New research uncovers 'eye-opening' details of how today's offensive line coaches are blocking the outside zone scheme.
In a follow-up to the inside zone report that X&O Labs published back in early March 2011, we wanted to research the most productive ways coaches are teaching the outside zone and stretch concept to their players.
I’ve admired the way the Indianapolis Colts ran the scheme to perfection under center with Peyton Manning and with the efficiency with which Oregon ran it this year out of the shotgun.
So when we started compiling the report, we’ve found that the most heated discussion is whether or not to full zone or man block the scheme. Teams such as the Colts, under legendary offensive line guru Howard Mudd, used to full zone the front side of the play to provide for that fast flow displacement of the defense. Of course, when you have backs behind Manning with the speed of Edgerrin James and Joey Addai, getting to the perimeter of the defense is almost guaranteed.
Before we talk specifics, we wanted to give you a general consensus of why teams are running the scheme. What we’ve found most interesting is that unlike the inside zone, the outside zone does not have to be a cornerstone of your offense. Truth is, 53 percent of coaches feel that it doesn’t need to be a top play in your offense for it to be successful. So why teach it? It’s a curveball, so to speak, to keep defenses off balance and on its heels. But if it’s not a base scheme, we were curious to find out why coaches are spending the time implementing it. Here’s what they told us:
Top reasons for running the outside zone/stretch scheme:
- Complements the inside zone scheme: While the inside zone relies on vertical displacement of the defense, the outside zone relies on horizontal displacement. The idea is to "stretch" the entire defense the width of the field. This provides for numerous cutback lanes for the ball carrier to insert himself. Although the play is intended to circle the defense, it will often cut-up instead of cutting back like inside zone schemes.
- Similar line blocking assignments: Just like the inside zone, the outside zone utilizes a full zone scheme. Sure, some teams have chosen to man block the play, 73.8 percent of coaches still use a covered and uncovered principle when running the outside zone. It’s basically the same principle X&O Labs uncovered back in March when we released our inside zone report.
- Gets your play-makers the ball on the perimeter: Similar to the bubble concept, this scheme pushes the ball to the perimeter of the defense. We’ve found the structure the play (either in gun or under center) dictates how fast that ball can get to the edge. Programs like Boise State and Oregon thrive off running it from the gun, while the Colts ran it from under center, forcing the QB to get to the landmark quickly. Our research has shown nearly an even split on this topic, with 52.6 percent preferring to run the scheme under center.
- Great against interior pressure: If you’re successful with your interior run game like the inside zone and power, chances are you’ll see the probability of interior pressure increase. Teams now use the outside zone as a counter to this pressure by getting the ball to the edge.
- Play-action package off OZ action: Now, this is where the fun begins. Here is where you get your money ball deep down the field. Now, this aspect of the scheme won’t be covered in this report, but please know we are currently working on a report that outlines this package in great detail.
- Various trigger concepts: By "trigger" concepts we’re referring to the actions off zone option such as the flash or speed sweep, the outside zone option as well as the reverse package. We’re talking full displacement of defenders. Although this component won’t be disclosed below, we will be covering this aspect in depth during the summer (2011) when our Boise State/Oregon trigger concepts report debuts.
In addition to our research, we’ve also consulted with over a dozen coaches on this topic so that they can provide you with how they run the scheme. Our hope is that after you read what they do, you find a common ground to adapt what you do to fit your personnel, which after all, is the essence of good coaching. We’re here just to spark the debate and give you some fodder to decide how best to run your scheme.
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Case 1: "Covered" Blocking Concepts to the Play Side
Although these covered and uncovered concepts are the same ones we spoke of on the inside zone report, we wanted to provide a quick refresher.
Covered: There is a first level defender (DLM) from my nose to the nose of the adjacent lineman play side (Diagram 1).
Regardless of the defensive front, these two principles are consistent, and again, 73.8 percent of coaches use this terminology when implementing the zone scheme. But how these coaches teach their blocking assignments will vary, as we will explain below. The majority of coaches want their covered offensive linemen to be able to finish at a second level defender by the time the play is over.
When a play side lineman is covered on the outside zone or stretch play, it is his job to handle that down lineman. How he blocks him can vary – some coaches prefer lead or angle step up field, whereas some tell their offensive lineman to bucket step. According to our research, 48.9 percent teach an up field, angle step as opposed to 36 percent who teach a bucket step. We’ve found that the difference lies more in philosophy than it does in technique.
Pat Ruel, the offensive line coach for the Seattle Seahawks, teaches a stretch hook concept (a combo horizontal stretch and hook) for his covered linemen to the play side of zone. He teaches his players to eye the outside armpit of the defender with the objective to always advance to the second level. Once the lineman is engaged with a defender, he needs to stay engaged until he feels the next adjacent lineman take his assignment over.
Ruel’s Techniques for a Stretch Hook (covered lineman):
- Short 45 degree lead step
- Rip to run on second step by driving back shoulder through defender – this provides for a cutoff scenario
- Get stomach up field on third step – this ensures the defender is cut-off from his gap responsibility.
"We don’t ever worry about getting beat underneath, the ball will be outside already," said Ruel. "But we do concern ourselves with a player who lines up in a gap position. Here we need to attack the play side armpit with the inside hand first, then work to the second level."
Milt Tenopir, the legendary offensive line coach under Tom Osbourne at Nebraska, believed in the same philosophy of having his covered offensive lineman really work to get to the second level. "If our linemen is covered, we let him cross over on his second step as long as it’s up field," said Tenopir. "He wants to get started up field because he is going to come off on the next level. We call it a ‘rip-to-reach’ because we used to take the inside arm and rip it across the outside arm of the defender. We are trying to put both hands on the far shoulder pad. It keeps our shoulders pointed up field."
We’ve found the emphasis on the covered lineman is to have his shoulders pointed up field at all times. This not only provides for a wider blocking surface, but also keeps the horizontal displacement of the scheme giving the running back more room to operate (we will explain the RB reads a bit later). As Jim Sweeney, a 16-year NFL center tells his lineman at South Fayette HS (PA), "We always try to stay parallel with our shoulders because we want the back to have a three way go. If that d-lineman comes straight ahead, his shoulders are square so he can force a cutback (which is detrimental to the outside zone scheme) or make the tackle. We need to turn his shoulders and he can’t turn our shoulders. We do this by keeping both feet on ground." Sweeney recalled a story during his ten year tenure as a center with the New York Jets when star running back Freeman McNeil used to come over and watch the linemen during their individual session in practice. "He was the best in the business at that time and he used to tell us he always wanted to see our butts so that he can make the right cut."
But against stunting first level defenders, keeping both shoulders squared becomes a difficult fundamental to accomplish. So Herb Hand, the offensive line coach at Vanderbilt University (who spent a good part of his coaching career under famed spread coaches like Rich Rodriquez and Gus Malzahn) emphasizes the drag hand technique of the covered offensive lineman. Hand, who teaches a stretch step, not a bucket step, tells his covered offensive lineman to aim for the outside "V" of the neck of the down lineman whereas the majority of coaches (49.1%) teach the play side armpit as the visual aiming point of the covered lineman. "As the covered lineman takes his stretch step to the outside V of the neck, his back-side hand placement is the thing that will slow him down enough to catch the five-technique defender if he slants inside," said Hand. "The aiming point for the drag hand is the back-side pec of the defender. That movement will stop the penetration of the defender inside. The tackle cannot come off the ball with no concern of the defender slanting inside. He uses the drag hand to catch and hold the defender so he cannot penetrate."
There are certain indicators that would "tip off" some form of angle or stunt to the play side of zone. These indicators can include:
- A tight or inside shade first level defender
- A cheating second level player to the edge of the defense
Although the outside zone or stretch scheme is an outside hitting play, any interior penetration could slow down the course of the ball carrier. Sweeney doesn’t subscribe to the "outside hand free" theory that Hand presents when working against a slanting first level defender. Sweeney, now a high school offensive line coach, feels it’s too tough a task to accomplish. "I don’t like the theory of keeping the outside arm free – you need four hands on defender," says Sweeney. "We must open the defender’s shoulders. We need to open his shoulders and work to the outside LB. We can’t get a soft shoulder." Instead, Sweeney spends more time alerting his lineman pre-snap about the possibilities of a stunt or scrape. "We watch the inside foot pre-snap. If that foot is back, chances are he will slant across my face. And if he crosses my face, I just want to continue on my path because it gives the back more space to run."
Case 2: "Uncovered" Blocking Concepts to the Play Side (Reach and Overtake)
Uncovered: There is no first level defender (DLM) from my nose to the nose of the adjacent lineman play side (Diagram 2).
For all intents and purposes, the objective of the uncovered offensive lineman in the outside zone scheme is to take over the play side down lineman while the covered offensive lineman works up to linebacker level (Diagram 3). While we found the objective clear, the methodology or technique that is used by that uncovered player varied among coaches. Again, the purpose of the outside zone is to show a horizontal stretch on the defense. Tenopir talks about the pull and overtake method by the uncovered lineman. "When we put the lead foot where it is supposed to be, the rest of the body will come with you," said Tenopir. "We want the pulling guard (or whoever is uncovered) to get depth and distance on the pull. He picks the foot up and puts it in the direction we want him to go. We tell our guard he must get beyond the man (far jersey number) before he can come back on him. If he tries to pull and come around the back-side number of the tackle, he will never get it done. He cannot get the linebacker until he gets there."
Ruel calls his uncovered technique a "stretch scoop." His objective is to get to the next adjacent down lineman’s play side number with the purpose of taking him over.
Ruel’s Techniques of a Stretch Scoop (uncovered lineman):
- Short 45 degree step, target is play side number of adjacent down lineman
- Rip off hand and shoulder though his play side armpit (rip and run)
- Hook him using your shoulders and butt by leaning into him, not by turning your shoulders
That last coaching point is the golden nugget. Ruel stresses the idea of keeping his lineman’s shoulders square and getting the stomach up field to guarantee the defender gets hooked. "If we don’t get engagement by ripping to play side number, then we automatically climb to the second level," he said. Although Ruel doesn’t teach a bucket step for those uncovered offensive linemen, we’ve found that the majority of coaches, 32.8 percent, teach a bucket step for that uncovered lineman. Sometimes that deep step is needed to take over the next down lineman.
Perhaps no other coach knows the zone scheme better than Stan Zweifel. He’s authored dozens of clinic articles and published numerous videos on the outside zone. Zweifel tells his uncovered linemen first to take a deep drop step to gain depth with the second step being a crossover to try to get on line to overtake next down defender. If by the third step, the offensive lineman is not in a position to overtake the down lineman, he’s up on the next path to cutoff whatever comes. Everything that Zweifel teaches in his outside zone progression is based upon the "reach and overtake" mantra that he drills into his linemen from day one. Their objective is to reach and overtake the next down lineman play side. If by the third step, the lineman cannot over take the down defender, he will work up to the next level play side.
Case 3: Back-side Blocking Schemes (To Cut or Not to Cut) This particular topic was highly debatable among coaches we spoke with. On most outside zone schemes, particularly ones run at the higher levels of football, offensive lineman would cut block defenders on the back-side of the play – regardless of whether that player was a first or second level defender. But when we conducted our research, we’ve found that the majority of coaches we polled (37.8 %) do not teach the cut block back-side. They teach a run to rip technique, similar to the responsibility of the uncovered lineman to the front side of the play. There were numerous reasons as to why high school coaches don’t tell their kids to cut block, but perhaps no other coach was more straightforward about it then Sweeney. According to Sweeney, four things can happen when you cut on the back-side and none are good:
Sweeney’s negatives of cut-blocking on the back-side of OZ:
- If you’re on the ground, defender can get up first and make the play
- You will miss the cut
- They can still go over you and make a play on the QB or RB
- Puts your head in a bad position
Now we realize that we may be biased in these numbers. Truth is, 80.8 percent of those that took our outside zone survey were high school coaches. At the high school level, it is illegal to cut block at the second level so why teach it? So when we asked Zweifel the same question of whether or not his kids cut on the back-side, we expected a different answer. But what we got surprised us. "We used to cut those defenders such as a back-side shade technique, but now our guard will try to take a deep drop step and take him over," he says. "When you cut on the back-side of zone you knock off the rest of the offensive lineman that are trying to trail the play." He even tells his back-side tackle on zone to execute a "swoop technique" (Diagram 4) with the intentions of getting all the way to the play side of the zone. "We tell him to take a deep drop step and come out on the strong side A gap. If any wrong color jersey crosses his face on that path, cut it. If not, run to the strong side A gap and cut off anything you could possibly see. We have even told him sometimes to cut the front side 3-tech." Yes, he did just say front side A gap. That 3-technique would be the next adjacent down lineman. It’s all doable depending on the path of the back which Zweifel explains. "We’re a dinosaur when it comes to our path. Our landmark for our back is three yards outside the tight end and one yard deep," he says. "So we think there is no chance anyone from the play side A gap back can make a play on the outside zone. The ball carrier is sprinting to get out there."
Case 4: The Path/Reads of the Ball Carrier Although this topic was not in our original survey, we did do our research to find the most common aiming points of the ball carrier. While they ranged from 1-3 yards outside the tight end or EMLOS, we selected two of the more specific responses we received. Hand tells us the specifics of his ball carrier’s path in outside zone from the shotgun formation.
Herb Hand, Vanderbilt University (Bounce, Bang, Bend)
- RB aligns behind the tackle to his side, five yards off the ball in gun so we can stretch the defense. If the running back aligns even with the QB on the exchange, the running back automatically gets pushed downhill toward the line of scrimmage. We want the running back coming straight across and pressing his outside read.
- The aiming point is to track the outside hip of the play side tackle (note: Hand does not play with a tight end). The defense needs to stretch. The idea is to stretch the front side and get a cutoff somewhere on the back-side to split the defense.
- The aiming point of the back is chasing the outside hip of the tackle. His first read is the first DL on our outside the tackle. His second read is the next down lineman inside the tackle.
- If the first read is reached, the back bounces and goes outside (Diagram 5).
- If the first read is not reached, but is stretched and running outside, the back looks for the second read. If the next down defender is reached, the back runs a bang (Diagram 6).
- The bend occurs when the first and second read are both stretching and running outside. In order to get a bend, someone on the back-side must get a cutoff block (Diagram 7).
Keith Grabowski, the offensive coordinator at Baldwin Wallace College (OH) teaches his tailback the six second rule. He will identify the force player then make the decision on whether or not that player can make the play based on his leverage on the player who is blocking him. In Grabowski’s scheme, the fullback or H block gets assigned for force. It is very similar to what Hand teaches, but his rules refer more to the perimeter defenders than to first level defensive linemen. For clarification, the first blocker is the tight end, the second blocker is the fullback and the third blocker is the wide receiver play side.
Diagrams 8-10 (Keith Grabowski’s RB reads on force defender)
Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of this Research Report. To access the full version of this report – including the corresponding Statistical Analysis Report featuring the raw coaching data from our research – please CLICK HERE.
Once again, it was a pleasure to report on the offensive line principles in the zone scheme. It’s a terrific complement to the inside zone and the myriad of schemes that come off the zone concept can provide the defense with tremendous conflicts. We hope that you can take a couple things from this report and bring it back to your program to become more successful.
By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 X&O Labs