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Halas on Inside Zone: The ins, outs, and versatility

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Inside Texas’ resident offensive line guru @Halas has kindly provided a comprehensive breakdown of Inside Zone, a building block of Tom Herman’s offense. @Halas has served as an offensive line coach and coordinator at the highest level of high school football in multiple states, including Texas.

One thing about football that is true with every other facet of life is that time is finite. The brain’s capacity is nearly limitless over time. But time, whether in football, law, medicine, or life in general is most certainly finite. This is the biggest battle most coaches fight when trying to decide what to install. Every offense works. There are most certainly 100 ways to skin a cat. It is up to the coach to decide how many of those ways he can effectively install with his team, and not just install but get them to execute at a high level. All of this holds true whether we are talking about Texas and the rest of the NCAA and their practice limitations or high school football and their practice limitations plus having to play both sides of the ball.

The question I then ask myself as a coach and coordinator is what can I install and get the most offense out of? I start this question from the offensive line out. The offensive line is arguably the most difficult and without a doubt the most physically demanding of every position. Because of the uniqueness of five people working as one and the physical toll, I try and keep the mental part as simple as possible.

That is where Inside Zone comes in. The beauty of Inside Zone is I can use one scheme for the offensive line yet threaten the full width of the field with RPOs and not be formationally limited. The formationally limited part is big. You can RPO off just about any run scheme. However, most other run schemes cannot be run unless you have personnel in certain formations. For instance, buck sweep is a fantastic play. However, you ultimately have to have someone on the edge to seal down on the end. Whether you line him up there or motion him there, he has to be there. This creates a tendency for the defense to pick up on. The beauty of Inside Zone not being formationally driven is another point in its favor.

So, now that we have established the “why” on Inside Zone, let’s talk about the “how.” For the offensive line the rule is rather simple; uncovered works with covered to the play side. Let’s extrapolate that a bit. Every offensive lineman when they are running zone asks themselves a question: Am I covered by a defensive lineman? If the answer is yes, I am blocking that man. If I am uncovered, then I am working to the next man over. This is an oversimplification of the blocking scheme but as I get into technique it is important that you understand this component.

Technique Coaching Points:

  • Six Inch Step
  • Train Tracks
  • Inside tit and pit
  • Square shoulders
  • 2 hands, 4 eyes

In Inside Zone, everyone is responsible for an area, not a man. Our first step defines our path. Some coaches teach that step differently but I will just share how I teach mine. I teach a 45 degree step. We are going to step with our playside foot (if it’s zone right, we step with our right foot, if it’s zone left, we step with our left foot). The distance of that step is important. If we overstep, we are over-extended and not a good athlete. If we understep, our base is too narrow and we are not a good athlete. We want to take a six-inch step. This allows for a good base and has defined our path. By defining our path I say that we are now on train tracks. Think about train tracks for a second. Once train tracks are on the ground they are not moving. There are no sharp turns. They run vertical. The train doesn’t jump the tracks to go chase something. The train hits what is on its tracks. I often say that linemen are the most athletic people on the field. This is the case as long as they keep you playing in the phone booth. The wider the area gets, the less athletic they become. That is why it is so important that we only take that one 45 degree step and work vertical. The more lateral we work the more space we create for a linebacker to elude us. We want to take that combo right into his lap so he has no choice but to become blocked. If you have created space by jumping your tracks it now becomes exponentially more difficult to block him because you are no longer the most athletic player on the field.

So you and the covered person you are combo blocking with are responsible for the down lineman and the linebacker that is on top of you. Remember, you are not responsible for a man, you two are responsible for those two, however that ends up.

If you are fitting on the down lineman, we only want to block half a man, not the whole man. The aiming point for our hands is the inside tit and pit of the down lineman. If that down lineman is between the two offensive lineman we are both going to fit him up, hip to hip. We want to use two hands on the lineman and have four eyes for the backer. Whoever’s train tracks the linebacker is on will determine which offensive lineman will break off the combo and take the linebackers. Here is some good clinic tape on how a good combo looks.

No one chases. Everyone stays square, on their train tracks, and works vertical.

Now that we have an intimate understanding of what the offensive line is doing, let’s look at all the different things we can do off of Inside Zone. What I talk about certainly isn’t the only way to do it, it’s just what I do. I don’t necessarily take all of these into every game, either. Some schemes are better against certain fronts. The point is, you have many bullets in your gun but it’s still just one gun to you. The defense, in turn, has to prepare for each one of those bullets.

I will try and break this up into one back, one back & one H-back, and two back variations but not everything fits cleanly into those delineations, and for good reason. You can do these out of more than just one formation and personnel setting but this will help provide some order for you to learn them.

One back

Q Zone

In Q Zone it is an automatic keep by the quarterback and he is running the Inside Zone path. The running back is responsible for kicking out the EMOLOS (end man on line of scrimmage) away from the play. He can do this from a sniffer position right behind the offensive line or from an offset position with a mesh.

Zone Read
The play that made Vince Young famous is also Cris Collinsworth’s favorite play to confuse (also not knowing what a RPO and a play-action pass are). In Zone Read the quarterback is simply reading the EMOLOS. If he sits on the edge, the QB hands the ball off to the running back. If the EMOLOS chases, the QB pulls and attacks the LOS (line of scrimmage) and gets vertical as quickly as possible.

Zone Bash
Zone Bash is just zone read. The difference is now that while we are still reading the EMOLOS, the QB is now taking the Inside Zone path and the running back is taking an Outside Zone path. If the end sits, the QB pulls and runs IZ. If the end crashes, the QB hands off and the RB is now running Outside Zone.

One back & one H-back

Zone Kick

Zone Kick is an automatic give by the QB. We are going to kick out the EMOLOS with the H-back (sniffer). This seems simple but this is where I am going with this scheme not being formationally driven. The sniffer can come across the formation and kick out the end, giving the appearance to the defense that the strength of the formation is one way versus the other. Or, he can kick out the end on the same side if the play is called the other way. Him being in that sniffer position and doing different things out of it is also what helps drive schemes like Outside Zone, power, and counter. Thus, there is no tendency that can be derived from him being in the sniffer position. You could run one of a multitude of schemes.

Zone Wrap
This is where things start getting fun with zone with a sniffer. Zone Wrap gives the appearance of being Zone Kick but now the sniffer is going to pass up the end and wrap up to the backside linebacker (BSLB) and seal him in. This, in essence, has now become Zone Read with a lead blocker for the QB pull.

Zone Arrow
Zone Arrow is another one of those that builds off of Zone Kick. Again, the sniffer comes across as if he is coming to kick out the EMOLOS. Instead, he passes him up and runs an arrow route out into the flat. If the end crashes, the QB can pull and throw to the sniffer. I have it drawn up out of an inline tight end but it can be easily done either way.

Two back

Zone Deal

Zone Deal is ran with two offset backs. Think Keaontay Ingram and Jordan Whittington in the backfield together. This at its core is a triple option play run with zone blocking. The backside back is going to run an Inside Zone path while the playside back runs an option path behind the QB and keeps an option relationship. The QB will read the EMOLOS. If he sits, he hands off. If he crashes, he will keep and now run option with the playside back and pitch off the force player.

Zone Swing
Zone Swing is the same exact concept as Zone Deal except now that playside back is going to run a swing route away.

Read the box!
You may have noticed that on every diagram there is a wide receiver either running a bubble or a hitch screen on every play. These are your baseline RPOs. If the QB comes up to the box and it is a heavy box (they have one more defender than you have blockers) he needs to find the most advantageous RPO and throw it.

If you add it all up, this is 10 different schemes that the defense has to prepare for. To the offensive line, it is one. It only takes one tag word added on to “Zone” to call these other plays. This is the beauty of Zone. You can do a lot while actually doing very little. You’re squeezing the most out of finite practice time. You are attacking the full width of the field with one scheme. You are forcing the defense to defend the full width of the field. Offensive balance is not 50-50 run-pass. Offensive balance is every skill player is a threat to touch the ball on any play. Inside Zone accomplishes that in spades.