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Rick Dennison’s Buffalo Bills playbook: Inside zone running

This running play was Buffalo’s bread-and-butter in 2016.

Rick Dennison’s offensive playbook, in the vein of Gary Kubiak and Mike Shanahan, is a West Coast offense with a powerful, zone-based running scheme. Last week, we broke down the concept of Outside Zone, which will be Buffalo’s staple in the upcoming season. Today, we’re going to examine the other running look central to zone blocking: Inside Zone.

Inside Zone versus Outside Zone

Since both of these running plays are zone-based, as you might expect, the blocking rules are fairly similar. If the offensive lineman is “covered” with a nearby defender, he blocks that defender. If he’s “uncovered,” then he takes a step to the play-side. For outside zone plays, that means a lateral step toward the sideline. On inside zone plays, this is more of a drive block headed downfield.

The reads for the running back are slightly different, too. In outside zone, the back is aiming at the outside hip of the tight end, and he presses that gap unless he can find a cutback lane. In inside zone, the aiming point is the outside hip of the playside guard. The cutback lane, therefore, usually heads for the middle of the field.

For more details about blocking on zone plays, you could watch Sal Capaccio’s ten-minute visual breakdown of the specifics. Or you could learn from the zone blocking godfather himself; Alex Gibbs has several coaching clinics recorded on YouTube.

Inside zone, diagrammed

Here’s today’s play, a basic example of Inside zone. This play is called I Right, 14 HO Strong. Once again, it’s adapted from the 2004 Denver Broncos playbook.

I Right 14 HO Strong
An example of an inside zone running play

I Right

Unlike the “Zebra” play from last week, there isn’t a special personnel package. We’re in 21 personnel - two running backs (one is a fullback) and a tight end. The formation is also pretty self-explanatory. We’re in an “I” formation (the backs form an I shape), and the strength of the formation (meaning the tight end) is on the right side.

14 HO

This is the playcall. In the Broncos playbook, 14 and 15 are “tight zone” (inside zone) running plays. Their toolchest also has a 14/15 Man play for if they wanted to bring out some gap blocking as a changeup. Again, the quarterback is allowed to run a bootleg after the handoff on this play.


We’re aiming at the guard on the strong side of the formation, that being the right guard (number 76, John Miller).

Nuances of the play

There are hundreds of details for executing a perfect inside zone play, but here are some keys:

Reading the defender

In general, the decision the runner makes for when to cut will depend on the read he makes for a particular defender. His job is to “press” that gap on his guard’s outside hip (run close to it and make the defense flow in that direction), then when the defender he’s reading is out of position, “cut” back against the flow of the play into what has become open space.

On some teams, the runner is going to read the playside defensive tackle. Other times, he’s reading the MIKE (middle) linebacker. That can vary depending on the way the defense lines up, as well.

Getting upfield

Cordy Glenn (number 77), Richie Incognito (64), and Dion Dawkins (73) all have challenging assignments. Unblocked off the snap, their targets are the three linebackers a few yards away. They also want to help double-team any linemen at the point of attack to help widen the gap for LeSean McCoy to run through.

When an offensive lineman climbs up and seals a block on a linebacker, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also a serious challenge, especially as today’s linebackers start getting smaller and faster.

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.

I Right 14 HO Strong - Animated
A nice LeSean McCoy cutback earns Buffalo a good chunk of yards.

Charles Clay and Patrick Dimarco both seal the edge against crashing defensive ends. Dawkins is able to slide the SAM linebacker out of the way, and Miller gets enough of his tackle to open up some space on his inside hip. Wood and Incognito initially double team the nose tackle, making some space for McCoy to work.

The path taken by the middle linebacker brings him too far away from Incognito, who instead double teams the WILL linebacker with Glenn. McCoy makes a couple of cuts in the open field, and is eventually tackled by three players after roughly an 8 yard gain.