Spread Principles - Part 3: The Zone Play

GoBlueWolverine's Josh Turel takes an in-depth look at Rich Rodriguez's system. In part three of the series, Turel takes a look at the zone running play, the various reads, and the theory behind why it works.

For those that missed previous parts of the series, click the following links:
Spread Principles - Part 1: Formations
Spread Principles - Part 2: More Formations

The Zone Play

Here is a look at the backfield options on the outside zone play.

These are similar to the ones Michigan likely used this year but it will look different from the spread offense and less defenders in the box. The shotgun set also gives the offense the boot away by the quarterback that will hold at least the backside defensive end. The three options that the backs are coached to have is bounce, bang, and bend. Rodriguez’s offense has the back reading the two down linemen to the playside. The first read is the defensive end, if the tackle can reach block him (hook him inside) then the back is going to “bounce” the play out. If Jake Long were returning next year, you would see a lot of these! If the tackle cannot reach the defensive end, the back then reads the defensive tackle. If the center is able to stall the nose guard on the combo block with the guard, the back will get a “bang” read and cut up inside the defensive tackle and cram the b gap. Finally, if the back sees that the defensive end goes wide and the defensive tackle has crossed the centers face and is a threat to the b gap, he will “bend” the play underneath the tackle. The key to making the bend read work is getting the backside tackle sealed off with a double team but the backside guard and tackle. This all may seem very complicated but the reads come very quickly after getting lots of reps in practice.

Here are some quick illustrations of each read in practice.

As you can see on the bounce illustration, the playside tackle is able to hook the defensive end and the guard has come off the double team to seal the frontside linebacker. If the receiver does his job of stalk blocking his defender or running him off deep, this should be a good play for Michigan. On the ‘bang’ read illustration you can see how if you don’t get the defensive hooked, he keeps outside contain. Once the back sees the end get to the outside, he is going to look to cram the run inside. The back reads the block by the center and he sees that he has the nose tackle cut off enough to allow him to hit the b gap. The guard comes off the double team to get the linebacker once again, so we have a body on a body up front.

The last read again is the bend. The illustration shows the defensive end getting outside and the nose tackle coming down hard and clogging the b gap. With the tackle down hard, the center and guard double-team the tackle, but due his aggressive outside slant, the guard takes him over and the center leaves for the linebacker. With the defensive end outside and the tackle threatening the b gap, the back will bend it behind both of them. Due to the fact both defenders have fought for outside positioning, they have sealed themselves off from getting to the ball back inside… and if they do, it will be downfield. The center now has a body on a linebacker and the backside guard and tackle work to seal off the backside tackle and linebacker. That is the key to the bend play and it can be tough to do that against a four-man front. The theory you see here is that no matter what the playside defenders do, they are wrong. If the end wants to get contain, the back will run it up inside him; the defender is wrong. If the defender wants to pinch down and help support the b gap, then the back will bounce it outside of him; the defender is wrong. The only other major detail I’ll add here is facing a 3-4 defense. The 3-4 will take away the bounce play because an outside linebacker is outside and the end is head up on the tackle. Unless the outside linebacker really takes himself out of the play, there is no one there to hook him inside so we aren’t going to bounce it outside. That being said, one can still make a living off the bend and bang reads. Overall, the 3-4 will take away the bounce but will give you the bang and bend. Meanwhile the 4-3 is more vulnerable against the bounce and bang than the bend play.

The last part of the outside zone is using the fullback, which is called a “max back” in Rodriguez’s system. Owen Schmitt did a tremendous job at West Virginia in this role. The fullback is going to read the play like the running back does but he does not have a bend read because it will be too late for him to pull back inside and also it makes the play too complex. The fullback has one read and that is the tackle’s block on the end. Just like the running back, if the tackle hooks the end, he goes outside. If the tackle cannot hook the end, he goes inside. If the read calls for the fullback to go outside, he blocks the first run support man he can see. In the illustration it is a safety coming down. On the bang read illustration below you see the end goes to the outside, which makes the fullback turn up inside and clear a lane for the back.

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