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Rick Dennison’s playbook: Outside Zone running

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Buffalo’s offense is set to maximize LeSean McCoy’s effectiveness again.

New Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is a part of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. Or, to be more specific, Gary Kubiak’s branch of the coaching tree. Dennison and Kubiak were teammates on the Denver Broncos from 1983 to 1990. In 1995, Kubiak became the offensive coordinator for Mike Shanahan’s Broncos, and Dennison came along as an offensive assistant, his first coaching job. They coached together for ten seasons until Kubiak was hired as head coach of the Houston Texans. Eventually, Dennison reunited with Kubiak in 2010 as the offensive coordinator of the Texans, then the pair traveled together for stints with the Baltimore Ravens and the Broncos once again.

The Mike Shanahan/Gary Kubiak offensive playbook is, at its core, a West Coast offense with a zone running scheme.

The West Coast offense, popularized by coaching great Bill Walsh, is a philosophy of using play designs that stretch the defense horizontally, using coordinated timing and positioning to stress defenders who had to react instead of playing proactively.

Mike Shanahan’s flavor of the WCO is more run-heavy, using play-action, quarterback bootlegs, and zone blocking to apply that stress philosophy to the ground game.

Today we’re going to talk about one of the staples of the Rick Dennison offense, by way of Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan: The Outside Zone running play.

Zone blocking versus Man blocking

If you’ve been following football for a while, you’ve heard of zone and man blocking, and you probably know that zone blocking requires smaller, more athletic linemen. What’s the difference?

In essence, man blocking requires your linemen to identify their “man” that they will block before the play begins. Their goal is to get on that guy and push him out of the gap. That’s not to say that man blockers aren’t going to be moving much - if they’re pulling across the line, they need to hustle to stay in front of the runner.

The idea with zone blocking is simple: If there’s a man directly in front of you, you block him. If there isn’t, your goal is to move into position to block the nearest man in the direction of the play, double-teaming if possible. There’s more coordination between linemen as blocks are formed and passed off to the next guy.

For more information on the zone blocking scheme, I’m just going to link Sal Capaccio’s video primer to Inside Zone and Outside Zone. Watch it and learn in a clear, straightforward manner. In less then ten minutes you’ll know all you need to know about the basics of zone blocking.

Outside zone, diagrammed

Now let’s take a look at an outside zone running play

The name of this play is Zebra West Right, 18 HO Strong. I’ve cribbed it from a copy of the 2004 Denver Broncos offensive playbook.

Zebra West Right 18 HO Strong
An example of an outside zone running play

Zebra

We’re going to start with the personnel package. In Shanahan’s offense, Zebra referred to a formation with one tight end, one running back, and three wide receivers. Another term for this package is 11 personnel - one RB, one TE.

West Right

This is the name of the formation. West places the third receiver (in this case, Zay Jones) in the slot between the tight end (Charles Clay) and the Z receiver (Andre Holmes). Right means we’re doing it on the right side of the offense. If it was West Left, it would be flipped.

There are dozens of formations in the playbook, but most of them are variations on a basic theme. West always has a player in the slot, but West Right F Short would be a slight variant that puts the Flanker receiver (Holmes, on the right side) in motion toward the center pre-snap.

18 HO

This is the actual play being run. In this playbook, 18 HO (Handoff) is a “wide zone” (outside zone) running play. The offense blocks an outside zone to the playside, and the quarterback runs a bootleg in the opposite direction to freeze the unblocked defensive end.

Strong

Finally we indicate that we’re running the play to the strong side of the formation. The strong side is the side that has a tight end attached to it.

Nuances of the play

Here are some keys to making this play work:

Creativity, vision, and decisiveness from the running back

Outside zone is a play that challenges running backs to find the optimal gap to attack. Their offensive line is on the move, and the back needs to read multiple levels of the defense, watch the flow of the players, and choose whether to continue toward the sideline or cut backwards and start running upfield.

Dealing with the backside defender

The right defensive end (left side of the offense, next to #77 Cordy Glenn) is set to go unblocked on this play. The offense is hoping that he’ll be too far away to catch the runner before he turns upfield. To ensure this, Tyrod Taylor is going to handoff to LeSean McCoy, then run a bootleg in the direction of the defensive end. Forcing the end to freeze for a half second as he tries to read the mesh point gives McCoy enough time to remain unhassled.

Let’s watch the play

Here’s the play, in animated GIF form. You may need to tap on the image to set it in motion.

Zebra West Right 18 HO Strong - Animated
LeSean McCoy and Buffalo’s offense perfectly execute this run.

Here, everyone does their job. Clay blocks the end initially until Dion Dawkins can take over, then Dawkins moves him aside. Clay and Jones then combine to take the strong safety out of the equation. John Miller and Eric Wood each get enough of the strong side linebacker and defensive tackle to keep them out of the backfield. McCoy, who is initially aiming at Clay’s outside hip, identifies the lane about to open between Miller and Dawkins and cuts upfield for 15 yards.