Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Outside Zone

Yes, so, diagrams.

Yesterday I promised a little diagrammatic adventure and then got sidetracked, so today I'd better make up for it and break out my elite PowerPoint skills..... stop laughing, they're not that bad.

So for my 600th post (what a waste of life) I'm going to have a look at the Texans running game. Or more specifically, one play from the Texans running game. In fact, to be even more specific, one play, out of one formation, (because Blogger is stingy about the amount of pictures they'll let you upload) from the Texans running game; the outside zone.

The reason why I've chosen this play is because it is actually a very widely used play. Practically every team in the NFL right now runs it, though not all teams do it well, as you might expect. I could have chosen pretty much any team and stuck their name at the top, but I went with the Texans for two reasons; 1) they run it a lot, especially out of the two tight end formation and 2) they run it really well, probably better than most teams in the NFL.

Just understand that I've had to take some liberties with the defensive front and that the arrows are more representative of who blocks who, as opposed to precise pathways taken by the offensive line;

So there you have the basic jumble of men and arrows. But what does it all mean?

Well the key to the outside zone is movement. At the snap of the ball the entire offensive line is stepping to the playside (in this case the right). The goal is to get the defense on the move, get on your blocks, and then let the running back make simple reads on the reactions of the defense (more on this later).

The other big advantage of this play is that it is a multi-front beating run. That is to say that while many run plays undergo changes - sometimes significant changes - in the blocking scheme depending on what front the defense presents, the outside zone doesn't. The blocking rules remain the same pretty much regardless of what the defense does, making it much easier for the offensive line to cope with the variety of modern defenses. It also reduces the number of plays that have to be practised since this play, along with the inside zone and a few others, can cope with so many different defensive looks. And practice makes (closer to) perfect.

So what are the rules for the offensive linemen? It all comes down to whether the linemen is covered or uncovered. If he has a defensive linemen "over" him (any part of the defensive linemen aligned opposite any part of the offensive linemen) then you're covered. If you don't have a defensive linemen "over" you then you are uncovered.

The uncovered linemen, like the center in the diagram above, works towards the playside and helps the man next to him (the right guard in this case). A covered linemen, like the right guard in the diagram above, has to check the man to the backside of him (in this case the center). If that man is uncovered then he will help you with your block (as in the diagram). If he's covered, then you're on your own!

What you're trying to achieve is as many double teams at the line of scrimmage as possible, with the offensive linemen then working together so one of them can slip off the block of the D-linemen and work up to the linebacker. The decision about which offensive linemen goes up to the next level and grabs the linebacker depends heavily on what the D-linemen does in response to being blocked, which in turn is often heavily dependent on how he lines up in the first place.

In the diagram above (I'm starting to get Deja vu writing that), if the defensive tackle were to line up on the inside (left) shoulder of the right guard, then the chances are that the Center will end up taking over that block and the right guard will end up working to the next level and grabbing the "Mike" linebacker. If the D-tackle aligns head up over the right guard then it's probably an evens bet who will end up sustaining the block on him, and much will depend on whether he tries to drive inside and split the double team, or whether he goes outside and tries to cut off the running backs lateral movement. If the tackle lines up on the outside (right) shoulder of the right guard, the likely hood is the right guard will end up staying on him, with the center moving up directly to get the "Mike" linebacker.

This process is repeated up and down the line of scrimmage as the offensive linemen work as a unit to get all the D-linemen blocked first, before moving up to knock those linebackers out of the way. Before we move on to the running back and his reads, it's worth quickly examining the blocks of the wide receivers. The "X" receiver on the left side will simply run up, ignoring the corner to his side and go get the free safety. The "Z" receiver, who is lined up on the right (in the direction we're running the play) will have to make a decision as to who he blocks.

A variety of factors come into play, such as how deep the corner and the strong safety are, and how wide the receiver is split. Normally the receiver will come off the line at full speed, aiming at the inside shoulder of the corner and trying to get him to back pedal (due to the threat of play action). The receiver can then make the decision whether to turn out on the corner, or whether to cut inside and get the strong safety at an angle, with a good shot of knocking the blindsided safety clean off his feet (if your name is Andre Johnson for example. Not so much if your name is Randy Moss).

Sometimes the coach might dictate that the receiver always block a certain player, in which case it will almost always be the safety. There are two main reasons for this; 1) due to the way the play is run, and as we shall see when we get to the running backs read, the safety has a much better chance of influencing the play by making the tackle, and 2) let's be honest, corners are not renowned for their tackling, even when given the clear opportunity to. Someone like Antonio Cromartie of the Jets will often see a fake step to the outside by the running back as an opportunity to give up on the play.

So now that we've covered all the blocking assignments, we can get down to the nitty gritty detail of the backs reads. The outside zone is often described by TV pundits as a "one cut" system, which indeed it is. The back makes a series of simple "yes/no" "inside/outside" type reads, makes his cut and then bolts upfield to get as much yardage as he can before being brought down or reaching the endzone, whichever happens first.

Basically what the running back does is to read the actions of two players, starting with the second defensive linemen across from the center towards the playside (in this case the right). It's worth noting that a "nose" tackle who has aligned on the playside (right) shoulder of the center does not count and the back should ignore him. The back should also ignore any linebackers lined up well off the line of scrimmage. He is only interested in down linemen. If all this getting a bit confusing then fear not, another diagram is coming shortly.

In fact it's here;

Now the chances of an NFL back facing the above situation, with 3 defensive tackles lined up that close, is extremely rare outside of very short yardage (on third down), short yardage situations around the goaline, or the Jets playing Buddy Ryan's old "Bear" front. In the course of normal open field play the Nose tackle wouldn't be there (more likely he'd be on the other shoulder of the Center) but I've stuck him in there for the convenience of showing that the back will ignore a player aligned in such a way.

The people that the running back is interested in are "E" and "T" (keep the 'phone home' jokes to yourself please). "E" is the second down lineman to the playside of the center, so the back reads him first, hence why I've put a little number one over his head. What this defender does will dictate whether or not the back needs to bother reading number two ("T").

If the backs first read, "E", goes inside of the man blocking him (the right tackle) then the back will simply bounce the play to the outside. Normally the tight end, "Y", will help his tackle out, then go up to grab "S" which is the "Sam" linebacker. Typically the tight end will block that guy inside to out, pushing him towards the sideline and creating a running lane inside for the back. This would send the back towards the strong safety, which helps explain why it is preferable for the "Z" receiver to block the safety and not the corner (told you we'd get back to that eventually).

If the backs first read, "E", works hard to try and get outside of the right tackle (as shown in the diagram) then the back now switches to his second read, which is "T". He has two options now. If "T" goes to the outside as well (as he does in the diagram), then the running back will cut inside of him, looking for the center to get up and onto the "Mike" linebacker.

If "T" goes hard inside, trying to split the double team between the right guard and the center, then the center will take over that block and the right guard will go up to get the "Mike" backer. That will leave a large hole between "T" and "E", into which the running back cuts.

There is another option which I'm not going to diagram here and that's the possibility that if both "T" and "E" go outside and the running back then cuts back inside, that the left guard will have pushed his man all the way across as well, filling the gap vacated by the center which the running back was planning to cut into. In this case the running back just keeps working to the backside, cutting behind the block of the left guard. Ray Rice of the Ravens and Adrian Peterson of the Vikings are particularly adept at this (Rice is basically the master of the cut back run).

One thing that should be noted here is that when a back does cut back inside, often he is not actually making a huge cut. This is because when the play starts everyone is running to the right; O-line, D-line, quarterback, running back, everyone. The running backs aiming point when he starts running is actually the original starting point of the tight end. In most "huge cutback" runs that you see in games, the back is actually only making a small cut to the backside, due to the fact that everyone has shifted over so much. That's just an interesting little tidbit for you to keep an eye out for.

So there you are, the outside zone play described in full. It can of course be run from pretty much any formation you can think of, with favourites among the NFL teams being the I-formation, often with the fullback offset to the weak side or line up in the weakside slot. You can use motion to put a receiver in a better blocking position. And it can also be run to the weakside, providing you're using an unbalanced set. There are also many compliments to this play, such as the inside zone and the QB keeper. Maybe one day, possibly even next week (short of something else more interesting coming up over the weekend) I'll cover the inside zone as well, in full diagrammatic glory.

For now though, two things.

Firstly, I forgot to put up the results of my weekly picks, a reoccurring problem these days not at all related to the fact that they haven't exactly gone well. This week I was 8-5 in large part thanks to the miraculous (and bloody inconveniently timed) resurgence of Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe in Kansas, the complete ineptitude of the Bears, the inability of the Jets to shut down Wes Welker, the miraculous (and bloody inconveniently timed) resurgence of Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, and the inability of the Giants to go more than one game in a row without turning the ball over five times.

That means I'm now 45-32 for the season. I hate Eli Manning...

Which makes it all the more fun that tomorrow I'm going to use screen shots of him getting sacked and fumbling the ball to make a point about TV broadcasts, as well as looking at something about cornerback play that really bugs me and that I've been harping on about for a long while now, especially this season; bump and run. With emphasis on the bump. (Quick, go back and italicise 'bump' to show the emphasis. They'll never know that you didn't think of it until the editing stage, unless of course you end up writing down what you're thinking like a complete fool.... hello there).

Then on Friday Night (*cough, Saturday Morning), I'll be back again to do my picks for week 6, which at first glance is looking like it's going to be a tough one.

In the meantime spread the word, hit ye Facebook share button, leave a comment, or even just e-mail me at;

Or don't. See if I care.

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