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.
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.
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.