Picture this: It's 1st and 10, and your team has the ball somewhere between the 20's. The ball's snapped and handed off to the RB, who plows into the middle of the line for no gain. What's worse, this isn't the first time that this has happened in this game. As you and the fans around you groan in disgust, you might ask, “Who's responsible for this?” Depending on the past performance and reputation of your assistant coaches, your answer could go a few ways. Is it the OL coach and the players that he's recruiting/the technique that he's teaching? Is it the OC and the plays that he's calling?
In this post, I want to discuss a third possibility by breaking down X's and O's at the sub-coordinator level. I'm going to do this by looking at how Steve Greatwood, our new OL coach, coaches up his zone run schemes. We'll see that a position coach can have a major impact on the X's and O's of the game, and can make or break a play's success through his own schematic knowledge and teaching. While it's ultimately the OC's job to choose what plays to run, it's up to position coaches to make sure that each play can succeed in as many situations as possible; a run play that can only work against one ideal defensive look isn't very helpful for an OC, but if the OL coach can adjust that play to make it work in a greater number of situations, then he expands the playbook and gives his coordinator more to work with. The coordinator himself doesn't have time to tweak individual assignments for all eleven players on the field, and so has to rely on his position coaches to make the little adjustments that make plays work. With all of that in mind, let's look at Greatwood's zone running schemes, which will illustrate this in more detail.
Zone Runs: The Basics
Before we start, I should make a few general comments about zone running. College football fans are probably most familiar with this blocking scheme from the now-ubiquitous zone read, and so the play has a reputation for being all about finesse. Zone schemes were around long before the spread, however, and have been at the heart of many of the best pro-style rushing attacks of the last 20+ years at least. For example, it was in Alex Gibbs' zone schemes that Terrell Davis became one of the most productive RB's of the late 1990's. It was Gibbs and his protege Tom Cable who turned Atlanta into the best rushing team in the NFL from 2004-2006, and who then ran the lines in Seattle when Beast Mode was causing earthquakes and winning a Super Bowl. In the college game today, Utah's a big zone team. Alabama's a big zone team. USC became a heavy zone team starting with when they abandoned Norm Chow's BYU offense for something more pro-style in 2005. Stanford's run increasingly more zone in recent years. You get the point.
So what is a zone run? To oversimplify things for now, on a zone run, the entire offensive line steps in the same direction and blocks whomever they encounter. They aren't necessarily responsible for blocking one specific defender, and zone plays aren't designed to attack any one specific hole. Instead, the RB aims for a spot on the line, reads his blocks, and has the freedom to choose any seam that comes open:
This is in contrast to other kinds of run plays, which try to open up one specific hole, but then don't leave a lot of other options open if that hole collapses (plays like Power or ISO, for those who are interested). This makes zone runs very flexible, and can also make them good against stunts/run blitzes; if the play isn't going to any one hole, then the defense can't target a specific part of the line with their stunting.
The devil is always in the details, however. If your linemen can end up blocking a variety of players, and if the RB can choose a variety of lanes, then how do you make sure that you're actually running this play in an effective way and getting a hat on everyone that needs to be blocked? In short, how do you actually coach it?
Steve Greatwood: The Basic System
Something that is unique about Greatwood's brand of zone is that he spent the last eleven seasons in the Chip Kelly school of up-tempo offense. When you're running a play every 13 seconds, you need a system that can quickly and correctly determine blocking assignments for the OL. For Greatwood, this means simplifying front identification and OL calls. Many teams will spend a bunch of time talking about how to block all sorts of different defensive looks, but as far as Greatwood is concerned, there are only two fronts that the offense can see. If the Center doesn't have a NT lined up directly across from him, then it’s an Even front:
Here the NT is shaded to the Center's left. He’s not heads-up over the Center, and so this is an Even front. If the NT is lined up directly over the Center, then it's an Odd front:
It doesn't matter what else the defense is doing. The OL doesn't have to identify the precise front that they're facing, they just have to know whether it's Even or Odd.
Once the front is identified in this way, then the Center identifies the Point, or the player that he’s going to work to. That player is labeled with a “0” in the following diagrams. In an Even front, the Point is the first LB who is either heads-up over the Center, or shaded to the playside:
Here the MLB is heads-up over the Center, and so he is designated the Point player. He's the guy that the Center is going to work to. Here's another example:
Here, the SLB is the first LB to the playside of the Center, so he is designated the Point.
In an Odd front, the only change is that the NT is the Point instead of a LB. Instead of working to a LB, the C will now just block the guy across from him:
Once the C makes his Point declaration, the other blockers simply number the remaining defenders from the inside-out:
From here, this is just a physical, knock-'em-back, man-on-man blocking scheme. OG's block #1, OT's block #2, and #3 can be blocked in a variety of ways (you can have the QB read him on the Zone Read, you can put a TE or a FB in to block him, you can motion a WR over to block him, etc.):
This process streamlines everything at the line of scrimmage. The Center comes up to the ball and declares the Point. As long as the rest of your blockers can count to three, they know immediately who they're blocking. Every front that you can possibly see is dealt with in this same, simplified way.
This simplicity has other benefits. OC Beau Baldwin likes to be multiple, and something that's nice about Greatwood's system is that changing personnel and formation doesn't change your blocking assignments:
Here's a zone run out of the I-Formation. The Center designates the MLB as the Point, the OG's block #1, the OT's block #2, and then you use the TE and FB to block #3. Nothing changes for the five offensive lineman. As you change personnel from the spread to the pro-style, you're just changing the way that you account for the #3 defenders. Everything else stays the same.
Adjusting the System:
So far, there hasn't been much of a “zone” element to the system that I've described. Each of the blockers is assigned a defender, and its their job to go get 'em. The “zone” aspect only comes up when the defense does something that makes it hard to complete these blocking assignments. Here's an example of a schematic switch that can frustrate this blocking scheme:
Against the pre-snap look here, the Center would label the SLB as the Point. The DT would be labeled #1 and would become the RG's responsibility. In this diagram, however, I've drawn these two defenders switching gaps at the snap, with the DT crossing the RG's face and coming inside while the SLB is widening and pressing the gap between the RG and RT. The C is never going to be able to get to the SLB here, and the RG runs the risk of missing his block when the DT steps hard inside. The OL needs a tool that they can use in situations like this.
To counter this stunt, the C can make a call that puts him and the RG in a 2-man zone against the DT and the SLB. When this call is made, instead of working straight to the SLB, the C will watch the inside foot of the DT and will react based on what he does. If the DT steps hard inside, then the C is stepping hard to meet him, and the RG will leave to block the SLB:
If, on the other hand, the DT stays outside, then each blocker will stick to his normal assignment:
The C and RG are still responsible for the Point and #1, but they handle them as a 2-man unit instead of as two individuals. This call lets the Center “anticipate the hard,” meaning that he overplays the most immediate threat (the inside stunt by the DT) on the assumption that he can recover later if he needs to take the easier assignment (the SLB).
Of course, this adjustment doesn’t come from the OC (he just calls a zone run, and leaves the particulars up to the OL coach and the players). This tool is already installed in the Spring with some general guidelines about when to use it. Then, during gameweek in scouting, gameplanning, and in-game adjustments, the OL coach is telling his guys when they should use this call against the specific opponent that they're seeing. In this way, the OL coach is directly engaging in his own mini-chess match with the opposing DC.
That last call was an adjustment that was made based purely on X's and O's. Greatwood gives his linemen other tools that can be used to combat superior talent. Let's say that we have the following look and assignments:
We'll focus on the backside (the left side) here. The DT is #1, and so should be the LG's responsibility. The WLB is #2, and should belong to the LT. Because of the DT's alignment, however, the LT doesn't have an unobstructed path up to the WLB. The default answer here would be to call for a two-man zone, just like we saw in the previous scenario:
If the LT makes this call, then he's working to overlap the DT and take him over while the LG works up to the WLB. What if that DT is a beast, though, and so the LT isn't able to get to him with the quickness and strength needed to cut him off?
Greatwood gives his guys another tool, the “fold” block, for situations like this:
This call lets the LG use his natural leverage to kick out the DT, and then has the LT fold inside and up to the WLB. Blocking for the rest of the line stays the same. This is an adjustment that Brandon Jones also introduced (Yenser didn't run it, which shows how different OL coaches can bring different things to the table even when they're coaching the same play), so our returning OL will already have experience with this.
These are just a few of the tools that our OL will have when the OC calls a zone run. Different groups of adjacent linemen can then make whatever calls work best for them based on their scouting report, the gameplan, and what’s happening to them during the game:
In this diagram, the RT and TE are just carrying out their normal, man-on-man blocking assignments on #2 and #3. The C and RG are in a two-man zone against the NT and the MLB, and the LG and LT are in a fold block to take care of the DT and WLB. Each pair of linemen is making the call that's right for them based on the defense's alignment and tendencies.
As you might guess from the last example, there are potentially a lot of moving parts to this system, which is why it's important to have an experienced zone coach like Greatwood. He's seen all of the things that defenses will try to do to shut down these plays, and he knows what the best combinations of tools are for defeating each of those strategies. Furthermore, he has tons of experience going against the DC's of the PAC-12, and so can start preparing our players to face them ASAP. Because of this experience, I'm certain that he'll also work with Baldwin on coaching the RB reads and alignments (in zone systems, the OL coach often wants control of the RB's reads so that the RB and OL are on exactly the same page). In this way, he can be a true run game coordinator for us, and can take some of the pressure off of our new OC, who will need to adjust to the PAC-12 and will have other things to worry about during games. Everyone probably already knew that this was a good hire, and now we can also see the impact that it will have not only on OL technique and recruiting, but on the X's and O's of our run game as a whole.