ForThe Cougar running game has been the definition of terrible and obsolete since the beginning of the Paul Wulff era. This has been caused by many reasons, the dominant one being that rushing the football in the traditional way is difficult to scheme around; it is almost entirely physical and when you are physically inferior at every position, it is incredibly difficult to run the ball. A traditional rush off tackle out of a single tight I-Form (one of the most common and simple plays in football history) pits seven blockers against seven defenders in one-on-one matchups. With the Cougar players the last few years unable to knock the proverbial sick baby off a toilet seat, this type of rush was impossible for us to execute. However, USC was able to score 69 points against us using this play almost exclusively. It is a play that relies on at least having physical equality. We didn't against USC in 09 and we won't in 2011.
I know what you're thinking. "Geez fightfightfight, whatever shall we do then? Our running game must be salvaged or Jeff Tuel will surely be slain on the field of play next year!"
To which i respond, "Ya'll need to chill out. I'm bout to tell ya'll bout this play that got us covered like a jimmy hat. Real talk."
The zone-read is a play that the cougars finally started using to solid success towards the end of last year. It is run out of the pistol or shotgun, with single or multiple backs, 4 wide or 3 wide with a TE. The Cougs have generally run it out of a 4 wide single back pistol or shotgun, so this will be the set I use for analysis. At its base, it is a single option read based on the last player on the line of scrimmage on the backside of the play. By reading what this player does, the QB either gives the ball to the back to the play side or pulls the ball and loops around the backside.
Starting with the offensive line, I will now school you to how this beautiful play comes together. You're all totally welcome.
With 4 wide receivers on the field, the interior blocking consists of only 5 lineman, no tight ends or fullbacks. Generally speaking, teams will put 6 or 7 players in the box (the area between the outside shoulders or the OT's extending 6 yards into the defensive backfield) in either a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment. In running situations, all the linebackers will likely stay in the box. In passing or undecided downs, a linebacker will frequently move over a slot receiver or be swapped out for a nickel back to cover the slot. The first priority for the OL is to identify who is in the box and who is not. For simplicities sake, we will work with 6 people in the box: 4 down lineman and 2 linebackers.
The next step for the OL is to identify the last man on the LOS on the backside. If the play is to the right, then that would be the DE over the left OT. If the play is to the left, then the DE over the right OT is the last man. Whoever is chosen as the last man will go unblocked and will become the read man. We will get back to him and his impact on the play later, but for the OL his actions are moot.
The play is to the right side, 6 men in the box and the LDE is going to be unblocked. That leaves 5 defenders for 5 lineman. Though the numbers are now equal, this is where the zone read really protects a poor offensive line. At the snap of the ball, each lineman will take a 6 inch step at a 45 degree angle to the right with their right foot. This is immediately followed by an equal movement by the left foot. One more unified step with the right foot and contact is initiated by the entire offensive line on the entire defensive line, as two units. Two double teams are created, their place dictated by the defensive line. If there is a DT over the LG and he comes straight ahead, then the LG and LT double him. That DT can reek havoc by crossing the LG's face and breaking into the A gap untouched, but the footwork of the LG should make it impossible for him to break through before the LT or C can help, or the back can evade him. The C and RG generally will double the play side DT and the RT will try to string out the play side DE wide and out of the play.
The double teams are the crucial part of this. The goal of the double team is to get the play side blocker (the lineman on the right of the double team) to have his backside (left) shoulder on the play side (right) shoulder of the defender; basically blocking only the play side half of the defender and keeping their own play side shoulder free. The backside blocker looks to square up evenly on the defender, getting his face mask squarely into the chest of the defender. Once this is secured (as quickly as their 4th step hits the ground) the double teaming lineman look for linebackers. With two linebackers and two double teams, the double teaming lineman keep their eyes and the backer closest to them and work on moving their double team downfield and towards the right sideline. Eventually, the linebacker will break to either side, depending on the back. If he breaks to the play side (most likely) then the play side blocker disengages and meets the backer in the hole. If the breaks left, then the backside blocker disengages and blocks while the other blocker works back across the body of the down lineman. When this is executed correctly, every defender in the box is accounted for and movement will be generated along the interior of the line. Linebackers will be met downfield and will be impeded.
It is important to note that none of the double teams or blocking "assignments" here are actually assigned. Players block a moving area, a 45 degree swath up the field and towards one sideline. Stunts, blitzes and strange packages don't (or shouldn't) mess up a disciplined group because you simply engage the first possible defender in your area and work on getting your head on his playside shoulder. If you happen to have formed a double team, find the next target. If the guy lined up on you disappears, somebody else is going to fill his place 90% of the time. Blitzes and stunts rarely overload and leave an area undefended, and for good reason. If you are a tackle and a DE crashes hard against you to the inside, the OG will pick him up and you should be expecting an LB or DT to come crashing into your zone. In this system lineman can never turn backside, not even for a look, just for a minute, just to see how it feels. If they do the integrity of the play is lost. This isn't a scheme where one guys block will make the play. Everyone has to do the same thing, and if they do, it'll work. If one guy forgets his discipline and turns back, this play will fail.
Now that we know how this will be blocked, let's talk about how it will be read. The QB sets up in the shotgun with the running back lined up on the backside of the play (play is to the right, RB is to the left of the QB). The QB will get the snap and watch the last man on the line, holding the ball in front of him ready to hand it off. The RB will crash across the QB to the play side, moving diagonally and expecting the ball. If the last man tries to read the play or hesitates at all, the ball goes to the RB. If the last man crashes down the line after the RB, the quarterback pulls the ball out of the RB's gut and loops around the crashing backside end. It can be very difficult to tell who has the ball in this situation. The defense will generally flow play side, leaving the backside unprotected and with a QB like Jeff Tuel big time green is wide open for the taking. We saw this down the stretch last year. The camera follows Monty for a seemingly tiny game, then realizes Tuel is streaking up the field on the backside for 10+ yards.
If the running back does get the ball, however, he needs to have several qualities to succeed here. Firstly, he needs to have excellent vision. There is no designated hole to hit or lead blocker to follow. He must be able to identify his double teams and anticipate where the linebackers will be picked up. Once he finds a hole, he must be decisive. No dancing in the hole, one cut and go. Further, he has to be able to break an arm tackle. most of the defenders will have only their play side arm totally occupied. If the back can break the arm tackle, then cutting back against the grain is where large runs come from in this system. Everybody is flowing left, setting up to protect the left and then BAM! The back cuts to the right, pulls away from a one armed LB tackle and has maybe one guy to beat, if any.
The best thing about the ZBS (and particularly the Zone Read) is that it is very difficult to stop. It isn't that difficult to slow or contain, but a back can almost always get something out of the run. Alex Gibbs is the God-King revolutionary who brought us the Zone Blocking system as we know it today, and here is what he had to say about his rushing strategy.
"We want NO negatives. We do not want to run plays that are big/ little, even at the expense of big plays, we do not want it. We want the system where even the "bad" play gains something. The entire objective is to stay out of 3rd and long. We throw out the run plays with which we cannot consistently avoid negatives.
For a more betterer description of zone blocking and the requirements on the lineman, check out this interview with Gibbs.
Screw averages. We want medians. The back might average 7 yards per carry, but how often did he get stuffed and put us in 3rd and 10, causing a turnover.
And we do this by eliminating penetration and running a limited number of plays to perfection."
This is what I think all of us want to see out of our running game this year. How many plays over the years have been wasted on running the ball for no or negative gains? I don't think that we can have a dominant running game with this roster. The focus of our offense will be on the pass, and it should be. Not to digress too much, but people put way too much emphasis on having a strong running game. The fact is a yard passing is equal to a yard rushing, and much more yards and points are available through the air. However, having no running game at all takes away the basic advantage that offenses have over defenses: surprise. A running game has to be able to keep a defense somewhat honest, but shouldn't be the focal point of the offense. This is where no negatives comes into play. Even though passing is more effective in terms of total yardage, first downs and points, even the greatest QB in college football can only be successful 70% of the time. Even if a running back gains just two yards on a play, the team is still 20% closer to a first down. The issues arise when the running back is stuffed for nothing or negative yardage. That is an entirely wasted play, and a play that could actually harm your team.
The zone read sees very few big runs. Not too many times will all the blocks align perfectly, the QB and RB make all the right reads and the RB breaks a few tackles all in one play. However, if any one of these things happen on a given play, it will almost always net positive yardage. Play side blocking screwed up? Cut it back. Overload the play side? QB pulls the ball backside. RB goes down on first contact? First contact shouldn't happen for two yards, a positive gain. This is an excellent play in the 4th quarter, for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is not as physically taxing on the offensive players as man on man blocking would be, and the double teams and downfield blocking wear a defense down. Not to mention it almost always gives positive yards, which is perfect for working the clock down to protect a lead.
This is one of the most versatile plays in modern football. It can be run out of the shotgun or the pistol, with anywhere from one to 3 backs, 0-2 tight ends and 0-4 wide receivers. While I prefer to have the field spread and give the backs room to work, it can be equally as effective from a goal line or other set, with the same principles of blocking involved. Multiple backs means a possibility of a triple option, with one back giving the original look and if the QB reads pull, then he rolls out with the other back in a traditional option look. A slot receiver could come in motion to give us a triple option out of a one back set. All of this motion is easily made into play action or trick plays. We saw the triple option pass against Oregon State with Wilson coming across the field behind the defense playing the option. It also works well for bubble screens and quick passes, as the lineman can fire out, the RB can charge ahead, do the play fake and sell it without worrying about rushers. Then the ball goes zipping out to the flat before any rushers can get there and before the lineman can move to far downfield.
Finally, the last advantage that this play style offers is speed. Because players rely on their team strength over their own individual strength, it is less physically taxing for the players to run the play. Because the system is based on similar looks and simple plays, no huddle is necessary. Oregon has caught on to this secret and have used it to make one of the greatest offenses College Football has ever known. Run a lot of simple, effective plays that don't tire your players but make the defense exhausted. Have a close first half. Destroy them in the second when they are gasping for air as you snap the ball. Oregon constructs entire game plans around 2-4 offensive formations. That is incredible. The use all the same motion and looks but nobody knows if it is a run or a pass until it is too late and LaMichael is streaking down the field or Thomas is chucking it over your head. This is the kind of offense that Paul Wulff wants to run: High tempo, effective and simple. Spread the field and let your playmakers make plays. If we can master the Zone-Read, then that is exactly what our offense will do: Make Plays.