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Has the NFL figured out how to stop outside zone?

Part 2 of breaking down Kyle Shanahan’s coaching tree

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

In the first part, we broke down the coaching, and the core plays of the offense focused solely around the running game and play action. In this part two of the series, we’ll look at the ways the NFL adjusted to the scheme and what the 49ers did in 2019 to adjust to multi-varied fronts.

Has the NFL figured out how to stop the outside zone - McVay and the Rams in 2018

In 2017, the Rams hired Sean McVay, who previously worked with the Shanahan’s in Washington, then took over as the offensive coordinator under head coach Jay Gruden in 2014. When McVay took over the Rams, they added some speed to go along with their premier running back and second-year quarterback off his rookie season.

In addition to Todd Gurley and Jared Goff, the Rams added Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins and drafted Cooper Kupp. The Rams went from being dead last in 2016 in DVOA, Football Outsiders efficiency per play metric, to ranking sixth in 2017. In 2018 they improved further to second in the league.

To the casual observer, and the pundit on television, the offense that McVay ran was directly a descendant of the Shanahan tree and almost a carbon copy of the offense Shanahan was currently running in San Francisco. But this was not the case and still isn’t. For one, McVay’s primary personnel grouping was 11 personnel, not 21 like the 49ers. The Rams ran 11 personnel on 89% of their snaps in 2018. Second, the Rams base running play is the mid zone, not outside zone.

The distinguishing factor between the mid zone and outside zone is how the play side tackle blocks the end man on the line of scrimmage. In the clip above, run to the weak side, the left tackle kicks out the end rather than reach blocking him. This changes the primary read for the running back to the play side defensive tackle to the backside defensive tackle. The idea is that it lets the running back find the open space quicker than they would on the outside zone because the reads shift to the interior spaces given up by the defense.

In 2018, McVay made several adjustments and incorporated more fly and jet motions for opposing defenses to account for.

The fly motion pulls the defenders one gap over and changes their run fits and strength entirely because they also need to be watching for a reverse fly. Moving a defender just one gap over can be catastrophic for a defense. The linebackers shift over with the fly, allowing the blockers to get up in space and cut them off.

However, the Rams offense faced trouble over the remaining weeks of the 2018 season as teams seemingly figured out to plug the gaps on the mid zone. One team limited the Rams running game with the usage of a 6-1 defensive front: Vic Fangio and the Bears. The front was employed by the Patriots in Super Bowl 53.

The Patriots played a 6-1 front numerous times throughout the 2018 season against zone running teams. In the first series of the Super Bowl against the Rams, the Patriots made their intentions known with the 6-1 front deployment. Along the front is a 6-1, every gap is accounted for along the offensive line with defenders having the ability to 2-gap based on flow.

To play the pass in a 6-1, the Patriots stand up the edge players, safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, giving them the ability to cover the flats. The front itself is backed up by cover-4 quarters coverage behind, allowing the safeties and corners to read and react to the run as it develops and allowing them to come up in run support relatively untouched.

Against the run, the Patriots are able to account for every gap and let linebacker Dont’a Hightower roam free and help rally to the ball since there is no threat of a cutback into the weak side B-gap.

Against the pass, the 6-1 let the flat defenders back side stay home and not chase the fly, enabling them to collision the receiver in the flat and letting the secondary react to cover the intermediate crosser and deep routes.

In 2019, the Rams saw more than their fair share of 6-1 fronts, made little adjustments, and as a result, fell to 15th in DVOA in the running game. Some of that is the result of injuries along the offensive line and being without Gurley for most of the season, but the Rams showed little ability to adapt.

How Shanahan adjusted in 2019

In 2018, the Rams zone runs, both inside and outside, accounted for 73% of their total run plays. In 2019, they accounted for just 50% of their total run plays. By contrast, the 49ers zone runs, inside and outside, 2018 accounted for 75% of their total runs in 2018 and 54% in 2019.

In 2018, the Rams ran gap scheme runs 11% of the time to the 49ers 20%. In 2019, the Rams had a slight uptick to 14%, but the 49ers boosted their percentage up to 30%. That 10% adjustment made a huge difference in how Kyle Shanahan ran his offense in 2019 as power, counter, trap, etc., became almost as much of a staple of the offense as the wide zone.

Early in the season, the 49ers turned to the gap scheme runs to counter some aggressive defensive fronts by the Buccaneers, Bengals, and Steelers. In particular, the 49ers hit the Bengals with power and counter gap scheme runs to take advantage of the Bengals tendency to pursue upfield quickly.

Counter was a nice compliment to the 49ers run game and an effective and efficient running play for the 49ers against teams determined to crowd the line of scrimmage and neutralize the outside zone.

Counter involves two lead blockers, usually the backside offensive guard and a fullback or tight end (GF/GY counter) or in some cases the backside tackle (GT counter). While the rest of the line blocks down, the lead blockers kick out and lead the running back through a newly created gap.

The 49ers also utilized a fly motion receiver to further influence the defense. The fly motion pulls an extra defender out of the box and allows the lead blockers to get through the hole cleanly and make their blocks against defenders out of position.

Against the Steelers, Shanahan dialed up counter running plays for two touchdowns on the similar play. The first was a GF counter fly running play, the second was inside zone fly with nearly the same motion and hitting the same point of attack.

On the first play, the Steelers respect the fly motion by widening with the fly motion. Defensive end T.J. Watt and linebacker Devin Bush get pulled out of the play by Dante Pettis’s fly motion. Watt has no impact on the play and Bush is met in the hole by fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Jeff Wilson Jr. finishes with a touchdown.

In the second clip, the Steelers don’t respect the motion and actually collapse the point of attack but the 49ers block it up well enough to get Wilson into the endzone.

While the counter run was a nice way to change it up, the most effective and explosive gap scheme run the 49ers employed was trap.

Trap involves down blocks at the point of attack while one defender is left unblocked. An offensive lineman from the backside pulls to the playside to “trap” the unblocked defender who pursues up field aggressively. This was a particularly effective play in third down passing situations for the 49ers.

Lastly, outside zone was still a staple of the offense and was the primary running play for the 49ers.

Shanahan and run game coordinator Mike McDaniel have a variety of ways that the outside zone can hit a defense. They ran it primarily out of 11, 12, 21, and 22 personnel to both the weak and strong side and tagged a run-pass option quick slant on the backside on numerous occasions that went for big plays late in the season.

Outlook

2020 is going to be an interesting season, and I don’t think we’ve seen the full depth of Shanahan’s playbook even with the addition of the new material we saw last season. The NFC’s race also gets even more interesting with Gary Kubiak back in the offensive coordinator seat for the Vikings, which also promises to be a force to contend with in the playoffs.

In addition, Aaron Rodgers is going into his second season under Matt LaFleur, and the Packers will also be a formidable opponent in the NFC West. Throw in the Rams under McVay in the division, and there promises to be even more hard-fought battles as all these teams come up with new ways to scheme around the old staples.