Understanding the Zone Running Game

  Guest Submission posted 8/22 by Brandon Harpe, Exclusive to Footballguys.com

The zone running game has been a part of the NFL game for years. However, the use and popularity of this type of ground attack has never been greater. The purpose of this review is to provide some of the details that comprise the backbone of a good zone rushing attack.

The three main zone running plays are based off of the following principles:

  1. Force the defense to move laterally, without penetration
  2. Press the heels of the offensive line with the RB, via a predetermined aiming point
  3. Single cut philosophy out of the RB
  4. Aim for the "bubble"

The Inside Zone

The inside zone play is the predominant play of NFL teams that have been labeled as "zone teams." Denver obviously comes to mind and has made a living with the inside zone. Typically, the aiming point for the RB in the inside zone series is the inside leg of the T (offensive tackle), or the outside leg of the G (offensive guard). Ideally, the seam will occur along this aiming point. If not, the cut is typically inside - back against the grain. The inside zone is a good call against a total gap control defense.

The Outside Zone

The outside zone play is blocked very similar to the inside zone. The difference is the aiming point of the RB - typically the outside leg of the T, or the inside leg of the TE. Again, the seam may occur along this aiming point. If not, the cut is usually to the outside and upfield. The outside zone play is a good call against defenses that pinch or crash their DE inside. Some offenses will even teach their T to jab step inside in order to influence the DE to play hard to the inside.

The Stretch

Edgerrin James and the Colts made the stretch play famous. For anyone familiar with watching the Colts, it is the play that Manning reaches as far as he can and barely gets the handoff to the RB. The idea is to zone block the line of scrimmage and have the RB take a wider aiming point. Many times it will be the outside leg of the TE, or even wider. Whereas the RB is a little slower and more deliberate in hitting the hole in the inside/outside zone series, in the stretch he has to run full speed from the beginning. Also, the cut is a little less harsh than the other two zone plays. Instead of cutting inside or outside, the stretch cut is just a plant and get-up-the-field stutter. This play is a good call against over aggressive, stunting defenses.


The most used variation off of the three zone plays outlined above is what is commonly called the zone-read. The zone-read is run out of the shotgun formation with a RB positioned within two yards of the QB, and opposite of playside. This play was made famous by Alex Smith and the Urban Meyer coached Utah Utes. At Texas, Vince Young was also very proficient in running this series. It is not used much in the NFL due to concerns about QBs taking a hit. However, Tennessee has been running it a few times a game with Young.

The zone-read is blocked toward the playside by all of the OL. Playside is considered to be the side that the RB would be running toward. To the playside, the scheme is typically outside zone. On the backside, the DE is left unblocked. The QB is assigned the backside DE and will pull the ball from the RB if he reads the DE crashing inside. If not, he will give to the RB. This play can really take advantage of an aggressive backside or boundary DE.

Another variation is the zone-lead, which is run from 2-back formations. Blocking up front is inside or outside zone, with a FB leading into the seam. The FB usually hits the seam regardless of whether it is open or not. The TB must read the play and decide whether to cut. This play is ideal against teams that read the FB with inside LB's.

Playaction passing and screens are also prevalent with zone teams. Every good running play should have at least one playaction pass and one screen off of its action. The best example in the NFL is the bootleg that Denver runs several times per game, which is usually off of the inside zone action. Denver's bootleg play is designed to keep the backside DE honest against the inside zone series.

Coaching the Zone

More teams do not run a higher percentage of the zone because it takes such a commitment and allotment of practice time. Offensive linemen have to get lots of repetition in reacting to defenses. They must always double team the line of scrimmage (which has become more common in the NFL than pulling an uncovered lineman) and scoop to LB scrapes and DL slants. It is also important that all OL maintain their spacing with the OL next to them. If too wide a gap is opened up, the offense loses some of the advantages gained by running the zone.

Contrary to what some have discussed, it does not necessarily take a "special" RB to be good in the zone scheme. The most desirable RBs are good at running with their eyes up and making cuts at nearly full speed. RBs must get a lot of repetition reading the seam. They must understand how defenses work, and realize that if the seam is "cloudy", it must be "clear" someplace else - depending on if it is inside or outside zone. Usually the hardest point to teach a RB new to the zone series is that they cannot just take off to the "hole." They must sell the zone and press the heels of the OL before hitting the seam or making their single cut.

Wide receivers must get a good idea, pre-snap, of what kind of coverage the defense is playing. There are several schools of thought on what to do with WRs, but the most common requires them to read coverage. Versus man coverage, the WR will either block man-on or release outside. Against a pressed CB in zone coverage, the WR must get his hands on the CB and attempt to block him. Against a "soft" CB, WRs typically will use an outside release to influence the man, and then block him man-on.

How can this information help your fantasy squad?

Do some of your own scouting instead of just relying on publications and the opinions of others. It has never been easier to scout. There are tons of video clips on streaming video websites that have popped up over the last couple years. Watch college football and see if you can recognize some of the zone principles outlined here. Does the RB possess the skills to be a zone RB in the NFL? Make the NFL preseason count and look at the young players that take the field. Be ready for free agency. Is there a hidden gem moving to a team that runs a lot of zone? Technical information like this will allow you to take your fantasy football eye to the next level.

In conclusion, the zone series can be quite productive for NFL offenses. Defenses are stressed and can really be hurt if they play an over aggressive style. Obviously, there is much more detail that goes into an effective zone offense than can be outlined here, but hopefully football fans can take something from this article and recognize it on Sunday afternoon while watching the NFL. Additionally, maybe this information will help you get a jump on the competition when looking for the next big sleeper fantasy pick.