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Wide Zone, Inside Zone, and Power Gap Schemes

The basics of different running schemes used in the NFL

NFL: New York Jets at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With teams running power/gap schemes along with inside zone or outside zone schemes I thought I would show you the basic differences between them. This will be a rudimentary explanation as I don’t want to get too intricate. Every offensive line coach has his own variation of the scheme with minor tweaks here and there.

The concept of a zone blocking scheme was created by the Bill Belichick disciple Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa Hawkeyes head coach, though his blocking design didn’t come into wide spread use in the NFL until it was skillfully coached by Alex Gibbs. Gibbs’ adaptation (with the help of Mike Shanahan) aided the Broncos to win back to back Super Bowl wins in 1998 & 99. It made a 6th round draft pick from Georgia, RB Terrell Davis, into a Hall of Fame player. How Alex Gibbs is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is beyond my comprehension.

Every franchise uses these schemes in their own unique way. Some prefer to be under center while others like to be in shotgun formation. There are freedoms some team use like RPOs which give the QB the “run-pass option” or a read option where the QB reads the defense to decide whether to run it or pass it.

I will try to categorize each step as simply as possible.

The Outside zone run

The basis for an outside zone or stretch zone run is to get the running back to the edge of the defense. This gets the defense to flow as quickly as possible to that side of the field as well. By doing so you can “counter” the defense by getting them flowing in one direction then having the play double back to the opposite side. If the play is a basic outside zone run you are looking for the RB to cut back against the flow of the defense in the inevitable crease that develops during the play.

The tenets of the blocking assignments for the outside zone run are actually fairly easy to understand. First of all the linemen have to understand if they are covered (a defender directly in front of him) or not. If he is covered then he just basically blocks the guy in front of him. If he is uncovered he must step “play side” which is the direction of the run and block the next player in his path. At the snap, the telltale sign of an outside zone run is the kick step to the sideline the offensive line takes. So each lineman’s goal is to get outside of their assigned defender and get between the defender and the play-side sideline.

That is not always possible so the offensive linemen use a technique called “rip and run” which is used to block their man.If the lineman can get between his man and the sideline he uses the “rip” which means he pushes the lineman away from the sideline back toward the center of the field. This is the preferred outcome because you can also pin chasing players like LBs who are trying to get outside with your man creating a sort of a mosh pit of traffic for defenders to avoid getting to the edge. Any delay could allow your RB to make a single cut up the field to the open field.

If a lineman can’t get the position desired on the defender then he uses the “run” technique which simply means he is going to run his defender to the sideline. The RB on a outside or “stretch” run play is not looking to get to the sideline then cut up the field like a power sweep. He is instead looking for the first crease in the defense where he can put his foot in the ground and rocket up the field. These runners are called single cut runners or one step runners as they can go full speed in either direction then in a split second put their foot in the ground and get upfield at full speed in a matter of a few steps. It is a particular skill set of some runners (not all). You also want the speediest back you can find because a split second of speed could be the difference in getting tackled for a short gain or a splash play.

Here is an example of a stretch zone run play. I am showing you the 49ers plays because Mike LaFluer came from the 49ers offense and should know all these schemes. In fact he probably has the same playbook; now he just has to teach it to his team.

You can see the various blocks form as #68 is able to rip (if even so slightly) #97 making him go inside around the guard which opens a huge hole. This opens because #69 is able to “run” his man #96 out of the hole then towards the sideline enough to take him out of the play. The result is an easy 17 yard run play because the stretch movement makes ILB #59 run himself out of the play trying to get to the edge, and the center #58 is able to get enough of a seal block on the other ILB #52. Neither block was not all that impressive, but the action of the play left gapping holes for the RB to run through.

You can use this same technique on Jet sweeps, pitch plays, or even fake the run for a play action pass. The run action (if you are doing it well) will make the defense adjust to the outside opening up slant routes and skinny post plays. The pass must be quick since you don’t have standard pass protection. Here is the jet sweep action I just mentioned.

You can see the space it opens up when it is blocked correctly. It allows for a splash play with a WR which gives the offense an additional blocker (the RB who would normally carry the ball) as a lead for the play.

So defenses know this. They study it on tape so Kyle Shanahan uses that against teams by using dummy or counter plays off the same formations and looks. This next play is something called “14 Suzie” and is a counter to the stretch zone play to the offense’s right. Watch how the ILBs move to their left when they see Kyle Juszczyk goes in what the Niners call “Joe Motion” to his left.

With all the ILB being overaggressive and taking themselves out of the play each player then blocks his man in space that allows Matt Breida to outrun the CB to the end zone. That is another reason you want speed in the RB position since a stretch zone team should have a few runs a game where the back is in open space in a footrace with a defender. With the right blocking and formations, the Jets offense should look like this considering they are probably using the same playbook.

Inside Zone run

The inside zone run has nearly the same principles as the stretch zone run except the RB is looking to cut off the outside hip of the guard instead of running towards the edge of the field. The same blocking rules apply, If an offensive lineman has a defender lined up in front of him, he blocks him. If he doesn’t, then he steps toward the play side and either helps double-team a defender or moves to the second level or both using a combo block.

While it uses these same principles on who and how to block, this is a power running play, not a finesse play. The difference is the wide zone blocking is horizontal, either going toward one sideline or the other. Inside zone running is vertical blocking where you are trying to move your man either left or right but always towards their end zone.

This next clip I took from the college ranks. but it shows the same type of blocking just not as aggressive or technically sound as in the pros. This type of blocking takes time to learn. Teams spend hours in practice running these same plays each week in preparation for game day.

The RB needs good vision to decide in an instant where to cut to. He must read the blockers then make the cut the instant the line forms his hole because it will close quick with all the congestion inside.

Power/Gap system

Power usually has both features, a double team at the point of attack meant to drive a DL off the ball and then a lead blocker coming around looking to blow up a linebacker. It has a lot of trapping and wham blocks that open holes in a smash mouth way. It is a type of offense like in Tennessee or Baltimore that is meant to control the clock while wearing down the defense.

It is a physical style. Teams that run it as a primary part of their run game usually have larger linemen than the zone blocking teams because lateral agility is not needed as much as in zone blocking. Some lines can average over 350 lbs a man which is a daunting task for any defensive line to take on.

Power/gap schemes have three main elements that define the scheme: a double team at the point of attack, a kick out block of the EMOL (end man on the line of scrimmage), and a lead block through the resulting hole which can be a fullback or a H-back. They also use inside zone concepts with ISO lead plays. Power/gap usually has both features, a double team at the point of attack meant to drive a DL off the ball and then a lead blocker coming around looking to blow up a linebacker.

While the 49ers are primarily a zone blocking team they still use elements of the power/gap system especially near the goal line. Here you can see a pulling right guard who takes out the EMOL which is the defensive right end, a double team on the nose guard by the guard/center combination, and an ISO block on the ILB by Kyle Juszczyk.

Power gap systems will use counter plays which utilize traps and kick out blocks against defensive linemen. In using a trap the guard will leave the defensive tackle untouched and take on blocking the ILB. A pulling guard from the opposite side of the line will blindside the defensive tackle as he crosses the formation with speed. Here is a view of the 49ers counter against the Steelers.

You can see the entire line slant to the left to mimic the 49ers zone run scheme. Even the RB and FB take false jab steps to their left before countering back to the right. The backside guard crosses back the formation to take out the EMOL which is the right DE. Kyle Juszczyk has the ISO lead block in the hole. There is no double team on this play as the linemen are looking to simulate a zone blocking scheme. The strong safety holds this to a 5 yard gain when he drops down into the box late, and the right side WR can’t make it to him in time with a cutoff block.

This next 49ers play is a pure trap play to the left with the right side guard doing the honors of the trap block on the defensive end leaving a crease for the RB to exploit.

I was hoping to see some of these concepts with the Jets this year considering all these plays are in the playbook. I thought we brought in Tevin Coleman because he ran this offense last year and would be a wealth of knowledge to the other RBs.

I hope this will be informative for everyone to understand the various forms of running schemes in the NFL. There are a lot of moving parts, more than most people think.