If you’ve ever seen a Mike Riley/Danny Langsdorf game, whether in Lincoln, Corvallis or anywhere in between, you’ve no doubt seen the inside zone. When Riley and Langsdorf have had productive interior offensive linemen, they’ve often based much of their run game around the inside zone play. Inside zone is a downhill, vertical displacement play, designed to get you at least one double team on the DL to knock them back off the line of scrimmage. Once the double team is secured, one of the OL will slide off and attack the next playside LB.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the Huskers’ bread-and-butter running play, as well as some common variants that you’ll see the Huskers run.
Inside Zone Read
This is your standard zone read play that all announcers refer to during almost any college game on TV these days.
Here, I’ve tagged the zone read with a bubble screen RPO to hold the backside DBs. Pre-snap, if the QB sees the CB and NB playing soft on the backside or he sees the NB lined up closer to the DE, he rips the bubble screen. If not, the QB reads the backside DE and runs the zone read. If the DE squeezes on the RB, the QB pulls it and looks to immediately replace that DE downhill.
If the DE stays at home, the QB gives to the RB on a path to the playside B gap.
The RB’s job is to make his cut based on the playside interior DL or any of the LBs who show up in the playside gaps. If the double team with the C and RG vertically displaces the NT, the RB hits the playside B gap and gets moving upfield as one of those linemen will work to the LB. If the NT holds his ground or gets displaced horizontally into the playside B gap, the RB can hit it back into the playside A gap. And if the NT holds his ground in the playside A gap and the playside LB shows into the playside B gap, the RB can bend it to the backside A gap between the DT and NT.
The benefit of zone blocking is that it easily adjusts to any games the defense is playing with its DL. If any of the DL slant or twist, the OL has rules to instantaneously adjust to this action. I’m not going to go down the inside zone rabbit hole just yet as to the various rules the OL may use on inside zone, but we’ll get to that eventually. For right now, just know that inside zone IS a physical play designed to let your interior OL knock the DL back off the line of scrimmage following the Golden Rule of Inside Zone: Block The Fat Men First. Hammer the NT or DT with a double and get to the LB to let the RB stick his foot in the ground and get vertical into the box.
Inside Zone Slice
The IZ Slice is a variant that Nebraska leans on heavily when Cethan Carter or Andy Janovich is in the game. There are two major differences between Read and Slice. First, there is no read on this play: it’s a straight handoff to the RB heading to the playside B gap. The second difference between Slice and Read is that a playside blocker, in this case the H-Back, comes back across the formation to block that backside DE. You run this play when that DE starts chasing the RB on Read. After a few times getting cut by that H-Back on Slice, the DE will start distorting his path to get around that H-Back.
In this case, I’ve tagged the IZ Slice with jet motion from the Z and the defense has responded by rolling the safeties toward the jet motion. Because inside zone hits somewhere between the playside B gap and the backside A gap, the jet motion helps widen out the SS so he can’t act as a second level run support defender. Instead, he’s got to play the alley for the jet sweep man. And if the defense doesn’t react to that jet motion, instead choosing to stay at home against the inside zone, you can be sure Langsdorf would be calling the jet sweep soon after to take advantage of that unguarded edge.
Here’s what it looks like in action:
Inside Zone Bluff
Bluff looks exactly like Slice with two major exceptions. First, rather than having the H-Back or FB block the DE, he passes up the DE and moves to the second level either to seal a LB or climb to a DB. That leads us to the second difference. The “read” is back in play on the DE, and his movement will determine whether the QB gives to the RB or keeps it following the H-Back. You’ll see Nebraska call this when, after being cut blocked a few times on the Slice play, that DE starts to heavily pinch and run flat down the line to avoid the H-Back. When that happens, call the Bluff, let the DE run himself out of the play, and let your QB get around the edge with an angry Cethan Carter leading him into the defensive secondary.
Inside Zone Base
After Nebraska has hit defenses with IZ Read a few times where the QB is reading the DE, the Huskers will call Base to keep the defense guessing as to who the read defender will be.
A common way to stop the standard Inside Zone Read is to “scrape exchange” the backside DE and LB. When teams use this technique, the defense has the backside DE squeeze down into the backside B gap, giving the QB a “keep” read off the DE. However, because the defense loops the LB around the DE and into the C gap, the QB who keeps the ball is met with a 235lb LB immediately in his face.
Thus, Nebraska will go to the Base play and make the read man the backside LB.
The read is the same as standard Inside Zone Read. If the LB scrapes, the QB has a give read and the LB takes himself out of the play while the backside OT blocks the squeezing DE. If the LB does not scrape but instead chases the RB to the frontside, the QB keeps and gets around the backside edge while the backside OT takes out the squeezing DE.
Inside Zone Dive
The final basic inside zone variant is the Inside Zone Dive. This is the quickest hitting inside zone play, as the RB takes a path straight downhill to the backside A gap rather than to the playside B gap as in the other inside zone runs. Depending on what the RB sees in the backside A gap from the defense, he can either bounce it to the playside A gap or the backside B gap.
The QB is still reading the backside DE for the give or keep clues, though this often ends up a give simply because it hits too fast for the DE to squeeze down to the RB’s path.
I’ve also tagged this with Orbit Motion, named because the WR is “orbiting” around the backfield rather than “jetting” across it on a straight line. This is a good motion to pair with IZ Dive because the playside defenders often want to squeeze hard to get the RB on that backside A gap path. If the SS or playside LB gets caught looking inside at the dive, the QB can get the ball to the orbit man on either a bubble screen or a straight toss.
Although I have yet to see Nebraska do it, I’ve seen teams modify this play by slowing down the initial orbit motion to run a triple option to the playside by (1) reading the backside DE on the dive before the QB reverses out playside where he’s matched by the orbit man to run what amounts to a standard double option off a playside LB or DB. It’s a tricky play, but it’s an interesting wrinkle that gives the defense a “read” defender on each side of the ball.
Wrapping It Up
Nebraska’s interior offensive line struggled early in the year, and this made running inside zone an exercise in futility. If you don’t have a C and OGs that can work a double team on the defense’s interior linemen and then control them with one man moving up to the LB, you don’t have much of a chance to run inside zone successfully. Too often Nebraska’s interior linemen got stuck trying to double the DT or NT and couldn’t move up to the LB. After replacing Chongo Kondolo with Zach Sterup, Nebraska got better at running the inside zone, including this Read hammer from Newby against Minnesota (watch how the jet motion distorts the defense too!):
The good news is that some new faces show up on the interior OL next year. Early indications are that Jerald Foster could feature heavily at LG, and both Tanner Farmer and Jalin Barnett also look to get involved at the RG position as well. Paul Thurston filled in admirably for The Pipeline once Reeves went down in the bowl game, and Michael Decker, despite looking like a bookworm, is a quiet assassin who has a shot at making some noise at center too.
Key on the inside zone in Nebraska’s early games, and especially against Oregon. Oregon loves to hit inside zone with its tempo game because it doesn’t take a lot of time to get lined up, and, as we see above, you can run the inside zone play a ton of different ways without changing much in your formation. You can also pair it with all sorts of motion. If Nebraska can efficiently run many of the inside zone variants, it can step on the gas and get the running game that fans have been clamoring for over the last year.