Blocking the Outside Zone

May 29, 2011 | Offense, Run Game, Wide Zone Run Concepts

New research uncovers 'eye-opening' details of how today's offensive line coaches are blocking the outside zone scheme.

Researchers' Note: You can access the raw data - in the form of graphs - from our research on blocking the outside zone: Click here to read the Statistical Analysis Report.

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.

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 s