Blocking Techniques To Acquire Numbers in the 2/3 Back Zone Option Game: Case 3 – Building Formations and Play Tags to Manipulate Defenses

Feb 27, 2018 | Offense, Run Game, Tight Zone Run Concepts

By Mike Kuchar 
Senior Research Manager 
X&O Labs 
Twitter: @MikekKuchar 




As in any pure option offense, coordinators spend countless hours studying the structure of defenses to find ways to manipulate numbers based on formation. The three-back zone read option coaches are no different. And when these offensive coordinators are game planning, a decision needs to be made on whether they want to acquire numbers to the read side of the zone scheme or acquire numbers to the read side of the scheme. While this, of course, depends on personnel matchups (who these coaches want carrying the ball) we wanted to present our research on how these coaches are building formation packages to attain extra numbers either to the zone side or read side. These can be done in both a pre-snap or post-snap manner.  

Zone Read vs. Zone Read Option Methodologies 

While Ohio State and Auburn started to popularize the two-back zone read systems from 11 personnel groupings, other programs like New Mexico under former offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse has started to implement the three-back zone read system from 20 and 30 personnel groupings with a great deal of success, the Lobos lead the country in rushing in 2016 using these formations. SELU will use both of two-back and three-back groupings, but will vary between both based on two components: 

  • What kind of personnel they are working with from year to year 
  • How defenses are defending both two-back and three-back option schemes 

Of course, the benefit of the three-back option schemes is that it provides for a dive back, a pitch man and a cruiser. Coaches can, and often do, designate who the cruiser is and who the dive back is from play to play provided you have the personnel to do so. Whereas in the two back option game, a coach may be limited to one dive back and one cruiser. All of this can be manipulated by numbers and SELU is no different when it game plans using both these personnel groupings.  

“Three back is easier to scheme,” said Coach Mikel. “But when deciphering between both of these, the first question asked is does speed benefit us (by having two backs) in this certain situation? The second question asked is can the speed guy perform the blocking function as well as the tight end? The third question is does the defense change depending on personnel.” One of the issues in running two back zone read is that an offense has to decide if it wants to run it to the two receiver side or can you run it both directions. The issue with running it to the one receiver side is blocking the bubble inside linebacker (as detailed in case two). It’s a difficult block for that read side tackle to man block up the bubble backer, which is why SELU committed itself to utilizing the two-back zone read to the two-receiver side. “We didn't want to give the tackle more things to learn,” said Coach Mikel. We didn’t want the tackle doing anything else but going lateral, lateral and blocking what is on his track.”  The H/Y can account for the first play side linebacker, but when defenses back gap, they can easily gain another defender to the read side. The two-back zone read from 20 personnel is more advantageous being run to the two receiver side, where the slot is able to block number four to the read side and the ball can be pitched off the next threat.   

For Coach Ballard, deciphering between two back zone read and three back zone read option is a personnel factor. He initially tried to make it universal for the back and tight end to be cruisers, but found that running backs couldn’t execute cutoffs or arc blocks. “These backs didn’t have the power to get that done,” he told us. “We would switch responsibilities for key breaking tendencies. You will see us run inside zone and have the tight ends arc release as a key breaker. It got secondary running and chasing tight ends on an inside zone play (this concept is called “bang tease” will be detailed in case three). So we would tell him to arc release as a default if they didn’t get anything from us.” 

This coming season, Coach Ballard (who is also the tight ends coach) plans on cross training the backs and the tight ends. “The tight ends will spend time with the backs. I will teach the tight end in the run game. Tight ends are really doing different things. They used to work zone combinations but now everything is from off line formations. We don't have enough backs on the team that we want on the field. If we did, we could’ve taken our tight end off the field, and ran all of these same plays with three backs. “ 

No RPO Zone 

Both Amherst and SELU don’t major in run/pass options. In fact, they don't even tinker with them. As Coach Ballard told us, “We used to be an RPO team, but teams have started to get to man free coverages to stop it. Now after three years, I said all we’re trying to run the option is lets run the option. You have to decide what you are going to spend your time on.” So, instead of manipulating the conflict defender, they attack him by forcing him to make tackles in the option game. But in order to get the numbers advantage this offense needs, they have to be creative with their formation design. In this case, we are going to study how these coaches are using double and triple option schemes to manipulate defenders based on formation. We realize that some coordinators may play a “defense of the week,” when defending option teams, we segmented our research on the most common defensive structures these coaches see: