The first post I wrote for College and Magnolia was a preview piece for last year's Washington State game. I was excited that Gus Malzahn was back and I had a vague idea of what the offense would look like, but I knew I couldn't write about the entire Auburn offense in only a few paragraphs. Instead, I focused on what I thought would be a staple play, the Inside Zone. But for last year's Tigers, it wasn't just a reliable run play. It was the play that made the rest of the offense tick.
What is the Inside Zone?
Blocking for run plays can be categorized as either gap or zone. Gap running plays are designed to get the running back through a specific gap in the line. For example, a fullback may lead block into the B-gap (between the guard and tackle) and the running back simply follows him through. Zone running plays are designed to block general areas across the line of scrimmage while the running back finds the best opening.
Initially, the Inside Zone looks like a really simple play as each lineman blocks straight ahead and the running back dives into the pile, but there's more to it. Just before the snap, each offensive lineman determines if he is covered or uncovered (if he has a defender directly across from him or not). If he is covered, he blocks the defender back. If he is not, he blocks the man in his zone to the playside along with his teammate. Finally, one of the two linemen disengages from this double team, gets to the second level and blocks a linebacker or safety. The offensive line blocks in this image from the WSU preview demonstrate this pretty well.
A while back, I came across some Tulsa offense material from 2007, when Malzahn was the co-offensive coordinator. Included was this video that shows diagrams and cut-ups of their major plays. Part of the video lists zone objectives, or micro-goals if you will, that explain exactly how zone blocking works.
"Get 1st level movement (DL) with eyes on 2nd level (LB)." The first objective is basic but necessary. Move the defensive linemen. If the defenders go where they want to, no running play will succeed. However, the offense needs to be aware of what the linebackers are doing, too.
"Take the 1st level into the 2nd level. Knock defenders off the ball." Pushing another collegiate athlete backwards against his will sounds like an impossibility, but remember, the offense is double teaming some of those players. It is much easier for two players to push one off the line.
"Cut off backside pursuit." With everyone blocking one direction, the defense might get a man in the backfield from the other side and blow up the play. The offense has to prevent that from happening. This can be done with a crack block from receiver, with a slice block or kick out from the H-back, or by presenting a second running threat, but to the backside.
"Stretch the defense causing voids in gap soundness." In gap blocking schemes, the line has to push specific defenders a specific direction to open a specific gap. Zone schemes are more forgiving. If a defender is shaded outside, he gets pushed further outside, If he jumps inside, he gets walled off inside. If every offensive lineman can do one or the other, gaps will open. It is up to the running back to find and hit those holes.
"Pull off on 2nd level blocks. Must have a reason to come off." If a team is going to run Inside Zone, they need lots and lots of practice because these second level blocks are hard to coordinate. If a double team lasts too long, a linebacker might blow up the runner. If a double team ends early or is skipped entirely, a defensive lineman might win his one-on-one battle up front. If both offensive linemen leave the double team at the same time, the running back will likely be clobbered. But if the offensive line gets enough reps and builds some chemistry, they can get combo blocks, reach linebackers, and open huge holes for long gains.
How do the players pull this off?
The Inside Zone starts with the big guys up front. Using a well-defined system, they eliminate any confusion about who is responsible for what once the ball is snapped. The rest is is up to the skill players to take advantage of what the line has given them.
That same video explains exactly how those objectives are accomplished. In a gap-based run, each lineman has a specific defender to reach and block, but zone runs use "buddy rules" as a way to determine how the linemen interact with the defense and each other.
These buddy rules give each lineman two places to look just before the snap. First, he looks at himself. Then he looks at his backside buddy if covered or his playside buddy if uncovered. Basically, the rules work out so that uncovered linemen help their covered teammates.
Of course the blocking technique is a bit different based on what the buddy rules say to do and the video outlines some of the footwork. This is getting out of my realm of understanding (I never played a snap of organized tackle football, shhhh!), but, in general, a covered player works to stay playside of this defender and an uncovered player widens first, steps up to block second, and looks to the linebackers last.
Quarterback and Running Back Rules
The quarterback stands five and a half yards behind the center and the running back typically starts six yards behind the line of scrimmage, between the guard and tackle. After receiving the snap, the quarterback turns backside 45 degrees and offers the ball to the running back. With the basic Inside Zone (no read), he fakes a keeper after handing the ball off. Sometimes this is enough to occupy a backside defender. Otherwise, the H-back is more than capable of kicking him out.
When the back gets the ball, he aims for the backside hip of the center. The next step is what separates great zone backs from merely good ones. The runner should not make a cut until he is on the heels of the offensive line. This patience forces the linebackers to fill their assigned gaps, thereby allowing the runner to choose a gap they left open. Once a decision is made, the back "surfs" the line of scrimmage to reach the open lane and then gets up field. Anything after that is dependent on the running back's elusiveness.
Why use the Inside Zone?
One advantage zone schemes have over gap schemes is their adaptability. Zone blocking only requires a lineman to know if he is covered and if his "buddy" is covered. This alone determines how he plays after the snap. Gap running plays have to be slightly adjusted for every possible front, but the Inside Zone and its buddy rules work without adjustment against odd or even fronts.
Being able to consistently team up on defenders is another benefit of zone blocking. Two blockers should be able to get one defender "on skates" and once that happens, one blocker can handle him. Yes, the linebackers are unaccounted for at first, but this is yet another advantage.
After the snap, linebackers will read their keys and fill their gaps. If the offensive line can get a read on this movement while engaged with the defensive line, they will get better angles and make better blocks in the second level. The linebackers are also read by the running back. He can be patient, watch the linebackers commit to their lanes, and cut upfield through the best opening.
Finally, the Inside Zone can be used at a hurry-up pace, it can be used out of many formations, and in the words of Steve Spurrier, it can be easily "wrinkle-ized" to add complexity from the defense's perspective. I already mentioned some ways to account for backside pursuit. I'll describe those in more detail along with some other wrinkles in a later post.