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To Be (an Outside Zone Team), or Not To Be...That, is the Question

In 2 seasons with the Bears, Jordan Howard has been highly successful on outside zone runs. But will that ultimately be the scheme that they run? I am not so sure.

Cleveland Browns v Chicago Bears
Jordan Howard
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

There has been much speculation about what Matt Nagy’s new-look Bears offense will bring to Chicago’s Lakefront. There are a lot of staples of the offense that I am fairly confident in saying will be there; the formations, shotgun snaps, shifting, RPOs, and West Coast passing attack to name a few. But what about the running game?

When Nagy was first introduced as the new head coach, it prompted a lot of film study of the Chiefs offense. At first blush, it was a bit overwhelming. There is a lot of volume and creativity to what that offense does, especially in the passing game. It was easy to overlook the blocking schemes and parrot what other’s were saying, particularly those close to Nagy.

Here is a quote from The Kansas City Star’s Terez A. Paylor:

But what Bears fans should really like is Nagy’s creativity and knack for calling plays. Since he took over as the primary playcaller for coach Andy Reid in early December, the Chiefs’ offense came alive again after a miserable two-month slump, as Nagy consistently dialed up the zone-running plays they used to so much success earlier this season. Nagy is a sharp guy who also increased the reliance on run-pass options that Smith likes so much and cut down the “trick-ya” plays the offense had grown too fond of.

So there it is, in black-and-white from a man who is around the team daily. The Chiefs have to be running mainly a zone scheme, right? Not so fast. I have watched the 5 “Nagy games” from last season several times now, and something has been gnawing at me. The Chiefs run some zone, but it appears that they ran a lot more power/isolation plays than I would have thought. These are your traps and counters, with pulling guards, fullbacks, and two tight ends. Real 3-yards and a cloud of dust stuff.

Here is a very common running play that the Chiefs used last year. Notice the guards pulling. Pulling guards aren’t really something that you see in a zone blocking scheme.

Really, the Chiefs blocking scheme was very reminiscent of the 49ers running game under Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman. Sure, there were definitely zone plays but they didn’t seem to be at the frequency at which I had expected. So what does this mean? Have we been duped? Is this something that we should be concerned with? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What’s the Difference?

Without going off on a boring—and extremely long—tangent about the differences between schemes, I will direct your attention to this article from the Washington Post which details the differences between the power/isolation scheme and the outside zone (stretch play) scheme. The Mother Ship also has a nice breakdown of the genesis of the outside zone, which was made famous by the mid-90’s Broncos and Terrell Davis.

Now that we know the difference between the two most commonly used schemes, there are some variations within them. For the modern NFL, the biggest difference is between the inside and outside zone blocking schemes. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is visually. So here are some prime examples—courtesy of our sister site Field Gulls—of the inside zone scheme, ran to perfection:

Field Gulls
Field Gulls

The biggest thing here are the reads for the running back. The blocking itself is very similar in that you are trying to flow everything in one direction, then give the running back options at the point of attack (typically the A-gap between the guard and center) as well as a cutback lane. The inside zone is a quicker read and the running back often needs to be reading the play prior to taking the hand-off.

The outside zone is designed to stress the defense horizontally, while also giving the running back and offensive lineman more time to allow the play to develop. The aiming point here is generally the outside or inside shoulder of the end blocker on the line of scrimmage. Here are some examples of Jordan Howard running the outside zone from 2017:

This was the bread and butter play for the Bears offense over the past 2 seasons, and one of the main reasons why Howard has racked up 2,435 yards rushing since coming into the league in 2016.

The Basement Dwellers

When Nagy was discussing his time with the Chiefs, he made a reference to the offensive coaching staff being together, constantly talking football. Bouncing ideas off of each other in a basement-type of setting. Nobody’s thoughts were dismissed, everyone was equal. I would expect to see that happen here as well.

The first name on the list of attendees is offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Now, to understand what Helfrich likes to do, it is easiest to view his mentor Chip Kelly’s time in the NFL. Our friends over at Niners Nation did an excellent job of breaking that down for us here.

While there are some inside zone elements, the bulk of the offense that Kelly ran at both Oregon and with the Eagles was the outside zone. Get your speed to the edge and in space. While Howard isn’t a speed demon, he does seem to have the one-cut ability to hit the hole at full speed.

The next man on the list is Brad Childress, who according to Arrowhead Pride:

...served the Chiefs as co-offensive coordinators for the 2016 season, before Childress became the Chiefs’ assistant head coach for 2017. Childress was the team’s spread game analyst and special projects coach from 2013 to 2015, so offensive consultant sounds like it could be a similar role.

If that is the case, then I would expect to see similar play design as you would while watching college football. While virtually all college teams who run a spread offense will run the outside zone, and likely some option as well, this article by Football Study Hall does a great job of showing how college teams utilize the inside zone.

Harry Hiestand was brought in to coach the offensive line. His background is mainly in a power/isolation scheme. This just throws another wrench into the equation. Couple that with the fact that James Daniels ran a similar style of running game at Iowa as the Chiefs, and it makes you wonder just what direction this team is heading.

There was also this quote from Bears undrafted free agent running back Ryan Nall:

They like to run the ball. They like to space it out as well. The inside zone scheme, we only put in a couple of run plays, it’s pretty similar to what we ran at Oregon State. There’s not much difference between inside zone schemes and stuff like that. I felt pretty comfortable with it.

Thoroughly confused? Yeah, me too. I really don’t know what to make of all this. I honestly am not sure what to expect. The thing that makes me furrow my brow though is that if they do move away from the outside zone, is that in the best interest of the team?

Why Does This Matter?

For me it’s about designing your scheme around your player’s skill sets. There is a large enough body of work to suggest that Howard is at his best when his is running the outside zone play. Couple that with the fact that Tarik Cohen isn’t exactly and between-the-tackles runner, and it just makes sense to continue to utilize the plays that best suit them.

Here is an illustration of the Bears running plays from 2017 (Courtesy of

The plays listed as “end” or “tackle” are most likely outside zone plays. The Bears didn’t run many sweeps, tosses, or option plays, so we can make a pretty fair assumption here. The plays listed as “guard” or “center” are most likely inside zone or power/isolation plays, which the Bears did use from time-to-time. Of course there is some room for error here because without watching all of the 399 running plays, it’s impossible to say with certainty, but this is a good reference point.

After taking a look at these stats, you can see that the left side was the dominant side for the Bears (so much for Charles Leno Jr. not being a good run blocker...). But what about outside versus inside? The outside plays went like so: 241 carries for 963 yards, or 4.00 yards per carry. The inside plays on the other had saw 158 carries for 674 yards, or 4.27 yards per carry. Interesting...what about 2016?

In 2016, the outside were much more successful than the inside runs were, to the tune of almost 2 yards per carry! The outside plays consisted of 206 carries for 1,159 yards, or 5.63 yards per carry. That’s getting some work done! On the inside, the Bears rushed 159 times for 583 yards, or 3.67 yards per carry.

Still confused? I am right there with you.

There are many reasons why this could be the case. The passing game was much better in 2016 but the interior of the offensive line was also healthier. This seems like a wash. Another reason might be that Cohen, and to a lesser extent Benny Cunningham, were guilty of trying to bounce a lot of plays outside which resulted in negative gains. That could affect the 2017 numbers as well.

There just doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for the discrepancies, but the fact remains that the Bears are a good outside running team and they shouldn’t alter that approach. I guess we will just have to wait and see what happens. My guess is that we will see a smattering of all of these styles but until September 9th rolls around, your guess is as good as mine.

The only thing I ask is that they keep letting Jordan Howard barrel over safeties on the edge. That’s just plain fun to watch right there!