Inside and Outside Zone Runs:
Perhaps the two most common running plays in the NFL right now are the Inside and Outside Zone runs. To understand how these plays work it is necessary to first understand how zone blocking works. The fundamentals of zone blocking are not very complex, however since these two plays (inside and outside zone runs) are used so commonly there are literally entire books dedicated to how to properly zone block. I will give a simple explanation of zone blocking and leave any further research up to you.
Zone blocking can most simply be described by saying that an offensive line is responsible for a specific zone instead of a specific man (as he would be in a man blocking scheme). The offensive lineman is told that he must read covered or uncovered. This means is there a defender directly over him (covered) or is there no one directly over him(uncovered).
If the offensive lineman is covered than there is no zone blocking. Instead the offensive lineman simply blocks the man directly over him as he would during any other running play with one simple difference; the covered offensive lineman takes a short and quick step sideways. This quick sidestep allows the offensive lineman to block the defender from any angle and puts the defender in a position where he can be blocked out of the play due to the advantage in leverage the offensive lineman has.
When the offensive lineman reads uncovered then zone blocking is implemented. The uncovered offensive lineman will first block “playside” and help the covered offensive lineman with his blocking assignment. For instance against a typical 3-4 defense the center will read “covered” because of the nose tackle lined up directly over him, but the left guard will read “uncovered” because the right defensive end is most likely aligned over the left tackle. This would mean that the left guard initially would help the center double team the nose tackle. The “uncovered” offensive lineman will drive toward the defender’s inside leg initially (this is the defender who is covering the “playside” offensive lineman). Once the offensive lineman has reached where the defender’s inside leg initially was he will then either continue his double team of the defender or, in most cases, head up field to block a linebacker. This should take only two steps, one to reach the back leg and one to continue the double team or head upfield. The offensive lineman will help with the double team as long as possible before attempting to head up field to block a linebacker.
Below is a video of this being run to perfection by the Detroit Lions.
The majority of the time in a zone blocking scheme the tailback will follow the design of the play, but occasionally the tailback will perform a cutback and change direction during the run. A cutback is when the tailback changes direction and runs away from where the linebackers are flowing (the tailback can only do this once and must not hesitate). This cutback made by the tailback is what makes zone blocking so dangerous because of how easily a cutback can lead to a big play. The cutback exaggerates the advantages of the zone blocking scheme. The defenders are forced to change the direction of their pursuit which allows the offensive lineman to block them out of the play. Once the tailback changes direction the offensive linemen will be standing between the defenders and the tailback; the offensive linemen are then creating a wall that leaves a large tunnel or “hole” for the tailback to run through. Further, once the cutback is made the offensive tackle opposite of the direction that the tailback is cutting towards knows that he can leave his defender and head up field, this will allow an offensive tackle to be matched up on an outside linebacker, this is a match up the offense will take all day . The offensive tackle can safely leave the defensive lineman because the defensive lineman whom he was blocking previously is now facing the opposite direction of the play and therefore would have to turn completely around and chase down a much faster tailback to make a play on the run.
The cutback run is particularly effective once the linebackers begin to over pursue the outside run. Once the linebackers begin to sprint towards the sideline they are running away from the direction of the play. This makes them particularly easy for the offensive linemen to block. Most teams will run “stretch” or outside zone plays to get the linebackers flowing towards the sideline in order to better setup the cutback. Essential to making the cutback work is that the tailback aims for where the hole will be and does not hesitate. The cutback hole does not exist when the tailback initially makes his cut because the offensive linemen still need to head up field to block and turn away the linebackers. The tailback needs to trust his blockers to create the hole, he should not be counting on his own athletic ability. This is particularly hard for tailbacks new to a zone blocking scheme because they must see the hole before it exists and have complete trust in their offensive linemen.
Here are some clips of USC running the outside zone run with a great example of a cutback at 1:10.
Now that we have described the general principles of zone blocking for runs we can cover the two basic zone runs, the inside and outside zone runs. As mentioned above most teams will first establish the outside zone, so that the cutback is more readily available. Therefore I will first explain the outside zone run (watch the video of USC above to see some outside zone runs in action).
The outside zone run, as its name suggests, is a run play where the tailback aims at just outside the tightend or the D gap. The offensive line will read “covered” or “uncovered” and the “uncovered” offensive linemen will initially go for the double team and then head upfield to block a linebacker. The offensive linemen will attempt to get themselves positioned between the defenders and the sideline, to do this they take their intial sidestep towards the sideline. The sidestep forces the defenders to turn towards the sideline or be easily overpowered (if the defender did not turn his side would be facing the offensive linemen and he would just be pushed over). By “turning” the defenders the offensive linemen will seal off a lane to the outside for the tailback. If the blocking is done correctly the offensive linemen should form a wall between the defenders and the sideline which is aimed slightly upfield, by running between this “wall” and the sideline the tailback should be able to run untouched for the first few yards upfield. The defenders attempting to get themselves outside of the offensive linemen, if successful, will allow the offensive linemen to block the defenders towards the sideline opening up a cutback lane for the tailback. In this case the defenders get caught facing the sideline with a defender behind them while the tailback runs in the opposite direction, towards the center of the field. Below is what the outside zone run looks like drawn up on the chalkboard.
via smartfootball.com Thanks to Chris Brown for the image.
Notice in the diagram above that the defensive end “E” on the left is left completely unblocked. If this end is a good athlete he might be able to run down the tailback and stop the play for a loss. To combat this most teams will roll-out their quarterback. This was popularized by the Denver Broncos with athletic quarterbacks like John Elway and Jake Plummer. In this case the quarterback will run towards the opposite side of the play after handing off the ball (he will pretend to have it obviously or he would not be followed by the defensive end). This forces the defensive end to account for him and follow him away from the run. As soon as the defensive end “crashes down” and ignores the quarterback the quarterback will start keeping the ball and will either have an easy run or an easy play action. Below is video of Jake Plummer keeping the ball on a roll-out. Notice how the defender responsible for him “crashes down” quickly to tackle the tailback and does not realize Plummer has the ball until he is only a few yards from the endzone.
After the defense begins to over pursue the outside zone (the play side linebackers almost instantly flow towards the sideline) the coach will typically call the inside zone run. The tailback will now aim straight for the B gap between the guard and the tackle. The same “covered” and “uncovered” rules apply as for the outside zone run, with the same fundamental idea of the “uncovered” offensive lineman aiming for the defender’s back foot and then heading upfield. The offensive linemen really don’t block any differently on an inside zone as opposed to an outside zone run. The offensive linemen will all take their initial sidestep to get a better angle on the defender and then they will all block “playside”. Again the offensive line is trying to “turn” the defenders so that they are facing the running lane, but with the offensive line between them and the tailback. The blocking “playside” is even more important during an inside zone run than outside zone run. On an inside zone run the uncovered offensive linemen blocking the linebackers will have a large effect on the play even when there is not a cutback by the tailback, notice in the diagram below that if the linebackers are not blocked that they can stop the play for a minimal gain or a loss. Here is how the inside zone run looks diagramed on the chalkboard.
via smartfootball.com thanks to Chris Brown for the image
The tailback also still has the option for the cutback during an inside zone run. If the linebackers all crash down towards the center and the guard then the tailback can decide to cut outside. The video below shows USC running the inside zone and there is a good cutback at 1:40.