We’ve heard it so many times this summer, I’d need both hands and at least one foot to count the number of times I’ve said “I swear I’m going to pistol whip the next person that says ‘outside zone’.”
Ditto for “Shanahan” anything.
That sounds like a grumpy old-man-yells-at-cloud take, and grumpy/’old man yells at cloud’ is fair. It’s one thing to hear that half of the NFL is adapting the Shanahan Offense, as coached by pretty much anyone that’s had a Michelob Ultra with Sean McVay and/or Kyle himself.
It’s another thing to hear day after day that the New England Patriots, who have notably stayed devoted to a pounding old-school run game that more often than not emphasizes sound gap control and mano-a-mano blocking schemes, are trying to get in on this new-hotness wide-zone gravy train.
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The results, per the beat reporters in training camp and all of our eyeballs watching the preseason, have not exactly been what you’d like to see.
We could go on. You get the idea. Nobody’s sounding the alarm quite yet, except for the usual suspects that’d still be crowing doom and gloom even if Mac Jones had five All-Pros protecting and five All-Pro skill players. But it is intriguing in the “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” sense. In the last 5 years, which of course included their Hulksmash power-run….er, run to a Super Bowl in 2018, the Patriots run game ranked as follows league-wide:
- 2021: 125.5 rushing yards per game (8th)
- 2020: 146.6 rushing yards per game (4th)
- 2019: 106.4 rushing yards per game (18th)
- 2018: 127.3 rushing yards per game (5th)
- 2017: 118.1 rushing yards per game (10th)
…and we certainly don’t have to get you a refresher on the glory days of the OG dynasty and how seriously THOSE teams took pounding the rock. You or someone you know probably still have a Corey Dillon jersey somewhere, you were there, you know.
So it begs the question: if the Patriots view the run game as one of the coveted tools they’d take if they were on that Alone TV show, and they’ve been successful at it for as long as some of their fans have been on this planet (not to mention the beastly ‘78 Pats that set the NFL rushing record at 3,165 yards that was only recently broken), then what on earth is behind the attempt at installing some new-ish zone plays getting mixed reviews at best?
First of all, let’s establish what we’re talking about here; the video below is a handy elevator pitch-level explainer on what outside zone running is.
Here’s the money line (or the TL;DR, whichever you prefer):
Outside zone forces defenses to run horizontally and puts more responsibility on the running back to make the blocking scheme of the offensive line effective. Even if offensive linemen lose ground, the back can run off of those blocks and create positive plays that exploit fast-filling linebackers. With an outside track, linebackers and second level defenders have to respect the threat of the offense getting the edge. That can then open huge cutback lanes in the middle of the field for running backs to take advantage of. Zone blocking philosophies can differ, but since it attacks space and gaps, the scheme can be incredibly versatile and effective against whatever front and look the defense presents.
The offensive line moving horizontally should stand in pretty stark contrast to a lot of the Patriots run-game classics like I-Formation runs and trap plays that we all know and love. Ditto for the running back getting to the outside edge instead of crashing straight upfield between the guard and the center and lowering their shoulder when they smell a linebacker coming in hot.
Still though, these guys are pros, right? And incredibly smart pros, at that? You’re telling me Damien Harris and Rhamondre and David Andrews and Trent Brown and Michael Onwenu can’t figure this out?
The answer, as usual, is of course it’s possible, but like Patriots Legend Dan Koppen once succinctly put it, “this s–t is hard”.
How hard? And what’s the key to actually getting it down?
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a couple interviews with some of the GOATs of the wide-zone offense have recently dropped that may help us out. One with Mike Shanahan at Sports Illustrated, and another one at NBC Sports Boston with Broncos great Ed McCaffrey, who among other things, earned himself a pair of rings playing under, uh, head coach Mike Shanahan.
First off, let’s address the favorite topic of podcast hosts and Madden players and offseason GMs alike; does the personnel the Patriots have fit what they want to be doing?
The difference with Shanahan’s offense and its various clones is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to teach, especially up front, because, for offensive linemen, most of the required movements are unique to this scheme. Blocking schemes require specific personnel that exclude a lot of standard, lumbering type linemen. Some of the most critical blocks cannot be practiced, because the backside “cutting” techniques, which ask an offensive lineman to dive at the turf, tripping a chasing defender at the hips, are too dangerous to try out on fellow teammates who could easily sustain lower body injuries.
At its core, outside zone is a scheme that asks a running back to make a single cut. The running back has a predetermined point that he is sprinting to laterally and, at that point, plants his foot and accelerates upfield. Unlike other runs (inside zone, which asks running backs to make multiple cuts), it takes away some of the guesswork, with the trade-off being more athleticism demanded of the offensive line.
OK, so, asking some world-class athletes on the O-line to do stuff they’ve either never done before, haven’t done since college, or haven’t done since their last stop in San Francisco. Got it.
What about reprogramming your brain to think about the run game like that when the play is called, especially if your bread and butter is “bulldoze the guy directly upfield from you”?
Ed McCaffrey says:
“If you haven’t done it then it does take time just to install the outside zone scheme,” McCaffrey explained. “Just one play is really like 20 plays (because of the variations in personnel and options). So to put in an outside zone scheme with multiple personnel groupings … think of the time it takes to put that in.
“In the NFL you have time to put in multiple blocking schemes and all teams do. But how much time are you going to spend doing that? Time is our most valuable asset. So to get guys up to speed and be really good at the outside zone schemes which involve multiple combination blocks versus various fronts, to get really, really good at that takes time.”
One more context quote on the “it’s going to take time” idea, just because most of us are at least somewhat prone to thinking “surely there’s a shortcut or three in there, right?”
Short answer: nah.
“Think of wide zone as a whole language in and of itself,” he said. “And with that, you only have so much time in a day to get really good at something. And that’s the question for head coaches and coordinators. ‘What do we want to be great at?’ If you want to be great at outside zone, you gotta spend a lot of time running outside zone.
“Then you have to pair that with all of your play-action passes. Your play-action passes are gonna work off of the runs you run well and have success running. … and with play-action it all comes off of the run game. What are you gonna be good at? You can’t be great at everything. You just can’t. So what are you gonna hang your hat on? And if it’s gonna be outside-zone it takes time.”
So there you go. All the Patriots offense has to do to truly master the outside zone/wide zone is like the great Pantera once put it, you’ve got to belong to it.
(*not exactly Pantera’s finest hour, but hey, that was a slam dunk reference that was too good to pass up)
Actually, as luck would have it, there’s another funny Ed McCaffrey quote about the terminology, cause what would any hobby be without the diehard true-believers correcting everyone on a technicality:
“Some offensive line coaches are insulted when you call it outside zone,” McCaffrey began. “They like to call it wide zone and they call inside zone ‘tight zone.’ Rarely when you are running an outside zone play does it go outside. It usually cuts back somewhere in between the edge defender and the hash mark. Some people call it stretch, doesn’t matter what you call it, it is a whole system.
Oh OK, got it, that’s an important distinction, just like Darth Vader doesn’t fly a TIE Fighter, he flies a TIE Advanced. Sorry for assuming. We all know what THAT does.
Either way, by all accounts and all the preseason tape we’ve been able to get so far, it seems like the Patriots are trying to incorporate more of the outside zone style into the playbook without abandoning the gap scheme power-run staples of yore, which… seems like tough sledding based on the endorsements and explainers above. Especially if the end goal is a “student of all, disciple of none” approach that more or less just means the Patriots want to be able to pound the rock with some different attacks than before.
And the whipped cream and sprinkles on top, because there’s always whipped cream and sprinkles on top around here, is that Bill Belichick apparently picked a heck of a year to decide “yeah we’re going to add this whole new batch of plays to our repertoire”. The first year post-Josh-McDaniels and somehow still only two season removed from Tom Brady, and NOW is the time to do this??
Belichick and whoever comprises the offensive staff these days aren’t going to run it if it doesn’t work. And let’s be real, we’re not going to learn if it works in the preseason or not. That’ll be learned in Week 1 of the real season.
Which — feeling confident I’m speaking for the class here — can’t get here soon enough.