Friday, August 1, 2014

Running Back "Vision" in the Zone Blocking Scheme

Much has been made about Gary Kubiak bringing his brand of the West Coast Offense to Baltimore for the 2014 season.

In order for Kubiak's system to work effectively, the run game must be efficient. But what makes a good running back in Kubiak's zone blocking scheme? And what is meant by running back "vision"? I decided to take a deeper dive into the rushing attack that the Ravens will rely on this season.

In a previous post, I broke down the blocking rules for the zone blocking scheme, but I didn't touch heavily on the role of the running back.  Despite what many might think, there's more to being an effective zone rushing back than possessing the "one-cut-and-go" buzz-phrase that always gets thrown around.  Running backs have strict reads that are temporally tied to the blocks of the offensive lineman in front of him.

Let's start with those reads for Inside Zone:

Inside Zone

The half-back (H) in the above image must read the trajectory of the first down-lineman past the center (orange) on the play-side during his first two steps. This is very important, because he will decide which hole to hit by his third step.

If his primary read gets caught inside, the back will plan to hit the B-gap (between guard and tackle).  If his primary read maintains outside leverage on the blocker, the back must work to his second read (T; blue) swiftly. The secondary read determines whether the back will hit the hole between his two reads (B-gap) or whether he will cut back across the formation to the back-side.  This is all determined by that defensive player's leverage.

Deciding which hole to hit by his third step is crucial as this timing coincides with the "push" of the offensive lineman on their respective defenders.  Once the back makes his decision, he makes his cut on the "heels" of the offensive lineman. He doesn't cut before-hand because showing his intention early allows linebackers to free themselves of blocks and meet the back in the hole.  Lineman want to create as much lateral movement as possible so more players get caught in the "trash" after the running back explodes through the hole.

That being said, chalk-talk can be very dense at times.  Let's get to an example:

The Texans are running an Inside Zone play to the left out of their strong wing formation.  Arian Foster (HB; #23) will have two reads once the ball is snapped.  He will anticipate these defender's intended position on their blockers based on leverage.

Upon Fosters third step, he will have made his decision based on his two reads.  If he misreads his defenders, the lineman will appear as though they haven't blocked anyone (a major reason why good vision is necessary in this scheme).

By the time Foster reaches his lineman, the hole is massive and his cut-back lane is clear (far more clear than normal, in fact).  However, Foster doesn't cut until he reaches the heels of his lineman because it forces second level linebackers to flow to the play-side and get swallowed up by all of the lateral movement.

Importantly, once Foster makes his cut, he gets north-and-south in a hurry.  The zone scheme is designed to minimize negative rushes, and when the lanes are small, running backs need to trust the scheme and get up-field.  Patience is a necessity for making accurate reads as a running back, but too much patience can get you caught from the back-side for minimal yardage.

Outside Zone

The outside zone play-call is similar for the running backs but, as the name implies, it is designed to hit holes further on the edges. For instance, the running back's initial aiming point in outside zone is always the butt of the tight end. Additionally, the reads differ slightly:

The primary read (orange) in outside zone is the end man on the line of scrimmage (EMLOS).  If this player has inside leverage, the back will simply maintain his trajectory into the alley.  If the primary read controls the inside shoulder of his blocker, the running back shifts to his second read (blue) and cuts off of him.

Conclusion and Quotes:

These reads seem almost too simple.  However, this is the way that Kubiak taught these reads when he coached with the zone blocking guru, Alex Gibbs. The difficult part is gaining trust and rapport with the offensive lineman. When lineman (especially those blocking the primary read) get driven backwards, the running backs reads are accelerated and the timing is thrown off entirely. The ability of a running back to make quick reads and cut abruptly when necessary separates the good zone blocking backs from the poor ones.

A couple of useful quotes from Alex Gibbs on the running back role in this scheme:

Inside Zone reads: "Read the block on the 1st down linemen OUTSIDE the center and make your cut on THEIR side of the L.O.S. If his helmet goes inside, cram the ball upfield just outside of him. If his helmet goes outside, you cut the ball upfield inside of him. If there is daylight in the B gap – cram the B gap –otherwise, if DLM goes out you cut inside (& vice versa)."

Inside Zone cut rule:  "You are only allowed to make one cut and then you MUST get upfield at full speed. Do NOT cut until you have reached the LOS and do NOT “dance”in the hole. By not making your cut until you replace the heels of the offensive lineman, you force the LB’s to commit to a gap and the offensive lineman can seal them away from the cutback lane."

Outside Zone reads: "Read the helmet of the 2nd down linemen OUTSIDE the center (shaded NG does NOT count). Do not read the OLB. If his helmet goes inside, turn the ball upfield just outside of him. If his helmet goes outside, switch read to next inside down lineman (usually a DT). If that helmet also goes outside, cut the ball back across his face. If it goes inside, cut the ball upfield between him and the lineman you first read."

Outside Zone cut rule: "You are only allowed to make one cut and then you MUST get upfield at full speed. Do NOT cut until you have reached the LOS and do NOT “dance”in the hole. The best cut is NO cut!!"

The role of wide receivers: "The wide receivers are an important part of this [scheme]. I cut players in college and pro ball who do not block safeties. If the wide receivers will not block safeties, they will not play on my team."

"Blitzes do not bother the zone scheme. If the blitz comes toward the zone, it belongs to the blocker behind the blitz. If it comes away from the zone, it belongs to the player behind. You beg teams to blitz you, because when you pop the seam, the back is in the secondary."

  1. Alex Gibbs Denver Broncos (Terrell Davis) Outside Zone Cut-Ups and Explanation 
  2. Alex Gibbs on the Outside Zone play 
  3. Alex Gibbs on the Inside Zone
  4. Football Fundamentals: Zone Blocking Schemes  

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