Alex Gibbs teaches the outside zone/wide zone to Dan Mullen, Steve Addazio, and Urban Meyer’s old Florida staff

This unbelievable set of videos is courtesy of Brophy. I don’t know what he had to do to obtain these (nor do I want to know), but you’re all the beneficiaries of what was undoubtedly some unspeakable sacrifice he made. Brophy has put up roughly six or seven hours of video; check out parts one and two.

The context is that Alex Gibbs, then offensive line coach for the Atlanta Falcons while they had Michael Vick at quarterback, visited with Florida’s staff to learn about potentially adding some quarterback read plays to his vaunted zone schemes (the same scheme they ran with the Denver Broncos). Florida’s staff, meanwhile had just spent their first season in the SEC to decidedly mixed results.

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The simple, wonderful, inexpensive speed option

The speed option may be the best run play in football. The pro guys don’t like it because your quarterback can be hit, but, whether under center or from the shotgun, it’s an exceptionally useful play to have in your arsenal. There are three basic reasons why the play is so effective and useful:

  • Simple: Both the concept and the schemes are simple. Unlike the true triple options, there are not multiple reads and the one read that is there is a simple one of a defender often stuck in space.

Wish they called this more in Denver

  • Inexpensive. What I mean by inexpensive is that the play requires very little teaching for any offensive players as the blocking scheme should be one already used for a traditional play. Typically, this will be outside zone blocking.
  • Speed in space. This is tied to #1 and #2, but the play works most of all because it is a simple and inexpensive way to get athletes on the perimeter of the defense in space. The option threat by the quarterback — and the numbers advantage gained by reading a defender instead of blocking him — keeps the defense inside, but the point of the play is to pitch the ball to the runningback on the perimeter where he can burst upfield to do maximum damage.

What further makes the play so good is that these concepts are universal; they are not tethered to a single offense or system. The play works from under center or shotgun, and has been effectively used by teams with great running quarterbacks and it has been used by teams with more pedestrian quarterbacks as just a cheap way to get the ball to the outside.

In modern form, the play is simple. The line outside zone blocks, which means they step playside seeking to cut off the defense and to even reach them as they can. The linemen work together to double-team the defensive linemen before sliding off to block the linebackers, and the idea is to create a vertical crease somewhere between a spot outside the tight-end and the sideline. The offense leaves an outside guy unblocked, typically either the defensive end or the strongside linebacker. The quarterback takes the snap and runs right at the unblocked defender’s outside shoulder. If the defender stays wide, the quarterback cuts up the inside crease (and typically looks to cut back against the grain). If the defender attacks the quarterback or simply stays inside, the QB pitches it. The outside receivers block the outside run support, being more focused on being in their way than pancaking anyone. Below is a modern example of the speed option from gun:

For a little more historical perspective, Tom Osborne’s great Nebraska teams used the speed option as one of its chief weapons.
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Combining the “midline lead” and the zone read

The evolution of the traditional zone read to include “midline-esque” concepts like reading the interior linemen is a hot topic, so I’d like to throw open the comments to what you think the next evolution or wrinkle might be. I’m game to anything; for all the talk about the pistol offense, I see this subtle shift in the zone read to be the biggest “it thing” or “fad” across college football.

While you think about what adjustments might work, let me give my suggestion: the introduction of the “midline lead” into the zone read of the defensive linemen. How this will be integrated is one of my other questions but I think this will prove very useful.

The traditional midline involves the reading of the defensive tackle, where the fullback heads up the “middle” while the quarterback steps around. The midline lead has a lead blocker for the quarterback, typically a playside fullback or slotback, though it can also come from the backside.

Although it looks a bit dry in the diagram, the video below shows how that one block — that lead block — can make the difference between a nice gain on the inside read and a touchdown (Paul Johnson uses a wrinkle here where the back goes in motion and leads):

As shown in the video below, courtesy of tog, I don’t see this as a difficult adjustment for spread teams. You would just need to fold the tight-end, H-back, slot, or other player up on the middle or playside linebacker.

So what do you think? All ideas — crazy or not — welcome.

I’ve included some additional cutups of the midline below the jump.

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More on the “Pistol” offense

Although I don’t consider the “pistol offense,” as pioneered by Chris Ault at Nevada, so much an offense as merely a useful formation which adapts well to a variety of schemes, there’s no doubt that Ault has had outsized success with it. Last season, Nevada averaged a staggering 344 yards rushing per game, on an even more staggering 7.39 yards per carry. Now, the offense took several games to get going (and against the meatiest part of Nevada’s schedule, no less), but it’s clear that the concept is here to stay and that it can be the foundation for an explosive attack.

Indeed, the pistol has been adopted by other teams as well, as this video from the Big Ten Network discussing Indiana’s use demonstrates (h/t Shakin the Southland):

Shakin the Southland buttresses this video with a lengthy discourse on the subject, drawing on some of my past work and a great American Football Monthly piece by Mike Kuchar. See parts one and two of Mike’s breakdown.

As I’ve said before, however, whether the pistol is a “system” or a “formation” is secondary to the results, and when it works

When the offense is rolling (which it is most of the time these days), the pistol gives a team the best of both worlds: It has at its disposal all the Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez spread offense stuff, like the zone read and other gadgets, as well as the advantages of a “traditional” I-formation or pro-style single-back attack. Among these are that the runningback, aligning as he does behind the quarterback, tips no hand to the defense on the direction of the play, and the offense can get both good downhill running and play-action off those looks.

The test of the pistol will be, as it is for all offenses, along two vectors: First, will Nevada break through? But second, what will its ongoing influence be? Regardless of how this season turns out for the Wolfpack, I think the “pistol’s” legacy is safe.

As a bonus, below the jump I’ve got a video of one of my favorite Nevada plays, the “horn play.”

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Paul Johnson usin’ some shotgun

The word coming out of Georgia Tech spring practice is PJ is dabbling in some shotgun. I’m not surprised, especially because one of the biggest issues for Tech last year when they did want to pass was protecting Josh Nesbitt, and the report is that the Jackets “mostly threw” out of it. Indeed, Paul Johnson used some ‘gun back in the Hawai’i days. (H/t EDSBS.)

But don’t think that Paul Johnson can’t run his offense from the gun. As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s perfectly possible to run the same flexbone system from shotgun as from under center. One somewhat well known brand is the “Skee-gun” (or “Ski-gun”), named after Muskegon, MI high school. Below is video of their pistol shotgun based flexbone offense.

Pitches:

QB Keeps:

Give reads: (After the jump)
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Oregon’s zone read of the defensive tackle

During last night’s Oregon victory over Oregon State, the announcers mentioned that Chip Kelly’s squad will vary their zone read by reading defenders besides the backside defensive end — namely, the defensive tackle or “three technique” player.

In the “normal” zone read, the line zone blocks one way while the quarterback reads the backside defender:

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There are a variety of counters to this, including the infamous “scrape exchange,” and in response offenses have added third options and bubbles and all manner of other ideas to the outside. But Oregon, along with several other spread teams, have also responded by moving inside, by reading the defensive tackle instead of the defensive end. See the diagram below:

3tech

This does a couple things for you. One, it can confuse the “scrape exchange” response, where the defensive end crashes to force a “pull” read by the quarterback while the linebacker loops outside for him, because the defensive end gets blocked and the QB should have a big gap inside. And, second, it gives you flexibility in who you choose to block versus read. As the old saying goes, if you can’t block them, read them.

For example, when LSU had Glenn Dorsey, Urban Meyer and Florida often used this same tactic to read him instead of trying to block him. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida did this against Alabama’s mountainous defensive tackle, Terrence Cody.)

So what does this look like in practice? Fortunately, Trojan Football Analysis has already broken it down, after the Ducks thrashed Pete Carroll’s USC defense with it. Below is some of the photo evidence, though you should go to TFA to read the whole thing.

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Below is the same play from a sideline angle:

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Outside zone variant: The “pin-and-pull”

I recently wrote a post giving a very simple explanation of the outside zone and zone runs in general. One popular variant that I did not discuss was the “pin and pull” zone. The Indianapolis Colts use this variant quite a bit, as did the Minnesota Gophers back when they had Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber under Glen Mason. This is a staple of the one-back, two-tight end offenses that the Colts use and was famously used by Elliott Uzelac as offensive coordinator for the Colorado Buffaloes in the early 1990s.

Here is a basic explanation. Generally, one way to think of it is that uncovered linemen pull; alternatively uncovered linemen “block back” to get a good angle and the covered linemen pull. Just depends how you teach it. Here are some sample rules:

The aiming point for the Single Back is one yard outside of the tight-end.

If the Center can reach the Nose he will make a “you” call to the strongside guard telling him to pull and block the middle (“Mike”) linebacker. The strongside tackle and tight-end will “tex” — i.e. an exchange: the tight-end blocks down while the tackle wraps around. The tight-end down blocks to prevent penetration; the tackle pulls and runs to reach the strongside (“Sam”) linebacker.

If the center cannot reach the nose he will make a “me” call to the strong guard telling him to block the nose and the center will pull to block the “Mike.” The strongside guard blocks down and to disallow the noseguard from penetrating. The strong tackle and tight-end will “Tex” as described above.

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Below is a video of Penn State using what was, apparently, the pin and pull zone. (Courtesy of mgoblog.)

(Note that I could be wrong on identifying this as an example of “pin and pull,” as it could be a simple down or “G” scheme. Though the idea gets across.)

Explanation and cut-ups of the “Power O” run play

I’ve discussed the “power” play here a few times, because it both quite ubiquitous in college and the pros and also because it is quite good. It’s been around for some time, though, like the counter trey, was made used maybe most famously by Joe Gibbs’s great Washington Redskins teams.

Redskins great John Riggins made a living off the "Power O" play

Redskins great John Riggins made a living off the "Power O" play

The play itself is very basic:

  • The lineman to the side the run is going (playside) essentially “down” block, meaning they take the man to the inside of them. For the guards and center, that includes anyone “heads up” or covering them, but for the playside tackle, he does not want to block the defensive end or other “end man on the line of scrimmage.” These lineman use their leverage to get good angles to crush the defensive lineman, and the fact that they don’t have to block a couple of defenders on the playside frees them to get good double teams and block the backside linebackers. To use Vince Lombardi’s phrase, the idea is to get so much force going that direction that they completely seal off the backside.
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  • They can  do this because they get some help to the playside. First, the fullback (or, more often nowadays, some kind of H-back or other player) is responsible for blocking the otherwise unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage (“EMLOS”). He uses a “kick out” technique, simply meaning he blocks him from the inside to out, in order to create Lombardi’s famous “seal” going the other way.
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  • The final piece of the puzzle is the backside guard (sometimes nowadays a tackle). He pulls and “leads,” meaning he retreats, looks first for the fullback’s block to cut off of, and then heads into the crease looking to block the first defender that shows up — typically the playside linebacker. He can block him whatever direction is best; it’s the runningback’s job to find the open lane.
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  • The runner takes a lateral or slight delay step, takes the handoff from the quarterback, and follow’s the pulling guard’s block. As stated above, he wants to cut off that man’s block and get vertical quickly. It is a power play so he has to be willing to hit the hole fast; it’s not as much of a “read the defense” run as are zone runs, though it is a good complement to it.
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  • If it all works well, the line should have crushed anyone to the inside of the offensive guard, while the fullback has kicked out the end man on the line, and the pulling guard is the runningback’s personal protector. The defender that the guard blocks should never be right, both because the guard has freedom to push him wherever, and the runner’s job is to cut off his block to make him correct — the runner cannot just guess.

 

Here are a few diagrams and examples. The beauty of the play is its versatility: it is probably the most popular run right now in the NFL, and it is also possibly the most popular run in college among spread teams like Florida, Auburn, or a number of others. (And it has the best name — “power.”)

The first is an example of how the Pittsburgh Steelers used the play a few years ago from a very traditional set, though they used an H-back in motion instead of a fullback. I previously discussed the play for the NY Times Fifth Down.

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The Steelers used it to great effect, as Willie Parker had a 75 yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Watch how the H-back goes in motion and kicks out his man, while the guard pulls and leads.

Though when it comes to the “power play,” the most famous use of it this season has been as Ronnie Brown’s go-to play form the Wildcat. The first part of the ‘cat is Ricky Williams on the jet sweep, but the first “counter” in the series is for Brown to fake the wildcat and then take it himself with basic “power O” blocking. Indeed, this is a hint of why the Dolphins are so successful with it: to their lineman, it is the same play that they run from normal sets. Hence why they bristle when other teams try to call what they are doing gimmickry.

wildcatpower

Below is a video of the original form of power that the Dolphins ran with the wildcat, with an unbalanced line:
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A very simple explanation of the zone runs, and the difference between inside zone and outside zone

I wrote this up in abbreviated form originally for my breakdown of the OU-Texas game for Yahoo!’s Dr Saturday, but this is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. There is still way too much confusion about inside zones and outside zones. Part of this is that there are a lot of coaching points on these plays. Indeed, many NFL teams run nothing but inside and outside zone and maybe “power” and “counter,” and therefore spend hours every week coaching the finer points of these plays. But that’s not a reason why the basics have to be so confusing. So here is an imperfect but very basic explanation for what zone runs are, and the difference between inside and outside zones.

Many, many "zone gurus" learned from longtime NFL coach Alex Gibbs,

Many, many "zone gurus" learned from longtime NFL coach Alex Gibbs

Think of this as Newtonian physics for the run game. Yes, Einsteinian physics is more precise and is necessary if you want to understand certain extreme events, but Newtonian physics is extremely useful, easy to understand, and will explain pretty much all you need to know unless you’re currently an offensive line coach (and even if you are, my hope is that this is a pretty good reminder of some things.) Here goes:

On zone plays, the linemen keep the same blocking schemes, regardless of how many tight-ends or wide receivers they use. The aiming point for the runningbacks remain about the same. Many zone teams begin by focusing on the outside zone. Once that is established and the defense is flowing fast to the sideline, the offense comes back with the inside zone.

Yet there is much discussion of what “zone runs” even are. First, there is only so much “zoning” in a zone — much of it is still just blocking the guy in front of you. On all zone runs, the linemen must ask, “Am I ‘covered’ (is there a guy directly in front of me, aside from a linebacker set back a few years)? Or am I ‘uncovered’ (there is no one directly in front of me)?”

If “covered,” there is very little “zoning” at all: The lineman’s job is to block the guy in front of them. Fans, commentators, and even coaches often overcomplicate things. The “zone” aspect comes in with “uncovered” linemen. If “uncovered,” the lineman must step “playside” — i.e. the side the run is going to — and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his “covered” cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker. It’s not that complicated. Indeed, let’s say the five offensive linemen are covered by five defensive linemen. In that case, each guy (save for maybe the backside offensive tackle) will just block the guy in front of them — there is no “zoning” at all.

It gets a little trickier regarding the difference between inside and outside zones, though this involves technique, not assignment. (And this is where the rabbit hole begins, as there are a zillion coaching points to doing this well, but that is better discussed in a coaching DVD rather than this overview.)

On outside zone plays, the offensive linemen take a bit more of a lateral first step and try to reach the defender across from them. He wants to get his body between the defender and the sideline. It’s important to note, however, that the very act of trying to reach the defender often gets him flying to the sideline, at which time the offensive lineman can then switch to driving the defender to the sideline. The runningback aims for a point outside the tight-end, though he can cut it upfield wherever a seam appears.

OutsideZone

Once the defense begins flowing too fast to the sideline, coaches typically dial-up the inside zone. The rules are the same — covered and uncovered — except this is more of a drive block as the aiming point for the runningback is inside. The play often results in a cutback if the defense is flowing fast for the outside zone, but the difference between the outside zone is one of technique, not assignment. And, again, it does not make a difference to the linemen (or at least not much of one) if OU runs this from a four wide set or a two-back one.

IZ-run

On the inside zone the runner aims for the outside hip of the offensive guard. Now, his read can vary by team. Some teams have him read that three technique defensive tackle, while others have him read the middle or “Mike” linebacker. In both cases the idea is for him to find the “vertical” crease — either straight playside off the guard’s hip or backside on a cutback.

A few concluding thoughts. There’s obviously more to it than this. The biggest thing offensive line coaches work on is the initial steps for their linemen (often called a “lateral” or even slightly backwards “bucket step”), and later they work diligently on the proper technique for double-teaming a lineman and then getting up to the “second-level” to block a linebacker. But again, if a defensive “covered” all the linemen, there is no zone. It still comes down to blocking the guy in front of you.

Finally, there are variances. One is the “pin-and-pull” variant of the outside zone or stretch play run by the Indianapolis Colts. Also, for additional reading check out these posts from Trojan Football Analysis on (old-school) Nebraska’s inside and outside zone plays.

The zone-read, gun triple-option . . . and the quadruple-option?

White_readerIt wasn’t long after the zone-read was invented that coaches began dabbling in ways to turn the play into a “triple option” — i.e. with a third possible ballcarrier based on a second quarterback read. Both Rich Rodriguez and Randy Walker started doing it early on, and by the time Urban Meyer was running his spread at Utah, the idea of having a “pitch back” or “pitch phase” for the quarterback if he pulled the ball after reading the defensive end was here to stay.

Now, this enhanced spread run game should not be confused with the true triple-option stuff, as veer offenses, like Paul Johnson’s flexbone, have certain blocking scheme advantages in that the guys being “optioned” are specifically avoided so as to enable double-team blocks on other defenders — an advantage not present with the zone-read. (This is one reason why many spread teams, including Urban Meyers’s and Rich Rodriguez’s, run the veer nowadays.) But there is no question that, as the spread has gotten older and more entrenched, the cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense has also evolved.

The current evolution has us with the zone-read-triple with a pitch back, and its more nascent cousin, the zone-read triple with a bubble screen. But some coaches are working on even more exotic spread permutations, including what can only be described as the “quadruple option.”

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