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Examining the Steelers run game, Part Two: A new and improved zone scheme returns to Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Steelers will be trying to improve their running game in 2021, and the scheme they plan on deploying should help.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

This is Part Two of a series looking at why the Steelers run game failed in 2020 and the changes we may see to it in 2021. I’ve linked to Part One below:

The Steelers held their rookie mini-camp last week, at which their draftees and undrafted free agents got a first look at the offense new coordinator Matt Canada plans to install. In the aftermath, running back Najee Harris, the first-round pick from Alabama, shared his insights with the media:

“They are going to… utilize the running back in the passing game — out wide, in the slot, at the X position. The schemes of the runs, the inside zone, the outside zone. A lot of what they are doing in their offense is a lot of what we did [in college]. Putting the players in the best position to make a play.”

Harris’s comments about the zone schemes are particularly interesting. Pittsburgh has dabbled with the zone game in recent years but hasn’t committed to it. The last time they were a true zone run team was 2013 when line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. was brought in to implement the scheme. The run game was dreadful, however, finishing 29th in the league. Bicknell was dismissed after one season.

Now, with Canada in charge, it appears to be back. The Steelers have acquired several new pieces on offense since Canada’s promotion to OC, so they must feel confident the additions will fit his scheme. How Canada might use the zone game and its variants is hard to know, given how he adapted his scheme to the personnel on hand wherever he went in college. But, using the quotes from Harris as well as film study of Canada’s past offenses as a guide, we can make some educated guesses.

The Zone Run Game

Inside zone uses an area blocking scheme, which means linemen block along a track rather than being assigned a specific defender. For details on the scheme, see the piece to which I’ve linked below:

Outside zone is commonly called “Stretch” because of the way it expands a defense horizontally. Blockers are asked to reach the outside shoulder of defenders in their play-side gap and to either pin them inside or run them to the sideline, creating seams for the back.

The big difference between inside and outside zone is the aiming point for the running back. On inside zone, the back looks to hit the frontside A/B gaps or the backside A-gap. That can take him anywhere from the playside tackle to the backside guard. On outside zone, the play can hit anywhere from the B-gap to the edge (from the tackle to the sideline). The steps for the offensive linemen are adjusted as well, with their footwork and aiming points widening accordingly.

Here are some examples of Harris running these plays at Alabama. The traits that make a good zone runner include patience, vision and the ability to cut decisively. Watch Harris display all three on this inside zone run (this is actually mid-zone, but I won’t get into the weeds about it):

Harris makes it look easy. In actuality, this is a nuanced run. He wriggles through a pair of blocks from his tackle and tight end then jabs his way in and out of clutter. It’s a 10 yard run without feeling like one.

Next, notice the vision required to find the backside cut on this run. Harris has an uncanny knack for locating the smallest seems and getting his big frame through them. Once he’s through, he has the speed to pull away from pursuit in the open field:

Here’s Harris running outside zone. The lead-in isn’t great but watch him wait patiently for the seam to develop and then accelerate once it does. The finish at the end is just what you want from a 230 pound back matched up on a corner:

I love this next outside zone run. Watch Harris slap the turf in frustration at the end of it. He’s looking to press the edge and turn the corner but he sees Michigan’s backside linebacker coming unblocked over the top. Quickly, Harris redirects and cuts up the field, losing the backer in the process. Harris’s frustration stems from the fact he thinks he’s through the hole but gets dragged down at the last second by the backside pursuit:

The way Harris found the backer here and managed to evade him through the clutter of bodies speaks volumes about his vision. Most backs would have taken this to the edge and been knocked out of bounds for a two yard gain. Harris runs outside zone with the feel of a veteran.

Variations on the core zone schemes

The most exciting part of the emphasis on the zone schemes are the wrinkles that can be added to each. Zone plays can be tagged with an array of options that provide misdirection and multiplicity while maintaining the original run structure. In Canada’s offense, there are often two or even three potential ball-carriers on many plays. All must be executed well to succeed, of course, but these wrinkles often avoid the dead calls that can plague an offense when they line up only to find the defense has them outnumbered at the point of attack (something we saw often last season in Pittsburgh).

Here’s Canada’s 2017 offense at LSU. They’re running inside zone to the right out of a two-back set. Watch the back to the right of the quarterback motion to his left just before the snap. This gives the QB two options. If the defense does not adjust to the motion, the QB can flip him the ball, giving LSU an athlete in space. If the defense does react, he can run the inside zone play (there’s a third option here, too, where the QB could read the unblocked edge player and keep the football, but that won’t be a thing in Pittsburgh with Ben Roethlisberger):

LSU runs zone here because the alley defender jumps the motion. The play is unsuccessful because the back misses his cut (he should have cut backside off the hip of the left tackle). But we can see how the design stresses the defense to defend multiple options. This one in particular could be a nice look for the Steelers with Anthony McFarland flanking Harris as the motion back.

On the next play, LSU runs inside zone near the goal-line from a compressed formation with jet motion. The Steelers did this at times last season with Chase Claypool. This isn’t just a normal inside zone run, however. Watch:

Notice how the tight ends at the bottom of the formation block out as though it’s sweep while everyone else blocks zone in the opposite direction. That split flow muddies the read of the backside linebacker (#2) and makes him late to react. The play before, LSU ran the same blocking scheme from the same formation but gave the ball to the jet man on the sweep. The backer had to honor both the outside and inside run. By trying to play both, he plays neither well.

Since Harris alluded to the fact that Canada’s offense is similar to many of the things he did in college, here are some zone concepts from Alabama that Canada may borrow. This is outside zone to the right with a bubble screen to the bunch on the back side of the play. Bama is stretching the field in both directions and forcing Auburn to defend its entire width. Quarterback Mac Jones has an RPO here (run-pass option). He takes a quick peek at the backside linebacker (#9), sees him flow with the run action and flips the bubble screen to DeVonta Smith (had the backer sat, Jones would have handed the ball to Harris). Smith gets good perimeter blocks from his teammates and makes 20 yards.

Here’s a similar concept thrown to the perimeter. It’s outside zone to the right again, this time with a quick screen to the widest receiver in a trips formation to the boundary:

This is likely a pre-snap read. Jones sees two defenders lined up to the three receivers on the perimeter, knows he has a numbers advantage and throws the quick screen.

If you think these concepts are hard and involve a ton of thinking, watch us execute one at the high school where I coach. This is an RPO where we’re running outside zone to the right but having the linemen on the backside pass-set. The H-back runs a seam route and the quarterback reads the backside linebacker, who is unblocked. If the backer chases the run action, he throws the seam. If the backer sits, he hands the ball off:

As you can see below, the read-key steps up on the run fake so the QB hits the H-back for a nice gain. This is a great way to use a defense’s aggressiveness against itself and to make them wrong no matter how they react:

When Harris remarked that Canada’s offense was “putting players in the best position to make a play,” these are the things to which I believe he was referring. The wrinkles Canada adds to his zone schemes are designed to do just that. These wrinkles are subtle but make life tougher on a defense by forcing them to be disciplined and defend the entire field. It’s a very different approach from last year’s offense, which basically declared its intention and dared a defense to stop it. With Canada, plays are designed to take what a defense gives and exploit its weaknesses. It’s a refreshing change of philosophy.

What will it take for these schemes to succeed in Pittsburgh?

Unfortunately, Roethlisberger was not very proficient when asked to execute some of these concepts last season. He seemed either unwilling or unable to read second-level defenders on RPOs. However, the more I watch of last year’s film, I increasingly wonder if part of the problem was the inconsistency of Maurkice Pouncey’s snaps from center. Pouncey was never particularly accurate snapping in the shotgun (cue memories of the playoff game against Cleveland). With RPOs, snaps must be consistent since a quarterback has his eyes up and is not focusing on the ball. It makes sense that if Roethlisberger could not trust the accuracy of Pouncey’s snaps, he’d be hesitant to look up, thereby limiting his ability to read defenders on an RPO. A change at center might make a difference in Roethlisberger’s willingness and ability to run them.

As for the basic execution of the zone game, inside zone requires powerful interior blockers to handle the big defensive tackles that can clog up the A and B gaps. It’s no wonder, then, the Steelers haven’t been very good at it the past few seasons. They’ve lacked that sort of physicality up front. However, with guard Kevin Dotson returning to the lineup, fellow guard David DeCastro hopefully healthy again after an injury-plagued 2020 and Round 3 draft pick Kendrick Green, a strong player with a nasty disposition who will likely take over at center, they should be better positioned to execute it in 2021.

Outside zone was largely absent under Fichtner. That was in part because the Steelers lacked a back like Harris whose combination of speed, power and vision could make it go. And part was the poor blocking they got from their tackles and tight ends, which made sealing the edge a challenge. Rookie Pat Freiermuth will be an upgrade as a blocker at tight end while Zach Banner’s return at tackle could be a boon as well since he has good length and can overwhelm smaller edge defenders. The biggest plus, though, will be Harris, who is a perfect fit for the scheme.

The zone run game is back in Pittsburgh with a new conductor and new pieces in the orchestra. Here’s to hoping they hit all the right notes in 2021.