Word of Muth: Church of the Outside Zone

Word of Muth: Church of the Outside Zone
Word of Muth: Church of the Outside Zone
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Ben Muth

The zone stretch is a concept that this column has focused on since the very first Word of Muth about the 2010 Week 1 Redskins-Cowboys matchup. It’s probably the most famous run concept since the counter-trey, and more importantly it’s my favorite running play. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, no NFL running play can match a perfectly-executed zone stretch when it is cut back. A perfect under-center triple option is as pretty, but no one runs it at the pro level.

Because of this, I have tried to indoctrinate all readers of the column into the church of outside zone, preaching the fundamentals of the play whenever I can. Helmets outside, press the edge, stretch the end, reach the playside tackle, and chop on the backside. In three years I’ve probably talked about the zone stretch more than any other play -- the one possible challenger is half-slide protection -- so imagine my disappointment when someone posted a video recently that will teach you more about the zone stretch in eight minutes than I have in 30,000 words.

This is Alex Gibbs coaching over a cutup tape. Watch the whole thing. Preferably while eating one of those giant renaissance fair turkey legs and drinking a nice, cold Budweiser. This video is better than anything I will ever write, so rather than try to one-up Alex Gibbs coaching ball, I’ll talk about my three most important takeaways from the video.

Sometimes you have to make the decision for the runner, even an MVP. (:02-:50)

Most people reading this column have heard the term "one-cut runner." Usually that term is meant to apply to running backs in an outside zone-based scheme. The idea is for the runner to aim for the outside shoulder of the tight end as he makes his reads in the backfield, then when he sees the hole, make exactly one cut to get to and through the hole.

Terrell Davis is still the standard bearer for one-cut runners to this day because of his work in Denver. Every 1990's football fan has the image of Davis planting his outside foot and bursting through the line of scrimmage sealed in his mind. It happened roughly 38 times a game because Davis was incredible at reading this play, but he had a lot of help from his offensive line.

The Broncos are running an outside zone (obviously) and the Bengals are running a 3-4 defense with a 4I-technique linebacker (inside shade of the offensive tackle) over the Denver playside tackle. At the snap the 4I is moving outside, but not very decisively; he’s content to hold the B gap. This should give Davis an off-tackle read. If Davis ran off-tackle, the left guard would have a hard time getting to the playside inside linebacker -- the defensive end is blocking his path -- but he would also have hard time reaching the 4I. So the left guard does a little problem solving and simply moves the defensive end out of his way.

Davis sees a ton of color off tackle and knows he has to cut inside of the left tackle's block. When Davis plants his foot in the ground, the inside linebacker has to try to get back inside to plug the B gap. (That's where the end should be, but he got knocked out of it.) The inside linebacker runs right into the left guard, who is simply waiting for him. This is literally how you draw it up on the white board. That is how an offensive lineman can actually choose a hole for the running back.

[ad placeholder 3]

It doesn’t factor into the play at all, but the backside cut by the right tackle is truly a thing of beauty. The right tackle doesn’t get a great first step -- he doesn’t lose any ground, but he also doesn’t gain any -- and everything after that is textbook. The tackle never raises his pad level, turns his hips, and runs as low as he can until he makes contact with the 3-technique’s playside leg.

A good cut block should be deep down the line, and here the right tackle travels three or four yards towards the center before exploding into the defender. This accomplishes two things. First, it gives the lineman more time to build momentum to fire at the defenders legs. Second, the defender will play higher the longer the tackle waits, and the higher the defender is, the more difficult it will be for him to play the cut. Here, you can tell that the right tackle is generating plenty of pop because the three technique’s legs end up over his head. Gorgeous.

The three-man combination of the tight end, left tackle, and left guard looked great (1:50-2:25)

One of the most popular questions I get from hardcore football fans is "Why doesn’t (Team X) run Outside Zone? (Fast Running Back Z) would be perfect for that system!" The answer can be shown through the three-man combination block the Broncos unleash on the Bills when Buffalo tries to run a twist up front.

The Bills are trying to run a "Dick’Em" stunt against the zone stretch. (A "Dick'Em" stunt is a stunt designed to mess up a specific play or protection.) Buffalo is hoping that the tight end will get locked on his man and follow him inside just a shade too far, opening up the outside linebacker to loop through the B gap. The running back will get an automatic bounce read when that outside linebacker crashes, so if the tight end overcommits outside and can’t get back to the inside linebacker scraping over the top, the inside linebacker has an easy play. It’s an effective stunt to stop the outside zone.

But the tight end doesn’t overcommit. He feels the stunt developing, and after banging the defensive end back to the offensive tackle, he climbs in plenty of time to secure the inside linebacker. Working together in combination to pass off these types of stunts is exactly what zone blocking was designed to do. So we arrive back at the question: "Why doesn’t my favorite team run the stretch?"

The answer is this quote from Gibbs during the play: "I know a lot of you are saying that you can’t just fall into that, well, you don’t." Gibbs is anticipating that the other coaches he’s speaking to feel that their guys can’t block like the late-90’s Denver Broncos. And they are right.

[ad placeholder 4]

This type of combination blocking takes a ton of practice time to pull off in game situations. If you want to run the zone stretch -- and I mean really run it worth a crap -- you probably need to devote around 65 percent of your individual offensive line practice time and 70 percent of your scripted runs in team drills to it. It’s a huge time investment.

On top of that, even when you invest the time and get decent at blocking it, it looks like crap in practice because you can’t cut on the backside. This makes everything look cluttered, and the running back never gets to see a clean cutback lane. That means the back never trusts the play in practice.

So, the reason more teams don’t run the play is because it takes an incredible amount of time, patience, and faith before you get to the point where you can really block and run it well. I think most coaches have tinkered with it in an offseason, but tinkering is not the same thing as focusing on it. They end up dumping it when it proves to be ugly in training camp and the two times they try it in the preseason. It’s not a play you can toe-dip into: you have to cannonball straight into the deep end, and most coaches just aren’t willing to do that.

"We don’t block corners, we block safeties. We make corners tackle. They’re as shitty as tacklers in our league as they are in yours." (6:40-6:50)

There are so many great quotes in these eight minutes, and the whole video just furthers my theory that offensive line coaches are the modern day version of a crusty sea captain. This is my favorite quote. I assume this is from a coaches clinic, which means he’s talking to a group of high school and college coaches. Their league could very well be a JV football conference in Alaska, and Alex Gibbs still knows that the cornerbacks can’t or don’t want to tackle anyone. Brilliant football mind.

So I’ll leave you with this. If you learn just two things from this column, let them be: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" and "We don’t block corners, we block safeties. We make corners tackle. They’re as shitty as tacklers in our league as they are in yours." The rest of it is just details.


23 comments, Last at 07 Jul 2013, 11:26am

#1 by Karl Cuba // Jun 14, 2013 - 1:50pm

Ignore this post, the disappeared pictures have appeared. Blasted internet gremlins.

Points: 0

#2 by rbc (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:05pm

Excellent analysis (as always). I learn more from these columns than from any SIX columns on any other web site. I think I now understand better just why it takes offensive lineman (and running backs) so much practice time in order to LEARN the zone blocking scheme. And the take-away quote ("We don't tackle cornerbacks ...") is priceless.

By the way, if anyone's interested in another look at the outside zone, a recent blog entry on a Seahawks web site does a good job of showing (with pictures) how an play looks from the running back's point of view -- in this case, Marshawn Lynch versus the 49ers.


Points: 0

#3 by rbc (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:09pm

Um, make that "We don't block cornerbacks ..." Though it's probably best not to tackle them, either.


Points: 0

#9 by Karl Cuba // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:55pm

I like that breakdown of that run by Lynch I especially love how the last three or four images show the blatant hold on Aldon Smith with an extended arm grabbing round the outside of his pads that really should have been called;-)

The analysis of the run is very good though.

Points: 0

#4 by SeahawksMatt (not verified) // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:18pm

Awesome video and discussion. Very informative, and Gibbs also makes a variety of hilarious comments. Your likening him to a crusty old sea captain is dead-on.

Points: 0

#5 by theslothook // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:22pm

We all owe Karl a raised glass, I think he linked this video to Ben.

Points: 0

#10 by Karl Cuba // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:57pm

Smart Football tweeted it, I just posted it because I thought folks would appreciate it. Smart Football is a good follow if you aren't following already.

Points: 0

#6 by theslothook // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:30pm

I can't help but think these cut blocks really are dangerous to defensive linemen. I keep hearing Rod woodson in my head as I was reading this.

Points: 0

#7 by theslothook // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:30pm

I can't help but think these cut blocks really are dangerous to defensive linemen. I keep hearing Rod woodson in my head as I was reading this.

Points: 0

#13 by Aaron Brooks G… // Jun 14, 2013 - 3:49pm

It makes me feel a lot less sorry for O-linemen who get rolled up on by defensive linemen making a tackle behind them. I sort of understand why Deacon just clubbed them in the head with a cast.

Points: 0

#8 by Nathan // Jun 14, 2013 - 2:47pm

Cool video but really just seeing them over and over confirms that cut blocks are fucked up and should be banned.

Points: 0

#11 by Karl Cuba // Jun 14, 2013 - 3:01pm

To you and hooky: Couldn't agree more, the back side of every run is like watching guys running off the boats at the start of Saving Private Ryan. No surprise that they were accused of being dirty and that they boycotted the media.

Terrell Davis is fun to watch though, that's what it should look like.

A question for Ben Muth, do you have any sympathy for the defensive linemen when they're getting scythed down like that?

Points: 0

#12 by Ben Muth // Jun 14, 2013 - 3:15pm

One thing that really stood out to me was how bad these d-linemen were at playing cuts. D-linemen today are much better at playing off cut blocks.

I think the current cutblock rules are fine. The plays that make me squirm are the ones where o-linemen go into the backs of defenders legs, or come back towards the LOS (a la the Cushing block). As far as I know, both those types of blocks are illegal now. The cut block isn't that dangerous if you are making contact with the defenders thigh pads.

Points: 0

#17 by Karl Cuba // Jun 14, 2013 - 9:49pm

So that's a no. What effect do you think the recent rule changes will have?

More seriously, is there any chance of an article about how to stop the outside zone? (And other plays or do we have to hold a premortem sceance?)

Points: 0

#15 by Theo // Jun 14, 2013 - 5:28pm

It's a big weapon for offensive linemen to slow down a defensive lineman.
Not only physically, it works also mentally.

Mind you - a defensive lineman is also allowed to go low if he sees a block approaching.

Points: 0

#14 by Theo // Jun 14, 2013 - 5:25pm

"We don’t block corners, we block safeties. We make corners tackle. They’re as shitty as tacklers in our league as they are in yours."

That's hilarious.
I remember, when running sweeps from an I-formation, we'd have the receiver run inside hard to block the outside linebacker.
A: the outside linebacker doesn't expect or see the receiver - making the blindside hit twice as effective.
B: the corners - who ideally were blocked by the fullback were as shitty tacklers in our league as in yours.

Points: 0

#16 by The Hypno-Toad // Jun 14, 2013 - 6:50pm

Man, that was great. Alex Gibbs is pretty much the archetype of "Position Coach" in my head.

Points: 0

#18 by Uncle Rico (not verified) // Jun 15, 2013 - 5:53am

Awesome stuff, per usual. If you're feeling ambitious, from that link there's two more Gibb's video that total some 8 hours. He gets to the inherent problems with practicing/simulating outside zone versus his own team's defense. His solution was to have his backside OL tackle their defender rather than cut him, so that things would open up similarly for the RB to make his read/cut. Hard to get the RB his reps at reading where/when to make his cut otherwise. Said it leads to a lot of fights, but as he explains to the D, 'hey would you rather be tackled, or cut?' Not that he's entirely magnanimous/benevolent, as he went on to say if the D tackles his RB in practice, it's on, they're getting cutblocked the next play.

Still, in that practice adjustment, Gibbs himself is admitting the high risk of injury to the DL. If executed with proper techique/aim and the DL has a modicum of awareness and self-preservation training it can be fairly safe. But that's a lot to ask of 300lb moving parts.

It is a very effective scheme. In one of the videos Gibbs said his rush O was top 3 11 out of his (til then) 12 years doing it. And 8 of those times, #1 overall. Using 9 or so different RBs over that time, and that he thought his OL would rate somewhere in the 25-30 range in the league.

It's a copycat league, and Gibbs has a long history of success with this scheme. So why aren't more teams copying it? Guessing it's either really hard to implement/teach, or teams think it's wrong. If I had to pick, based on the videos, I'd say it's too complicated. My head was spinning listening to Gibbs talk about all the different techniques and assignment adjustments the OL has to make on the fly depending on shades/DL alignment/stunts/attack. And how that all has to be communicated live.

I agree it sounds like you would have to committed to it, can't just stick a toe in. Takes too many practice reps for all the moving parts to get it down/communicated. But it does seem there are some teams who dabble with it with some success. Like Baltimore, and McKinnie isn't exactly the ideal backside OT for O/S zone. Some teams want to be as multiple as possible, to counter/exploit whatever the D shows them. Pittsburgh is installing O/S zone this year, but from the sounds of it, they're modeling it after Baltimore. Not really changing their scheme, just adding to what's already there. Tho, getting back to what you said, nobody seemed to notice but Pittsburgh tried that last year with Kugler/Haley, only to scrap it by the bye, week 3 or 4. (If you ever saw their tackles trying to execute a cutblock off a 3 step drop, you could guess why. Looked like shaky lapdogs rolling submissively on their backs at the DEs feet.) Also, nobody could reach at all. Ended up folding in some pin/pull stuff iirc. Eh, apologies for rambling.

Points: 0

#21 by batesbruce // Jun 17, 2013 - 9:29am

Just fascinating stuff. Gibbs take that he would have coached Barry Sanders and Gale Sayers into the hall of shame is priceless. Guess they would have never gotten on the field in his one cut system. As a Redskin fan, makes me appreciate what it takes to be a lineman in his system. I'd love to know his thoughts on the pistol. I wonder what is harder to get, lineman that get his system or the running backs? I'm guessing the linemen. I've yet to hear him talk about what schemes give him particular problems and what they do on heavy run blitzes, but I've only listened to 90 minutes :)

Points: 0

#22 by Allan Wilber (not verified) // Jul 05, 2013 - 5:48am

It is unbelievable, In three years I’ve probably talked about the zone stretch more than any other play -- the one possible challenger is half-slide protection

Points: 0

#23 by Stewart (not verified) // Jul 07, 2013 - 11:26am

For those interested in hours more of Alex Gibbs: http://brophyfootball.blogspot.ca/2011/08/alex-gibbs-stretchgun-run-developments.html

Points: 0

Save 10%
& Support Ben
Support Football Outsiders' independent media and Ben Muth. Use promo code WRITERS to save 10% on any FO+ membership and give half the cost of your membership to tip Ben.