Word of Muth: Houston's Zone Stretch

Word of Muth: Houston's Zone Stretch
Word of Muth: Houston's Zone Stretch
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The votes are in, and the Houston Texans edged out the Denver Broncos in last week’s poll for which team I'll add to coverage in Word of Muth. Since I’m playing catchup with the Texans, I’ll probably write about them two weeks in a row. For this first Houston column, I watched the Texans’ last two games (against Cincinnati and Atlanta) as well as Matt Schaub’s final game (versus Tampa Bay) to see how much the Texans have changed their protections with T.J. Yates under center. Not much changed, actually, though they are using max protect a little more often. After three games, it is safe to say that I am a fan of Houston’s offensive line.

First, let’s talk a little bit about the personnel. The player that stood out most to me was right tackle Eric Winston. He really fits the scheme, and that shows how a good right tackle can be just as valuable as a good left tackle. Winston excels in the stretch running game, particularly on the front side. He always has his helmet in the right spot, and does a good job of getting movement both vertically and horizontally. He also has the ability to knock defenders onto his tight end and move up to the second level in combo blocks.

In the passing game, Winston isn’t as good, but he’s more than serviceable. He tends to lean a little bit, as opposed to sitting back and playing with separation, but he’s a good enough athlete to overcome this most of the time. Overall, he’s one of the best right tackles in the NFL.

Opposite Winston, on the left side, is Duane Brown. He compliments his fellow bookend well in the sense that he’s a strong pass blocker. The thing he does best is move his feet in the passing game -- he has a nice change of direction to him. He struggles a little bit in the running game, particularly when the Texans run right behind him, but he’s good on the backside, and good in space. This allows Houston to pull him, as well as run some tosses and designed bounce plays to his side. It gives the defense a different look.

As far as the interior guys go, I’d say the unit is more than the sum of its parts. They all work really well together in double teams, but what stood out to me was how great they are on combo blocks. A combo block is when two offensive linemen start out blocking the same defensive lineman, and then one leaves to block a linebacker. Houston does a really nice job of making sure that the backside blocker on the combo block is always able to get his head in front of the down lineman. If I had to pick a favorite of the three, I’d probably go with Chris Myers since he seems to make the most positive plays, but all of them are solid.

The personnel is good, but Houston's success is more a case of five solid players complimenting each other and a scheme matched perfectly than it is individual talent. The Texans bread-and-butter scheme is the zone stretch running game. So much of what Houston does (the naked bootlegs, the half-roll throwbacks, the tight end crossing routes) plays off of this scheme. Houston does three things incredibly well up front in the zone stretch game:

  • 1) Stretch the edge
  • 2) Win the double team
  • 3) Handle the backside

I’m sure most people reading this article remember the controversy surrounding the Terrell Davis-era Broncos and their cut blocks (or chop blocks, if you’re a defensive coordinator). Those were mostly on the backside of zone stretch plays, and were incredibly effective in cutting off the backside pursuit. The thing the Broncos used to do is have the lead man of a double team "post" (basically stiff arm) on the way up to a linebacker, then have the trailer come in behind to cut block the defender. This used to be legal, because the the first lineman wasn’t actively engaging the defender -- he was just leaving his arm out there to prevent getting held by a defender. In recent years, the NFL has cracked down on these blocks, making it illegal to cut block any engaged defender. That means that there are a lot fewer cut blocks in today’s game.

You'll still see them though, and Houston does it more than most teams. Now, though, they cut block more to keep the backside defenders honest, as opposed to relying on the technique almost entirely. Instead of throwing 30 cuts a game, the backside players have to be able to rip through and get their head to the defender's play side numbers. That’s the ideal result, anyway -- it doesn’t always happen, especially if there isn’t a combination blocker to help slow the defender. If a backside lineman is by himself with a player matched up inside him, he has to find another way to block him, and that’s where you’ll still see cut blocks.

If a backside lineman can get his head in the right place and mix in a few cut blocks, he's going to be successful on the backside. You don’t need to kill people on the backside -- you really need to just stay engaged, not get driven back into the line of scrimmage, and run your feet at the end of the block. If someone can do that, the running back will be able to run through arm tackles on the front side or cut it all the way back out to the back end. Giving a runner that choice is what the play is all about.

Somewhere on the front side of the play, there will be a double team. It doesn’t really matter if it’s between the center and guard, the guard and tackle, or the tackle and tight end. What matters is that the double team either gets a clean reach on the defender you're double-teaming, or that they knock him off the ball a couple of yards. Basically, this is going to be the seam that back is going to press -- once the runner gets the hand off, he has to attack the line at a certain point. Unless there is an immediate hook on the edge defender, the back is going to run at the play side double team, since that’s where you should be the strongest.

If they get a clean reach, the hole the running back presses is much wider, because every defender taking on a single block is widening themselves to maintain their gap. When the guy getting double-teamed gets reached, it means the defense now has a gap unaccounted for, and it looks worse because every other gap is three yards wider than it was initially. That means the ball carrier can recognize the hole quicker, and has room to make someone miss.

If they can’t reach the defender, but can drive him back, it creates a different kind of advantage. By knocking the defender off the ball, it allows the back to press the hole deeper, he may even get past the line of scrimmage before he has to make a cut. That puts the linebackers in a bad position, because now they have to attack the hole to fill it. Once the running back does make his cut, they can’t react -- either they get picked up by an offensive lineman, or, just as commonly, run into their own man. They get sucked up into all the muck, and can’t get out. By knocking the double-teamed defender back, you allow the ball carrier to direct where the linebackers fill.

Finally, there’s stretching the edge. This mainly comes down to the tight end, although the tackle (either on a weak side play or as part of a double team) can be responsible as well. Here, all you want is to get the edge defender two or three yards wider than where he starts while not getting driven too far back behind the line of scrimmage. You do this by threatening the defender's edge, sticking your helmet outside his numbers, and then throwing him outside when he tries to get back to his gap.

Both Texans tight ends do a pretty good job of this (though Joel Dreessen is certainly better), and Winston is even better than the tight ends. This is probably the thing Brown struggles with most, since he tends to get knocked too far into the backfield, making the running back cut back too soon. The reason the Texans are able to stretch the edge consistently is that both Arian Foster and Ben Tate do a good job of recognizing when they can bounce it outside.

Eventually, a defender is going to just stop trying to fight outside if you’re cutting back inside of him all day, or if the defender sees you do this on film a lot. The good news is that if the defender does peek his head inside, and the back bounces it outside, he’s now one-on-one with a corner who doesn’t want to tackle him, and you have the potential for a huge play. It only takes one of those a game to keep defenders honest and keep the train rolling.

That’s really the zone stretch game in a nutshell. It’s designed to gain consistent yardage in small chunks early in the game, then as the game goes along, big plays start to open up. Maybe the backside guys start to get tired from a couple of cut blocks and allow a big cut block lane, or maybe the edge defender is tired of seeing the ball run up inside him for three quarters and tries to make a play, only to lose contain. By simply covering up defenders and allowing a back the freedom to run wherever he wants, you put a ton of pressure on the defense, and eventually the cracks will show.

Next week I’ll probably draw up a couple of specific types of zone stretch plays -- some combo of weak, BOSS, release, force, and search. But I wanted to talk about the basic principles of the scheme first, so I’ll see you here next week, with pictures.


35 comments, Last at 16 Dec 2011, 2:08pm

#1 by Braveland (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 12:40pm

Solid article - looking forward to next week's follow-up. What you report makes sense, given the continuity of the Texan's offensive success amidst the swirl of QB changes.

Allow me to put in an early request for next year's line selection - Green Bay Packers. Although a pass-heavy offense, they do perform in the run game when they choose to run it. Ryan Grant's 1st quarter TD is classic example of what you report above - Grant was able to press the line and delay his cut while the Raiders LB McClain had to pick a gap on either side of the DT who had been knocked back. As McClain shot the inside gap, as has been quoted, "he chose poorly" and Grant was outside and off to the races.

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#11 by Karl Cuba // Dec 15, 2011 - 2:26pm

We certainly haven't heard enough about the Packers round here...

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#2 by Adam R. (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 12:41pm

Well done. I've been watching the Texans run this scheme for years and never understood it as well as I do now.

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#3 by Mr Shush // Dec 15, 2011 - 12:43pm

"He struggles a little bit in the running game, particularly when the Texans run right behind him, but he’s good on the backside, and good in space."

That definitely meshes with my perception of Brown, watching with far less expert eyes but over a lot more games. He's not going to overpower a defensive lineman blocking straight ahead, but get him out in front of a screen or draw and he can do some serious damage. Arian Foster's elusiveness is the biggest reason the Texans are such a threat on screen and draw plays, but Brown is definitely second.

Also, yay! Texans coverage! Thank you!

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#28 by Trust Doesn't Rust (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 9:27pm

Against the Bengals, Texans ran a killer called QB run to Duane Brown's side (which was also the weakside on the play) on a 3rd and 4 or 5 that resulted in a 15 yard gain. The play worked so well because (aside from the unexpected call) Brown did an awesome job pulling out on the edge and cleared a gigantic path for Yates. I wouldn't be surprised to see Kubiak resurrect this play during the playoffs, probably in a key short yardage situation.

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#32 by Mr Shush // Dec 16, 2011 - 5:48am

3-4-HOU 48 (:25) (Shotgun) 13-T.Yates left end to CIN 40 for 12 yards (42-C.Crocker).

Yeah, that was a nice play. Yates is probably the most mobile quarterback the Texans have ever had, and I'd expect to see a lot more designed QB runs than they'd ever have considered with Schaub (like one a game instead of one a season). Of course, the drive kept alive by that play ended with one which illustrated how Yates managed to end up with negative rushing yardage his senior year despite his running ability - a good ol' mega-fumblesack.

But yes, for me that was a very good illustration of what Brown does best. He's quietly been the third best member of that incredible 2008 tackle class, and one of the forgotten standout picks of the Kubiak/Smith regime. The trade down with the Ravens (who moved up for Flacco) also netted the pick which became Steve Slaton. I'd call that a win-win, really.

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#4 by ammek // Dec 15, 2011 - 1:02pm

Very interesting. I'm glad you chose the Texans — they run a very identifiable scheme, and run it well. Ideal subject matter for WoM.

How exactly do "the naked bootlegs, the half-roll throwbacks, the tight end crossing routes" play off the zone stretch?

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#6 by Jimmy // Dec 15, 2011 - 1:11pm

My guess would be because they all screw with gap integrity. Six guys win thier gap and one guy chases the QB and you have given up a big play on the ground.

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#7 by Ben Muth // Dec 15, 2011 - 1:11pm

The naked's and half roll outs all have the exact same backfield motion as the zone stretch. Plus the line up front can sell these plays harder than you can a typical Power play, because no one pulls. Also it helps that it's more of a finesse and balance block than other running plays so you are in a better position to pass block after faking the run. The TEs get much better releases on crossing patterns because their take off looks exactly like they are on the backside of a zone stretch, so if there's even a token play fake the can get behind the LBs quickly.

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#5 by Peregrine // Dec 15, 2011 - 1:05pm

This is the Mike Shanahan / Alex Gibbs run-game system that Denver featured in the late 90s, and I don't think anyone's stopped it yet. The Falcons ran for big yardage using it under Jim Mora (with Greg Knapp as OC and Alex Gibbs as line coach) and Kubiak (Shanahan's top assistant) brought it to Houston.

It is beautiful to watch when it gets rolling. As a Falcons fan, it was sort of like old times watching Falcons-Texans a couple weeks ago, but from the other side. Nobody has run like that on the Falcons all season and only a handful of times in the almost four years since Mike Smith took over.

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#12 by Mr Shush // Dec 15, 2011 - 2:29pm

Interestingly, the Texans didn't fully implement it until 2008, two years into Kubiak's time in charge, when Mike Sherman (previously the AHC/offense then offensive co-ordinator) left to take over at Texas A&M and Alex Gibbs arrived. Before that they kind of tried to mesh Sherman's run offense with Kubiak's pass offense, and the results were so-so. It really took off last year, with the combination of Rick Dennison's arrival from Denver as OC and the emergence of Foster. Dennison is a truly, truly superb offensive line coach.

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#17 by deflated (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 4:26pm

As a Denver fan there is a lot to dislike about McDaniels time as HC but running Dennison out of town is the one that is toughest to swallow. Okay, maybe losing Dennison is 1A behind the bizarro drafting but the man knows how to put together a grand running game.

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#14 by bravehoptoad // Dec 15, 2011 - 3:28pm

It makes me hope the Texans play the 49ers at some point (which would have to be a rather important game in February). It would be cool to see how the Shanahan/Gibbs blocking scheme worked against one of the best run defenses ever.

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#20 by Vincent Verhei // Dec 15, 2011 - 6:27pm

It would be cool to see how the Shanahan/Gibbs blocking scheme worked against one of the best run defenses ever.

Thank you for pointing this out to me, I did not realize it.

All defenses -30% or better against run since 1992:

2000 BAL, -40.6%
1998 SD, -37.3%
2011 SF, -34.4% (through Week 14)
1995 KC, -31.6%
1999 SD, -31.4%
2006 MIN, -31.1%
2000 TEN, -30.9%
2000 SD, -30.3%

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#21 by Karl Cuba // Dec 15, 2011 - 6:49pm

Look at that SD run defense from 1998-2000, Jamal Williams was just beginning to play then so I doubt it was him but I can't remember who else played on that defense.

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#25 by Karl Cuba // Dec 15, 2011 - 8:38pm

I knew that but who else? There must have been quite a few good run defenders to achieve that.

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#29 by Vincent Verhei // Dec 15, 2011 - 10:19pm

He's the big one, I think. We have individual defense numbers for that era, and if I remember right he was tops among safeties in stops and defeats most of those years.

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#30 by Shattenjager // Dec 16, 2011 - 2:03am

I'm glad to hear that. Rodney Harrison in San Diego always seemed to me to be an absolute monster--it was like they had their own Steve Atwater,* which was totally unfair.

*Note: Yes, I realize no one else on the planet, including Atwater's mother, thinks he was that good.

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#24 by bravehoptoad // Dec 15, 2011 - 7:56pm

It's one of the cooler records in danger of being broken: the 1920 Decatur Staleys' record of not allowing a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games of the season.

The biggest challenge to the 49ers making it 16 in a row is likely to come next Monday, with the Pittsburgh Steelers rushing attack ranking 10th.

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#34 by Aaron Brooks G… // Dec 16, 2011 - 2:05pm

The Akron Pros also did not allow a rushing TD in 1920. (Impressive, especially when to pass for a TD you'd have to throw this: http://www.profootballhof.com/UserFiles/image/1920s-630px.jpg) I'm pretty sure their 7 points allowed on the season is a record as well.

First team with a black QB, too.

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#8 by DFields (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 1:58pm

Granted, I don't watch a lot of Texans games, but the Ravens have started to implement stretch zone schemes in their offense. From watching some games, I've noticed a trend that they tend to have Vonte Leach, the FB, block to the opposite side of the run on play-action plays.

I think they do this to protect Flacco when he bootlegs, but watching at home, I'm hoping the other team doesn't notice in time haha.

I'd like to see how Houston implements Vickers into their blocking schemes, especially in play-action fakes. Do they completely commit to run blocking and leave the QB naked, implement similar tactics as the Ravens, or pull an additional OL/TE to protect the backside. Also, it would be nice to see the strengths and weaknesses of each tactic in a play-action play out of the zone stretch and how well they do in disguising the play.

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#9 by DFields (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 2:11pm

I meant commit an extra blocker to block the backside, not pull.

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#13 by Mr Shush // Dec 15, 2011 - 2:53pm

When the Texans run the PA bootleg stuff they like to use to take deep shots, they generally leave the quarterback naked. Someone might leak out into the flat in front of him as a checkdown option, but he won't have a blocker.

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#15 by DFields (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 3:40pm

Thanks Mr Shush.

Also, am I the only one who finds it backwards that Brown and Smith are considered finesse players even though they're the two bigger starting linemen? I guess zone blocking is really for the small scrappy guy.

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#22 by Mr Shush // Dec 15, 2011 - 7:29pm

Well, on the one hand they're heavier than the other guys on the Texans line. On the other hand, they're still not especially big by the standards of NFL offensive linemen. And despite Brown being 20 pounds heavier than Winston, Brown is quicker and Winston is more powerful in line. Go figure.

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#10 by Independent George // Dec 15, 2011 - 2:23pm

Thank you for this - that was a very informative article.

You know what I want for an April Fools' Day present? Ben Muth doing an analysis of the blocking in Madden.

"The offensive tackle's job is to let the DE come through to the backfield so he can block the safety running to the other side of the field. This way, the unobstructed defender can get sucked into the gravitational pull of the guard, allowing the RB to run free despite having nobody between him and the defender. Meanwhile, the TE manages blocks the MLB and SLB by running in place. Fortunately for the defense, the RB get trapped between his FB and his incredibly slow pulling guard, and the CB stuffs him for a 4-yard loss."

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#31 by t-dub (not verified) // Dec 16, 2011 - 3:31am

Do yourself a favor & get NCAA Football instead, much better gameplay & less of the weirdness you describe. Pretty much buries any of the recent recycled versions of Madden IMHO.

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#35 by Aaron Brooks G… // Dec 16, 2011 - 2:08pm

Be aware that every LB in NCAA 2012 is approximately 7ft tall with a 56" vertical. Throwing a deep seam to a TE is basically a futile gesture.

However, PA passes work again this year, when in 2011 they were an insta-sack.

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#16 by hpschmidt (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 4:21pm

What does get wider mean? Does it mean run east west toward the ball or away from the ball or is there some other standard with which to measure getting "wider"

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#19 by mebaits (not verified) // Dec 15, 2011 - 6:15pm

Thanks for a great article about a great team. Next man up!

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#33 by Uncle Rico (not verified) // Dec 16, 2011 - 9:56am

Great article. I really enjoy these. Maybe this is something for your next mailbag but I'm curious about the differences in linebuilding around the league when it comes to zone blocking. I know some teams are of the Gibbs mold, with smaller more athletic guys. Houston, Seattle, ect. But there are some teams that run it with immobile fatties inside like Pittsburgh. Tho I think they run mostly inside zone, and little stretching. Saving the outside/off tackle for power. Then the Indy teams from a few years back seem to like big tackles and a small interior. I think every team runs a form of zone, but it doesn't all look the same. What's the thought that goes into what a coach wants his line to look like and execute?

Also, as the Steelers learned week one, cut blocks are actually legal. As long as they involve two adjacent players, ie G/C. Can't be one player removed from the formation, ie T/C, G/G, or RB/OL ect. That's why you rarely see it called, and when it does it's usually a RB going low on an engaged defender in pass pro. Seldom see it called in the running game.

And, it seems like there's much more zone blocking today than before. If so, do you think that's more attributable to the proliferation of spread in college ball, or because many more defenses are using a 34 than a decade ago?

It seems that 34s are adjusting by going to more one-gap than two, and trying to get inside penetration to cut the field in half and take the backside away.

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