Cowboys Outside Zone Run: From "Nuts & Bolts"

One of the most obvious changes in 2014, was the philosophical shift on offense, focusing more on the run game. After making three first round investments on the O-Line since 2011, the Cowboys became a run oriented offense in 2014, and did so with great success. The Cowboys will have a new lead running back in 2015, but there is no reason to expect a shift away from depending on the running game.

Note: This article is an excerpt from, “Nuts and Bolts: A guide to the Schemes of the 2015 Cowboys” an E-Book written by me, available now on Amazon. “Nuts and Bolts” is your ticket to becoming the smartest Cowboys fan in ANY room you set foot in this year, All of the Whats, Hows, and Whys are covered and it's just in time for the 2015 season. $4.99 is all it takes to get your copy right on your favorite reading device, click RIGHT HERE to order NOW!


With the athletes the Cowboys have on the offensive line, along with Frank Pollack the offensive line coach, all signs are pointing to a continued emphasis on the zone blocking scheme, specifically the Outside Zone, or stretch play. In fact I believe that the back best positioned to be the lead runner in 2015, Joe Randle, is probably better suited for the stretch play than last years’ NFL Offensive Player of the year, DeMarco Murray.

The outside zone can be run from one or two back sets, and can be run to the strong, or the weak side of the formation, depending on the defensive front. The outside zone play is one that features an immense amount of nuance, both schematically and technically from the blockers, depending on the look they get from the defense, but the beauty of the scheme is that the running back’s read is very simple and never changes. For the purposes of this medium we will focus on running the ball from a single back set, against a 4-3 defense playing an Over Front.

The general idea of the outside zone play is to create lateral movement in the direction of the play. This lateral movement strains the defense because it forces players at all three levels of the defense to maintain their spacing while on the move. The theory is that somewhere along that side of the field there will be a break down in that spacing, either due to a player over pursuing, or a second level defender being slow to their spot, these breakdowns create a crease for the running back to take advantage of.

The god-father of the modern zone run game, former NFL offensive line coach, Alex Gibbs, said that he has two goals for his running game every season.

  • 1. No Negatives
  • 2. Lead the league in explosive runs

Gibbs acknowledged that having Zero negative runs is not a reasonable expectation, but it sets the goal in the running back’s mind, which is to waste no time in the back field once the ball is in their hands. Before we get to the running back’s read, let’s take a look at the play on the chalk board, and talk briefly about the blocking assignments of the guys up front.

In terms of the blockers, assignments are based on the direction of the play, the play-side blockers play with certain techniques and assignments, and the back-side blockers play another set of assignments, with a few “tags” or adjustments that can be made depending on the alignment of the defense.

Front-Side Blockers: Out of this look, the play-side blockers are working “combo blocks” on the two down linemen to that side. The tackle and the tight end are combo’ing the defensive end, while the guard and center are working on the defensive tackle. The goal of these combo blocks is to get the defensive player moving laterally. Then as the play develops, one of the blockers will leave the initial double team, and work up to the linebacker level of the defense. Which blocker goes to the second level is determined by the reaction of both the defensive lineman they are doubling, and the linebacker who will be blocked. The goal of all the blockers is to maintain outside leverage on their opponents. To determine who will work the combo’s, the linemen use a “covered” and “uncovered” designation. In general a guy is considered “covered” if there is a player between his helmet, and the helmet of his adjacent blocker to the play side.

Back-Side Blockers: The assignments on the back-side of this run are fairly simple in theory, but can be very difficult to execute. On this side of the play, both the guard and the tackle will face significant obstacles in executing their assignments, the guard is at a significant leverage disadvantage, and the tackle is attempting to chase down a far superior athlete. Their ability to execute their blocks will have a lot to do with the success of this running play. It is possible that the center could assist the backside guard with a “stiff-arm” technique, shooting his left hand to the shoulder pad of the nose tackle in an attempt to slow him down and allow the guard to get the leverage he needs. Many times these backside blockers will cut block defenders in the legs to stop them completely and keep them from chasing the play down from behind.

Running Back: The job of the running back in this scheme is simple, but requires a great deal of discipline from the runner. Many times you will hear the term “one-cut runner” used to describe players who are successful because of the decisiveness required to run well in it. The runner will execute a two part read, which is a series of if-then, scenarios. The first read is the last down lineman on the line of scrimmage to the play-side (marked with an * on the drawing), if he steps inside, the runner will bounce to the edge. If this player plays outside, or gives an unclear read, the runner immediately moves to his next read, which is the next down lineman inside. If he has stepped inside, the runner will split the gap between the first and second reads, if the second read player flows outside, the runner will put his foot in the ground and get turned up field as quickly as possible, going behind the second read player.

Many times the get up-field part of this run is called a “cut-back” although that’s not how it is coached, it is taught as a north-south run, and typically takes place at the original aiming point for the running back as below. In each of the three images, the red dot represents an imaginary tight end that serves as the aiming point.







As this series of images illustrate, even though it appears as though Joseph Randle “cuts back” on this play, he has actually gone outside his initial aiming point, before cutting down hill.

The first step is a zone step with the play side foot, in which they will open their hips and step almost parallel to the line of scrimmage. The next two steps are pointed in the direction of their aiming point which is the outside leg of the tight ends pre-snap alignment. By their third step, the runner should have made their read and know where they are going, and will be receiving the ball. These first three steps should be taken at less than full speed to allow the blocking scheme time to develop As a coaching point, the running back should remain in sync with the center as the work their way play side. Notice how Randle (21) and Frederick (72) are almost perfectly synced up in both the prior images, and the image below as Randle takes the hand-off.

The number one problem that will get a running back in trouble in this running scheme is indecisiveness and “dancing” behind the line of scrimmage trying to make huge plays. The structure of the scheme, the execution of the assignments by the blockers up front, and the abilities of the running back will create enough big plays.

Others:The Quarterbacks job is to sell the defense on a quarterback keeper, in order to keep the backside defenders from crashing down. The tight ends/full back will act as a part of the blocking scheme on either the front or back-side, and the wide receivers will block the safety their particular side of the field, with the goal being to leave their worst tacklers, or corner backs in one on one tackling situations against your running back.

Note: This article is an excerpt from, “Nuts and Bolts: A guide to the Schemes of the 2015 Cowboys” an E-Book written by me, available now on Amazon. “Nuts and Bolts” is your ticket to becoming the smartest Cowboys fan in ANY room you set foot in this year, All of the Whats, Hows, and Whys are covered and it's just in time for the 2015 season. $4.99 is all it takes to get your copy right on your favorite reading device, click RIGHT HERE to order NOW!



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