Beginner Series: Guide to Zone Runs

Zone Running

Zone Running is comprised almost entirely of two plays. The Outside Zone shown here with Kansas City vs New England,

and the Inside Zone shown here with Dallas vs Philadelphia,

The Outside Zone, also known as the Zone Stretch, is usually run first, and more often. It is run by moving the entire offensive line in the direction of the play. There is no designated hole, just a direction. As the offense moves to one side, the defense follows, this is called flow. As the defense flows toward the sideline, the running back can find seams between his blockers. This works because as the defense is moving toward the sideline, it is very difficult to close their gaps toward that side due to momentum. The easiest way to identify an Outside Zone is by seeing the movement of the offensive line. They will move as a unit about ten yards to the side and diagonally upfield.


After this play has been run several times, the defense will begin to flow towards the sideline before the RB has committed in order to get better angles for the tackle. Once this happens, teams will run the Inside Zone. The Inside Zone is designed to be run off the guard or center, but is also designed to have cutback lanes. If the defense begins its flow early, it will leave the cutback lanes wide open to be exploited by the RB.

Offensive Line:

The Offensive Line uses a zone blocking scheme on both of these plays, however, each play is a little different. The Outside Zone begins with a lateral step to the playside; this is essentially a side step. Each O-Lineman’s goal is to get in between his man and the sideline, however, this lateral step will sometimes cause the defender to attack that side, in which case the lineman can use that momentum against him as this opens a lane to the lineman’s backside. After the initial lateral step, the O-Line will rotate their hips to about 45 degrees and will run towards the sideline while blocking their man.

Notice how all of the linemen have their hips turned and are at a parallel angle to the RB. This allows them to get the necessary leverage to open seams for the RB.

They are able to drive the defense this way because as the entire O-Line moves to the side, the defense will want to move to that side as well in order to keep up with the play. For blocking assignments, In the simplest terms, each O-Lineman is responsible for blocking the gap to their playside. This means a covered lineman will usually block the man covering him, but if the defender attacks his backside gap, the covered lineman will let him be blocked by the next O-Lineman. If a lineman ends up with nobody attacking his gap, he will combo block towards the playside or immediately move to the second level to block a linebacker.

Watch the highlighted blocking matchup here. Number 73 is covered by a defender on top of him, before the play starts either #73 or #61 could end up with blocking responsibility of the defender. Once the ball is snapped, the defender attacks the A gap to the left of #73, which means # 61 has responsibility. #73 recognizes this as well, and moves to block a linebacker.


On an Inside Zone play, the lineman’s responsibility is slightly different. They take the same lateral step, but do not move as much toward the sideline. They are attempting to open a hole between the guard and tackle, and so the backside linemen will try to drive upfield instead of to the sideline. The playside linemen tend to let the defenders move themselves into the backfield. The goal on this play is to get in between the defender and the hole, instead of between the defender and the sideline. This works because the defense will try to drive the offense backwards to disrupt the outside zone, but in this play the same movement opens the hole.  The following image shows the end position of the blocks on an inside zone. The blue line is the original LOS. Notice the playside blocks are 2-3 yards behind the line while the backside are 0-5 yards in front of the line.

Here is the full speed play


On an Outside Zone, the QB opens up playside with approximately a 4 o’clock step and moves to meet the RB running to the outside. On an Inside Zone, the QB takes a deeper step, 5 or 5:30, to meet the RB running the inside lane. This can also be a pitch play, in which the QB will generally take a reverse step before tossing the ball. Following the hand off, the QB will then fake a bootleg to the back side, hopefully causing the containment defenders to hesitate or pursue.

Running Back:

The RB starts the play by taking an initial delay or rhythm step, in order to improve the timing of the play. On the outside play, the RB aims for the outside foot of the TE (or where a TE would be if not present), he moves quickly (though not full speed) toward that point. While moving to the outside the RB will be making his reads of the defense. His first read is the outermost defender’s head. If the head is to the inside of the blocker (ideal) he will run around the outside. As shown here. Watch #72 to the left of the screen.

If the defender’s head is outside of the blocker, the RB will look for a cutback lane. Some coaches will have the RB simply look for a hole, others will coach the RB to continue reading the next defender until he sees one who was blocked inside and therefore has an open lane. Both techniques have the same result, however, looking for daylight is typically better suited for ‘instinctual’ runners. These two images show the initial read by the RB and the secondary reads. Notice the defender’s head is outside the blocker’s.

In this image the yellow circles show defenders who got to the outside of their blocks, while the blue indicates the blocker got the outside. This means the correct read is to run between the blue and yellow circles.

Here is the full speed play

On an Inside Zone, the RB aims for the outside foot of the guard and his first read is typically the playside DT, although some teams will have a LB as the first read. If the DT attacks the B-Gap(off the guard), then the RB will cut back across to the other side of the line.

In the following play, the DT and LB attack the A and B gaps leaving the RB to cut to the backside of the line.

In this play, the DT, while technically attacking the A gap, moves far enough across the line to where the RB reads him as attacking the B or C gap. The correct read is to run straight through the hole as shown here.


The best way to stop an Outside Zone play is to get penetration deep into the backfield. This stops the RB from being able to get to the edge and causes him to cut early and hopefully be tackled by a D-Lineman. Without penetration, the defense will have to get outside each of the blockers, forcing the RB to cut back into the containment defenders. The other strategy is to simply have more defenders than there are blockers. While that is effective, it leaves the defense vulnerable to passing plays.

Things to Note:

  • While it is called a ‘cutback’, it is more accurately a cut upfield. The RB typically moves directly up the field, but the movement of the line to the sideline makes it appear to be cutting back across the field. Here is the aiming point of the RB

And here is where the RB makes his cut upfield.

  • This play can become a Zone Read by the simple action of leaving the backside DE unblocked.
  • These are the plays where you will hear the announcers comment on the ‘patience’ of the RB. He has to control himself until he finds a crease to run through, where he will then burst through  at top speed.
  • The RB will usually take exactly three steps before deciding to run outside or cut upfield. This coincides with blockers making an extra push at the same time to gain an advantage
  • Offensive Linemen can manipulate the read; for example, if a tackle feels he can’t make his next block on a linebacker, he can let the defender move to the outside, turning the read into a cutback away from the LB.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why do zone runs have ‘seams’ or ‘creases’ opposed to the ‘holes’ found in power runs?
  2. What type of back is most successful with zone running? Small, shifty? Large, powerful?
  3. Why does this system use only two plays, while a power run system needs multiple plays and blocking assignments?
  4. Offensive coordinator Alex Gibbs (considered the father of the zone run) was quoted as saying he would rather have a disciplined 6th round pick over a cocky 1st round pick at RB every time. Why do you think this is?
  5. RBs in this system are supposed to be a ‘one-cut back’. What does it mean and why is that advantageous?
  6. Could a coach start with Inside Zone and then move to Outside Zone? Why or why not?
Tyler Hill

Tyler was born and raised in the Midwest as a lifelong Kansas City Chiefs fan. After having his football career ended at the Junior Varsity level with a serious case of unathleticism, he took his vast years of experience to the only place it would be accepted and listened to: the Internet. He is a recent college graduate and US Army officer with too much spare time and too many opinions.