Is coaching overrated?

So asks Gregg Easterbrook, in an article titled “Coaching is Overrated”:

Changing the playcaller sure helped the Redskins!

In the cult of football, surely few things are more overrated than play calling. Much football commentary, from high school stands to the NFL in prime time, boils down to: “If they ran they should have passed, and if they passed they should have run.” Other commentary boils down to: “If it worked, it was a good call, if it failed, it was a bad call,” though the call is only one of many factors in a football play. Good calls are better than bad calls — this column exerts considerable effort documenting the difference. But it’s nonsensical to think that replacing a guy who calls a lot of runs to the left with a guy who calls a lot of runs to the right will transform a team.

One factor here is the Illusion of Coaching. We want to believe that coaches are super-ultra-masterminds in control of events, and coaches do not mind encouraging that belief. But coaching is a secondary force in sports; the athletes themselves are always more important. TMQ’s immutable Law of 10 Percent holds that good coaching can improve a team by 10 percent, bad coaching can subtract from performance by 10 percent — but the rest will always be on the players themselves, their athletic ability and level of devotion, plus luck. If the players are no good or out of sync, it won’t matter what plays are called; if the players are talented and dedicated, they will succeed no matter what the sideline signals in. Unless they have bad luck, which no one can control.

Yes and no. I wholeheartedly agree that playcalling is overrated, and he is right that much of the commentary after games involves a lot of second-guessing full of hindsight bias. Few ever pose the “should he have done X?” question in terms of the probabilities and tendencies at the time, or in the context of the 10 or so seconds available to make such calls. Indeed, I have even argued that there’s a case to be made that the best playcalling might be a controlled but randomized “mixed-strategy.”

The other coaching bogeyman is the aura surrounding “in-game adjustments” or “halftime adjustments,” both of which are supposed to be the “hallmarks of good coaching.” This is another thing where there’s a kernel of truth surrounding by a lot of speculation. Yes, a good coach will not do the same thing over and over again if it isn’t working, or if the other team has figured it out. And yes, coaching a game involves an ongoing process of what the other team is doing (this is one reason why I think, even if adjustments are part of the game, “halftime adjustments” are very much overrated). But if you want to see a bad coach then I’ll show you one who tries to “adjust” to everything the other team is doing with new schemes and ideas built-in midgame. Instead, teams with good coaching pretty much run only things within their plan — i.e. stuff they had practiced during the week. Indeed, much of what fans or commentators will pick out as an “adjustment” was something in the original gameplan that just didn’t get called until the second half because of the flow of the game. Yet how can good coaches both “adjust” throughout a game and also not deviate from what they have practiced?

This brings me to where I depart from Easterbrook, that coaching is minor. (I don’t really know how to judge “overrated” — in relation to what? overrated by whom?) While playcalling is definitely overhyped (hey, the talking heads get paid to talk about something), preparation is extremely important, and much of a gameplan involves contingency planning. It also means that the “base stuff” should have the counters built in, the constraint plays are already there, and the defensive adjustments are easy to make because they are a part of the system. A good offense “implies the counter,” meaning that if a defense adjusts in some way, then playcalling is simple because there’s an obvious counter play to be called. On defense you take away the other team’s best stuff, and focus on other things as it comes, though by dictating to the offense through aggressiveness and by trying to confuse it. Unlike Easterbrook I can’t hang a number on how many wins or losses “coaching” is responsible for (and if I could I’d imagine it varies by level), I can safely say that I think weekly preparation is underrated, because it is rarely talked about — other than platitudes like “we had a great week of practice” — has a long-tail in terms of continual refinement of technique and effort that can only improve incrementally, and that everything run in the games is stuff that has been practiced over and over and over.

Two final points on the Redskins situation. (more…)

Blogpoll ballot

Rank Team Delta
1 Texas 2
2 Alabama
3 Florida 1
4 Cincinnati 1
5 Iowa 1
6 TCU 1
7 Boise State 1
8 Southern Cal 3
9 LSU
10 Georgia Tech 2
11 Penn State 2
12 Oregon 2
13 Oklahoma State 4
14 Houston 2
15 Virginia Tech
16 Utah 2
17 Miami (Florida) 7
18 Pittsburgh 1
19 West Virginia 1
20 Ohio State
21 Central Michigan
22 Brigham Young
23 Arizona 1
24 California
25 Wisconsin
Last week’s ballot
Dropped Out: New Mexico (#1), Texas Tech (#21), South Florida (#23), Idaho (#24), Kansas (#25).

A little movement at the top: I thought Texas looked the best, while Alabama struggled with Tennessee (hail Cody!) and Florida again looked less than superior, at least on offense (defense played great, again). (And I don’t think anyone who watched the UF-Miss. State game thought it was just a defensive struggle and that, in actual fact, the football was a superior brand.) After that I still like the undefeateds hanging around. I moved TCU ahead of Boise because they have looked great. Not entirely fair, but, hey, that’s polling. Cincy continues to look dominant within the domain of the Big East, even with its backup quarterback, and so hold off a one-loss Southern Cal team. GT continues to be a tough, tough team — many wrote them off as underrated early, and they probably were, but they have responded to the Miami game and have done all you could ask for. The next batch of teams will have to continue winning to stay up there or rise, and in the case of teams like Oklahoma State, that would involve huge upset victories over Texas and if they can do that, the sky is the limit (though likely not the BCS title game). The same goes for Oregon, who faces Southern Cal this weekend.

Central Michigan made it on here as my underappreciated team. They managed to beat Michigan State in excruciating fashion (much as everyone else has seemed to do). Cal and Wisconsin snuck back in after earlier stumbles and have a chance of moving up if they continue to play well.

Smart Notes 10/27/09

Paul Johnson don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t get much better than this. Frank Beamer is still steaming from his team’s 28-23 loss to the Yellow Jackets two weeks ago. The Virginia Tech coaches sent in about eleven plays that they believed constituted illegal blocks that should have been flagged — a fairly routine thing to do, though the Hokie coaches believed several of those blocks came on game changing plays. Apparently the ACC officials confirmed that at least four plays included illegal blocks, though that news was leaked by Beamer rather than the ACC itself. Paul Johnson is not impressed:

Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson, a man with a reputation for bristling at criticism, fired back after his team’s practice Monday.

“They got out-schemed. So, it’s illegal to out-scheme them, I guess,” he said. “We blocked them the same way we blocked them a year ago and they weren’t complaining when they won.”

Zing! A different article quotes Johnson saying, “That’s a joke. Put the tape on and watch. Tyler Melton cracked the free safety. He doesn’t even block him. He shields him.”

“They got out-schemed. So it’s illegal to out-scheme them, I guess.” Somewhat supporting Johnson was the ACC saying Beamer should not have disclosed the results:

Doug Rhoads, who oversees the league’s officials, said the Hokies coaches shouldn’t have disclosed the conference’s admission of mistakes and he wouldn’t specify the number of missed calls.

“I would only say that Virginia Tech, just as every team on that weekend, submitted plays for my review,” Rhoads said. “Out of those plays, there are a few the officials missed, a few that were the right call and a few that were judgment calls somewhere in the middle. ”

Johnson said he also submitted about a dozen plays to the ACC that he thought should have been called holding on the Hokies.

“It’s part of the game,” he said. “Nobody from the conference called and told us that we did anything illegal.”

Two non-committal comments. One, Paul Johnson’s offense has always relied on “cut blocks,” which are legal, but when done improperly can result in being illegal “chop blocks.” The line is a thin one, and is not always easy to call. The relevant parts of the rules state:

e. Blocking below the waist is permitted except as follows (A.R. 9-1-2-IV-XI):

1. Offensive linemen at the snap positioned more than seven yards from the middle lineman of the offensive formation are prohibited from blocking below the waist toward the original position of the ball in or behind the neutral zone and within 10 yards beyond the neutral zone.

2. Backs at the snap positioned completely outside the normal tackle (second player from the snapper) position in either direction toward a sideline, or in motion at the snap, are prohibited from blocking below the waist toward the original position of the ball in or behind the neutral zone and within 10 yards beyond the neutral zone (A.R. 9-1-2-XXVI). . . .

So the basic gist is it is illegal if it is a block “back” towards where the ball was snapped from. It’s completely legal on the edge, however, or any inside-to-out block. The way Johnson using his wingbacks and tackles to block downfield can result in gray areas. Again, not necessarily bad or illegal or even unsportsmanlike, but not always easy when the defender is a moving target.

The second thought here is just that it appears to be the season for complaining about calls, particularly in the SEC but also elsewhere. I can say I’ve seen some really horrible calls this year — many documented on film — but I do hope this isn’t a larger trend. It’s not just coaches too. I’m tired of seeing receivers stand up and look for/beg for a flag after every incompletion, and quarterbacks turn into kickers acting for the personal foul penalties for hitting them. The NFL has proposed a rule that would make it a personal foul to grandstand for a flag to be thrown. That’s a rule I could support, though its enforcement too would be difficult.

- Jimmy Clausen, great quarterback? This is not really newsy — he is second in the country in pass efficiency and eighth in yards per pass attempt — but Jimmy Clausen is playing very, very well this year. Indeed, maybe his weakest performance of the year came last week against Boston College, and he still threw for 246 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. For anyone who watched him the last two years, however, this is very interesting: Clausen came in with a lot of recruiting hype, but how did he suddenly morph from befuddled underclassmen into a real playmaker? One answer of course is the exceptional Golden Tate, but there is no question that Clausen has both hit a lot of big plays and protected the football. As Art from Trojan Football Analysis remarked after USC’s win over Notre Dame,

[W]hat caught my attention in the recent Notre Dame game was how easily the Irish appeared to move the ball in the second half through the air. When this happens fans and the media usually jump on the staff for making poor adjustments…Or they vaguely complain about “zone schemes” or “prevent defenses”. Sometimes the criticism is right and sometimes it is just arm chair quarterbacking mixed in with the benefit of hindsight and second guessing.

. . . Only once on these 13 big pass plays did USC run anything resembling a true prevent defense with 3 DL rushing and 8 men dropping into coverage. Clausen escaped the 3 man pressure on that play, scrambled and found an open man. Conversely, USC did run some type of +1 or +2 blitz on 5 of the 13 plays — all five saw completions by Clausen. Notre Dame had two completions in the game of over 21 yards. One came on a trick fake FG play that caught USC off guard. The other come with cornerback #36 Pinkard in straight man coverage versus WR #23 for the Irish [Golden Tate]. Clausen made some very good throws and reads in the game. I doubt USC will face a QB of his caliber again this season unless something funny happens in the BCS rankings. Jimmy Clausen strikes me as very improved compared to the previous two seasons and clearly had more talent around him this season than the previous contests. My respect for his skill level is considerably up after this most recent game.

Art backs it up with analysis of the thirteen plays he mentioned, along with video of those completions, shown below. I particularly liked the very first pass. It looks simple but USC showed a straight “Cover Two” look with the corners in press coverage to take away short, quick routes. It turned out to be a zone-blitz though, with the cornerback blitzing. Clausen saw it, as did Tate, and they hooked up for a simple hitch pass that Tate turned into a first down. A big key to good quarterbacking is in making those kinds of plays look easy. I guess with Charlie Weis, there’s a long-tail in quarterback development, but you can’t say he hasn’t gotten Clausen to that point.

- Crabtree’s debut. I, like many others, was very interested in Michael Crabtree’s debut. And like just about everyone else I came away pretty impressed:
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My take on Penn State’s old school/new school D

Check it out on Yahoo! here. Thanks again to the Doc. Hope you all enjoy it.

The best sentences I read today

As I continue to watch Michigan’s quarterback run the read option against the [Minnesota] Gophers, I now find myself wondering if this play is authentically simple or quietly complex. The read option is a combination of three rudimentary elements of football: spreading the field, running a back off tackle, and the quarterback keeper. It would be an easy play to teach and a safe play to run, even for junior high kids. But it’s still new. It didn’t really exist in the 1970s and ’80s, and when I first saw it employed in the late ’90s, it seemed like an idiotic innovation. It seemed like a way to get your quarterback killed without taking advantage of your tailback. I had always believed teams could not succeed by running the ball out of the shotgun formation. I thought it would never happen. But I was wrong. And I suspect the reason I was wrong was not because I didn’t understand what was happening on this specific play; I suspect it was because I felt like I already understood football. I had played football and written about football and watched it exhaustively for twenty years, so I thought I knew certain inalienable truths about the game. And I was wrong. What I knew were the assumed truths, which are not the same thing. I had brainwashed myself. I was unwilling to admit that my traditional, conservative football values were imaginary and symbolic. They belonged to a game I wasn’t actually watching but was still trying to see. . . .

. . . Barry Sanders running to daylight. Earl Campbell running to darkness. Settling for a field goal late in the first half. Playing for field position when the weather is inclement. Blocking sleds. Salt tablets. Richard Nixon’s favorite sport. That’s what football is, always — and if we stopped believing that, it would seem to matter less.

But that isn’t what football is.

It isn’t. It changes more often than any sport we have. Football was Nixon’s favorite sport, but it was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite, too. Football coaches will try anything. They’re gonzo. . . .

. . . I don’t know what I see when I watch football. It must be something insane, because I should not enjoy it as much as I do. I must be seeing something so personal and so universal that understanding this question would tell me everything I need to know about who I am, and maybe I don’t want that to happen. But perhaps it’s simply this: Football allows the intellectual part of my brain to evolve, but it allows the emotional part to remain unchanged. It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart. And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.

The above is from an excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s new book, Eating the Dinosaur, that appeared on ESPN.com You can find many more good sentences at the link.

Blogpoll Ballot

Rank Team
1 New Mexico
2 Alabama
3 Texas
4 Florida
5 Cincinnati
6 Iowa
7 TCU
8 Boise State
9 LSU
10 Miami (Florida)
11 Southern Cal
12 Georgia Tech
13 Penn State
14 Oregon
15 Virginia Tech
16 Houston
17 Oklahoma State
18 Utah
19 Pittsburgh
20 West Virginia
21 Texas Tech
22 Arizona
23 South Florida
24 Idaho
25 Kansas

Okay, so the obvious thing is I ranked New Mexico #1. This was a protest vote, as I initially tried to make my ballot with the #1 slot empty. It kicked it back to me so I had to remake the ballot all over again. I watched all three of the “top three” teams last weekend — Texas, Florida, and Alabama — and am not impressed by any of them. Well that’s not totally fair. All three defenses look solid overall, with Florida’s putting in the weakest performance by far (I think Arkansas runningback Dennis Johnson is somewhere still breaking tackles), and Mark Ingram is a difference maker for the Crimson Tide. Yet none has distinguished themselves — and the next batch of undefeateds have serious questions about their strength of competition — so I picked a hopeless team to be a placeholder, Mike Locksley’s inept New Mexico squad. Again, were the software to let me leave it blank, I would have.

From there, much of the debate recently was about USC’s low spot with the computers when the BCS poll came out. Well count me with them. They lost to Washington, which means they have no right to complain about anything, and they haven’t exactly looked dominant in their other wins. (And it doesn’t help that Ohio State looked awful against Purdue, Washington lost to Arizona State, and USC nearly let Notre Dame fight back.) They have time to recover — I’m looking forward to the USC-Oregon game — but for right now, they are where they are. If nothing else, both Miami and LSU have “better” losses than does USC.

From there, the biggest difference is I probably have Houston higher than many. For the moment I’m willing to forgive their fluke loss to UTEP, though I reserve the right to penalize them again later. They’ve looked quite good otherwise, and their offense will keep them competitive in any game they play.

Finally, I felt dirty leaving Kansas in the poll after they lost to Colorado, but felt I didn’t have much choice. I did let Idaho sneak in there — the Vandals are 6-1 and deserve it as much as any of the other teams in the 20-30 range.

Smart Notes 10/20/09

Wild thought. Here’s a question for discussion. The Dolphins this season have taken to using a very interesting personnel package for their wildcat looks: two tight-ends and four runningbacks (Ronnie Brown at the “wildcat QB” spot, Ricky Williams as a split receiver/motion back, and then a fullback next to Brown and the other flanker has been a runningback as well). My friend Jerry Gordon speculated that this might be particularly taxing on NFL teams because of the strict 53 man roster limits. Indeed, the Dolphins had a lot of success against the Jets, and Rex Ryan uses a number of six, seven, and occasionally more defensive backs on the field at the same time to bring pressure with. Plus, add to that the fact that the typical NFL “cover” cornerback is not excited about being blocked in the run game, and the extra runningback out there can be a key linchpin for making the jet sweep go, and the personnel in general for opening up creases. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

nicker

- Brophy, delivering. My man Broph has some great stuff up from the past couple of weeks, especially his in depth look at Nick Saban’s defense. I’ve discussed an overview of some of what Saban does, but Brophy provides a nice summary of a DVD series Saban did, with primary focus on single safety or “one-high” defenses — Saban’s favorite.  Brophy has broken the articles into three parts:

  1. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part I (overview)
  2. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part II (Cover 3)
  3. Middle of the Field Safety Coverage Principles – Part III (Cover 1)

It’s best to read all of it, but a couple of good Saban quotes to whet the appetites:

If you’re not matching the pattern and cheating the receiver, you’re never going to make it. You’re going to be watching completions all night long. You’re never going to make it [to the ball].

The simplest and best defense in football is man-free coverage. It covers everything, it stuffs the run, and it defends the middle of the field. It’s the #1 coverage in pro ball . . . basically because you can’t get away with playing Cover 3.

And then this explanation of the “RAT” call from Cover 1 from Brophy:

The main nuance of this coverage has to do with a challenging/conflicting assignments for the backers. Because the main thrust of the defense is to stop the run from the inside out and [to] keep[] the defenders playing fast, the premise is to keep the linebackers focused on the backs and TE. Saban uses an alert code (RAT) to prevent a potentially ‘coverage breaking’ route.

“RAT” is used to alert inside backers [that the] strong safety [is] passing off his responsibility ([i.e., the] tight end) to the inside linebackers. When the second receiver (tight end) stems inside ([i.e., like on a shallow cross]), the strong safety, [if he] ran with him, []would be immediately vacating the perimeter ([i.e.] where the run game would likely be attacking) as well as [getting in the way] of the (run game) pursuing linebackers. To [avoid] this hazard, when the tight end stems inside [as on a shallow cross], the strong safety will declares/yells “RAT!”. “Rat” means a guy is coming into the funnel (is being funneled) and the remaining defender in the hole should cut/reroute and jump this receiver as he approaches.

This call accomplishes two things. First, it alerts the next backer over (Sam) that the strong safety will take his assigned man (first back out), and he should now adjust to the second back out strong. Secondly, it tells the Mike, who is the “rat in the hole” that he is going to have company soon (crossing tight end) and can jump this route as it comes.

As I see this, it is Saban’s way of getting a “floater” or “robber” player while keeping exactly who he wants on the various backs, tight-ends, and inside receivers — i.e. controlling the matchups. As a bonus, again courtesy of Brophy, is a video of ‘Bama in Cover 1 looks. And, of course for more, you must read the “holy grail” of defensive playbooks, Saban’s 2001 LSU book.

- Pellini, (un)-interrupted. Tough week for Bo coming off a big and disappointing loss to Texas Tech. But Brophy came through again with audio of a clinic talk Pellini gave while still at LSU on his defense. It’s well worth the listen.

- The testing of Mike Leach. Speaking of Tech, I have previously noted that Mike Leach is particularly adept at producing one prolific passer after another, and credited much of that to his system of drills and pass-happy practices whereby all his QBs get lots of reps. That theory will be challenged this week, as the Captain will likely be forced to start third-string redshirt freshman quarterback Seth Doege, due to injuries to his first two quarterbacks, Taylor Potts and Steven (“Sticks”) Sheffield.

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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.
  •  

  • 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.
  •  

  • 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.
  •  

  • 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.

steelerscounter_updateA

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.

Oklahoma and a walk on the outside

Links to two bits of mine that appeared today: