Iowa Run Game: Zone Blocking and Variants

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]A strong rushing attack has been a focus of the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Kirk Ferentz Era. The Hawkeyes have averaged over 160 yards per game on the ground each of the last four seasons. A core component of their ground game has been a zone-blocking scheme, which Ferentz brought to Iowa City over 16 years ago, and continues to be a critical aspect of their rushing offense. However, in the past few years under running game coordinator – and new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz – Iowa has added some wrinkles to these designs with the goal of confusing the defense, and getting linebackers and defensive backs to trust their key reads to their own detriment.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Iowa’s Zone Run Scheme

At the start, we can look at the basic aspects of Iowa’s zone blocking scheme, which they run either out of a singleback formation, or inserting a fullback as a lead blocker. Here are three quick examples. This first play illustrates Iowa’s zone-blocking schemes using a sole running back in the backfield:

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On that example from Iowa’s 2015 game against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes line up in 12 offensive personnel, with quarterback C.J. Beathard (#16) under center and running back Akrum Wadley (#25) alone as a singleback behind the quarterback. Iowa runs their outside zone play to the right, with the offensive linemen and playside tight end George Kittle (#46) flowing to the right. On the backside, the tight end and left tackle start to flow to the right before executing cut blocks. Wadley takes the handoff and executes his bang read, cutting right through the hole created over the right tackle for a big gain.

Here’s another look at this design, this time as part of a packaged play that incorporates a bubble screen look to a trips formation:

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Finally, a look at how Iowa runs outside zone with a lead blocker in front of the running back. On this play from the 2017 Outback Bowl against the Florida Gators, the offense lines up with the QB under center and 21 offensive personnel on the field, with a slot formation to the left and an i-formation in the backfield. Fullback Brian Ross (#36) aligns in a 3-point stance in front of Wadley, and he’ll lead the RB to the right on this zone design:

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Now that we have seen the basic components of this scheme, we can start to look at some interesting ways that Iowa has incorporated variations into their running game with the goal of tricking the second-level defenders into trusting their run keys to their own detriment. Given the long history of this scheme at Iowa, defensive coordinators can often coach up their players to read and diagnose the Hawkeyes’ running game based on formation and the movement of the offensive line. This is encapsulated well in a presentation given by Bill Miller, the linebackers’ coach at Florida State University, who has been coaching linebackers at the collegiate level for nearly 40 years. As he stated in his talk at the 2017 Nike Coaches’ Clinic:

Our linebackers are five yards off the football. That is pretty deep, but the linebackers do not get caught up in the crap and trash that happens in front of them. The guard will not lie to the linebacker like the backs do. That is why we have faith in what the guards are doing. (2017 Nike Coaches Clinic Page 90)

So, with that in mind, some examples of how Iowa tries to use the guards to move the linebackers.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Pin and Pull Designs on Toss

One of the ways that Iowa does this is by using a pin and pull concept in conjunction with their usual zone scheme. This gives the linemen up front some advantageous angles on their initial blocks, while also getting blockers out in front of the running back and slowing the key reads for the linebackers, as they see the guard or guards block down and players pull, making the linebackers think that either a power or a counter play is coming their way.  

On this first example against Miami (OH), the Hawkeyes line up using 12 personnel with Beathard under center and Wadley alone in the backfield. The RedHawks are in their base 4-3 defense:

Iowa will run toss to the right, using a pin and pull design:

Looking at the defensive alignment, you can see why. The playside defensive tackle aligns in the A gap, on the left shoulder of the right guard. It would be a very tough block for the center to reach the DT, so the guard blocks down and the center pulls around him. The same goes for the playside defensive end. He aligns on the outside shoulder of the tackle, in the C gap, so the playside TE blocks down, and the tackle pulls around him. In typical zone fashion, the offense uses cut blocks from the backside OT and TE.

The play works to perfection. The down blocks and pulling linemen give the offense some advantageous angles, and center James Daniels (#78) is able to get in front of Wadley and lead him downfield. In addition, when you watch this play you can see how playside linebacker De’Andre Montgomery (#21) takes an inside angle here, expecting a power run to his side, and he gets caught in the middle of the field, and misses his tackle attempt at Wadley in the backfield as the RB accelerates to the outside:

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Wadley takes the pitch, avoids the attempt from Montgomery in the backfield, and races up the right side for a big gain.

Here’s a look at another similar design, this time using a bunch formation on the playside. Facing a 2nd and goal against the RedHawks, Iowa aligns with Beathard under center, Wadley alone in the backfield, and a bunch look to the right:

Again, they run toss to the right using a pin and pull design:

The center and right tackle pull again, and the playside TE blocks down on the defender to his inside. In an interesting twist, this design tasks the playside guard with trying to reach the defensive tackle, who is aligned on his outside shoulder. That defender gets some initial penetration but the guard, Sean Welsh (#79), is able to handle him. The DE also gets some penetration at the snap working against tight end Peter Pekar (#86), but as the center pulls, he is able to provide some help. In addition, the bunch design adds another pin and pull look, as wide receiver Riley McCarron (#83) executes a down block on the edge linebacker, allowing Kittle to pull under him to the edge:

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Touchdown, Iowa.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Counter Designs With Zone Looks

Now we can get even more creative. Iowa has built in some running plays where they show zone blocking to one side or the other, but the running back uses counter run footwork and aims his path toward the opposite edge. They can run this out of the i-formation on toss plays or handoffs, or when in a singleback formation.

The first two examples come out of the i-formation on handoffs. First, another play against the RedHawks. Facing a 1st and 10 just inside the red zone, Iowa lines up with 22 offensive personnel on the field. They use a two-tight end wing on the left, and an i-formation in the backfield. Beathard is under center. Miami uses their base 4-3 defense:

Here’s the design:

The offensive linemen flow to the left, as they would on an outside zone play. But fullback Drake Kulick (#45) starts toward the right edge at the snap. Behind him, Wadley uses counter footwork, stepping to the left first with his left leg before cutting back to his right behind Kulick. Beathard reverse pivots here, opening up to his left to further sell the outside zone look, before peeling back to give the ball to his RB. The play works to perfection:

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Kulick is able to seal the playside DE, while McCarron executes a crack block on the safety. That leaves Wadley one-on-one with the CB, and the running back wins that battle. For our purposes, the replay angle illustrates how the movement from the OL convinces two of the three linebackers that the outside zone is coming, as they crash down to their right in response to the movement by the linemen:

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Only the backside LB diagnoses the play correctly, but even he takes his initial steps to the right. He recognizes the play quickly, but he’s too far from the action to make an impact on the play until after Wadley has picked up the first down.

Here’s another example, this time against the top-ranked Michigan Wolverines:

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This is the same design, with a similar result. Iowa catches one linebacker blitzing here to the inside, Ben Gedeon (#42). But his fellow LB Mike McCray (#9) sees the movement of the OL and takes his initial steps to the right, getting him away from the flow of the play.  

Here’s an example of Iowa using this design, but with a pitch to the RB instead of a handoff. Facing a 2nd and 9 just outside the RedHawks’ 10-yard line, the offense aligns using 21 offensive personnel, with slot formation to the left and an i-formation in the backfield. Miami uses their base 4-3 look up front:

Iowa shows the zone scheme to their right, with the offensive line flowing to that side and Kulick aiming his run to that side of the formation. Wadley uses counter footwork here, showing a step to the right before cutting back to the left:

Beathard takes the snap and reverse pivots again, opening to the left before peeling to his right and looking as if he will hand the ball to Wadley on the run to the right edge. But at the last second, he simply flip the football to his RB, who is cutting back to the left side:

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Wadley is untouched as he scampers into the end zone.

On the replay angle, we get yet again a look at how the movement up front crosses up the linebackers, who all flow to their left. That gives the linemen very good angles to seal them off from pursuit:

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Finally, this play from Iowa’s 2015 contest against Northwestern gives us an example of how the Hawkeyes can run this concept out of a singleback formation. This play demonstrates how these concepts can also impact the edge and third-level defenders. On this 2nd and 8 play, Iowa aligns using 11 personnel, with a slot formation to the right and a pro alignment to the left. Beathard is under center and Wadley is the single back. The Wildcats have their 4-2-5 defense on the field.

As with the previous examples, the offensive line flows to the right at the snap, showing an outside zone run to that side. Wadley steps first in that direction, before angling back to the left edge. Similar to the last few plays, both linebackers attack to their left, buying into the outside zone at the start. But we also see how this look impacts the DE and safety in Wadley’s path. The defensive end cuts inside, and the safety rotates forward to run the alley and replace the DE:

All that does is give the playside wide receiver a better angle to execute a crack block on the safety:

That leaves Wadley again one-on-one with a cornerback, and given that the CB cuts inside to mirror the WR at the start of the play, the RB is able to bounce around the defender and race up the sideline for the score:

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By using these blocking schemes, Iowa can confuse the linebackers and set up some perfect blocking angles both on the edges and downfield. As the Hawkeyes look to rebound after a somewhat down season in 2016, using these designs will allow them to continue to run the ball effectively, as they break in a new quarterback under their new offensive coordinator.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as his look at Indiana and the double post concepta look at the 2015 wide receiver class, or his collection of work on the 2017 Senior Bowl Quarterbacks.

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