Running Inside Zone

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I do not run zone blocking scheme but am always looking for information on how the blocking works.    I stumbled upon an AWESOME website, in fact it is the best I have ever seen in explaining zone blocking.  It is by Neale McMaster and his website is    Here is one of his articles and you will see that if you want to learn more about zone blocking…you should visit his website.  It if FULL of great articles like this.


In this article we’ll look at some of the basics of running the inside zone and some of the variations you can use to make a simple Inside Zone play, a big part of your offense.

Let’s first look at some small technicalities, regarding Running Back entry point, and what this does to the defense.

  • The Aiming Point, is the visual key you give the Running Back to aim for.
  • The Entry Point is the Gap you are expecting to be open based on the defensive front.

The Aiming Point for Inside Zone can be anywhere from the Center’s playside butt cheek, to the outside shoulder of the playside guard, it very much depends on your players, offensive style and what you are trying to accomplish.

For me, I like the Running Back (RB) to have an aiming point at the middle of the Playside Guards’ (PSG) butt.  This allows the RB the best post-snap read of the play developing in front of him, before he makes his cut. The idea is to aim for the centerline of the PSG, to give an entry point of the PS A Gap. However, the entry points will vary based on the defensive front, but if you give the RB unlimited options in where to go with the ball, chances are he’ll over think it, and you’re not going to get many gains from that play.  So reduce the RB options to 3 and use easy to use verbiage to instill options into the RB’s mind.

  • BANG IT – Hit it in the Playside A Gap – This is the ideal scenario.
  • BEND IT – Bend it to the Backside A Gap – if the playside A Gap has been crashed or filled
  • BOUNCE IT – Bounce it to the Playside B Gap or wider – when the middle is clogged up.


The BANG, BEND, BOUNCE concept for running backs speeds up their reads, and results in greater gains for your Inside Zone plays.

A coach should also think about the window dressing used around these plays. This means formations, motions, reads, and triple options.  Changing personell groups makes it even harder to defend: run it with / without TE; move TE to FB; empty sets where QB runs the ball?

All of these are possibilities, using the exact same blocking scheme and play nomenclature. So let’s have a look at some of the options available.



As the spread offense becomes more and more prevalent throughout football, especially college football, the advances and innovations to the inside zone have become one of the biggest parts of the game. Let’s look at some of these innovations.  I use the “spread offense’ term loosely here as I’m fully aware fo the many different brackets and types of offenses run today.

There is also a difference between “read option” and “zone read” as “read option” implies triple option (dive read, pitch read).  I am going to be talking “zone read” as made famous by Rich Rodriguez, using standard inside zone blocking rules while utilizing the QB as a running threat.



You can see in this example, from a standard shotgun set, the QB uses the backside defensive ends alignment against him, and simply ‘reads’ what he is doing, it provides a very simple rule for the QB:

  • If the DE goes upfield – GIVE the ball
  • If the DE crashes – KEEP the ball

Obviously this has been massively successful throughout all levels of football, and has been modified to do the same thing out of the pistol formation too.


This option was first used by Chris Ault at Nevada, notably with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, and was extremely successful, here is an example of the ‘Snatch’ technique they talk about. While it looks like a read, the reality is they don’t read every play, they tag when they want to read and when they don’t, but use the same technique throughout.

This allows us to keep 6 on 6 blocking the Inside Zone play, while reading the backside DE.

What we have seen over time is defense becoming more aware of these schemes and evolving, either teaching the DE to ‘slow play’ the read and delay the QB’s decision making, or through gap exchange with the DL and LB’s.


The 2-Back Zone read game allows offenses to better match up to good defenses, and it provides a vast array of options that can be added to your game, to really mix up your play calling.  For example, if you take the standard shotgun zone read above, and add in a Fullback/H-Back, you can make the same play look so very different to the defense. Multiplicity with Simplicity!


You can call:

  • LEAD – Tells the Fullback to lead through the PS A Gap
  • SLICE – Tells the Fullback to block the Backside DE
  • LOAD – Tells the H-Back to leave the DE and block first force defender.

If we call the above play “PRO RIGHT 22 ZONE”, then we can tag the fullback to give us very different looks, yet highly successful plays.

  1. “PRO RIGHT 22 ZONE LEAD gives us 7 v 6 blocking at the POA.
  2. “PRO RIGHT 22 ZONE SLICE”  lets us still read what the DE does, but we have a body blocking him.  If DE goes upfield, QB keeps it and runs off FB block
  3. “PRO RIGHT 22 ZONE LEAD”  gives us an additional blocker in front of the QB if the read dictates that the QB keeps the ball.

The real benefits to this type of zone read is the seemingly multiple plays you can run, and run well, with a minimal installation time.

Again, we can see the same options available from a pistol set:

I’ve shown the Fullback or H-Back in multiple positions on these diagrams, but obviously only 1 position would be used.

You can immediately see some of the benefits 2-back sets have in the read game, especially when it comes to multiplicity. I’ve explained the 3 different types of plays, but think of the formation you can run them from:

  • King (Fullback to same side as TE)
  • Queen (Fullback opposite the TE)
  • Flanker (Fullback aligned in a wing position)
  • Trips (2 receivers and TE on the same side)
  • Wing (Fullback aligned outside the TE)
  • Pro (Split backs)

These are the top formations that these plays are run from, and we can see that through installing the Inside Zone concept, we are learning one concept, while making the defense prepare for 18 different looks.  Let’s look at a PRO-STYLE INSIDE ZONE with variations.  The aiming point moves to the 1st defender past the center and is ran at the B-Gap defender.

Here are Coach McCusker’s rules for the OL, FB, Running Back (Tailback here) and Tight End.


The base play here will end up looking like:

You can see, as we are lined up in a Weak-I formation, the FB has the backside cut-off of the DE. This allows for the OL and Tight End to be able to block 6 v 6 in the middle, a strong position to be in.

We can also put a ‘plus’ tag for the FB, which can be used if the first force player is disrupting the play, and cannot be blocked by the WR receiver (Note: adding the plus tag also allows tells the WR to block second force).  This gains an advantage and loads the playside,  ending in 7 v 6 in the box in some situations, as shown below. Obviously this is a nice change up to initial ‘Minus’ or ‘Slice’ blocking by the FB.

PLUS TAG for FB moving him to strong side

BACKSIDE BOOT:  Every time the QB hands off on the zone he gets his head around and finds the backside DE. He should be able to tell the coach where he is and when he should start to think of calling the boot”

It is very important to not just having an inside zone play but having a package of plays to compliment and work off the base zone play. Have variations on it, whether it’s from a single back or 2 back set, spread or trips or double tight. These are all simple, easy to install options that keep the defense guessing and keep your offense fresh.  Adding in Boot, Slice and Reverse are all plays that should be part of your ‘Zone Package’ and don’t forget a powerful play action passing game to your offense.


One of the main coaching points here is to look at the QB’s progression, from Flat to Over, rather than working from deep backwards.


The QB fakes zone, then the Slot in Trips comes back behind the QB to fake or take the reverse. The QB then settles straight back to set up to throw (behind the B Gap).   

The OL run the Zone, but the BST loops round and ambushes the BSDE, or if he bites, leads up on the OLB on the side.”


The triple option has been around for years, and will continue to be so for many years, for one major reason. It works!  So let’s build upon the single and two-back variations of the inside zone by adding this time tested concept.



Here we can see we still have the regular Inside Zone read with the FB in a shotgun alignment, and the Running back becomes the pitch man in the event of a keep read. In these cases the read man is the backside DE, and the pitch man will be the first force player, likely to be a safety.  This is an excellent play call against a good gap exchange team also. 

If you have different personnel groupings you can also substitute in your #2 back to act as FB and take the handoff. It’s just another way to get your best athletes on the field. 


Here is an example of a variation on the Inside Zone Read. Again, this is a very good play to run with 2 RB’s on the field.

It’s also possible to put motions into these plays, and you can see the immediate benefits to that also.  Finally, and a bit more outside the box thinking in this one, is using the WR as the pitch man, as you can see here. It’s a play I would run more to the boundary than the field due to the width of the receivers, but is extremely easy to swap sides. 

For example, I have shown Spread Rt Triple Option Left. We could just as easily run Spread Rt, Triple Option Right.  In that case the DE over the TE would become the Read man, and the corner over the Z would be the first force, or pitch player. 



Now let’s look at 2 plays packaged into one….or even 4 plays packaged into 1.  This involves Pre and Post-Snap Reads by the QB, but when done correctly, the defense can never be right.   The essence of these plays is a numbers game, based on the number of defensive players in the box, if there are less than 6 players in the box we run the ball, 6 or more, we look at passing.

While this concept seems simple enough, sophisticated defenses try to disguise calls and not give clear pre-snap reads by “stemming” and moving around before the snap.  After the snap players will rotate quickly, such as the Strong Safety covering the flats.


As a way to solve this, we can now incorporate a Bubble Screen or Fast Screen (Outside Receiver Screen) onto the backside of zone run concepts, especially out of Shotgun or Pistol sets.  The APEX defender (highlighted in red) is the readd player.  If he turns his hips, to drop to his passing zone, we give the handoff, if he stays to play the run, we throw the Bubble. A very simple and easy to install play onto your existing zone play.

Here we can see some clips of this play at the NCAA level. You’ll notice how easy it is to add in motions to fully utilise your existing formations, and still have the same concept being run.




But what if you have an athlete at Quarterback and you don’t want to lose him as a threat?

We can take the simple play demonstrated above and add in a zone read with the QB. Like so:


or in the NFL (with what I would say isn’t the most athletically gifted Quarterback ever seen):


Here we can see the play drawn up, and can easily dissect the options available:

  1. DE plays upfield, forcing the GIVE to the running back
  2. DE crashes in forcing the KEEP, then the force player is covering the Bubble, so remains a KEEP.
  3. DE crashes in forcing the KEEP, then the force attacks QB run, so throw the Bubble.

This is good play to throw in and mix it up with the other plays described above.


Credit here must go to Hugh Freeze, not just for having one of the coolest names in football, but for really understanding this concept and how it can work.   The 4 in 1 takes all the advantages of the 3 in 1 play above, and adds in a backside curl route as the 4th option.


This really pushes the whole “Numbers” game to a whole new level. Essentially the reads now become:

  • 6 defenders in the box = Run the Read option
  • 6 or more defenders in the box = Pick the best option between Bubble or Quick Hitch.

What this demonstrates is that you can leave this one play on the pitch, and run it multiple times quickly, forcing the defense to stay in the same personnel and likely, front.

This article is by no means an exhaustive list of all the ways to run Inside Zone, but instead a series of ideas of how to open up your playbook to incorporate the zone, and make things simpler for your offense.   Adding in constraint plays like the bubble is a handy thing to have, but if you add it onto a zone play, and build from there, you can very easily make simple and easy to remember plays for your offense, but give the defense a multitude of things to worry about.   What if instead of running the Bubble to the backside, we get the outside receiver to run a fade? You can see how quickly things can open up.

I realize this was a long article, and appreciate you taking the time to go through.   Although I am a Wing-T guy, I need to have an understanding of these other offenses so that we can be better at defending them.  Also, many of these concepts are in my PISTOL WING T Attack and are on my NO HUDDLE AND POST SNAP READS DVD.  The only difference is that I still use the Wing T blocking rules and do not try to add Zone Blocking techniques to my linemen.

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About Me

Coach Stewart has coached football for 27 years, winning championships with 6th graders, 8th graders, high school freshman, and high school varsity. He coached 9 years at the youth and freshman level, always serving as head coach. After completing his college at age of 28 he has coached 21 years at the varsity level, 13 as the varsity head coach.

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