Word of Muth: Inside Zone and Emerson
by Ben Muth
Week 2 was a rough one for teams being covered in this column in 2013: both the Cowboys and Eagles lost close games to AFC West teams that got their coaches fired last year. But there was one team that found a way to win this week, and in prime time no less, so this week we’ll take a look at the Cincinnati Bengals and their win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night.
The first thing that stood out to me in breaking this game down is that the Bengals now have three good, healthy offensive tackles. That’s one more than 98 percent of the league, two more than over half of the league, and three more than the Cardinals, Raiders, and Steelers. Andrew Whitworth probably looked the best of the three bookends that saw action on Monday (the other two being Andre Smith and Anthony Collins), which shouldn't be a huge surprise to anyone that has watched a lot of Cincinnati over the past few years.
Whitworth missed the first game of the season, and was periodically spelled by Collins in this one, but he looked completely healthy while he was out there. He was probably a little better overall as a run blocker, but what I liked the most was how he used his hands in pass protection. He was consistently quick and straight with his punch. He wasn't knocking guys out with it, but he did a nice job of measuring rushers and keeping them at a distance with his length. It was a solid performance and one that should put any worries about a nagging injury to rest.
On the inside, the guy that impressed me the most was second-year guard Kevin Zeitler. He got beat a couple times in pass protection due to some over-aggressiveness, but he was solid in that department for the most part. When it came to the ground game, I thought Zeitler made a couple of real nice plays as a drive blocker. He really did a nice job of burying a slanting defensive tackle on Giovani Bernard’s first touchdown: it was the key block on a good looking football play.
Watching it live (as opposed to looking at stills), you can see that Zeitler wasn’t expecting a slant at the snap. He does a nice job of redirecting inside, to the point where he almost flattens the defensive tackle here. The defender has to rip hard to stay on his feet. Zeitler moved a 300-pounder a solid two yards inside and opened a hole for Bernard to score through.
Now on to my favorite play from Monday. I believe it was Ralph Waldo Emerson that said, "Nothing is more simple than greatness; indeed, to be simple is to be great." Let me tell you something: this may be the best quote about the inside zone play I’ve ever heard. Emerson was a gosh dang football genius. (It should be noted that this paragraph is meant to be read in the Jon Gruden voice.)
The basic principle of inside zone is that each lineman has the gap immediately to the playside. If you don’t have a defensive lineman to that gap, you help to your backside gap until you reach the second level. That is a ridiculous oversimplification, but I imagine it’s how Emerson would’ve coached it up. (And possibly Gruden, too, if his Hooters commercials are any indication of coaching style.) Let’s take a look at some pictures.
The Bengals were in 13 personnel here and had a simple inside zone called to the left. You can see that left tackle Whitworth and center Kyle Cook both have the gaps to their left uncovered, so they’re helping on their backside before they climb to the second level.
Pad level and helmet placement. If you get those two things right, you’re going to have a lot of success no matter what play you’re running. Clint Boling (arrowed left guard) is great here. His helmet is underneath Brett Keisel’s and on the playside shoulder. This is absolutely textbook position for a playside guard on an Inside Zone.
The combination from Cook and Zeitler is just as good. Cook’s goal on this combo is to fire out through the nose tackle's shoulder and turn him towards the sideline. That will allow Zeitler to come in and get his helmet to the defender’s playside number, where he wants it.
That’s what it looks like when the center does his job and blows the nose’s shoulder off. The nose tackle is totally parallel to the sideline. Now Zeitler has a chance to reach a guy that was lined up a yard inside of him without giving up any penetration. On just about every successful inside zone play, there’s going to be a combination like this from either the backside guard and tackle or the center and backside guard. Also, Boling continues to do a nice job of covering Keisel up.
Now all Cook has to do is come off on the linebacker and BenJarvus Green-Ellis has a crease right in the heart of the defense for a 14 yard gain. One thing that may stand out to you because of how well I said this play was blocked is that the hole is so tight that Jared Lorenzen would get stuck in it, Winnie the Pooh style. It just goes to show you how small the difference between first-and-10 and second-and-7 can be.
That does it for this week. Be sure to check out this column next week for the much-anticipated first look at the Eagles. The plan is to write about tonight’s game, but if it’s a typical Thursday night muck-fest I may have to write about a Week 1 or 2 game.
Follow Ben on Twitter at @FO_WordOfMuth
10 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2013, 2:00pm
#8 by MassFootballFan (not verified) // Sep 24, 2013 - 11:19am
Wondering if I'm understanding the play correctly. The only real movement the O line gets is Keisel shifting 2 yards to his right. As you point out guard has his helmet playside initially and in frame 3 it doesn't look like he has much advantage as far as positioning or leverage, point of fact it even looks like the DE has his inside arm under the guard's. Yet the guard manages to shove him way off and open up the A gap. Presumably this is partly because the DE has B gap responsibility, thinking the nose / backers would cover up the A gap. Is that BJGE's read then? Hit B or cutback into A depending on how guard/end block shapes up?