NFL 101: Introducing the Zone-Running Game

Matt Bowen @MattBowen41NFL National Lead WriterMay 23, 2014

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In today’s installment of the “NFL 101” series at Bleacher Report, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the basics of the zone-running game to give you a better understanding of scheme and execution at the pro level.

Click here for a breakdown of the Power-Running Game.


In last week’s “NFL 101” breakdown, we focused on the core power-running schemes that use man or “angle” blocks at the point of attack to create running lanes, with lead blockers working up through the hole.

Today, let’s take a look at the zone schemes that show up consistently on the tape across the NFL with offensive linemen taking a “zone step” in unison to the play-side in order to block an “area” or the first defender to show in their gap.

This allows the offensive line to block multiple defensive fronts with the ability to work up to the second-level linebackers who flow to the ball versus the zone schemes.

NFL teams that feature zone concepts look for backs who have vision, speed through the hole and cutback ability to find running lanes at the point of attack.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 08:  LeSean McCoy #25 of the Philadelphia Eagles carries the ball in the third quarter against the Detroit Lions on December 8, 2013 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Think of LeSean McCoy in Chip Kelly’s system, Arian Foster, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch, Alfred Morris, Reggie Bush or Jamaal Charles. Backs who can press the hole, identify the proper running lanes and showcase the vertical burst to get up the field.

Using the All-22 coaches tape, here’s a list of the zone-running schemes we will focus on today:


- One-Back Outside Zone

- Two-Back Outside Zone

- Inside Zone

- Split Zone

- Stretch “G”

- Outside Zone (WR Ghost Motion)


One-Back Outside Zone

The one-back outside zone is the most common zone-based running scheme we see in the NFL today versus 4-3, 3-4 and nickel defensive fronts.

Teams will run the outside zone from a shotgun alignment, pistol or with the back in the “dot” (aligned directly behind the quarterback under center) out of Jet/10 (4WR-1RB), Posse/11 (3WR-1TE-1RB) Ace/12 (2WR-2TE-1RB) or Heavy/13 (1WR-3TE-1RB) personnel groupings.

Here’s a look at the one-back outside zone from the Saints-Seahawks matchup in the divisional playoffs, with Heavy/13 personnel on the field for Seattle.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Seahawks use a “zone step” to the closed side of the formation. This allows the closed-side tight end, tackle, guard and center to work in unison while blocking the first defender who shows in their gap.

To the back side (or open side of the formation), the guard and tackle step to the play-side with the tight end using a “hinge” technique to block the defensive end.

Using this blocking scheme, Marshawn Lynch can press the ball to the edge of the formation or use his vision to cut back inside based on the linebacker’s pursuit angles.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the linebacker flowing strong, Lynch identifies the defender in the hole, uses his vision to find running room and cuts back to work vertically up the field.

This forces the safety in run support to make an open-field tackle versus Lynch after a positive gain in the zone scheme.

Two-Back Outside Zone

The two-back outside zone uses the same zone-blocking principles of the one-back look with a fullback or H-Back leading to the edge of the formation to track the first defender who shows as the primary run-support player (think of the strong safety rolled down in Cover 3).

Let’s check out an example of the two-back outside zone using the film from the Redskins-Vikings matchup this past season, with Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB) on the field for Washington.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the offensive line stepping to the play-side—and both guards working up to the second level to pick up the linebackers flowing to the ball—the fullback takes an outside path to the edge of the formation and “tracks” the primary run-support player.

This gives running back Alfred Morris the ability to press the ball outside or look for cutback lanes inside to make one cut and vertically attack the defense.

Take a look at defensive end Jared Allen (highlighted in green to the back side of the formation) aligned in the Vikings' 4-3 front. In the zone scheme, the cutback defender is often left unblocked so the tackle/guard combo can step play-side (gain an extra blocker) and work up to the second-level of the defense.

Allen is responsible for cutback run, boot and reverse and must squeeze/restrict the edge to prevent Morris from cutting backside after the handoff versus fast flow to the ball.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Morris can follow the fullback and press the edge of the formation. However, with the center taking care of the nose tackle and the right guard sealing off the linebacker at the second level, Morris identifies the inside running lane, makes one quick cut and bursts through the hole for an explosive gain versus the Vikings.

This is a perfect example of a running back executing the zone scheme by showing patience with the ball and using his vision to find a lane to get vertically up the field (run to “daylight”).

Inside Zone

If you study the read-option (or packaged plays), then you have seen multiple examples of the inside zone scheme from the shotgun and pistol alignments with the quarterback reading the path of the edge defender through the mesh point.

Also run from a “dot” alignment out of Ace/12 or Posse/11 personnel, the running back takes an inside path (think downhill) with the offensive line using the same technique up front to step to the play-side of the formation while blocking the first defender who shows in their gap.

Here’s an example of the inside zone (out of the shotgun) from the Eagles-Bucs matchup, with Posse/11 personnel on the field in a Doubles Slot “Orange” formation (3x1 spread look).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With the Bucs playing Cover 6 (quarter-quarter-half), they show a “soft” run box versus the Eagles.

This allows the offensive line to step to the open (weak) side of the formation with the left tackle using a hinge technique to wash the defensive end up the field on the outside rush.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

This is trouble for the Bucs as the center works up to the Mike 'backer and the right guard flattens the nose tackle. That gives running back LeSean McCoy an easy read to attack the inside lane with the defensive end now removed to the closed side of the formation.

And with the free safety slow in his run/pass read (release of the No. 1 wide receiver), McCoy gashes the Bucs’ defense for an explosive gain because of the zone-blocking up front versus the “soft” run box.

Split Zone

The split zone is a variation of the base zone-running game with the F/H-Back pulling opposite the blocking scheme up front to kick out the cutback defender.

Also called a “bim” technique/block, the H-Back (or tight end off the ball in Ace/12 personnel) pulls to create a cutback lane versus the defender who is left unblocked. Think of a trap block versus the edge defender who is squeezing to the play-side flow.

Let’s take a look at this example of the split zone from the Seahawks-Cardinals matchup with Ace/12 personnel on the field for Seattle.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Seahawks are running the zone scheme to the open side of the formation (H-Back off the ball). The offensive line steps to the open side of the formation with the “Y” tight end (tight end on the ball) working up to the second-level of the defense.

This forces the second-level linebackers to flow hard to the play-side, with the H-Back using the “bim” technique to pull versus the cutback defender.

Lynch can press the ball to the play-side of the formation or cut back to attack the running lane created by the H-Back on the pull.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Coaches will teach the H-Back in this situation to “cut” the backside defender (chop block at the knees) when he squeezes off the edge, and that’s what we see here from the Seahawks with the flow of the defense attacking to the open side.

This allows Lynch (with the crack block from the wide receiver on the safety) to cut the ball back and bounce this run to the outside for a productive gain.

The split zone has some similarities to the “wham” block we talked about last week when looking at the 49ers tape. Force the defense to flow play-side and trap the edge defender to provide a backside running lane.

Stretch “G”

The Stretch “G” is another zone-blocking scheme (same technique as the one-back outside zone) with the play-side guard (“G”) pulling to block the first defender who shows in his gap.

Teams will also run the Stretch “C” and pull the center to the edge of the formation to target the primary edge support player.

Here’s a look at the Stretch “G” from the Bears-Redskins matchup with Posse/11 personnel on the field for Chicago.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Redskins are showing their 3-4 defensive front with the nose guard in a shade (outside shoulder of the center) and the closed-side defensive end in a “4i” (inside shoulder of the tackle).

The offensive line steps to the play-side with the center reaching on the nose and the tackle blocking the defensive end. That allows offensive guard Kyle Long to pull and fit up on the linebacker who shows in his gap.

Out of the pistol alignment, running back Matt Forte can press the ball to the play-side or look to cut back depending on the path from the open side outside linebacker (cutback defender).

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

With Long fitting up on the linebacker, Forte can follow the path of the guard up the field or look for running room inside.

Here, Forte cuts this ball back to the open side of the formation because of the flow from the defense and the ability of the guard to fit up on the inside linebacker attempting to scrape over the top.

Outside Zone (Ghost Motion)

As we talked about above, the cutback defender (away from the play-side) is often left unblocked so the offense can gain an extra blocker and eliminate flow/pursuit to the ball.

However, to prevent the cutback defender from squeezing inside and making a play when the ball cuts back, offenses will use the wide receiver on “ghost motion” (motion into the backfield).

This forces the cutback defender to hold backside and play for a possible wide receiver reverse.

Here’s a quick example using the sideline All-22 angle from the Bears-Vikings matchup with Posse/11 personnel on the field in a 3x1 Doubles Slot formation.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The Bears are running the one-back outside zone scheme, but they send Alshon Jeffery on short, divide motion (motion into the core of the formation) and run the wide receiver on the “ghost” action to hold the backside defensive end (cutback defender).

This will create another opportunity for Forte as he can cut the ball back with the end now playing for the reverse.

Up Next in the “NFL 101” Series: Breaking down the Read-Option


Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 

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