The dominant narrative arc in offensive football over the last two decades has been the emergence, proliferation, and eventual ubiquity of the spread offense, particularly the up-tempo, high-RPO-volume variety. These types of systems have gone from being seen as the last resort of desperate programs struggling to compete with more talented opponents to being the offensive meta in college football. Even Nick "Is This What We Want Football To Be?" Saban has decided that this is, in fact, what we want football to be.
While the NFL has finally begun to catch up to the college game in its adoption of the spread offense, it hasn't become de rigueur at that level yet. Part of this is due to the NFL's inherent conservatism and resistance to change its old ways, but part of it has been due to the emergence of another popular offensive system to compete with the nouveau spread teams: the wide zone offense. This system, built around a wide zone-based run and play-action game combined with a West Coast-derived dropback game, first came to prominence with Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams. Because of their success, sharing a cab to the airport with McVay became enough of a qualification to earn you an NFL head coach job, and several other teams (most notably Kyle Shanahan's San Francisco 49ers and Zac Taylor's Cincinnati Bengals, the latter a former McVay assistant) have also adopted the system, with the Rams and Bengals meeting in the Super Bowl last year after knocking out two of the league's foremost spread practitioners (the Bucs and Bills, respectively) in the conference championship games.
The wide zone offense isn't prevalent in the college game as of yet, since it was one of the very few offensive innovations in history that actually came from within the pro game. The wide zone was a development of the original zone running game developed by Alex Gibbs. Gibbs later became the offensive line coach under Kyle Shanahan's father, Mike, whose Denver Broncos rode their zone-based offense to consecutive Lombardi trophies in the late 1990s. By the turn of the new millennium, zone runs were the bread and butter of most NFL offenses, and that remains the case to this day.
One of the few notable practitioners of the wide zone offense at the college level is, of course, the subject of this article: Baylor OC Jeff Grimes. Grimes was, as I'm sure you all know, the offensive line coach at Auburn from 2009 to 2012 under Gene Chizik. He coached the 2010 offensive line, which paved the way for Auburn's first national championship in over half a century, and recruited and developed the players who made up the excellent 2013 offensive line, which took the Tigers to another BCS championship game. Things haven't been the same for Auburn's offensive line since the last of Grimes' recruits left the program, and one has to wonder what might have been if Gus Malzahn had retained Grimes when he took over in 2013.
After his time at Auburn ended, Grimes spent a year as the offensive line coach at Virginia Tech before holding the same position at LSU for four years; perhaps not coincidentally, the offensive line on LSU's 2019 championship team consisted primarily of players recruited and developed by Grimes. In 2018, Grimes got his first opportunity as a signal caller under Kelani Sitake at BYU, where he had previously served as the offensive line coach from 2004 to 2006 (you owe it to yourself to click that link, if for no other reason than to see the majestic 'stache he was sporting back then). During his time there, Grimes and his offensive line coach, Eric Mateos, began building their offense around a few defining features: the wide zone play, fly sweep motion, and a West Coast-style quick passing game. Sound familiar? Grimes' QB during his three years at BYU was Zach Wilson, who became the #2 overall pick in 2021 and is now the starting QB for a surprisingly competent New York Jets team. After his final season at BYU, in which the Cougars attained an 11-1 record and a #11 ranking in the AP poll, Grimes was hired by Dave Aranda to serve as the OC for his Baylor rebuild. Grimes took over a unit that had been one of the worst offenses in the entire FBS under Larry Fedora the year before and built them into a respectable unit which averaged 422.4 yards per game and 31.6 points per game as the Bears went from a 2-7 record in 2020 to a 12-2 record, a Big XII championship, and a top-five finish in the AP poll, on the back of his wide zone system, which he refers to as the RVO (Reliable, Violent Offense), an evocative phrase which will likely endear him to the run game truthers among us.
At the end of last season, when Mike Bobo was (probably deservedly) canned after one year as Auburn's offensive coordinator, many foolish people, myself included, entertained the idea that Bryan Harsin might look around for an innovative offensive mind to right the ship after the Tigers' offense faltered down the stretch in 2021, and Grimes seemed like a natural choice because of his pre-existing ties to the program and his skill at developing offensive linemen, the Achilles' heel of Auburn's offense. Of course, that idea turned out to be laughably wrong, as Harsin merely cleared a spot on the staff for one of his Boise cronies who, shockingly, has proven himself to be completely incompetent. As a result, Grimes is now a likely candidate for Harsin's job once the latter is inevitably dismissed at the end of this season. Since Grimes is a name that's likely near the top of Auburn's shortlist, but perhaps not as well known as some other candidates, let's take a look at Grimes' offense and examine why it might be a good fit for Auburn. Due to the amount of material I want to cover, I'm going to break this down into two parts. In part one, we'll examine the foundation of the RVO, the wide zone concept. In part two (which should be up later this week), we'll look at how Grimes and Baylor build off the wide zone and create a cohesive offensive system.
The Wide Zone Concept
If we're going to talk about the wide zone offense, we should probably start with an explanation of what the wide zone is, especially since football terminology is far from universal and the same term can mean completely different things to different people. For starters, wide zone is not the same thing as outside zone (also known as stretch), although some coaches use the two terms interchangeably. The difference here is less about technique than it is about philosophy. On outside zone, the offensive linemen all start with a long horizontal step to the playside (known as a reach step), with the goal of getting to the outside of ("reaching") the defensive linemen and sealing them inside so that the running back can carry the ball around the end.
On wide zone, the offensive linemen start with this same reach step, but with a different goal in mind. Rather than being determined to reach the defensive linemen like they would on outside zone, on wide zone, the offense simply wants to get the defense flowing laterally toward the playside; rather than sealing the defenders inside, the offensive line simply takes them wherever their momentum carries them, using the defenders' own movement against them in a form of football jiu-jitsu. Thus, the wide zone is less dependent on the athletic ability of the offensive linemen and puts more emphasis on correct technique and understanding of the scheme. Here's a clip of former BYU and current Baylor OL Coach Eric Mateos explaining the offensive line's techniques and the elegant geometry of the wide zone concept. I'll refer back to this clip later since it also shows some of the other aspects of the offense that we're going to talk about later on, but you should take a moment to appreciate the level of attention to detail in Mateos' discussion, especially in light of how badly the current coaching staff has failed at coaching the most basic elements of the game.
So how do the linemen know whom they're supposed to block? Like other zone plays, the blocking assignments on the wide zone play are based on what's called covered/uncovered rules. If the offensive lineman has a defensive lineman lined up heads up (face to face with him) or on his playside shoulder, he's covered, and he's going to try to reach that lineman and take him where he wants to go as mentioned above. If there's no defender lined up heads up or in his playside gap, he's uncovered, and his goal will be to get to the second level and cut off the linebackers. There's less emphasis on double-teaming defenders and getting vertical movement than there is on inside zone, since moving the defensive linemen vertically isn't really necessary; you're just displacing them in the easiest way possible. Because the rules and techniques are so simple, wide zone works against basically any defensive front, whereas with inside zone (and to a lesser extent outside zone), there are certain fronts where the play just doesn't work (you can't really run inside zone against a bear/tite front for example, which was always a problem for Gus Malzahn's offenses).
The responsibilities of the H-back/fullback on Baylor's wide zone plays can vary. When they're on the playside, they generally join the offensive line, following the same rules and footwork they use. However, in some cases, Baylor will run split zone, a scheme more commonly associated with inside zone but one which can work well with wide zone too. The backside end is often left unblocked when Baylor has three blockers to the backside, since he's far enough away that he can't run the play down, but when there are only two blockers (the guard and the tackle) to the backside, that end is close enough that he might be able to blow the play up, so the H-back will pull across the formation and kick him out, preventing him from getting backside penetration. Finally, when the H-back is on the backside of the play, his job is usually to scoop the backside end (get inside of him and seal him off), which has the same effect as split zone, but from the opposite direction. We'll see examples of each of these variations when we get to the film.
The running back's aiming point on wide zone can vary from coach to coach, but the most commonly used landmark is the outside leg of the playside tackle; some will use the inside leg of the TE instead, but either way the primary gap is the C gap. However, since it's a zone concept, the running back is not locked into attacking that specific gap, but will instead read the blocks of the offensive linemen and find the hole he should run through. Because the offensive linemen aren't committed to one specific blocking technique, wide zone is much more flexible and able to hit at more points than an outside zone or inside zone run; the running back can stay on his track ("bang") into the C gap, bounce it outside to the D gap, or bend it back inside, depending on where the opening is. The ability to hit several points of attack with the same play means that there's less need for a team to carry additional run concepts, since they can hit most areas of the defense with one scheme.
Now, obviously it's a bit reductive to name an offense after a single play or concept. Paul Johnson used to bristle at people who referred to his offense as the "triple option", saying that it was equivalent to "looking at an I formation and saying 'that's the sprint draw offense'" (he preferred to refer to his offense simply as "the spread", which has of course taken on a nearly opposite meaning). However, as we're going to discuss, the wide zone offense got that name because almost everything its practitioners do in the run and play-action game is built off of the wide zone scheme, much like Johnson's offense was built off of the inside veer. Wide zone is the bread and butter run play; the remainder of the run game is built to counter defensive adjustments to the wide zone; and faking wide zone is the basis of the play-action game. There's a sense of cohesion and punch-counterpunch strategy that isn't present in the more generic "pro-style" offenses of yesteryear or the incoherent mish-mash that their imitators at the college level (coughBryanHarsincough) tend to create. So how do you build the whole airplane out of wide zone?
Let's start with the wide zone play itself. Baylor presents wide zone to the defense from a variety of different formations, motions, and backfield actions, giving the defense something different to look at while the offense is still doing the same thing. This type of offensive design isn't unique to the wide zone offense, it's something that all good offenses do, but Baylor's methods of doing it are worth discussing.
First we'll look at Baylor's formations. Baylor uses three main backfield alignments to run their wide zone play: under center, pistol, and offset (shotgun), each of which creates a different angle for the running back to attack the defense from. The fact that they can run wide zone from any of their formations means that the threat is always there for the defense to consider, versus other offenses where the formation basically tells the defense what's coming. In terms of personnel groupings, Baylor, like many of the wide zone offenses at the NFL level, tends to use heavier personnel groupings than spread offenses do; while most spread teams live in 10 and 11 personnel, Baylor frequently uses 12, 22, and 13 personnel, in addition to smaller doses of 10 and 11 personnel. (If you're confused about what those numbers mean, the first number is the number of running backs on the field and the second number is the number of tight ends on the field, so 10 personnel has one RB, no TE, and four WRs, and 22 personnel has two RBs, two TEs, and one WR, etc.)
The primary purpose of these heavier personnel groupings is to create three- and four-man blocking surfaces, which gives the defense more gaps to defend; these types of heavier blocking surfaces are particularly problematic for odd-front defenses, which depend more on their defensive linemen covering multiple gaps and therefore struggle when presented with additional gaps (notably, two of Auburn's most important opponents, Alabama and Georgia, base out of odd fronts). There are more technical reasons why three- and four-man surfaces are problematic for odd fronts, but to avoid getting too far into the weeds, suffice to say that mo'
money gaps, mo' problems.
Let's take a look at an example of each of the three backfield alignments Baylor uses to run the wide zone; you'll be able to see some of the variety of personnel groupings and blocking surfaces in these clips as well. It's worth pointing out, as Eric Mateos did in the video I linked above, that while the back's footwork changes based on the formation, the aiming point and decision point do not.
The simplest of the three presentations of wide zone is from under center. This is the primary way the NFL wide zone offenses run the play, mainly because the action of the QB turning his back to the defense to hand the ball off is more effective at setting up misdirection and play-action fakes. Running from under center also has its limitations though, as it eliminates the possibility of read option and RPO concepts, the bread and butter of most modern offenses. However, while Grimes' offense does use read options and RPOs, it's at a much lower volume than the more popular spread offenses. From under center, however, the Bears can focus on the wide zone and play-action off of wide zone action, which is their bread and butter. Like most of the wide zone teams in the NFL, they run very little, if any dropback passes from under center.
Here's a basic version of wide zone from under center in a single-back set, the most common under center formation the Bears use. This clip is from the first of the four games I charted, their week 2 double overtime loss at BYU. They're in 12 personnel here, with a tight end on the right and an H-back on the left. In this case, they're running wide zone toward the H-back, who will lead block on the perimeter. It's honestly not great execution; Shapen drops the snap, which throws off the timing of the play, but the blocking up front is good and they're able to get a solid gain here. You'll note that BYU's odd front over-rotated the linebackers to the backside of this play despite the fact that the Bears are in a balanced formation; I think this is because the H-back is aligned off the line, showing how formations can be used to manipulate a defense.
Another important element of the under center wide zone game is the use of motion. Motion can be used for a number of different reasons, but two of the most important are to get players in position to block and to misdirect the defense and open up running lanes. This clip is an example of the former; the slot receiver motions from right to left, where he will arc block on the perimeter. The play never really gets to that point, though, since BYU's defensive line gets good penetration and stacks the running back up after a short gain.
Baylor also uses motion to set up misdirection on their under center wide zone plays. The most common type of motion used for this effect is fly sweep motion, something that it has in common with the NFL wide zone teams (particularly the Rams). This motion is designed to pull the defense away from where the run will eventually go, or at least to freeze the linebackers to allow the linemen to set up their blocks. In this clip from the Bears' week 5 loss against Oklahoma State, in which the TV gods deign to bless us with a useable end zone shot, you can see that the motion causes the inside linebackers to bump over presnap, which leaves them unable to get back to the other side of the formation in time to stop the back from breaking free for a big gain and a first down. This clip also showcases the split zone concept, with the H-back pulling to the backside to kick out the DE there, which further adds to the flow to that side that was generated by the fly sweep motion.
Another common way Baylor uses their under center alignment is by presenting the defense with unbalanced formations. By aligning in an unbalanced set, the offense presents the defense with a choice: stay in your balanced defensive front and be outnumbered on the heavy side, or adjust to the unbalanced numbers and be outnumbered on the nub side. Baylor can run wide zone to either side of their unbalanced sets. In this clip, from the BYU game, they attack the heavy side. BYU kept a balanced look, which gave Baylor the numbers advantage to the heavy side, but the ILB does a good job of flowing over the top of the blocks to get to the RB after a short gain.
In this clip, from the Bears' week 4 win at Iowa State, the Cyclones show a balanced front but rotate the secondary of their stupid three safety defense over to the heavy side. Like any good offensive line coach, Grimes decides to find out how good those safeties are at tackling and runs wide zone to the nub side. The answer is not very good, and the result is six points.
Finally, it's worth noting that there are other ways to run wide zone from under center than just a straight handoff. The most notable of these is a toss sweep. Since the wide zone is primarily a perimeter run, using toss action makes sense. The Bears do run toss sweep with more conventional sweep blocking (as we'll discuss later) but for now let's take a couple of clips of toss plays blocked with wide zone action. In this clip from the Oklahoma State game, Baylor does something I hate, which is to get in a heavy formation and run the ball when backed up against your own goal line. One of the best things Gus Malzahn did consistently throughout his Auburn tenure was to be aggressive in these situations, knowing the defense would be heavily keying the run and taking a shot downfield against the likely man coverage. However, the Bears opt to run toss sweep here, and the Cowboys' defense is able to string the play out and score a layup.
In this clip from the Iowa State game, Baylor runs a wide zone toss from the I formation. They don't use the I formation much, but when they do, toss is one of their preferred concepts. In this case, late in their game against Iowa State, the Bears have a lead late in the fourth quarter (a crazy idea) and are trying to hold onto the ball and bleed off the rest of the clock. Facing a 3rd and 1, they line up in the I with twins to the right, then run a wide zone toss to the left with the fullback lead blocking. You'll note that this toss play hits in the C gap (off tackle) rather than the D gap (around the end) like a conventional toss. This is similar to the toss power play that Les Miles' LSU offenses used heavily. Iowa State gets defenders to the point of attack, but not in time to prevent the Bears from picking up the first down.
The second way that Jeff Grimes' Baylor offense presents the wide zone play is from an offset alignment in the shotgun. While the offset alignment prevents the use of heavy misdirection and play-action that is available when under center, it does allow the Bears to utilize read option and RPO concepts that they can't run from under center. Baylor doesn't use these concepts heavily, but they are worth examining.
In this clip from the BYU game, Baylor isn't running any type of option, it's just a handoff on a wide zone with the H-back motioning into the backfield to scoop the backside DE (you can see how this motion forces the defensive front to quickly scramble to realign since BYU was playing wider techniques with its DEs against spread formations). One of my quasi-ideological beliefs about football offense is that a straight handoff from the gun is a wasted opportunity, and just inherently less efficient than it would be with a read option or RPO tagged to it. However, there's a reason Jeff Grimes was a Broyles Award finalist last year and I wasn't. Maybe next year. In this case, the BYU MLB is able to come across, fill the gap, and make the tackle, which might be unfamiliar for Auburn fans, but that's what he's supposed to do.
In this clip from the same game, the Bears again motion the H-back into the backfield, but this time, they're running split zone, with the H-back pulling and kicking the backside DE. Again the motion triggers the shift from the BYU defensive line, but this time the back is able to cut back, using the H-back's kickout block, and finds space backside to pick up the first down. This is what's known as a coaching adjustment, where the coaching staff observes a defense's response to one of their base concepts and has a plan to counter it. This is a normal thing that most coaching staffs do, but which Bryan Harsin's incompetent staff is incapable of, which is why we're writing articles about who's going to replace him. One thing to note is that there is some predictability in terms of the backfield alignment; if the H-back is aligned opposite the back, he's either going to lead block on the same side or pull backside on split zone, whereas if he's aligned on the same side as the back, it will almost always be a scoop scheme. Not a tendency that really helps the defense, but one that is identifiable.
Another use of the offset alignment is to run zone read off of the wide zone scheme. This is not something Baylor does very often, since Blake Shapen isn't much of a runner, but if you're going to run zone from the gun, you've got to be willing to let the QB pull it at least once in a while to keep the backside DE honest; you don't need him to be a Cam Newton or Michael Vick level runner, just quick enough to be able to grab five to ten yards when the defense is giving it to you. In this case from the Iowa State game, Baylor aligns in an unbalanced set and motions one of the receivers to the nub side, presumably to act as a lead blocker if the QB pulls the ball. In this case, however, the backside DE stays put, so Shapen hands it off.
Finally, in this clip from later in the same game, the Bears run one of the only RPOs I saw them use in the four games I charted. The Bears are in a 2x2 spread set, which is something they rarely do. Part of the issue for the wide zone scheme from a true 2x2 spread formation is that the only way to account for the backside DE is by reading him. However, Iowa State is showing a tite front here, with nobody aligned on or outside the backside tackle, obviating this problem. The QB is keying the apex/overhang player (in this case, the Sam LB), and will either hand off on wide zone or throw the stick route to the slot receiver if the Sam LB tries to get into the box to stop the run. In this case, Iowa State insists on playing their three safeties like a bunch of cowards, leaving only four defenders in the box, so Shapen hands it off; if my QB had thrown the stick in that situation, he would've been walking back to Texas from Iowa. I hate that three safety shit if you can't tell, so it was really satisfying to watch Baylor just take their lunch money repeatedly.
Grimes' favorite alignment for wide zone, however, seems to be the pistol. This makes some sense given that the back is attacking at a more downhill angle than from the offset position, while also having more time and space to read the blocks and make his cut than he does from under center. You still get the action of the QB turning his back to the defense like you would from under center, which facilitates play-action, but don't really have the read option/RPO opportunities like you do in the offset alignment, so the pistol setup is really more similar to being under center than it is to being in the gun, and the way the Bears run the wide zone from their pistol sets bears that out (no pun intended).
In this clip from the BYU game, we see what's essentially the base version of the play. In this case, they're in a balanced alignment, with one of the tight ends in a Y off alignment. I'm not entirely sure why; if the purpose was to get BYU to unbalance their front, it didn't really work, but they were able to get the play blocked sufficiently to pick up the first down and keep what would eventually become a touchdown drive moving.
This play isn't a great advertisement for the Baylor offense, but it does illustrate one of the potential failure modes of this play (or any zone scheme), and we can extrapolate the logic behind some of the other variations of this concept (and the constraint plays we'll look at in part two) from it. If you watch #41, the middle linebacker, (M on the diagram below), he scrapes over the top of the offensive line, manages to cross the face of the center, and penetrates through the A gap, blowing up the play. This is a cardinal rule for offensive linemen in any zone scheme (including zone pass protection): you never let a defender cross your face to the playside. If that happens, there's going to be an open gap and you're gonna have a bad time, so generally your formation, motion, and post-snap action are designed to prevent it by influencing the LBs to either stay put or move in the wrong direction.
In this case, the idea behind the slot motion here is to get an extra blocker on the playside to take out the corner, but it had the unintended effect of inducing second-level flow in the direction of the play, facilitating the MLB scraping over the top. Or maybe I'm way off base and #63, #41, and the RB just wanted to snuggle. It gets cold up there in the mountains.
In this example from the Iowa State game, Baylor goes back to the principles we discussed above of presenting the defense with an unbalanced line, finding out where they're going to commit their numbers, and then attacking the other side. In the low red zone, Iowa State has been forced to get out of their stupid three safety look and play base defense. They rotate their secondary over to the unbalanced side, leaving Baylor with favorable numbers to the nub side, allowing them to get a hat on a hat and punch it in for a score.
In the last clip we'll look at, from the Oklahoma State game, we see Baylor changing the perimeter blocking scheme to gain leverage on the defense. In this case, they're going to kick out the overhang with the H-back, while the WR is going to come inside and crack the safety. Baylor suspects (correctly) that the safety is responsible for filling that C gap, so the WR's down block ought to seal him inside, which, combined with the kickout block on the overhang, should leave an open gap to run through. The safety comes flying up so hard that the WR actually whiffs on the block, but the safety also runs himself out of the play; the back makes him miss and the gap is wide open for him to pick up a solid gain.
That's it for part one of this article. Hopefully this crash course in the wide zone concept has given you a good idea of the basics behind the scheme and the foundation Jeff Grimes' RVO is working from (and if it hasn't, then God help you). In the second part (which should be up later this week), we'll take a look at some of the concepts that Baylor uses to flesh out their offense, including plays that come directly off of the wide zone action and other plays that take advantage of the defensive reaction to their wide zone series.