Since I incorporated the zone scheme into my offense in 2004, one of the common questions I get is, “Which side is the best to run inside or outside zone to?” It’s also been the topic of many friendly debates.
In this two part series, we will look at the rationale behind running the zone in different ways, how it meshes with personnel, and what the objective is in doing it in each way.
In part one, retired coach Bill Mountjoy explains his rationale for running inside zone to a one technique down lineman, and outside zone to a three technique down lineman. Mountjoy has a wealth of knowledge and experience with the zone running game. He bases much of what he believes and did on his learning from some of the best coaches of the running game including Joe Bugel and Alex Gibbs.
Mountjoy’s defintion and rationale behind zone blocking:
“Zone blocking is two adjacent offensive linemen responsible for blocking two defenders in a certain area.” It begins at the bubble in the defense. The more bubbles, the more zone blocks available on a given play. We normally get from one to three zone combos on a zone play (strictly depending on the defense’s alignment).
1. Zone blocking means that our blockers are responsible for only half a man. They have protection coming from an uncovered teammate to their inside. This way, we frequently get double teams from the down lineman to the linebacker. A blocker can come off the ball faster and with more confidence if he knows that he has help. If the down lineman goes inside, he will be turned over to your inside teammate.
2. In a zone blocking scheme, being fleet of foot and having athletic ability trump size as desirable qualities in offensive linemen. Coordination and technique matter more than muscle in implementing a successful scheme because defensive linemen are often double-teamed at the point of attack. Creating movement on the defensive line is more important than opening a specific hole in the defense.
3. You cannot man-block all twists, slants, angles, stacks, etc. Sooner or later you have to zone off with another man, or defenders will run free.
4. Zone blocking has proven to cut off penetration and create movement on level 1 (down linemen), with someone coming off on level 2 (linebacker).
5. An offense can interchange positions easily!
6. Who to block becomes easy.
Identifying where to run:
First, for Mountjoy in deterring where to run is his simple defensive identification system which identifies “Red” looks and “White” looks. Regardless of the structure, all defensive fronts will have a reduction and a wide side concept.
Red side means the reduction wide of any defensive structure. This is the side of the defense with a defender aligned in a 3 or 4i technique. It can also be thought of as the side with a “B” gap down defensive lineman.
A Double Eagle or Bear front would be characterized as a defense with two red sides.
The White side means the wide side of any defensive structure. To define the wide side, there must be a 5 or 7 technique over the offensive tackle. In general, this side of the defense will have a shade or 1 technique. The “D” gap defender usually has run and pass responsibility. On a pass he is responsible for the flat.
Mountjoy uses this system to explain how he thinks about the outside zone and inside zone plays. The biggest thing Mountjoy believes in is to “run at the bubbles”.
1. Most “Red” looks we see has a bubble over the offensive tackle making the outside zone more effective.
2. “White” look, of course, usually has a bubble over the guard – making the inside zone more effective.
By teaching the Red and White system to the quarterback and game planning to run outside zone to a 3 technique, and inside zone to a 1 technique, Mountjoy believes the offense has an advantage.
On the inside zone play, the preference is to run it to the “white” side because the running back has a chance to cram the ball in the B gap. With a bubble over the guard, the running back is frequently given a read that allows him to continue straight downhill without always having to make a cut (we will explain in part 2 why the zone to a 3 technique often ends up as a cut back play). Mountjoy points out that the best cut is no cut. This is something worth thinking about for an offense that has bigger “power type” backs that run with low pad level and break tackles. Creating a system of downhill runs is optimal for these types of backs and highlights their abilities.
The objective of the inside zone to the “white” side then becomes getting as many double teams across the defensive front as possible. This is an advantage for any offensive line, but certainly is something to consider if your line is undersized. The objective is to push the level one defenders, the down linemen, back into the laps of the level two defenders, the linebackers. This is certainly a sound way of creating running lanes.
When running to the “white” side, as many as 3 double team combinations can be created. This is not possible when running the play to a “red” side.
Three double teams are possible.
Inside zone assignments:
INSIDE ZONE LEFT:
LE & LT = (ZONE) DOUBLE DE (#2) TO WLB (#3)
LG & CTR = (ZONE) DOUBLE NOSE (#0) TO MLB (#1)
RG & RT = (ZONE) DOUBLE DT (#1) TO SLB (#2)
RE = (MAN) CUTOFF DE (#3)
RB = 1st. STEP LATERAL WITH PLAYSIDE FOOT, ROLL, CROSSOVER, AND AIM NOSE FOR OUTSIDE LEG OF LG. CRAM B GAP
QB = OPEN TO 7 O’CLOCK. AFTER HANDOFF – FAKE NAKED FOR 5 STEPS AWAY FROM P.O.A.
WR’S “PUSH/CRACK” FROM CORNERS TO SAFETIES
OUTSIDE ZONE: We prefer OUTSIDE ZONE to the “RED” side of the defense because the RB’s SECOND read (his first read – the DE – normally gives his a read to go inside) is generally a 3 technique (on “Red”) as opposed to a “1” or a “Shade” (on “White”), and he can make his decision to cut UP quicker off the 3 tech (and more straight upfield into the bubble over the ON T). On “Red”, he has a greater chance to cram the C Gap (because of the “bubble” over the ON T that is present in many “RED fronts) – which is what we WANT!
Run inside zone to a one technique. The offensive line has the opportunity for three double team combinations which will create running lanes and allow the running back to get downhill.
Run the outside zone to a three technique. The running back can make a quicker decision on when to cut up and is more likely to have a downhill cut in the C gap.
Running the ball in this manner allows for a power back without as much lateral cutting ability to remain a power runner, and allows any linemen, especially those that are undersized, to gain advantages in distorting and displacing the defense.
Here are some examples of what these plays look like when run as Mountjoy describes.
Inside Zone to the 1 Technique (White Side)
In this example, we motion in the H-back and lead up on the frontside linebacker. This allows the frontside combo to get great displacement because of the distance that their linebacker is away from the play side. The backside tackle should be more aggressive in this example.
In this example, we trade the strength and the defense shifts the front allowing us to run to the 1 technique. The running back shows slight hesitation but quickly gets on a downhill track.
We run away from the tight end who now has the assignment to cut off. The running back runs downhill as the line zones off the play side.
We run zone lead in this example and our power back crams the ball in the B gap.
Outside Zone to the 3 Technique(Red side)
Our offensive line is able to displace the front and create a running lane in the C-gap. The back could press this further, but he is able to get a downhill cut in the C-gap.
In this outside zone play called in our four minute offense (running the clock out at the end of the game), we put the fullback across to protect the backside edge. The running back presses frontside and runs downhill in the C-gap.