Teaching Running Backs How to Run the Inside Zone

LOS 17, California,13,CS

As pointed out in an earlier post here at FishDuck, the Oregon Ducks have become one of the premier rushing teams in all of college football and we’ll now examine another reason why.

I have written other articles discussing some of the factor’s that play a critical role in their success running the football; including a breakdown of the zone blocking scheme and a feature on perimeter blocking. FishDuck.com has thoroughly documented Oregon’s implementation of the zone scheme and it’s many derivatives.

This analysis will add to this documentation, taking a closer look at the techniques used by Running Backs in the Inside Zone (IZ) scheme and how they are taught and drilled to exploit a defense.

A Quick Primer on the Inside Zone

Inside-ZoneThe IZ is an inside run play predicated on inducing the defense to over-pursue a play in an effort to stop the ball carrier from reaching the perimeter. This is accomplished by presenting, at least initially, a play where all lineman and the primary tailback are all moving in the same direction. The linemen are tyring to get their bodies to the play-side half of the defender to cut off their angle of pursuit.

The  ball carrier takes the ball, presses the line of scrimmage (LOS), and looks for a running lane. When it opens up, he makes a decision, and goes North-South as quickly as possible for positive yardage. The result, as we so often see with Oregon’s offense, can be large running lanes with the potential for devastating cutbacks behind over-pursuing defenders.

IZ Running Backs: Coaching ‘Em Up

Coaching a football player typically involves a series of steps known as a teaching progression. The progression usually starts with the player’s stance and initial alignment and goes through the various footwork and techniques necessary to execute their assignment. A general progression might look something like this. [NOTE: This is just a progression specific to the IZ, other things like ball security, blocking and breaking tackles are beyond the scope of this article.]

  1. Stance and Alignment
  2. Initial Steps and Aiming Point
  3. Pressing the LOS
  4. Making the Read
  5. Getting North-South

1. Stance and Alignment

Being in the appropriate stance and getting lined up in the correct place is critical for every player on every play. The IZ running backs stance is usually a variation of a two-point stance. This allows the player to see the field and get a pre-snap read of the defensive alignment and front. Tailback alignment in for the IZ is as variable as the number of teams that run the scheme, however, there are a few generalities that can be made.

Alignment Diagram

2. Initial Steps and Aiming Point

Again, footwork may vary somewhat between systems, but the tailback’s first step will always be with his play-side foot in the direction of the call. Once the first step is in the ground, the running back then needs to get on his path to his aiming point. This is always somewhere on the play-side half of the formation. In my experience, it is usually somewhere in relation to the play-side guard, often times, the outside hip.

3. Pressing the LOS

The next step in the teaching progression for the IZ tailback is the idea of pressing line of scrimmage and being patient while the play develops. Other than making the correct read, the ability to be patient while pressing the LOS, is what makes an athlete a great IZ running back. Once the ball is in the tailback’s hands he needs to continue on his path and press the LOS, keeping his eyes up to make his reads. It is this pressing action that usually causes defenders to over-commit and open up cutback lanes. The following video provides a very basic explanation of why pressing the LOS is critical to the success of the Inside Zone.

4. Making the Read

As the back presses the line of scrimmage and patiently waits for the defense to react to his path, he needs to be watching the play develop in front of him. If the play is blocked effectively, the IZ typically presents the back with three possibilities.

Running Lanes Diagram UPDATE

From the diagram above, we can see that if the back is presented with a down hill read, then he will simply continue on his path and get “down hill” for positive yardage. If, on the other hand the down hill path is taken away by the defense and the cutback path opens up, the back needs to make a back-side cut. Keep in mind this cutback could be all the way to the backside D-Gap depending on how much pursuit the defense gives. This technique is demonstrated in the video below.

Finally, if the tailback can’t continue down hill, and the cutback lane isn’t there, it probably means the defense isn’t pursuing the play, and he can bounce it to the outside. In the video below, we get a look at a drill that helps the running backs learn to read the defense. We can see how the different possibilities present themselves and how the running back must react in each situation.

 5. Getting North-South

Finally, once the tailback makes his read, he needs to accelerate through the hole. At this stage, it is important to emphasize the importance of making only one cut and then working to get positive yardage. This is commonly referred to as getting North-South. This will help eliminate indecision and reduce the occurrance of negative plays.

Seeing These Techniques on Game Day

Let’s take a look at how some of these techniques are realized on game day:

Clip 4 Screen Shot 1

In the screen shot above, we see Oregon’s running back Byron Marshall in a 2-point stance with an alignment to the offensive right at about 5.5 yards. The arrows point out the defender’s that he may have to “read” in order to make his decision.

Clip 4 Screen Shot 2

Here, in the screen shot above, we see Marshall pressing the line of scrimmage and looking to make his cut. We can see that all of the potential “read” defenders are fighting to maintain control of the play-side gap. It is possible that Marshall should have cut it back as the defenders are all pursuing hard to the play-side, however, his lineman are able to maintain their blocks long enough for him to continue to bounce the play outside.

Clip 4 Screen Shot 3

Above we see that as the play progresses, the running lane opens up, and Byron is able to accelerate through the hole.

clip 4

The above clip illustrates that despite possibly making the wrong read, Marshall is able to make a play to the outside and ultimately score.

In another example of the Inside Zone, Byron demonstrates the cutback read.

Clip 6 Screen Shot 1

Above, we again see Marshal in a two-point stance. With a pre-snap look at the defensive front, he can see the defenders that will likely influence his read.

Clip 6 Screen Shot 2

In the screen shot above, we see both “read” defenders fighting to the play-side. This time Marshal makes the decision to cut back underneath the pursuit.

Clip 6 Screen Shot 3

Above, we see that after making his cutback, there is another defender waiting for him. In this instance, he decides to bounce it to the outside.

No down-hill or cut-back, but Byron has the bounce!

No down hill or cutback, but Byron has the bounce!

A Few More Examples

The following examples show the wide-angle view of Oregon running back D’Anthony Thomas making a cutback. These illustrate how the cutback can be very effective when the back makes one cut and gets North-South into the running lane.

clip 2

clip 1

Final Thoughts

The Inside Zone is a great running play, and if players are taught how to execute properly, it can be devastatingly effective. Throw in top-notch athletes who are able to implement the techniques outlined above and you get an offense like Oregon’s. As a result of their effort, we see an offense that is consistently able to make big gains in the run game and light up the scoreboard.

Obviously it takes a lot of time and effort from both players and coaches to get this system in place and run it well, but when it all comes together it is a lot of fun to watch.

Coach Levi Steier
Albany, New York

Feature image courtesy of Craig Strobeck.

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Levi Steier

Levi Steier

Levi Steier, (Football Analyst) after a collegiate playing career cut short by injuries, began his coaching career as a student assistant at Dakota State University. Since then he has coached primarily at the high school level. During this time he has been a head coach and has coordinated all three phases of the game. He is currently the owner of a web design business and the publisher at OptionFootball.net where he discusses many aspects of football, but regularly focuses on option oriented football topics. Coach Steier enjoys talking football and encourages anyone who would like to discuss the game or find more information to visit his site. You can follow Levi on twitter @OptionFootball, on his Facebook page and on Google+.

  • Harry Witt

    Wow. That’s an impressive piece of work, Levi. I love it when a football mentor teaches a combination of consciousness as well as physical aggressiveness. But would it play Baton Rouge? Oh, snap.

    • Hello Harry. Thanks for for reading and the kind words.

  • FishDuck

    For other coaches who come to this site to learn…below is from Allen Jones, who is a Running Back and Linebacker Coach for Camas, Washington High School…..

    In that first clip IMO there is no double that Byron made the right decision on where to run. There are 2-3 unblocked defenders on the backside that would/could make the tackle. The playside was blocked really well and he goes untouched for the TD.

    The way I teach our RBs how to read the Inside Zone is using the terms, Bend, Bang, and bounce. I know that in the article the coach said the cutback (or bend as I would say it) can be as far back as the D gap…but that rarely ever happens because teams leave that end man on the LOS unblocked since he is the Read Key. If a RB bends it back that far–he will run right into that defender.

    The RB should bend it back if the backside LB over pursues or the playside DT/NG muddies up the hole. The way we teach it is the RBs eyes should first eye the playside hole and then they work their eyes to the backside LB.

    We do it that way because if they just start looking at the backside LB, then they often miss the hole on the playside. I really preach “running with your eyes” and to learn the blocking schemes and how the O-Line blocks against different fronts. This way on each play they can check the front before the snap and know how things should unfold up front.

    When the RB bends it back (cutsback)-it is designed to hit the A gap or B gap at the widest. If you bend it back tight, then you can cut off the Guard and then slide past the Backside Tackle, who should be picking up the LB. This is where LMJ made his money,….by pressing the hole and then bending it back tight and then straight up the field. He had so many long TD runs doing that….

    If the play is blocked well on the playside, then you BANG it up (North & South) with the aiming point being the outside butt cheek of the Guard and then get upfield ASAP.

    Finally if the hole looks muddy you can try to Bounce it out wide. This is more of an option when you have an inline TE or H-Back on the playside. A lot of young RBs will try to bounce everything because it has always worked for them and you just have to coach it out of them. Some guys can get away with bouncing it more than others because of their great speed and angles being tough for the defense.

    I know that many fans like to put the struggles that Oregon had running the Inside Zone solely at the feet of the interior offensive linemen, but the fact is that that RBs were just as guilty by running indecisively and not pressing the holes and bending it back. Both Byron and Tyner had their issues with this last season, although it was good to see TT start to figure it out late.

    People also think that for a RB to be a great IZ runner he’s gotta be this big, tough runner.While that can help a little to have a guy who can run through arm tackles–a great IZ runner needs to be able to read blocks, have great vision, have great feet and hips and finally run with conviction by trusting what his reads tell him to do. The Ducks have had some big RBs who could thump, but the best Inside Zone runner at Oregon was only 180 lbs. (LaMichael James)

    • bbb

      Levi – great article and awesome analysis. I agree with FD that Byron’s read on the first example was correct. All the playside defenders were blocked way out of the play, except for the NT. Byron faked the cutback and froze the NT enough to be able to accelerate past him. BM and TT are going to be a mighty pair after a year of experience with the IZR.

      • I think after reading your comment, and the comments above, that I would agree that Marshal’s read was the correct one. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

    • Coach Jones, thank you for your feedback and insight. After reviewing the clip, I would probably have to agree with you and amend my assertion that he might have made the wrong read. Thanks again for taking the time to comment and providing me with some deeper insight on this topic.