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:

Dolphins Wildcat clips

I put this together for something I’m working on with Football Outsiders that is upcoming. The ‘Fins used a balanced, two tight-end set with their wildcat look. (And I think subbed in a runningback for the split receiver to the sweep side.) Note how on the jet sweep the fullback manages to crush the outside linebacker, Calvin Pace, thus springing Ricky Williams. On the second clip, the power play, watch how Jets linebacker Bart Scott is unblocked but nevertheless takes too wide of an angle, likely influenced by the jet sweep. The Dolphins get a great push, and Ronnie Brown is able to score. This clip is a nice follow-on to my recent NY Times blog post. For the game, the Dolphins used one form of the “wildcat” or another (I know the term is stupid) sixteen times for over seven yards per play.

Mummepoll Ballot

The ballot is below. Again, the Mummepoll requires you to rank the top five teams and then just select, in any order, the next seven. This intent is for a more original polling format. Also, there is still time to join, as voting is open to everyone. (And if you missed last week, they are allowing a mulligan on voting.)

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Cincinnati
  • Boise State
  • Virginia Tech
  • Miami
  • Iowa
  • TCU
  • Kansas
  • South Carolina
  • Ohio State

How the wildcat really works, and how teams defend it

My analysis of this is available over at the New York Times’s Fifth Down Blog. Check it out there. Apologies for the fact that the diagrams got a bit jumbled and are in the wrong order. I’m hoping to get that fixed now.

How Florida’s offense might evolve with John Brantley

My analysis is available over at Dr Saturday. It includes an in-depth look at the “levels” concept against a couple of pass coverage, and hypothesizes how Florida might use a true pocket passer instead of the multi-talented Tim Tebow.

New Blogpoll ballot

As usual, ballot below and brief commentary below the jump:

Rank Team Delta
1 Alabama 2
2 Texas
3 Florida 2
4 Virginia Tech 5
5 Boise State 1
6 Cincinnati 1
7 TCU 1
8 LSU
9 Miami (Florida) 11
10 Southern Cal
11 Iowa
12 Ohio State 6
13 Kansas 1
14 Penn State 2
15 Oregon 4
16 Oklahoma State 1
17 Auburn
18 Nebraska 6
19 Brigham Young 2
20 Georgia Tech
21 Wisconsin
22 Mississippi
23 South Florida 2
24 Missouri
25 South Carolina 8
Last week’s ballot

Dropped Out: Houston (#7), Oklahoma (#13), Georgia (#16), Michigan (#23).

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Smart Notes 10/6/09

Going for two. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails asking whether Rich Rodriguez should have gone for two instead of kicking the PAT to send the game to overtime against Michigan State. I didn’t get to watch the game closely, but we know what happened: Michigan kicked the PAT and Tate Forcier promptly threw an interception, and Michigan State scored to win the game. The logic of most people who say Rodriguez should have gone for two appears to be something along the lines that Forcier looked dog tired and they needed to win then, and that Michigan had all the momentum and should have used it on that play. I don’t know if I have a definitive answer, but here’s how I look at those judgment calls.

You’re basically comparing two probabilities: One, the chance of succeeding on the two-point play, and second, the chance of winning in overtime. Both numbers have some precedent but also can get clouded by who you’re playing at that moment, how well you’re playing, etc. If Wichita State miraculously gets into that same position against Florida, I’d probably tell them to go for two because, under the NCAA’s unique overtime format, each team has a roughly 50/50 shot at winning before taking into account talent differential, at which time Florida would dominate. We know that two-point tries are successful something between 40-50% of the time, and that is probably greater than the chance of going toe-to-toe with Florida — hence take your 45% chance of winning right there. For Florida, it is the opposite: you want the game to go on so your natural advantage can take over; so kick the PAT and let’s do this. It’s all an offshoot of David and Goliath strategies.

How does that play out in Michigan’s game? Well if Rodriguez thinks he has the better team — including momentum — then it seems to me you play for overtime. That’s because even if you’re better your chance of getting the two-point try caps out at about 50%, whereas the starting point for your chance of winning in OT is 50%, plus whatever natural advantage you have. Had they been playing Southern Cal, the decision is probably the opposite.

The other thing you notice from this is that slight differences in the probabilities can vastly change the right outcome. We know the estimates for overtime and two-point tries, but this was late in the game and therefore those probabilities were dependent to an extent on what had happened earlier. Not necessarily when or how Michigan scored, but fatigue, injuries, and how good the teams were coming in does matter to help revise probabilities going forward. (Again, I’m trying to distinguish revised estimates of forward-looking probabilities with backward-looking events that should have no effect on the decision to go for it or not.) Thus I think Rodriguez’s judgment call (in just this situation at least) was sound at least in the sense that there is no compelling argument that it was flat wrong. If he thought he had the better team — and the records of the teams going into it seemed to indicate that — then overtime seems the wiser move. The bottom line is two-point tries are not high-percentage plays.

(Here’s a thought experiment someone once asked me. This question assumes we know the probabilities with certainty, which if course unrealistic but here goes: You have the ball on the 23 yard line and are down three. Your team and the other team are completely evenly matched. There’s only one second on the clock; time for only one play. Your field goal kicker is mediocre, and is 50/50 from that distance (40 yards) — i.e. 50% of tying the game by kicking it. Or you could go for it and run a pass play, which you estimate had a 33% chance of succeeding. What do you do and why?)

- Big 10 Q&A. I did a Q&A over at The Rivalry, Esq. with the excellent Graham Filler. Topics including Juice Williams, Northwestern, etc. Tomorrow is a post involving me hemorrhaging about Purdue’s ineptitude.

- Mizzou’s run game. The very sharp Dave Matter of the Columbia Daily Tribune takes a look at Gary Pinkel’s Missouri’s running game.

- An easier case. If the Rodriguez situation above is a push, Raheem Morris is not so lucky. Brian Burke shoots up the new Tampa coach’s thought-process:

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What’s wrong with Georgia Tech’s run game? (Is anything?)

dwyer1Fits and starts. Georgia Tech’s offense is, by most statistical measures, beating its marks from last season. In ’08 the Jackets averaged roughly 370 yards of offense, while this year they are second in the ACC with over 400 total yards per game. Scoring is up by over six points a game too, up from 24 to roughly 30. But the perception is that Paul Johnson’s vaunted flexbone offense is not doing so hot. Indeed, the perception vs. reality debate centers on Jonathan Dwyer, who, if you ask most fans (or see the emails I get), is having a disappointing year despite being third in the ACC in rushing yards per game.

There’s definitely some truth to the idea that Johnson’s offense has not been crisp. Exhibit A were the nationally televised games against Miami, where the Jackets fell behind and could not get the offense going, and Clemson, where a strong first quarter and gutsy fourth bracketed two quarters of very little production. And Dwyer’s 400+ yards rushing this year are muddied by his 66 yards against Clemson and seven against Miami. So what is the prognosis?

I talked to a few flexbone experts and the thoughts were these. The first let’s just get out of the way: Johnson is still using Chan Gailey’s players, and doesn’t yet have its own. I don’t want to harp on this but I am sure there is at least some truth to it. The line in particular was disappointing against Clemson and Miami, and Johnson will ultimately be judged when he gets a full roster there. But that doesn’t much help us in the here and now.

Second, and most interesting, is that there is sentiment that Johnson doesn’t totally trust his quarterback and is predetermining more reads than we might think. I don’t think that is as surprising as it sounds. Johnson said in clinic talks over the summer that he predetermined a lot of the reads last year, and there is some precedent for this: Tom Osborne said in the Nebraska heyday up to 70-80% of the reads in a given game might be predetermined by the call. I’m an option purist, and moreover from a viewing perspective I can’t always tell if a play was a bad read or a predetermined one. But that would help explain some of the stunted dives to Dwyer that have not seemed to go anywhere at times this year. (But don’t ask Mississippi State or North Carolina.)

Finally, there have been some changes in defensive tactics. Most notably almost everyone is playing Georgia Tech with a nose-guard to help stop the midline option and to either stop Dwyer up the middle or at least muddy that read. Miami in particularly played their base defense but simply moved one defensive tackle over to nose guard. This isn’t an end-all be-all scheme, as it has opened up some outside lanes and various counter plays, but GT has not always executed those plays well. Rewatching the Clemson and Miami games in particular one is struck by the fact that there are big plays to the outside to be had, but the Jackets just keep missing key blocks. Now credit both Clemson and Miami for fending off the myriad chop cut blocks and making tackles, but if Johnson wants to continue having success they will have to make teams pay for crowding the middle, and the passing game can only go so far.

The demise of Johnson’s scheme has been premature, though, like any other squad, it comes down to execution and GT will have to prove that its success will continue. The Jackets face a reeling Florida State squad this weekend, followed by a streaking Virginia Tech team. We’ll learn a lot about PJ’s boys in the next two weeks.

Paul Johnson bonus. Below are highlights from the 1992 Holiday Bowl, where Hawai’i, with Johnson as offensive coordinator, defeated Illinois.

Erin Andrews to sue the Marriott and Ramada hotels?

I haven’t had much to say on the whole Erin Andrews tumult but I thought this was interesting — and disturbing that the hotels let the guy specifically request a room next to Andrews:

On Friday, the FBI arrested 48-year-old Michael David Barrett and charged him with secretly taping ESPN sports reporter Erin Andrews in the nude and posting the videos on the Internet. Andrews’ attorneys, Marshall B. Grossman and Daniel Alberstone of Bingham McCutchen, quickly issued a statement praising the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles for making the arrest — and revealing that the Bingham attorneys and the private investigation firm Kroll Inc. played key roles in the investigation.

But Grossman was not so kind toward the hotel where the filming took place. He criticized management at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt University for booking Barrett into the room adjacent to Andrews and questioned the hotel’s attention to privacy and security. “One can’t pass this off to simple ignorance,” Grossman said.

Indeed, judging by the FBI’s affidavit, the actions by the Marriott are inexcusable. The affidavit says that Barrett filmed all but one of the videos at the Marriott, with the other filmed at the Ramada Conference Center in Milwaukee. What is most shocking is how Barrett was able to secure his room in the Marriott next to Andrews: He simply asked. The hotel’s reservations computer showed his request as, “GST RQST TO RM NXT TO [Andrews].” To make matters worse, both rooms were situated in an alcove off the main hallway. That made it easier for Barrett to hack the peephole in a manner that allowed him to film inside.

In Milwaukee, Barrett allegedly called 14 hotels to find out where Andrews would be staying. When he found out she would be at the Radisson, he booked a room and hacked the peephole of Andrews’ room in the same way he had done at the Marriott.

All of this adds up to a potential lawsuit, suggests John A. Day at the blog Day on Torts. Start with the question of how Barrett was able to identify Andrews’ room, when “most hotels will not give anyone, even an alleged spouse, the room number of a guest.” Add in the questions of how Barrett was able to secure a room right next door to Andrews and how he was able to modify the peephole without anyone noticing, and “one would think alarms would have been sounding at Marriott,” Day says.

Hotels have a responsibility to make their premises reasonably safe for their guests. This includes the responsibility to exercise reasonable care to protect the privacy of their guests. As more of the facts are released for public consumption, we will learn if Marriott did what Erin Andrews had a right to expect.

Based on news reports, Marriott’s only response so far has been a prepared statement that said, “The security and privacy of our guests is a priority.” I suspect Andrews’ attorneys at Bingham McCutchen will be looking for something more than that out of these two hotels.