Why Seattle Seahawks Will Be Prepared for Houston Texans' Zone-Blocking Scheme

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Why Seattle Seahawks Will Be Prepared for Houston Texans' Zone-Blocking Scheme
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

As the Seattle Seahawks prepare to take on the Houston Texans this Sunday, there is one area where little preparation is required.

That would be the Texans' running game. 

Why? Because the Seahawks have been practicing against it since the first day of training camp. Seattle and Houston run the same zone scheme.

While having a mobile quarterback like Russell Wilson allows the Seahawks to do some things in the running game that the Texans can't do, the cores of both offenses are extremely similar. The Texans' running game is remarkably similar to what Seattle's defense faces every day in practice. 

One of the staple plays that both offenses run regularly every game is the "outside zone." Most defenses will spend a significant portion of their practice time preparing the week before playing the Texans.

The Seahawks will be free to spend that time working on other things. 

 

The Outside Zone

First, let's start with the basics. Here is an example of the outside zone from the third quarter of last Sunday's game between the Seahawks and the Jaguars

While all blocks are important, the key block for the outside zone is the one on the play-side defensive end. In this case it is the responsibility of left tackle Paul McQuistan, who is labelled with a No. 1 below. His job is to turn the defensive end so his shoulders are parallel to the sideline and push him as wide as possible.

If McQuistan can't move the DE, all the reads for the back become muddled and the play is unlikely to be successful. Giving up depth up the field in this case isn't a problem as long as the DE is turned and pushed wide.

On the back side of the play, the goal is to cut the back-side defensive tackle and DE to get them on the ground. This is the responsibility of the right tackle (No. 2) and tight end (No. 3).

The execution here is imperfect. The left DT gets a good jump and gets close enough to right guard J.R. Sweezy that Michael Bowie, who's in at RT, doesn't cut the DT to avoid a clipping penalty. Sweezy and Bowie double-team the left DT, instead of Sweezy being able to help Unger on the right DT or releasing to block a linebacker. 

The back in this case, rookie Christine Michael, starts off running right at the LT's backside. He reads the blocks by the guards and the center and decides when, and through which hole, to cut back. 

His read is obvious. The right DT is being pancaked by Unger. The left DT is double-teamed, and Bowie has position to prevent the DT from working back toward the back side of the play. 

Michael reads the play well, makes his cut and busts through for an 11-yard gain. 

This is a staple play for the Seahawks. They run it with different personnel groups and alignments, but the fundamentals remain the same every time. 

The Seahawks defense sees this play in every practice. They are well-versed in reading its cues and doing what must be done stop it. 

 

The Texans Can Do It Too

The Texans are running the outside zone to the left, just like the Seahawks above. They also have a TE on the back side of the formation, so the blocking assignments are the same.

The only difference is that the Texans are in a single-back set and not using a fullback.

The execution here is also imperfect. The RT (circled) is able to cut the DT to the ground, which wasn't the case in the Seahawks' example. Unfortunately, the TE isn't able to cut the DE, and this allows the DE to eventually make the tackle. 

Other than the one partially missed block on the DE, this play is executed very well. Arian Foster is provided a huge running lane. He reads his blocks well and gets a nice gain before being tripped up by the back-side DE.  

The Texans actually run the outside zone more often than the Seahawks. It is a huge part of their running game, and the Seahawks can expect to see the Texans run it throughout the game on Sunday. 

 

Outside Zone? Looks Like the Back Cuts Through the Middle?

One of the things that is difficult to appreciate when viewing the game from the broadcast angle is just how much lateral movement this play generates. The Seahawks' logo on the field in this next play provides a nice frame of reference for how much the linemen move when running the outside zone. 

The Seahawks set up with two TEs to the left, and they run the play to that side. Notice the blue arrow. This is the point where Marshawn Lynch will make his cut. As you can see, it is actually outside of McQuistan at left tackle by about a half-yard. 

This play is well-blocked by the Seahawks' offensive line. The only thing that is missing is a cut block by Sweezy at RG, though in this case it doesn't matter since he's able to block the DT out of the play anyways. Everyone else does a good job of getting their defender moving laterally and moving them outside of where the play is going. 

When Lynch finally makes his cut and turns upfield, it is easy to see where the running lane is.

Putting it all together, Lynch makes his cut outside of where the LT lined up, breaks almost directly upfield, and still actually ends up running to the right of RT Breno Giacomini. The entire offensive line has moved the Jacksonville front seven completely out of the area where the teams lined up for the play. 

So while it looks like the cutback is into the middle, the run really does take place on the outside of the original formation. That is the power of the outside zone.

 

More Info

Discussed here are just the basics of what is an extremely complicated play. Alex Gibbs, who originally developed the zone-blocking scheme, said that teams need to spend 60 to 70 percent of their practice time on this play in order to execute it perfectly. 

If you're interested in learning more, below is an eight-minute video of Gibbs talking over some old cut-up plays from the '90s of Terrell Davis and the Denver Broncos. It is incredibly interesting and the source of the "60-70 percent" factoid from above. 

Be warned; the video contains adult language and may not be safe for work.

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