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Zone Blocking in a Passing Offense- Indianapolis Colts Study

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The 2007 Colts offense was one of the most prolific in recent memory. Throughout his career, Peyton Manning has shown a methodical, and superior understanding of the X’s and O’s of the game. He has also been the beneficiary of one of the most simple offenses in the NFL. With such an intelligent QB, calls are changed to more effectively attack a defense. The key is not necessarily knowing exactly what a defense does, but rather what strategies are available to you for attacking certain defensive looks. The Colts’ running game is a prime example of an offensive concept used to exploit a defense.


Running games can be divided into systems. Some of the more popular systems are the zone system, the gap system, the man system, the sweep system, and the option system. The Colts have overwhelmingly run a zone system. The Colts have run 2 basic zone running plays (as well as the draw play) for a few years: The otuside zone (stretch C-D gap play) and the Inside Zone (A-gap).


Alignments and Gap Designations




In the diagram above you can see the gap designations used. A gaps are between center and Guard, B gap between Guard and Tackle, C Gap between Tackle and Tight End, and outside the Tight End is the D Gap. The following introduction to the basic Colts zone running plays is also a good introduction to single-back running plays in general.


The Zone Concept


The zone concept is a “run to daylight” concept. The line engages defenders according to rules defining their responsibility. Such a rule might be “Away-On-Backer”, which means that the lineman will look first for a threat that is on the line, but “away”, meaning to his “outside” away from the center and QB.






An “away” threat is limited to a man within a gap of the Offensive Lineman (OL). The diagram above shows an “away” threat for the right guard the DT.










“On”, in the rule, would mean that if there is no “away” threat, the OL looks for an “on” threat, or a Defensive Lineman (DL) directly in front of him. The TE has an “on” threat- the DE.









If there is no “on” threat, the blocker will go “backer” or will find the closest linebacker (LB) off of the line to the side the play is supposed to go. For instance, the Tackle would attack “S”, or the Sam LB.







One strategy for effectively running the zone concept is finding the “bubble” or crease for the RB. The Colts did this very well in their system. Refering to the diagram above, a crease is a triangle of defenders. The zone works best when a triangle of defenders is present- usually 2 DL and 1 LB. This is visible with the above diagram- there is a large space, or “bubble” between DT and DE- the middle OL between those two will run up and block SB, or the Sam Linebacker. A seam is created when one OL goes up on the LB and the other OL engage the DL well.


A good running back will run under control, or not full speed, to the fringes of that bubble to set up his run, and then burst through the seam. So, most often, where the zone will be run depends entirely on the front the defense shows. Where the zone is run also depends on the flow of the line. Often, you will see RBs cut back the opposite direction from where they started. The zone system encourages that, as the defense may over-pursue the run. The RB’s job is to find daylight and take off.


Inside Zone

The Inside Zone- Attacking the Weakside A Gap

Inside zone plays are not always run to the weakside, but modern 4-3 defenses usually put the Nosegaurd in the weakside A gap. Inside Zone is meant to attack the A gap defender, so for the Colts, that was often the weak side. It is run primarily up the middle, and expects to make 3-5 yards every time it is run. More than that is difficult because of the 1-on-1 blocking and the ability of the defense to create traffic inside in just a few steps. This diagram shows two triangles of defenders: E-S-N at the point of attack, and T-M-N in the cutback lane.




Outside Zone


Outside Zone- Attacking the Edge with a Stretch Play

Outside Zone plays are usually the stretch or pitch plays. The Stretch is the most common, where I think Denver is one of the  teams to run a pitch with zone principles. There are variations of each, sometimes involving pulling offensive linemen, but mostly the Colts ran the stretch using zone principles- no pulling. They ran it a lot, but you would see something more like the Center to the Middle LB, Gaurd to 3-gap defender (DT above), Tackle up on Sam, and TE on the DE. The back runs to a point 1 yard behind the TE’s butt or 1 yard outside the TE as the blocking develops and will either burst outside if there is too much traffic inside or no Safety flowing up, or burst in behind the Tackle in the space created. For the Colts, the play was consistently good for 4-5 yards when Edgerin James or Joseph Addai could take the ball in behind the Tackle’s block. The triangle of defenders here is: T, E, and S.




That is zone running 101. Of course there are many more details, especially in footwork. Football is a chess match. The zone system is just one way to prod a defense.



Written by Jon Ellsworth

February 17, 2009 at 11:14 am

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