Applying the Urban Meyer Offense to the Denver Broncos

Unless you have been hiding under a rock the last few days you know that the Denver Broncos have drafted College Football standout Tim Tebow.  Tim Tebow is arguably the most successful college player of the last generation.  Yet he is probably the most polarizing prospect to come out for the draft.

Everybody has an opinion, and most people have realized that unless their opinion is different nobody will listen and honestly what does someone writing on the internet, in a paper, or talking on the tv want more than for someone listen.  Now as most of you have realized the “best” way to be different is to be extreme.  When it comes to draft prospects the best way to be extreme is to have extreme hate or extreme love.  Either Tim Tebow will revolutionize the game and the Denver Broncos have drafted a perennial all-pro quarterback or they have, at best, drafted a decent H-Back.

Now as best as I can understand it the argument against Tim Tebow comes down to two primary points.  One, Tim Tebow’s “throwing motion” is flawed and he can’t make it in the NFL, or some other complaint about how he throws the ball.  I never played or coached Football at any level (I am one of those wimpy cross-country runners) so I am not qualified to talk about his mechanics (to bad some other people can’t admit this).  Instead I will leave the analysis to others.  The best written piece I have read on this the last few days was written by Emmit Smith at Mile High Report and can be found here:  If you are too lazy to read the article then I would recommend this video with Jon Gruden from ESPN (after all no matter how smart and eloquent Emmit Smith is I am afraid to say that Jon Gruden is more experienced, but Emmet Smith comes pretty close):

The other primary argument against Tim Tebow is that he is a “system quarterback”.  This is briefly addressed in Emmet Smith’s article, but I feel like I can provide some more information here.  Now I am not a football coach nor do I realistically intend to be one, after all I am a philosophy major.  But, I do feel extremely confident in my knowledge of X’s and O’s.

I will not give you my opinion on whether Tim Tebow  has been hurt by his time with Urban Meyer.  Instead I will break down the Urban Meyer/University of Florida Offense to the best of my knowledge and let you decide what you want.

*Before I begin I would like to site the following articles that I used to put this all together:

– An article from the always brilliant Chris Brown over at Smart Football breakind down part of the Urban Meyer run game:

-Another article from Chris Brown specifically about Tim Tebow:

-Two helpful articles from Scot Seeley over at Spread Offense: &*

1.) Why use the Spread Option

At it most basic football is a game of numbers.  The offense and defense will always try to out number each other at the point of attack.  When the defense blitzes they are hoping to send more men at  certain area than the offense can block.  When the offense runs they are hoping to out number the defense at the point of attack.  This number game is played both before and after the snap, but in most offenses the defense will always have an advantage.  If the defense puts one defender over every offensive lineman and one defender over every receiver their will still be one extra defender.  This means that on any running play the defense cannot be totally blocked out of the play and on any pass play the defense can always blitz one more defender than the offense can account for.  As you can imagine this is a real problem for most offenses.

Some coaches attempt to overcome this advantage by having their quarterback run bootlegs after the run or by running some playactions with a bootleg at the end.  A bootleg is where after handing off the ball (or pretending to in the case of the play action) the quarter back rolls out of the pocket.  If the quarterback is athletic enough like John Elway, Jake Plummer, or even Jay Cutler the defense must “stay home” and account for the quarterback.  This means that at least one defender must watch the quarterback to make sure he doesn’t take off with the ball after pretending to hand it off to the running back.  Watch the running play below and notice that you can’t tell who is running the ball until the ball is already across the line of scrimmage.  The Chiefs defender on the right collapses in to tackle the running back and cannot catch up once he realizes Jake Plummer still has the ball.

However, the bootleg, even as a play action is rarely run more than 5-10 times a game.  This why a lot of college and high school teams still use the option.  The option gives the offense the rare ability to always be right.  The option forces the defense to choose which player to defend and then gives the ball to the undefended player.  When the quarterback is a threat to run the ball the defense no longer has a numbers advantage.  Instead the defender responsible for the quarterback must watch him all the way through the run play, just like the bootleg.  Unlike the bootleg though the quarterback running the option is a real threat and not just a decoy.  Watch how in the video below Tim Tebow has the option of pitching the ball to the receiver who was in motion, but when the defender stood still to cover that receiver Tebow ran the ball for a 25 yard touchdown.

As effective as this is out of compressed formations like the Flexbone variants it is even more effective when combined with spread formations in shotgun.***Now I am not meaning to say that the Urban Meyer offense is always out of a spread formation, it is not, it is not even the only kind of spread offense.***If we look at the diagram below we see that every receiver has a defender lined up directly over them and we can see one safety and can assume the other safety is out of the frame.  This means that the offense has a five on five match up of offensive linemen against defenders and has two runners (the running back and the quarterback) with no unblocked defenders to account for them.  This will almost always lead to a positive running play.

Watch the video below and notice how with a numbers advantage Tebow can see a huge running lane (this video really does a great job of showing how wide open the lane is).

If the defense puts one of their safeties in the box (the area right in front of the offensive line) or takes a defender off of a receiver and brings him into the box then the Gators would pass (even though with the option they still had a numbers advantage in the run game).  With two safeties in the box the Gators would know it was a blitz and would also pass.

1.) Understand the Urban Meyer/University of Florida Passing Game

a.) The passing game at its most basic

The passing game that Tebow used in his time at the University of Florida was relatively simple with a big emphasis on quick and easy passes.  Remember unless they were in long yardage situations the Gators only passed when their was just a single high safety.  At its most basic this passing game’s goals can be described as setting up the teams best receivers to get the ball matched up in space against inferior athletes.  The best example of this is a screen pass.  Here is a perfect example of Alabama’s Julio Jones running a screen pass in for a touchdown.  Notice how the cornerback is about 10 yards away from Julio Jones before the snap and how the nearest linebacker shifts inwards at the snap and by the time the defense figures out what is going on those big 300 pound linemen are out in space blocking defensive backs and Jones only has to break one tackle for a touchdown.

The vast majority of Urban Meyer’s passing concepts can also be pretty easily be divided into two distinct categories; the passes used against man coverage and then the passes used against zone coverage.  If Urban Meyer determined man coverage before the snap he would often call a play with option routes.

Thanks to Chris Brown at Smart Football

As you can tell in the image above the outside receivers run deep down the field to pull back the coverage while the inside receivers run option routes.  These routes are pretty self explanatory the receivers are given options of what routes they want to run and it is their job to get open against man coverage.  Tebow would be asked to check deep to see if he could get a big gain deep and then would check down to the inside slot receivers running the option routes and throw them open.

Now against zone their are a few basic concepts that would be called.  With these concepts Tebow was only asked to make a simple hi-lo read and throw the ball to the open receiver or to take off running.  I will only give four concepts, but these four concepts make up a large part of the Urban Meyer passing game with Tim Tebow.

1.) The NCCA or Post-Dig

This is Urban Meyer’s main deep ball passing concept.  This passing concept is called the NCAA Pass because every NCAA football team runs it.  It is also quite common on the professional level.  It was made most famous by Steve Spurrier during his time with the Florida Gators.  It is a downfield passing concept that is both very easy to understand and execute, but at the same time is very hard to stop.  Josh McDaniels of the Denver Broncos uses this concept often while calling max-protect play action passes (often he will only send out the two outside receivers and have a running back on a delay route).

This passing concept is only dependent on two receivers, the two outside receivers.  The weak side receiver either runs a 15 yard in-route, while the strong side outside receiver runs a deep crossing-route or a post.  One underneath receiver will run a shallower crossing route while a back or another receiver will try to create a rub by running a drag under the shallow crossing route.

The two outside receivers running the deep-in and the deep-post create a situation where the safety defending the middle of the field is forced to cover one receiver or the other leaving some open.  This concept is particularly effective off of the play action where the linebackers are sucked down towards the line of scrimmage.  The other receivers  with the mesh routes will often create a rub against man coverage and will just sit in the empty hole against zone coverage.

Here is an example on the chalk board:


via Thanks to Chris Brown for the diagram.

As you can see in the drawing the reads go from deep to shallow or hi-lo.  The Quarterback will first check the X receiver running the deep-post hoping for the deep play.   However, if he is not open the X receiver running the deep-in should be open underneath the safety.  Lastly, the receiver will check the mesh with the Y receiver and the tailback.

Here is some video of Miami running this concept as a play action pass:

For more information read Chris Brown’s article here:,191905

2.) Levels

Reportedly this Peyton Manning’s favorite passing concept.  It is a very simple concept, a few receivers on the same side of the field will run “in” or “dig” routes at various “levels”, hence the concepts name.  Against zone coverage the weak-side linebacker or defensive back tasked with covering the area where the receivers are running will commonly drop back to prevent the deep pass to the receiver running the deeper dig route, but this allows the very easy five yard completion to the outside receiver running the shallow dig route.  Then as soon as the defender drops down to cover the shallow dig the deep dig is open for a 10-15 yard gain.  The beauty of this passing concept is that it all occurs right in front of the quarterback, the receivers are running right across the quarterbacks field of vision.

In a four wide set where their are two receivers on either side of the field the levels concept will only be run on one half of the field, only by two of the four receivers.  The inside or slot receiver (the A receiver in the diagram below) will run up straight up the seam, as if he were running a go-route, for about 10 yards.  Then he will cut towards the opposite sideline at a 90 degree angle.  Meanwhile the outside receiver (the Z receiver in the diagram below) will only five yards upfield before he too cuts at a 90 degree angle towards the opposite sideline.

The other three receivers (the two receivers on the other side and the running back) will often run some simple concept like a curl-flat or smash concept.  The Indianapolis Colts like to have their outside receiver run a go-route up the sideline and the inside receiver run an option route.  In its simplest form the route ran by the slot receiver is called a “bender”.  The slot receiver is given two choices, run a go-route straight down the seam, or run a post route where he runs straight towards the opposite pylon.  In this case the slot receiver will watch the safeties, if a safety covers the middle of the field (as in a Cover 3 or Cover 1, which will be referred to as M.O.F.C. from this point forward) he will continue his go-route straight up the seam, but if the safeties both cover the sideline (as they would in a Cover 2 defense, this will be referred to as M.O.F.O. from now on) then he will run the post route crossing through the empty deep middle of the field.  Allowing the slot receiver the ability to modify his route during the play makes this concept almost impossible to defend.

Below is an example of what this will look like on the chalk board.  Again thanks to Chris Brown at Smart Football for the image.



The throwing of this pass for the quarterback is both coverage and timing based.  This means that as soon as he is done with his three steps he must know where the ball is going to go.  Saying that this concept is coverage based means that the reads of the quarterback are determined by the coverage he sees.  Remember this is the case in general for Urban Meyer’s offense, if their are no safeties in the box run, if their is one or more safeties in the box pass.  This play is mainly built to beat Cover 2 based defenses, where their are two safeties deep.  If the quarterback sees two safeties outside of the box (this is a Cover 2 shell) he will first look at the deep-dig and then the shallow-dig.  In a Cover 2 defense this means he is watching the middle linebacker and seeing if he drops down to cover the shallow dig or is dropping back to cover the deep-dig.  However, if the quarterback sees only one safety in the box (a Cover 1 or Cover 3 shell) he will instead first look to the divide route.

If all these routes are covered the quarterback can just dump off the ball to the tailback.  (The only way they can both be covered is if the middle linebacker covers the deep in-route while the right outside linebacker covers the quick in-route, or vise versa.  However, in both cases the tailback is being neglected and will be open for an easy completion.)  Against a man defense the receiver running the quick in-route will just run under the nickel-back covering the deep-dig route.   This will create a rub and both receivers running dig-routes will be open.

Here is a video of this play in action in the 2007 Superbowl between the Giants and Patriots.

This passing concept is also commonly run out of a trips formation.  If this is the case the deep-dig and shallow-dig are still run, but there is often another shallow-dig route run by the middle receiver on the trips side.  The core concept remains the same, but the follow concept is also added (which will be explained below).  On the weakside of the formation a very simple passing concept is usually run, such as the curl-flat concept (using the tailback for the flat), or as in the example below a streak-out concept.

Below is how this play can look on the chalkboard out of an empty trips formation.



Now here is video of this play being run by the Green Bay Packers.

Here is video of this play being running Madden 10 practice mode:

If you are looking for more information of this concept I recommend these two Chris Brown articles from Smart Football and the NY Times Fifth Down Blog:,194833

3.) Smash

The Smash concept, like the Levels concepts is built primarily to act the Cover 2 Shell based defenses by creating a vertical stretch on a zone defender and forcing him to account for two receiver in his zone. The vertical stretch created by the smash concept creates a vertical stretch on the sideline in the same way that Four Verticals creates a horizontal stretch deep down field.

Like Levels the Smash concept is at its core a two man passing concept.  This means that in a four wide set where their are two receivers on either side of the field the levels concept will only needs to be run on one half of the field, only by two of the four receivers.  Often it is run on both sides of the field.  The inside or slot receiver (Y in the diagram below) will run about 10 yards down the seam as if were running a go-route and then will cut at a 45 degree angle towards the near pylon.  Meanwhile the outside receiver (Z in the diagram below) will run about 5-6 yards upfield and then will make a sharp cut so that he is facing the quarterback.  As should be clear from the diagram the defender tasked with defending the flats (the area just past the line of scrimmage near the sideline) will either have to drop down to cover the “smash” route (the quick 6 yard curl by the outside receiver) or drop back deep to cover the corner route being run by the inside receiver.  Often the defender will drop back deep allowing the easy completion to the 6 yard “smash” route.

from Chris Brown's Smart Football

This route is also timing based, the quarterback most throw the ball as soon as he has completed his drop.  However, instead of being coverage based the quarterback simply needs to read the defender covering the flats (the cornerback in a Cover 2 defense).  Again, if he drops deep throw the quick “smash” route if he stays shallow throw the corner.  When throwing the corner it is the responsibilty of the quarterback to throw the receiver open.  This means that the quarterback throws the ball into empty grass and the receiver has to go get it.  With a quick receiver and a good throw by the quarterback the corner route becomes very hard to cover in man coverage (also since the corner route is being run by the inside receiver it is probably being defended by a linebacker or nickleback).  Against any coverage the trick is the mastering of the “smash route”.  Once the receiver has turned back towards the quarterback it is his responsibility to “drift open” so that he has gained some separation from the defender covering him.  If the defender shoots towards the sideline the receiver drifts in, if the defender covering the flats does not shoot towards the sideline the receiver drifts towards the receiver.

Here is video of the game winning play by the Steelers against the Cardinals in the 2008 Superbowl.   Notice that they are running the Smash concept on the right side of the field.  Rothelisburger must have seen the defense jump on the hitch route which allowed Holmes to get behind the defense in the back of the endzone for the game winning score.  Oh and that is what I meant by a good throw and catch.

Also here is a diagram of this concept as the Patriots used it in their last minute victory over the Bills to open the 2010 season.  Notice how the concept is inverted, so that the corner is facing inside and the “smash” route is also more in the middle of the field.

Chris Brown at Smart Football

As a final note, the Levels and Smash concept are very similar.  In fact the two could be stacked on top of each other in such away that it would be practically impossible for the defense to tell the difference between the two concepts presnap.

Thanks to Chris Brown

If you want to learn more about this concept I recommend the following articles from Smart Football:

4.) Double Slants or Slant Shoot

This concept is prevalent throughout the any level of football.  This concept was one of the staples of Bill Walsh’s famed west coast offense.  Like the shallow cross and mesh concepts this concept is meant to get the ball to your playmaker with space for him to run.

Their isn’t really much to be said here.  Two receivers on the same side of the ball will both run slant patterns, one aimed slightly further up field.  Both receiver run upfield for 2-3 steps and then head to the opposite pylon at about a 45 degree angle.  This is the route combination being run by the two outside receivers in the diagram below.  The innermost receiver in a trips set or the running back in  four wide set can run a flat or shoot route.  This means that the receiver aims about 2-3 yards past the line of scrimmage and runs directly to the sideline.

The two slant routes the flat defender to choose whether to drop deep and cove the deep slant or to stay shallow and cover the shallow slant, either way a receiver will be open against zone coverage.  The shoot and flat routes also cause a problem for zone defenses.  The cornerback covering the slant route must either allow the receiver running the slant route a free release and not follow the receiver inside for a few yards (allowing an easy completion to the slant route) or bump the slant receiver and follow him inside a few yards (allowing an easy completion to the flat/shoot route).  Similar to the Levels concept this concept is great in that it occurs right in front of the quarterback.  The two receivers each run right across the quarterback’s field of vision.

Against man coverage the timing of this throw comes into play.  The quarterback must have completed his reads by the time he finishes his third step.  The timing of the route makes it almost impossible to defend in man coverage as the ball should be coming out of the quarterback’s hand right as the receiver is breaking inside on the slant route.

The coverage read for this play is similar to the Smash concept.  The quarterback reads the defender guarding the flat zone.  That is the zone next to the sideline right past the line of scrimmage.  If the flat defender goes inside with the slant the quarterback throws the shoot or flat route, if the flat defender stays outside to guard the shoot or flat route the quarterback makes the easy throw to the slant route.  Further, the quarterback can read the linebacker tasked with covering the hook zone the area about 5-10 yards deep nearer the center of the field.  This linebacker must either stay shallow to cover the shallow slant or drop deep to cover the deeper slant, either way a slant route will be open.  Also this defender is often an inferior athlete to the receivers running the slant routes allowing even more yards after the catch.

Here is video of the concept being used for a game winning Touchdown by Iowa.  In this case the quarterback identifies man coverage and is able to get the ball out of his hands right as the outside receiver in single coverage makes his break inside.  This shows how deadly establishing a rhythm in the passing game can be.

The quarterback will usually using pre-snap motion to identify whether the defense is in man or zone (in the video above the tight end is motioned).  Once the quarterback has identified man or zone he knows which half of the field to read.  Against man he should look for the single coverage against the lone slant route and against zone there is a flood with the double slants and the shoot route.

b.) The added Tebow Dimension or Passing out of 5 Wide Sets and the Quarterback Playaction:

As I am sure we have all heard Tim Tebow is a great athlete, but how does that translate to the field?  Well, this is one way.  Due to Tim Tebow’s abilities as a runner the Gators could line up in five wide sets as shown below and still present the ability to run the ball.  This means that they could have better athletes on the field and an even better numbers advantage in the box.  This is particularly useful for goal line scenarios as shown below.

The perfect example of the fear that defenses have for Tim Tebow’s ability to run can be seen in the now famous “jump pass” the two receivers on the left run slant routes.  The running back and he tight end block, the receiver on the outside right runs a quick-out route, and the two receiver on the left just run double slants.  Tebow does not need to fake the hand off to the running back instead he takes 2-3 steps forward, stands up, and throws an easy pass for a touchdown.  Here is the video:

2.) Understand the University of Florida/Urban Meyer Running Game

The Urban Meyer/University of Florida Running Game can be broken down into a few key plays, these few plays can be disguised by the use of various personnel and formations, but at its core Urban Meyer’s running game can be described with the following concepts:

  1. The Zone Read
  2. The Counter
  3. The Trap
  4. Quarterback Power
  5. Variants of the Option

Below I will break down these concepts, but with a specific emphasis on how they compare to the same concepts as they are used in most NFL Offenses.

1.) The Zone Read, Comparing the Inside and Outside Zone to the Inside and Outside Zone Read

A.) Understanding the Zone Read

The Zone Read is the bread-and-butter of the University of Florida’s Offense along with many other successful College Programs like Oregon and Michigan.  The reason this play is so successful is that like the option the Zone Read makes the offense “always right”.  This is obviously a good thing for the offense.  Here is a diagram of the Zone Read as it is run in the most traditional way:

The Zone Read is typically run out of the shotgun with one tailback in the backfield.  Sometimes their are more than two tailbacks in the backfield and other times a player will be motioned into the backfield right before the snap to act as a tailback (this was often Percy Harvin’s role).  The tailback will eventually cross the quarterback so he will line up next to the quarterback on the side that will eventually be the backside of the play.  As soon as the ball is hike the offensive line will block just as they would for the Inside or Outside Zone play as it is run by most NFL Teams.  The offensive line will block towards the playside and leave the backside defensive end “E” free.

This defensive end becomes the key to the play.  The quarterback will take the ball at the snap right as the tailback runs across him, but will not immediately hand him the ball this is the “mesh point”.  It is at this point that the quarterback must use the defensive end to make a decision.  If the defensive end “crashes down” or runs straight at the tailback then the quarterback keeps the ball and runs right past the defensive end for an easy gain.  If the defensive end “stays home” or goes outside then the quarterback simply hands the ball off to the tailback.  This is a very simple read, the quarterback simply looks at the defensive end’s shoulders.  If the defensive end’s shoulders stay parallel to the offensive line then the quarterback hands off the ball, if the defensive end’s shoulders turn inside or perpendicular to the offensive line then the quarterback keeps the ball.  This read is what makes or breaks the play, not the speed of the quarterback or the tailback.  Therefore, having a smart quarterback who has made this read 1,000 times is more important than having an amazing athlete.  Below is a video that very clearly explains the Zone Read:

Because of how popular this play has become defensive coordinators have come up with a simple way to defend it called a “scrape exchange”.  In this case the defensive end will always “crash down” on the tailback and the outside linebacker always shoots outside to cover the quarterback.  If the quarterback does not expect this he will hand the ball of to the tailback when he sees the defensive end turn his shoulders and then the quarterback will get destroyed by the waiting outside linebacker.  Below is a diagram courtesy of Chris Brown at Smart Football:

Now if the offense knows this is coming they can just block the defensive end and run the Zone Read with the linebacker as the key instead of the defensive end, but it is very difficult for the offense to know this ahead of time.  Further, if the linebacker is an excellent athlete as is common in the NFL he can just wait for the quarterback to make his read then use his speed to close on the play often leading to a loss.  Yet, the “scrape exchange” has not ended the Zone Read.  This can be attributed to a few of the changes that have been made to the Zone Read, I will describe the three most common below.

The Zone Read where the defensive end is read is the simplest form that of the play that there is and as I said above can be stopped by the “scrape exchange”.  Perhaps the newest and most interesting variant of the Zone Read that prevents the “scrape exchange” is a solution was developed by Oregon’s Chip Kelley this past season.  In this case the quarterback keys the defensive tackle (more specifically the 3 Technique) rather than the defensive end.  Here is a diagram courtesy of Chris Brown at Smart Football:

Again the offensive line blocks as they would for an Inside Zone play except they let the defensive tackle through.  Again the quarterback will take the ball at the snap right as the tailback runs across him, but will not immediately hand him the ball.  At the “mesh point” the quarterback will read the defensive tackle’s shoulders.  If the defensive tackle’s shoulders stay parallel to the offensive line then the quarterback hands off the ball, if the defensive tackle’s shoulders turn inside or perpendicular to the offensive line then the quarterback keeps the ball.  This play puts defensive tackles in a situation that they are not used to where they need to properly read and execute rather than just rush the passer or clog a gap.  Most defensive tackles also lack the speed of defensive ends to allow them to even try to recover if they make the wrong read.  Also, if the linebacker is shooting outside in a “scrape exchange” he is just taking himself right out of the play.  Here is a video of this play courtesy of Buckeye Football Analysis:

In some cases the slot receiver will be put into motion behind the quarterback so the play can become a triple option.  See the image below from Dawgs by Nature:

The quarterback will make the same read at the “mesh point” as he does during the typical Zone Read.  This the first option, as in a typical Zone Read the quarterback will read the defensive end.  If the defensive end’s shoulders stay parallel to the offensive line then the quarterback hands off the ball, if the defensive end’s shoulders turn inside or perpendicular to the offensive line then the quarterback keeps the ball.  If the quarterback sees the defensive end keep his shoulder’s parallel to the offensive line then the will hand it off to the tailback and the play evolves just as the typical Zone Read would, but if the quarterback reads that the defensive end has turned his shoulders the quarterback keeps the ball and attacks the outside linebacker (highlighted in purple) and reads him as well.   This is the second and third option.  The quarterback can make a basic read on the outside linebacker.  If the outside linebacker chooses to tackle the quarterback he will pitch the ball to the motioned receiver and if the outside linebacker chooses to tackle the slot receiver the quarterback will keep the ball.  The “scrape exchange” does not help defend this play at all as the outside linebacker still has to defend the option threat by the quarterback and the receiver.  Below is video of Tim Tebow running this play:

The last addition to the Zone Read is the bubble screen.  Just as with the Triple Option variant of the Zone Read a receiver becomes an important part of the play.  See the image below again from Dawgs By Nature:

The quarterback will make the same read at the “mesh point” as he does during the typical Zone Read and the Zone Read Triple Option.  If the defensive end’s shoulders stay parallel to the offensive line then the quarterback hands off the ball, if the defensive end’s shoulders turn inside or perpendicular to the offensive line then the quarterback keeps the ball.  If the quarterback sees the defensive end keep his shoulder’s parallel to the offensive line then the will hand it off to the tailback and the play evolves just as the typical Zone Read would, but if the quarterback reads that the defensive end has turned his shoulders the quarterback keeps the ball and attacks the outside linebacker (highlighted in purple) and reads him as well.

While the quarterback was reading the defensive end the A receiver sneaked out into the flats behind the X receiver.  This time when the quarterback reads the outside linebacker he again waits to see if he will come after him.  If the outside linebacker closes on the quarterback the quarterback throws the ball out to the A receiver for a good gain, but if the outside linebacker stays outside with the receiver then the quarterback simply runs upfield.  The “scrape exchange” does not help defend this play at all as the outside linebacker still has to choose between covering the screen pass or the quarterback run.  Here is video of Oregon running the bubble screen, thanks to jtthirtyfour at Bruins Nation:

B.) How the Zone Read Relates to the NFL

Now obviously we don’t see very many Triple Option plays or plays where the quarterback takes off running in the NFL so how does this relate?  The Zone Read is the same as the Inside and Outside Zone in the most important way, blocking.  The quaterback read can be taught pretty quickly, it is often the blocking that takes a long time to teach and perfect.  After all the choice in the Zone Read is just decoration really.  The backside defensive end is often left unblocked in the NFL during zone running plays, the quarterback even rolls out with the ball occasionally (this was a key part of Mike Shannahan’s Denver Bronco offense).  The quarterback keeping the ball is rare in the NFL, but still does happen occasionally.  The only difference between the Zone Read at the college level and the Inside and Outside Zone at the NFL level is that at the NFL level the quarterback does not choose when to keep the ball.

Let’s go over the Inside and Outside Zone runs in the NFL.

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.

In this case 74, 62, & 78 are “covered” and 73 and 50 are uncovered.

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.

Here you can see #70 something driving into the inside leg of #4 for a perfect double team block.

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.

You can see here that if #22 changes directions the two offensive linemen will be between him and the defenders and how out of position the defenders will be.

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 Thanks to Chris Brown for the image.

Notice in the diagram above that the defensive end “E” on the left is left completely unblocked, just as he is in the Zone Read.  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 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.

2.) The Counter

At its most basic this is the exact same as the Counter play run in the NFL, the only addition is the read done by the quarterback.  Below is a diagram of the play from Chris Brown at Smart Football:

Now here is a diagram out of the old Nebraska playbook of the Counter play being run out of the I-Formation.

These plays are essentially the same.  They both have the defining characteristic of the counter step taken by the runner.  However, in the example run by Florida the runner is not a tailback, but is a receiver motioned into the backfield, but this is just a difference in appearance meant to throw off the defense, not a real difference at all.  In both cases the back blocks at an angle to block a defensive end.  Again the only difference is a decoration, the fullback is the back blocking the bottom diagram while the tailback is the blocker in the top diagram.  The blocking assignments are also virtually the same with two exceptions, one very minor and one very major.  The minor difference is that the halfback is blocking instead of the tightend in the bottom diagram.  The major difference is in the treatment of the playside defensive end.  In the bottom diagram he is blocked by the backside tackle whereas in the top diagram he is left unblocked.  When left unblocked he is used for a read by the quarterback.  This is a very simple read, the quarterback simply looks at the defensive end’s shoulders.  If the defensive end’s shoulders stay parallel to the offensive line then the quarterback hands off the ball, if the defensive end’s shoulders turn inside or perpendicular to the offensive line then the quarterback keeps the ball.  This read is what makes differentiates these two plays and allows an extra blocker at the point of attack in the top example.  Below is a video of the play courtesy of  Year 2 WordPress:

While the Zone Read does add an important difference the blocking remains essentially the same, take the diagram below:


The linemen will block “down” gaining the same advantages as mentioned above in the Power run.  The offensive linemen will have good leverage against the defenders allowing the offensive linemen to seal the defenders out of the play and the “playside” tackle will be able to initially double a defender and then go up field and block a linebacker because he is letting the “playside” outside defender run free.  In the above diagram the “weak side” offensive tackle, the right offensive tackle leaves the defensive end “E” unblocked, does not help double team the nose tackle “N”, but instead heads straight upfield to block a linebacker “B”.  However, in most traditional two back sets the benefit of the “pulling” guard is amplified even further in the counter play.  The fullback will block the outside defender on the side that the tailback makes his initial (and misleading) step towards.  This allows not only the guard, but also the tackle to “pull play side” (the defender the tackle was responsible for is being blocked by the full-back).

3. The Trap

This is a play in the Urban Meyer offense that really is not run at the NFL level due to the speed of NFL defenders, so I will devote less time to discussing it.  The diagram below is of a defensive end trap, the defensive tackle trap would work similarly.

As you can tell this play is essentially the same as the Zone Read Triple Option.  The only difference is that the left guard pulls to “trap” the defensive end.  The defensive end will run towards either the tailback or quartreback and will not see the guard coming at his side, allowing the guard to completely blow him out of the play.

Most traps will let the defensive tackle through instead of a defensive end, but the basic idea is the same.  The defensive tackle will chase down either the quarterback or the tailback and will not see the guard coming who will take him out of the play.  Here is in an image of the trap for a defensive tackle, but it does not show the quarterback choice.

4.) The Quarterback Power

This Power is a real staple of any NFL offense and the Quarterback Power is only a small wrinkle.  Instead of the tailback being the primary runner the quarterback is.  Below is a diagram of this concept.  This specific variation is called the “dart” play and is primarily defined by the pulling tackle.

The quarterback will fake the Zone Read handoff to the tailback and will follow the backside offensive tackle right through the B-Gap.  After the tailback finishes his fake he will block the backside defensive end who was left unblocked by the pulling tackle.  Here is the Zone Read Triple Option combined with the pulling offensive tackle.

The blocking of this play is essentially the same as the Power run in the NFL.  The main difference is how often the tackle pulls as opposed to the guards.

The blocking of this play is pretty simple.  The “playside” offensive linemen will block “down” meaning they will block the defender to their inside.  This means the “playside” guard and center will block the outside shoulder of the defenders over them and the “playside” tackle will block the defender to his inside.  If the play is being run “strong side” or towards the side of the offensive line with a tight end the tight end will block the defender to his inside rather than the offensive tackle.  Often the “playside” tackle while blocking the inside defender will used the technique of aiming for the back foot that was described for zone blocking runs, this will allow the tackle to head up field and block a linebacker after double teaming the defender over the guard  (or in the case of the tight end he will double team the defender over the offensive tackle and then block the inside defender).  However, keep in mind that by blocking down the “playside” tackle is letting his man, the outside defender, run free.

Just like the advantage gained by offensive linemen who take a sidestep in zone running plays blocking “down” allows offensive linemen to get great leverage on their assigned defender.  The advantage the offensive linemen have in leverage should allow them to literally block their defenders out of the play.  This is the same advantage in leverage gained by the sidetep during the zone running plays.  The “down” blocking done by the offensive linemen also allows double teams right at the point of attack (where the tailback is running).  In the diagrams above notice how the strong side defensive tackle “T” is being double teamed by the right guard and the right tackle (also the right tackle runs upfield to block a linebacker after the double team).  The “down” blocking effectively seals off the backside of the Power run.  Below is some good footage of UCLA running the power play courtesy of Bruins Nation’s jtthirtyfour:

The only reason that the tackle can allow his defender to go free is that he has help, often from a fullback or an h-back.  This fullback or h-back uses a “kick out block” meaning that he blocks the defender while facing towards the sideline.   This “kick out block” just creates yet another seal, the fullback or h-back is blocking the defender so that the fullback or h-backs body is between the defender and the tailback.  The tailback is therefore presented with a very clear running lane, there is a wall of blockers on either side .  When done properly it should appear as a tunnel or railroad tracks with blockers lining either side.

The last part of the blocking involved in the Power run is done by the “pulling” guard (or a very athletic “pulling” tackle).  This player will lead the tailback through the gap and block the first defender he sees; often this defender is a linebacker.  In the above diagram in all of the examples but the play in the top right the left guard is “pulling” and block the Sam “S”.   The tailback follows the guard ensuring that there is no way (short of whiffing on his block) that the guard can make the wrong block.  The tailback will adjust his running angle in such a way that the guard will be blocking the defender away from him.  If the guard blocks the defender so that he is on the inside of the tailback the tailback will run outside, but if the guard blocks the defender so that is on the outside of the tailback the tailback will cut inside. Below is film of the San Diego Chargers running the Power run play with LaDanian Tomlinson.

5.) Variants of the Option

I have already gone over the Zone Read Triple Option which is one variant of the option used by Urban Meyer, but the other variant is the Veer play.  Below is a diagram of the Veer as Florida likes to run it, thanks to Chris Brown at Smart Football for the diagram:

The idea behind the Veer is that all the the offensive linemen will block “down” double teaming both defensive tackles and blocking the linebackers.  This will leave both defensive ends unblocked.  The quarterback will then attack the playside defensive end forcing him to decide whether to chase down the quarterback or the tailback, either way the defender is wrong.  If the defender choose the quarterback then the quarterback pitches the ball to the tailback, if the defender chooses the tailback the quarterback keeps the ball for an easy gain.  Again this is the simple application of an NFL blocking scheme with the benefit of having to block one less defender.

Thanks for reading folks, hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

-Pierce Lively


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