During Nathaniel Hackett’s first press conference as the Denver Broncos’ new head coach, he mentioned one concept: outside zone. By doing so, he made it clear his offense will be built around the same underlying philosophy that Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak used to lead the franchise to three Super Bowl victories since 1997.
“I think the starting point is outside zone. Outside zone on offense is what you want to do, and you want to base that off of play-pass. You want to make the defense cover the entire field.“
Properly discussing outside zone first requires a rudimentary overview of the fundamental difference between zone and gap blocking. A gap scheme run is designed to create a pre-determined hole that the ball carrier can run through, while a zone scheme run is about forming a moving wall in order to create over pursuit, which a ball carrier will identify and attack.
Philosophically, zone blocking is built upon the idea that every offensive lineman is responsible for an area rather than an individual defender. On the snap, linemen all step in unison to the right or left. If an individual lineman is covered or if a defender is lined up in their area, that blocker will step up and block that defender. If a lineman is not covered or there isn’t a defender in his area of responsibility, the blocker will work to create a double team on the first defender they come into contact with along the line of scrimmage before climbing to the second level of the defense.
There are a variety of run concepts that fall under the zone blocking umbrella, but today we’re going to focus on outside zone. The Broncos’ late, great offensive line coach Alex Gibbs said outside zone is blocked the same as inside zone save for two big differences. A covered lineman who has help from the uncovered team mate should rip through his man, which will force his help to take over the block and free him to make it to the second level. Meanwhile, the uncovered lineman will execute a wide reach block in order to “piggyback” his covered playside team mate.
Conceptually, outside zone aims to create horizontal displacement along the line of scrimmage. The offensive line works to get to the play side of their opponents on defense, who will work to prevent this by reaching their gap responsibilities, which creates flow. The ball carrier is tasked with reading this flow in order to identify an opportunity to cut upfield into whatever crease should appear. Broncos Country ought to be familiar with this one-cut running game.
Zone blocking is prevalent throughout football at all levels because it is, in essence, a perfect play call. The concept itself accounts for the unknown: regardless of where a defender lines up pre-snap, the offensive lineman is still responsible for an area and whoever winds up there post-snap. So long as the blockers can prevent penetration into the backfield and the ball carrier makes the correct read, carries should very rarely go for no gain or a loss.
A ball carrier must possess good vision and discipline for outside zone to operate at peak efficiency. The back is coached to read the 2nd down lineman outside of the center, not including a shaded nose tackle. If the defender’s helmet goes to the inside gap, the goal is to turn upfield just outside of him. If the helmet goes outside, the back should switch his read to the next inside down lineman. If that helmet also goes outside, the back should cut the ball back across his face. If the second read goes inside, the ball should be cut between the two defenders.
Hackett joined the Broncos after three years with the Green Bay Packers, where the coaching staff made a concentrated effort to streamline the playbook. They made a point to cut the sheer number of concepts down and then dressed up those that remained to present multiple looks to the defense. Simple to learn, devastating to face. A zone running scheme was a perfect fit for this, and outside zone was the second most utilized run concept each of the last three seasons.
Like Hackett’s offense in Green Bay, outside zone was the Broncos’ second most utilized run concept over the last two seasons, with inside zone being the first. Below, you’ll see a still of the concept from the second half of the Broncos’ 30-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
Denver lines up in 12 personnel with a tight end and runs outside zone with wide receiver Kendall Hinton going in motion pre-snap. Take note of the fact center Lloyd Cushenberry and left tackle Calvin Anderson are uncovered pre-snap. As the entire line steps right in unison at the snap, Cushenberry and Anderson both get a hand on the closest defender along the line of scrimmage before they climb to the second level.
Running back Javonte Williams reads the edge rusher, as he is the second down lineman outside of the center. Since he is stepping across outside of the blocker, Williams knows that the run will not end up outside.
Williams’ second read is the next down lineman inside of his first read. In this case, it is the Cowboys’ defensive tackle who is lined up across from the Broncos’ right guard Austin Schlottmann. As this defender’s helmet is outside of Schlottmann, Williams should and does cut the ball back across the grain for a positive gain.
It’s typical for teams with a new coaching staff to undergo a major adjustment period. What should facilitate this shift for the Broncos under Hackett is that major parts of the new offensive system were utilized under the previous regime. Players will need to learn new terminology and adjust their techniques to fit the new staff’s vision, but it should be familiar. Avoiding a wholesale change to every part of the offense should make it easier for the Broncos offense to hit the ground running on day one.