Alex Gibbs Denver Broncos (Terrell Davis) Outside Zone Cut-Ups and Explanation

As always, very good (somewhat old) stuff from Alex Gibbs on the outside zone running play. Note that Gibbs recently rejoined the Broncos as a consultant.

Of course there’s a lot more where that came from. (Hat tip to togfootball.) Also try eight hours of Alex Gibbs talking with Dan Mullen, Steve Addazio and others at the University of Florida several years back:

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Russell Athletic Bowl — Key to Rutgers vs. Virginia Tech: Outside Zone

College football’s bowl season is not much like the single-minded narrative of a one winner-take-all playoff. Instead it’s a shifting, multiple layered story told through an ensemble cast. Some of the stories, like the BCS title game, are triumphant, with maybe even a tinge of poetic folklore — some battle that could as easily be taking place on Mount Olympus as in New Orleans or Pasadena. But other bowls are decidedly middle American, where hope and expectation have been dulled into some more reasonable expectation of just a simple win, maybe a winning season; more Death of a Salesman than Greek myth.

Key to the game -- more of this

Key to the game: more of this

But it’s often the smaller story that carries the most drama.

The Russell Athletic Bowl pits a Virginia Tech team — a consensus preseason top 20 team — that limped its way through the season and had to win its final two games to even get to a bowl games, versus a Rutgers squad that began the year 7-0 but finished 9-3, partially undone by mistakes and inconsistency on offense (yet still having had a good year, overall). The game should be close — Virginia Tech is a slight two-point or so favorite — and both defenses ought to deliver solid performances, something often lacking during bowl season as more teams move to no-huddle spread attacks.

On offense, however, it’s a bit of a different story. Virginia Tech had high hopes for its offense, led by quarterback Logan Thomas, but the Hokies offense — and Thomas in particular — has been a big disappointment. Virginia Tech’s offense has never been known for being explosive, but their average yards per play fell by roughly half a yard, while their turnover margin swung from positive to negative. But despite those struggles I think the game will be won or lost on the other side of the ball, in the matchup between Rutgers’ offense and Virginia Tech’s defense.

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood was promoted from offensive line to head coach following Greg Schiano’s departure to the NFL, and Flood, a no non-sense kind of guy, clearly wants the foundation of his team to be his offensive line and especially his running game. Much of this is by attitude, but it’s also by necessity, as quarterback Gary Nova has been nothing if not inconsistent. Against Temple, Nova completed 63% of his passes and threw for four touchdowns but — one week later, a game I attended in person — he threw a season high 46 times and six interceptions against Kent State, the Scarlet Knights’ first loss of the season.

But the problem for Rutgers wasn’t just Nova’s inconsistency, it was that teams began to be able to take away their running games. Flood’s offense is designed to be essentially a pro-style system; if you go just by formations and a superficial look at plays, the college team they most resemble on offense is Alabama. And the foundation of their attack is nothing fancy: the outside zone play, complete with a tight-end and a fullback.

It’s a play that Flood has lectured on at coaching clinics for years and, when Rutgers’ offense is rolling, you’ll see lots and lots of outside zone.

OZ

Rutgers runs it the same way most NFL teams do, which is essentially the same way the old school Nebraska teams used to run it under Tom Osborne (the diagram above is from Milt Tenopir, Nebraska’ legendary offensive line coach). There are three keys to Flood’s outside zone:

  1. The runningback’s read;
  2. The technique of the “uncovered lineman”; and
  3. Where the fullback “inserts” into the defense.

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Peyton Manning (and Tom Moore)’s Indianapolis Colts Offense: How a Handful of Plays Led to a Decade of Success

For thirteen seasons — spanning three head coaches, two Super Bowl appearances, one Super Bowl victory, four NFL MVP awards, and countless incredible games — Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts. In eleven of those seasons, the Colts won at least ten games, including for nine straight seasons, not counting 2011’s disastrous Peyton-less year. But now Manning is a Bronco, in a new town, playing for a new team, and in a (somewhat) new scheme. I am not as confident as some that Manning’s injury won’t prevent him from playing at the incredible level he played at for so many years, and I am also not as sure of the Broncos coaching staff as some. As a football fan, however, I want nothing other than for Manning to take the field this fall, clad in Denver orange, and to light up the NFL all over again. But time will tell on all of that.

You know what I'm callin'

Yet what Manning accomplished during his time with the Colts cannot be undersold. The yards, the touchdowns, the records, and, most of all, the wins are testament to that. Yet what really interested me was how they did it. Specifically, how Manning and the Colts — for thirteen years — ran the same tiny little cluster of plays, from the same tiny little cluster of formations, with the most consistent personnel in the league, and brutalized NFL defenses year-in and year-out. The obvious answer was they had some pretty good skill players during that time, from Edgerrin James to Marvin Harrison to Reggie Wayne, Brandon Stokely, Dallas Clark, and Joseph Addai. And even more obvious is simply that the triggerman, who was constantly checking and audibling and gyrating at the line to get exactly what he wanted, was simply so good. But that alone doesn’t answer the question of why they were so good yet so simple; one could make a pretty good case that if you have the best, most experienced, and most in-tuned quarterback in the league you could out-complicate defenses.

That’s not the route the Colts went, however, and much of it had to do with the ornery fixture on the Colts sidelines who called Manning’s plays (though what they did was more of a conversation than traditional “play-calling”), Tom Moore. Moore, whose coaching experience goes back to the early 1960s, became a Colt the same year Manning did, and the two shared a symbiotic relationship until Moore semi-retired in 2009 and then fully left the team sometime later. And together, using the simplest tools around, Moore and Manning made great music.

“I can give the playbook,” [said former Colts backup quarterback, Jim] Sorgi. “There is not that many teams they’re going to play who don’t know what they’re going to do. It’s all about execution. Their coaches are like, ‘We’ll tell the other team what we’re doing. They got to stop us.’ That’s what they do. That’s what they’re all about. And not many teams have been able to stop them yet.” Sorgi said he knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Colts’ offensive personnel. He was on the Colts longer than all but nine players on their current roster. He worked with Manning and former offensive coordinator Tom Moore, who installed the system that perennially keeps the Colts among the top teams in the league.

“Being there six years, I helped put in a lot of the information that they use,” Sorgi said. “But sometimes, how much you know doesn’t really matter. It’s about executing against him.
“I can give the defense all the information that I can, and it’s, ‘Can we get to Peyton? Can we knock him down? Can we get to him before the ball’s out?’ You can know what route’s coming and still not cover it.”

Jim Sorgi was not kidding.
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Fantastic inside zone and “pin-and-pull” outside zone cut-ups

Under former coach Glen Mason, Minnesota, while not a great team, was one of the best rushing teams in the entire country during that time. And while they had some very good backs — including both Lawrence Maroney and Marion Barber III at the same time — they did it by being extremely simple: the inside zone and the outside zone, primarily with “pin and pull” blocking. Below are some great game film cut-ups of both:

Inside Zone:

Outside Zone:
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Deconstructing: The search for the perfect spread QB

I have a new bit up on Yahoo! (belatedly, after I sent the wrong draft… I owe the good Doctor mightily) comparing how Gus Malzahn uses Cam Newton to how Rich Rodriguez is using Denard Robinson. Hint: Newton’s favorite play is the inverted veer or dash package, while Denard’s is the outside zone.

Check it out. (Make sure the version you read begins with “Sometimes, in college football….” The first version that went up was based on an earlier draft, and was incomplete (my fault).)

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.

flex

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.)

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.