When Matt LaFleur was tapped as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, it signaled a philosophical shift in the way the Titans will attack opposing defenses. Every coach has a system, but none have a play more central to an identity than the outside zone run is in the Shanahan coaching tree (of which Matt LaFleur is a disciple). It will account for the vast majority of run calls, and even runs that aren’t outside zone are designed as a complement, or counter, based on how a defense is reacting to it. This even trickles down to the passing game, which will rely on a lot of play action off of outside zone looks.
Like most things, this isn’t completely black and white. There’s a spectrum. Mularkey and Company ran outside zone, but it was used sparingly. Alternatively, LaFleur will still run power, counter, and gap concepts, they just won’t be a staple like they were in years past.
Today, we’ll look into the base concepts of an outside zone run using a 2016 play with Derrick Henry. This will hopefully give us all a better understanding of not only the concept, but also how this projects forward with our personnel.
Situation: 1st Quarter - 6:01.
Titans Personnel: 12 (1 Back and 2 Tight Ends)
Dolphin Personnel: Base - 4-3
Down and Distance: 2nd Down and 8
As you can see, this is a well run play that goes for a nice 5 yard gain, but let’s take a look deeper into how this play functions.
Pre-Snap, Marcus will be tasked with identifying the direction of the run. This is done simply by counting box defenders versus the gaps on each side. Here, we see that to the left there are three gaps, but 4 defenders fitting the run. To the right side, there are 5 gaps, however there are only 4 box defenders. The run is correctly called to this side of the formation.
Next, the linemen will determine their assignments based on whether they are covered or uncovered. This is a fundamental principle of zone blocking. A player is covered if there’s a defender in their playside gap (which would be to the right side since the play is being run to the right here). So, in this instance, that’s Spain, Kline, and Fasano (note, Fasano isn’t clearly covered here, but that’s how it was blocked. Clearly he and Supernaw were on the same page, which is what matters).
The players that are uncovered can initially help with a double team if need be, but their main task is reaching the linebackers at the next level.
Note the footwork of the offensive linemen:
The initial step is playside, not toward the defender. The objective of the offensive lineman is to reach the outside shoulder of the defender in the playside gap. It’s a race to the sideline. This trademark footwork is a classic thing to watch for when identifying outside zone runs.
Given the assignments, the blocking should look something like this:
In order to make this all hum, the running back has to be able to read his own set of keys.
The initial target is to the outside hip of the tight end (Fasano here). Henry is going to read that defender’s leverage, which will signal what he does next.
Fasano isn’t able to reach the defenders’s outside shoulder, which signals the play runs back inside. The next read is the next down lineman inside. If that player isn’t reached, then the run is cut back further. There are terms for this.
Bounce - If the initial read defender is reached, then Henry bounces the run outside.
Bang - If the initial defender is not reached, but the second defender is, then you bang the run to that gap.
Bend - If both defenders are not reached, the runner then bends the run back inside. Otherwise called a cutback.
It’s critical for the back to be decisive here. If the read is muddy, most coaches will tell the running back to bang it inside and get what yardage is available.
Back to our play:
The initial read isn’t reached by Fasano, but the second read is reached by Kline. In this instance, the read is obvious. But, in many cases, the read is not nearly as straight forward.
You’ll often here the term “one cut back” when talking about zone runners. This is the ability to “plant and go”. That is, read the defense, plant a foot in the ground, and then get North South. Henry isn’t this type of back. He has so much mass, and momentum, that we shouldn’t expect him to be. And, you see that here. In a perfect world. he’d plant and get North South at right around the right hash. However, he takes more time to make that read. It’s not a huge deal, but even in a well blocked play like this one, that split second removes the backside defender that eventually makes the tackle. It isn’t the difference between 5 yards and an explosive, but it probably would have added a few more yards to this run.
With every player, there are compromises. There certainly are with Henry. It’s unreasonable to expect a 6’3”, 240 lb player to move like Devonta Freeman. Initially, I had this fear with Henry entering this system. Yet, as I rewatched every run of his NFL career this offseason, my concerns were gradually reduced. This isn’t to say they are non existent, but his strengths in this system will far outweigh that his weaknesses.
Given his size, he’s often viewed as a power back, but he’s really a home run hitter in a power back’s body. So, while there may be a handful of plays a game where Henry leaves yards on the table, I believe they will be made up for with the additional explosive opportunities this system affords him.