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.


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.


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.

  • Cerebral

    Love your stuff chris. You mentioned this might be better explained in a coaching video… Ever thought of making one? I think the way you explain things in print would do awesome in video

  • DrB

    Nice explanation

  • Great post. These ‘clinic’ posts are by far my favorite.

  • stan


    I think that some of your readers may be a little misled by your statement that a covered lineman simply blocks the man on him with very little zoning. Your description would be enhanced if you explained that a lot of coaches teach a play side step for all offensive linemen, covered or not. Defenses can slant, stunt and blitz. Zone blocking allows the blockers to step in tandem and pick up whoever ends up showing in front of them.

    You might show how defensive schemes such as Michigan State’s old 4-3 when Percy Snow was the MLB employed so much slanting, looping (sometimes the cocked NT would loop outside the TE) and blitzing that assignment blocking became impossible. The only way to handle it was to zone all running plays — everyone steps play side and blocks whoever shows up.

    I think you might also want to make a point of how cutback lanes are created. In outside zone, linemen step, reach and try to rip through with the backside arm to get a seal. If they can’t get that leverage, they push the defender in the direction he’s alteady running. A lane can develop wherever a seal is secured, a defender overpursues his gap, or gets tripped up in the wash.

  • OldSouth

    Way to go Purdue. And UK. Speaking of which, Chris, are you on the side of god or satan for the governers’ cub?

  • Really nice overview and thanks for it. One thing I’d love to see elaborated are based on comments Mike Martz made in a Paul Zimmerman interview back in 1999. Martz, in talking about the Sid Gilman offence, offered the following:

    “…Power running. You’ve got to be able to run the ball when you go to a three-wide receiver set, and you’ve got to run with power. By that I mean behind zone blocking, which is a big departure from the San Francisco system. Theirs was man-blocking, with a lot of cut-blocks and misdirection. Ours is straight power. Not many people realize this, but if we hadn’t have gotten Marshall (Faulk) we were prepared to go with another excellent zone-blocking runner, Robert Holcombe. It takes a certain type, a guy who can run with power, who’s good at picking his way through.”

    (from http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/inside_game/dr_z/news/1999/10/28/inside_football/)

    I don’t tend to think of power running when I think of zone blocking, but perhaps I’m incorrect in this. Any insight you have would be much appreciated.


  • Rishi

    Hey Chris,

    Just found out about your site today! Simply awesome, man! Going to be spending hours here, that much’s for sure! Sorry to post something entirely irrelevant to the topic, I have a question for you that I hope you will take up, but I don’t know where else to post it. Here it is:

    Among other things, I’ve been following Steve Spurrier’s offense for the past few years. He’s been facing persistent problems with his offensive line and pass protection for the past 6-7 years. Also, after Eric Rhett, he seems to not have had major, consistent running production anywhere. What, according to you, are the major problems with his offensive schemes with respect to protecting the passer and opening up running lanes (if there are any)?

  • Hello Chris,

    I was first introduced by a fellow coach here in Australia a few months back and enjoy reading every post,

    You mention that in the outside zone the o-lineman trys to position his body between the defender and the sideline (to “seal”) the edge, we coach our guys a bit different to that, the aim is not to “seal” but to attack the outside bicep of the defender but maintain position with the backside hand on the middle of the breast plate and drive up field but ensure the o-lineman doesn’t turn back into the centre of the field and ‘seal’, by maintaining this position we hope to acheive a few things:

    1. By continuing to drive if the back cuts up outside the defender he is forced to make an arm tackle at best as the o-linman continues to attack the outside bicep and not allowing the defender to position his body correctly to make a sure tackle.

    2. If the back cuts back inside the o-lineman has a superior position to not allow the defender to come underneath the block and make a tackle as he maintains as well call ‘stong inside hand’ on the middle of the breast plate.

    3. The lineman inside if uncovered himself would attempt to ‘overtake’ the block allowing the outside o-lineman to head up to the second level (although this doesnt end up happening all that much)

    But we do coach in line with the next comment, if the defender ‘beats them to the punch’ and gets outside we coach our guys to drive them all the way to the bench.

    Like you said, there are a lot of coaching points to this and it vary’s, we do OK with this technique but would love to hear of any others, keep up the great work!( http://www.gcstingrays.com/ )

  • Fredo

    I love this website. Any chance we’ll see a breakdown of Will Muschamp’s Longhorn defense that dismantled o.u.’s running game?

  • Another Ball Coach

    Thanks Chris.

    It would probably be more accurate to say that when a covered lineman’s backside teammate is uncovered, he knows he will have help and they will team block the down lineman to the LB; if his backside teammate is covered, he knows he will have to block his man solo. As you mentioned, everyone is ‘reach’ or ‘bucket’ stepping to try to get to his man’s outside, so that gets everyone moving sideways.

    Actually, if all the lineman are covered, they are still zone blocking. (Another way to think about zone blocking is each lineman steps and is blocking whoever shows up in his playside gap- so stunts are easily handled). Assuming there is no stunting happening, when each O lineman steps and attempts to reach the man in front of him, and the back is looking for a crease that may develop.

    Perhaps the biggest difference between the inside zone and the outside zone is the blocking on the backside, where they try to scoop block: uncovered lineman try to overtake the next man to the playside, and covered lineman try to reach and rip past the man on them to get to a LB.

    Generally, because his shoulders are more squared to the hole when running the inside zone, the RB is in a better position to see and cut backside than on the outside zone.

  • fcc74

    Great article. One thing that I would add is what I beleive to be a misonception about double teams. I hear many people say that zone schemes are all about getting double teams. This is not my understanding of zone schemes. Yes, double teams are an option if they present themselves(more likely in IZ), but based on how the D plays, there may not be any double teams. The zone name, as I understand it, comes for the idea that ultimately, the OL is in charge of an area(playside) more than a person.

  • donkeypunch22

    Alex Gibbs, at least in his Denver days, in a lecture advocated cut blocks (actually he demanded clipping – which was legal till Gibbs made it too effective) on the back side for Outside Zone, and push blocks on the back side for Inside Zone. The thought being Outside Zone’s cut back is not really cutting back, but rather the RB straighting out, letting the front side overpursue and the back side late from getting off the ground. The Inside Zone, to Alex, was a true roll back where you try to get around the backside defenders – thus he wanted them to be actively pushed by the RB.

    Also, Alex was a stickler for the RB’s read. In Outside Zone, it is the last down line man, and for Inside Zone it’s the first down line man inside not counting the center. Gibbs made it a point that the RB’s “decision step” of going outside, straightning out, or cutting back be the third step, because this coincides with the O-line’s decision step in their blocking.

    By the way, Gibbs is the man! If you can get his lectures, by all means do. That guy swears up a storm. If i may qoute Gibbs – “I don’t care if it’s cover two, three, four, six… F*%K! That reciever gets that safety and the other gets that safety. Make the F#$&ing corner make the tackle.”

  • There are many ways to explain the inside Zone. A simple way in which I explain it.

    A Simple Rule.
    If Covered with a Defensive Lineman or walked up LB then block them.
    If Uncovered Double Team with with next Offensive Lineman that is to your playside until a defender presses your gap.

    If no defender presses your gap then stay on the Double team and get push. While Double Teaming the Down Down Lineman keep Four hands on the Defensive Lineman and Four eyes on the LB.

  • Mr.Murder

    So the coach gets this page he copied off a website showing a “Maryland offense” which is a triple stack I form. Has a lead toss with one back peeling to block the backside, should be able to get the same thing done and save a front side blocker if the line did this scoop technique.
    Anyways I tried combining zone and option in one play with one back going IZ, and two going playside for OZ. Would this be a veer? Any back who gets the ball on a fake goes through like a run in the A or B, C, or D gaps. Gets the QB to pitch man at the field numbers and has two great convincing fakes inside of that.
    Set the FB at 4.5 yards and give him an izzy track to read front side G-back(ends up being the player to replace the scoop block for the scare of getting a backside runthrough since you change the scoop technique on the back half of the line).
    Then the HB is at I depth and does the power drop step to front side, QB comes down the line reading playside T(mans on five end and tries to push the man upfield, take it either way).
    Then the third back is 1.5 yards behind him and counter steps before getting ahead of the QB who continues down the line and now has a pitch target ahead of him to stay in view, as they get to numbers turn upfield. Drive the end man, use nasty splits for the tight ends(four yards) and aim at the outside hip. Don’t even read the end, read the fill man behind him because the second fake should wall off anyone from inside out and the TE is pinning or washing end wherever he tries going. Leaves either a safety or corner alone to commit to either side of the block and you still have an extra runner to cover.
    When I go this on a 5-3 it leaves both play side backers blocked off the first two fakes, the end is reached and a FS or robber has a lot of ground and collisions to track through. One corner is all that’s left to fill or take the pitch.
    Started walking it through for goal line and it was decided that we neeeded to work on this lateral screen that has produced more fumbles than points in practice or games. If it doesn’t work in practice or games, practice it more….

  • Babe

    This explanation is absolutely incorrect. You do not just block the guy in front of you. I hate to be rude but this is completely off from any zone blocking scheme.

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