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Running the Zone Stretch

Introduction
Notre Dame runs a 2-gap 3-4 defense with three very large men anchoring the defensive line at the point of attack. Because of that, combined with their fast flowing LBs, they formed one of the best run defenses in the country last year and will likely be similar this year. Michigan, now looking primarily like a zone running team, will need to find success with a run game variety if they want to move the ball on the ground under the lights. In this post, we will discuss how Michigan will mix up the zone stretch with the lead counter and why that will be essential to rack up rushing yards.

Hoke is getting back to the Michigan basics in terms of the running game.

How the Zone Stretch Works
Most of you by now are familiar with the zone stretch play. You’ve seen it on blogs, you’ve seen it on TV, you’re pretty comfortable with it. The OL basics are: if you are covered (defender over top of you) or if there is a defender in the playside gap you will block that man; if you are not covered or do not have a person in the playside gap, you will help double team on a block and get to the second level to block the LBs.

On a true stretch play, the RB has 3 options. He will initially attack the outside, his aiming point at the crack of the TE’s butt. He’s reading TE to FB. If the TE fails to reach, the TE will drive his man to the sideline and the RB will cut inside. If the TE reaches he stays on his stretch track. Now he’s moving on to the FB. The FB is playing “force” to “support”. Force is going to be any player that steps up into the backfield off the edge. He’s called “force” because his purpose is to force the play back inside. If FB sees force, he’ll kick the defender out and toward the sideline, with his path parallel to the LOS (line of scrimmage). If he doesn’t see force he will turn the corner and look for “support”. “Support” will be a defender that is hopefully coming down trying to fill, such as a safety. It could also be a LB scraping over the top. It is important that the FB doesn’t chase here, if the scraping LB isn’t to the FB, then he passes him. If the scraping LB is near the FB, then the FB will turn and block off color inside. The hope though, is that the OL has gotten out onto their second level blocks and there are no free scraping LBs. That means the FB is free to stack onto the safety, playing it outside to inside to give the RB a running lane down the numbers.

Refer to figure 1 to see how a zone stretch works: LINK

Why the Zone Stretch Works Against 3-4
In my opinion, zone schemes are the best against 3-4 defenses. There are several reasons for this:
With only three down DL, there are natural bubbles and allies for the OL to double and get to the second level. Because there is so much movement from the LBs, the zone is more adjustable on the fly. Rather than having a “target”, you have a zone that you are getting to, making it better against defenses that have a lot of movement. It forces the DL to move. The DL is trying to get their head playside against the zone as they play two-gaps. Then they are trying to get leverage and anchor so that the OL cannot reach them. This means they have to be agile and then strong. Big bodies often struggle to move. Big bodies that start moving have a lot of inertia and can be pushed passed the play. Zone stretch creates natural cut backs against over aggressive and heavy scraping defenses, like ND’s. The backside LB is responsible for stopping the cut back, but if he gets caught in the wash, a seam for the RB to hit is available.

Why the Zone Stretch is Not Enough
As I said, the Fighting Irish tend to play a two-gap defense with scrapping LBs. If all you run is zone, it gives obvious keys for the LBs and DL. The DL knows that they just need to beat the OL off of their first step in their initial direction. Since OL are attempting to reach DL, this means the DL has a head start and will likely beat the OL to the spot, making it easy to anchor. It also means the LBs can make plays on the ball. With the DL getting to their spots, it becomes more difficult for the OL to release and get to the second level. The LBs themselves have simpler reads and can scrape and fill fast. So purely running zone stretch will get a lot of defenders around the ball in a hurry, and will probably result in a stagnant run game.

Are There Ways to Run Zone Stretch and Mix up Keys?
Yes, the most popular being pin and pull. But this can really only be run effectively depending on the defensive alignment. Say a DE is lined up in a 6 technique (outside shoulder of the OT) with a TE outside. The OLB to that side is a little off the LOS. The pin and pull will be the TE down blocking on the 6-tech and the OT folding behind him and attacking upfield at the OLB. The OLB, who is reading through the TE, will read block away and start slow scraping over the top to fill his cut back responsibility. This gives the OT an angle to seal him inside. Everyone else in this instance will still zone block as normal.

Figure 2 shows the pin and pull method of blocking zone, which is essentially a mix between zone and gap blocking: LINK

What Else Can Be Done to Prevent Easy Keys?

The most obvious, and possibly most important, is the counter. Against CMU, Michigan tried the lead counter with a pulling tackle several times. I diagramed this recently on Maize n Brew as a way to pull an OT rather than a guard. Why this works in combination with zone blocking is because most of the OL will be down blocking, combo at the point of attack to pretty much stop any momentum/penetration by the defense, and release to the second level. If the DL and LB read those down blocks as zone reach blocks, they will try to fight over the top. The counter step from the RB/FB along with the reverse step from the QB will further key the defense that it is in fact a zone stretch, when in reality it is a counter. That gets the defense flowing and gives the blockers good angles to the DL and LBs. The DL picks the wrong gap in their two gap system and many of the LBs take themselves out of the play.

Figure 3 shows how a defense can easily confuse their initial reads of the lead counter for the zone stretch:LINK

Conclusion

Mixing the zone stretch with lead counter will hopefully make the defense think instead of simply reacting based off first sight. Perhaps combining it with a couple Power O runs with a pulling guard will successfully slow down the LBs from flowing and make the job of the DL more difficult. A hesitating defense is a dead defense. An over committing defense is just as dead. So ND has to pick its poison. But in order to put the Fighting Irish in that position, Michigan needs to be successful running the other plays. If not, Notre Dame will continue to flow fast and be very disruptive at the point of attack. And if that happens, the Wolverines may lean more on Devin Gardner’s arm than they want.

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