Word of Muth
Dive into the details of offensive line play with a former all-PAC-10 left tackle

Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Word of Muth: Inside Zone
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

One week after a suffering a one-sided loss to the Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers came back and beat down the Oakland Raiders. The offensive line was decent if unremarkable, and the Steelers cruised to a 35-3 win. Rather than go into great detail about Sunday's impressive but ultimately dull game against Oakland, I'd like to explore in depth one concept: the Inside Zone. First, a few quick thoughts on Sunday's game:

  • Jonathan Scott is not the answer at left tackle. I understand that you may not be able to get anyone this late in the season. At the very least though, Pittsburgh will need to adjust the scheme to protect Scott, and I'm not sure if the rest of the offensive line can shoulder that responsibility.
  • Chris Kemoeatu did not look healthy, even before he left the game. I think that Pittsburgh would be best served to start the healthiest two of the four guards (Kemoeatu, Trai Essex, Ramon Foster, and Doug Legursky) and let the other guys rest and heal. I haven't seen much difference in the play of any of the four, so they might as well play the guys that are functioning at full capacity.
  • Flozell Adams is nowhere near as washed up as some people are claiming. Having had the benefit of watching Doug Free some this year, I think it was more Free being ready than Adams being done.
  • Maurkice Pouncey played better this week than he did against the Browns despite being banged up.

With that out of the way, we can get to the focus of this week's article. I'm going to break down the basic Inside Zone concept versus the most common defensive front. Note I said concept, not play. There are a bunch of different plays off this concept -- too many to mention -- but we can get the broad strokes of what most of them try to accomplish. For the purpose of the article, the play described will always be a single-back formation, with a single tight end lined up to the right. Also, the play will always go to the right as I'm describing it.

A 4-3 over defense is a 4-3 defense (four down linemen, three linebackers) with the two defensive tackles shaded towards the strength. This means you have a backside nose tackle, and a strong-side three-technique. We'll start outside with the play-side tackle and tight end (wide receivers won't be discussed because they never block anybody anyway). The tackle and tight end are going to double-team the defensive end up to the Sam (strongside) linebacker. This is a block that should get some vertical movement.

The key is for both guys to be able to block the down linemen while looking at the linebacker. If you can do that, you'll be able to stay on the double team for much longer, before someone peels off for the linebacker. In an Over defense, either the defensive end or the linebacker usually will have outside contain. If it's the defensive end, he will fight hard to get across the tight end's face and maintain his leverage. That means the linebacker will be free to shoot a gap and try to blow the play up in the backfield.

Once the tackle feels that defensive end really fight outside, he needs to be ready to come off and pick up the Sam at any time. If the Sam linebacker has contain, the block actually gets easier. That's because the Sam is forced to sort of slow-play the run. He can't shoot any gaps, because of the possibility the running back could bounce it outside. Since the Sam has to wait to see where the running back goes, the offensive players can stay on the double team for a long time and drive the defensive end into the linebackers' lap.

Figure 1: Inside Zone

The right guard has the hardest and most critical block of the play. He has to stick his helmet on the outside number of the three-technique and move him somewhere (whether it's off the line of scrimmage or wide doesn't really matter). Simply put, he has to win. This may be the most common running play in football, and the 4-3 Over is the most common defense. This matchup is why Steve Hutchinson and Albert Haynesworth got such lucrative contracts. If you have a guard that can control a three-technique by himself, if you can gain a lot of yards on this play. If you have a three-technique that has to be double-teamed, it's going to be tough to run the Inside Zone.

There really isn't much finesse to this block either. When I was in school, a younger player asked which techniquehe should use. My offensive line coach got a slight grin and said "GATA technique. Get After That Ass. It's the only way to do it." Hilarious coach-speak aside, he was right. This isn't a technique block, it's a power block.

The center and the left guard have a block that is probably just as crucial but gets a little less love because there are two of them. They have to double-team the nose tackle to the Mike (middle) linebacker. Except in goal line situations, you never straight double-team a guy, you always are also working to a linebacker. This is another block where you would like vertical movement, but with some of these 330-pound nose tackles, that isn't likely. If you have a bigger guy, often you just want to get him to start moving on his own. Once he gets going, you push him as hard as you can in that direction -- and hold the crap out of him inside. The nice thing about those really big nose tackles is that they have a hard time stopping and changing direction once they get going. Of course, you still have the Mike linebacker to worry about.

The running back is the key to getting the Mike linebacker blocked. It's up to the him to press into the line of scrimmage as deep as possible and not make his cut until the last moment. If he does this, the Mike should get caught in the double team, or in the mess of his own defenders. Of course, the running back can't press the line if there is any penetration. That's why it's important all offensive linemen keep their opponents on the line of scrimmage.

The backside tackle has the easiest block on the play. His job is to go straight up and block the Will (weakside) linebacker. Once he gets there, he wants to put his facemask right between the guy's numbers, because the offensive tackle will have no idea where the running back has decided to run by this point. His best bet is to cover his man and move his feet when the linebacker tries to escape.

It's important that he's is very deliberate in his movements to get there, however. He doesn't want to be in too big of a hurry to get there -- if the backside defensive end does crash across his face on a stunt, it is his responsibility to wash him down as far as he can to create a cutback lane. This is actually where a lot of big inside zone runs come from. The defensive end crashes down, and the tackle washes him way down across the formation. The blitzing linebacker is blitzing outside where the defensive end was originally lined up, and now there is a huge crease for the running back to cut back.

The observant among you may notice that the backside defensive end is not blocked unless there is a stunt. Well, there are a couple of ways to deal with this. First, you can use a slice concept. That means either have a fullback, a second play-side tight end, or, in hours of extreme desperation, a wide receiver hold off the backside defensive end. Or you can just line up in a two tight end set and have the backside tight end block him. And finally, there is always the bootleg. Whether you throw out of it or you have mobile QB who can keep it, if you boot out enough it will keep d-ends honest -- and out of the play. In college, you just run the zone read.

That's the basic blocking scheme of the play. The genius of the play is that you get two double teams, and it forces the defense to be extremely disciplined in their run fits. All it takes is for one defender to lose gap control, and the running back can hit it for a big gain. It's a scheme that is really simple to install and run against any front, but it is incredibly difficult to contain. Unless you got a war daddy at three-technique, in which case, it's good to be a defensive coordinator.


18 comments, Last at 02 Dec 2010, 9:20am

1 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Another good article, I'd really like to see more of these. Maybe in the off-season when there aren't any games to write about.

I'm curious why this play is "Inside Zone" when it seems the OL all have specific man blocking assignments.

4 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Yes, yes, yes. I have been reading a few coaching books lately and whilst they can be very informative they tend to be for high school and lowly college level. Rarely do you find good explanations of how running plays work at the NFL level. A comprehensive library of articles by Mr Muth detailing how standard NFL run plays and schemes work would be amazing for a fan like me.

As for the name 'inside zone', the back doesn't have a specific lane to rush through (ie right side A gap or left side C gap) instead they read the defenders and can choose where to take the play. I wouldn't get too caught up in the nomenclature but generally zone plays use the double teams to control D-linemen and then peel one blocker off to close off a second level defender.

15 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

They seem to have man assignments only because of the contrived nature of the article; Muth has put a specific defensive front up. Of course with man or zone you'll see different blocking assignment with different defensive behavior, but the elements of this would be clear. Notice, both double teams are blocks to the zone. The blocker taking the Sam is going to depend on which gap he and the DE pick. They're starting double team, but really they have gap responsibility.

2 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Questions for Ben, or anyone else:

1)Does the C or LG peel off to get the Mike, or does that usually depend on personnel? Chris K is kind of a bull in a china shop, and Pouncey has shown to be a little more nimble, so I assume Pouncey is the one who take the LB.

2)How did the Steelers manage this with a gaping hole of suck at RG? Did Foster step up this week and win some 1 on 1 battles?

3)How is this play different with an H or full back?

Thanks for the great articles

5 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

1) It depends on which lineman has the best chance of maintaining the initial block and who has the best chance to get to the Mike. Obviously the job of the defender is to either try to beat the block entirely or (more likely) to try to stop the blockers getting off him and into the Mike.

3) As Ben explained a blocking back gives you a seventh man which allows you to kick out the backside DE. The strongside should already be blocked. Maybe picking up a blitzing safety would be another use. The diagram is a six man blocking scheme against a seven man front so you would either have an uncovered WR or be able to see clearly that the defense has only one safety deep. Or you can get an extra blocker.

14 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

2) They played the Raiders. I guess that helped.

Sorry, cheap, couldn't resist. I know the Raiders aren't actually bad now. Well, not *as* bad anyway.

I suspect if you weren't worried about the NT but more about the 3 you could probably let the LG take the NT one on one and the the C take the inside of the 3 before moving out to the MLB. Or you could just run the play to the left so that the RG is essentially the LG and double teams the NT with the C. That would presumably leave the C more likely to be the guy jumping out on the MLB and have the RG just holding onto the NT until the runner got by.

This was a great article btw. Can you sort out the yardage markings on the diagrams though? The RB appears to be set about 16 yards back from the line.... Its a recurring problem, so I'm guessing O-linemen don't pay attention to the markings on the floor though, just to beating the crap out of the guy infront of them.

3 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

"wide receivers won't be discussed because they never block anybody anyway"

Somewhere, Hines Ward read that and was so angry that he drowned a kitten.

Good article though: the Word of Muth series has been great for explaining the nuances of O-line play.

6 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Yeah, I thought it was a bit amusing that those shots were in a piece that highlighted the one team with a receiver known more for his blocking than his receiving skills. That said, I can see why a former OL might show disdain for the blocking abilities and efforts of receivers.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

I can understand the jab at receivers, since they block corners and safeties so who cares.
Take an outside route and they're with their backs to the play anyway. I did that vs stupid DBs.

But Ward routinely goes in motion to block the backside defender. So "Ward being the best blocking receiver" is not so much about blocking the corner in front of you, but more about going in motion and actually take part of the runningplay and take out a linebacker or, when the play is poorly designed or the defense is not what you expected, an end.

11 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Ward isn't the only receiver in the league who's asked to block front-7 players. Heck, Santana Moss has been assigned backside defenders several times this year. Now, the Steelers do that with Ward far more frequently than most teams ... but that's because of his ability.

I do agree that they're asked to do far, far less on run plays than everyone but the QB.

12 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Yes, Hines Ward is a beast. There are other wideouts that are good blockers too, Vincent Jackson, Andre Johnson, Greg Camarillo, and Steve Smith (Giants) all stand out off the top of my head. That being said, it would take a lot longer to list wideouts that don't block.

13 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Not sure of the likelihood of this since you have already selected several teams to focus on, but I'd love to read your analysis on the pass protection schemes of a team like the Patriots or Chargers. Basically, any team where the QB gets a lot of time to stand in the pocket as routes develop (Brady always seems to have boatloads of time).

16 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Reads much more like a description of an IZ play used by the Steelers than an actual explanation of the concepts or scheme used. The point of zone is that the assignment is essentially the same whatever the front and the seams for the back also adjust accordingly. What we've got above reads more like a listing of man assignments which you can see clear enough on the diagram.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Inside Zone

Why can't the strong side G & T combo the 3 tech. up to Sam and leave the DE for the TE?