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Zone Read 101: Intro to Oregon’s Running Game

Remember, reading is fundamental.

NCAA Football: Oregon at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The term “zone read” has become synonymous with Oregon. For most of the past decade they have used the zone read to terrorize defenses across the country. Today we will examine the basics of the zone read.

What is the zone read? Clever readers will notice that it is composed of two words: “zone” and “read.” Where else could you go besides CGB to get this kind of hard-hitting analysis?

Putting the “zone” in zone read

The “zone” aspect of the zone read refers to the blocking strategy employed by the offensive line. The smarties at provide a simple but concise explanation of zone blocking:

Yet there is much discussion of what “zone runs” even are. First, there is only so much “zoning” in a zone — much of it is still just blocking the guy in front of you. On all zone runs, the linemen must ask, “Am I ‘covered’ (is there a guy directly in front of me, aside from a linebacker set back a few years)? Or am I ‘uncovered’ (there is no one directly in front of me)?”

If “covered,” there is very little “zoning” at all: The lineman’s job is to block the guy in front of them. Fans, commentators, and even coaches often overcomplicate things. The “zone” aspect comes in with “uncovered” linemen. If “uncovered,” the lineman must step “playside” — i.e. the side the run is going to — and help double-team the defensive linemen along with his “covered” cohort. Once the two of them control that down defensive lineman, one of the offensive linemen slides off to hit a linebacker. It’s not that complicated. Indeed, let’s say the five offensive linemen are covered by five defensive linemen. In that case, each guy (save for maybe the backside offensive tackle) will just block the guy in front of them — there is no “zoning” at all.

That’s simple enough, right? On these zone read plays Oregon will run one of two variants: inside zone read or outside zone read. During the inside zone read the RB will usually run between the tackles while he will typically run outside the tackles on the outside zone read. Smart football provides us more insight into how the blocking technique differs between inside zone and outside zone.


On outside zone plays, the offensive linemen take a bit more of a lateral first step and try to reach the defender across from them. He wants to get his body between the defender and the sideline. It’s important to note, however, that the very act of trying to reach the defender often gets him flying to the sideline, at which time the offensive lineman can then switch to driving the defender to the sideline. The running back aims for a point outside the tight-end, though he can cut it upfield wherever a seam appears.

And inside:

On the inside zone the runner aims for the outside hip of the offensive guard. Now, his read can vary by team. Some teams have him read that three technique defensive tackle, while others have him read the middle or “Mike” linebacker. In both cases the idea is for him to find the “vertical” crease — either straight playside off the guard’s hip or backside on a cutback.

Inside zone runs generally go “downhill” while outside zone runs go towards the sideline before turning upfield.

Unless you’re an offensive line coach, the “read” part of “zone read” is much more exciting than the zone part. So let’s get to the fun part.

Putting the “read” in zone read

Before we start breaking down film, let’s talk strategy. Football is an 11-on-11 game (I know, the depth of analysis here is unparalleled). On most running plays, the QB is not involved. This gives the defense an 11-on-10 advantage. The zone read neutralizes this advantage by turning the QB into a running threat on each play, which turns this back into a matchup of 11-on-11. Let’s take a look at how the zone read unfolds. We’ll begin with the inside zone read.

Inside Zone Read

First, a brief tip on identifying inside zone read or outside zone read prior to the snap. Usually they’ll run an inside zone read if the RB is roughly one yard over and one yard behind the QB. If the QB and RB are roughly parallel or if the RB is slightly in front of the QB, it’s an outside zone read. The fantastic analysts at created the following gif to help illustrate how QB-RB alignment changes between inside zone read and outside zone read.

Inside zone read alignment vs. outside zone read alignment

During the Helfrich era Oregon has relied more on a hybrid look that blends the two, where the RB is over and slightly behind the QB. They can run either IZR or OZR from this look, which helps keep the defense guessing until the ball is snapped. Our first example highlights that hybrid look.

Oregon lines up in a 2 by 2 formation, with 2 receivers on either side of the line. Not that you can tell because ESPN routinely cuts off receivers so you only get a partial view of what’s going on. And of course they’ll zoom in further after the snap because we’d all rather get a close up of the QB while the play develops rather than actually see what the offense is doing. Oh, right. Zone read.

The QB is in the shotgun while the RB is about a yard over and roughly half a yard behind the QB. Based on this formation, Oregon can run inside zone read or outside zone read. To diagnose the play, Cal will have to wait and read the O-line’s blocking strategy.

Inside zone read: pre-snap

After the snap is the most critical part of the play: the read. The Oregon QB puts the ball into the RB’s arms but the QB holds the ball there for a split second. This is called the “mesh” and during this time the QB reads an unblocked defender (usually the backside defensive end).

Inside zone read: mesh

Below I have illustrated the QB’s decision-making process. During the mesh he is reading (see the green vision cone) the unblocked defender (the backside DE). I have color-coded the two options for this play. If the DE runs inside to go after the RB (i.e., he follows the white arrow), the QB will keep the ball and run outside (and follow the other white arrow). If the DE moves outside to keep the QB from running outside (yellow line), the QB hands off to the RB who finds a hole opened by the O-line.

Inside zone read: decision time!

If the QB makes the correct decision then the unblocked defender will always be wrong. The defender either goes after the RB and the QB keeps or he contains the QB and the RB gets the ball. Attacking a player who doesn’t get the ball, the unblocked defender becomes a non-factor during the play. This is how Oregon turns a 10-on-11 disadvantage into an even matchup.

In this play the unblocked DE (#11) stays home, so the RB gets the ball. Notice how #11 is too far outside to make a play on the RB.

Inside zone read: DE stays home -> hand off to RB

Here is the play in motion.

This head-on angle helps highlight how keeping outside containment keeps DE #11 too far outside to attack the RB.

Our next example shows an inside zone read during which the QB keeps the ball. Oregon lines up with a trips formation on the open side of the field and a lone receiver on the boundary side. The RB lines up a yard over and a yard behind the QB. An inside zone read seems like a plausible running play here.

Inside zone read: pre-snap

The Oregon RB and QB mesh as the QB reads the backside DE.

Inside zone read: mesh

Below I’ve marked up the QB’s decision-making process. Once again, the QB will hand off if the DE stays home or keep the ball if the DE goes after the RB.

Inside zone read: read the unblocked backside defender and react accordingly

The unblocked DE takes a step inside, so the QB keeps the ball and heads into the space vacated by the DE.

Inside zone read: the LB goes towards the RB and can’t react quickly enough to attack the QB

As one of the Cal DBs bears down on the QB, the QB then passes into the trips formation where Oregon now has a 3-on-2 numbers advantage for a screen.

Inside zone read: then the QB passes just to rustle our jimmies further

And here is the play in motion. Thankfully some awful blocking from the Oregon WRs prevents this from turning into a TD.

Outside Zone Read

Now let’s take a look at the outside zone read. Below Oregon lines up in a 2 by 2 formation with the QB and RB aligned in their hybrid zone read formation.

Outside zone read: pre-snap

As usual, the RB and QB mesh as the QB reads an unblocked defender. Interestingly enough, there is no unblocked defender on the line. So what’s going on here...?

Outside zone read: mesh time (but there’s no unblocked edge defender to read!)

Instead of reading a DE, the QB is reading a Cal linebacker (I’ve seen this referred to as a “mid-line zone read,” but I’m not sure how widely used that nomenclature is). Although the defender being read is different, the strategy remains the same: wherever the LB goes, Oregon will send the ball in the other direction.

Outside zone read: reading the...linebacker?!

The LB takes a quick step toward the direction of the RB, so the QB keeps the ball.

Outside zone read: LB moves with RB, so QB keeps.

Fortunately for the Bears, Damariay Drew is excellent at run support and he drops the QB at the line of scrimmage.

Here is the play in motion.

Finally, let’s look at one more outside zone read. Oregon lines up with a TE at the end of the line, a receiver at the top of the screen, the QB and RB in a hybrid formation, and who knows what at the bottom of the screen. THANKS ESPN.

Outside zone read: hybrid RB-QB alignment?

In an interesting blocking assignment, four players block towards the short side of the field and two players block towards the field side. This opens a big hole in the middle. I bet that looks mighty tempting for the Cal LB to plug.

Outside zone read: guess who’s being read again...

Below I illustrate the QB’s decision process as he reads Cal LB #11. If the LB runs towards the mesh point, the QB will hand off. If the LB follows the RB’s movement, the QB will keep the ball and head around the edge past his TE.

Outside zone read: reading time!

The LB moves towards the mesh point so the QB hands the ball off.

Outside zone read: LB crashes the LoS, so the QB hands off to the RB

Here’s the play in motion.

As I described early on, one of the primary goals of the zone read is to neutralize a defender by making him attack the wrong playmaker. As we saw above, Oregon is not opposed to reading a linebacker and taking him out of the play. This can be problematic for a 4-2-5 defense, as the other linebacker can also be neutralized by forcing him to cover a TE or another RB. Removing both of the LBs from the play means the defense will have to rely on DBs to stop the run. If the defense insists on playing its DBs far off the line of scrimmage (we certainly wouldn’t know anything about that, would we?), this can mean big gain after big gain after big gain for the running game. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. Those are some advanced topics in the zone read and this is only an introduction. I’ll bring dark clouds and doom later this week as I highlight how Oregon’s zone read attacks a 4-2-5 defense by taking both linebackers out of a position to make a play. If we play a lot of deep 4-2-5 on Friday, we may be entering a world of pain.