the WLB is racing to the sideline to make sure nothing gets past the MLB. A really good block by the TE opens this up for yards; a really fast running back can turn the corner on the LBs perhaps.
Step 5: Result
The MIKE is too good; the TE commits the cardinal zone sin: don't let a defender cross your hat. This is a crossed hat. The MLB just has to shadow the RB out of bounds, or force a cut back inside to the WLB. Barring a huge mistake by the defense, they've got this defended. Good play by the 5-tech to stretch the frontside.