This is Part Two in a three-part series examining the state of the offense in Pittsburgh. In Part One, we looked at how borrowing from Matt LaFleur’s scheme in Green Bay could benefit the Steelers. Here, we look at why an investment in the outside zone play could pay dividends for the offense.
One of the big storylines in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season was the mandate from management that they run the football better. The Steelers had struggled for several seasons in that area, and they were challenged to improve. A new coordinator was hired. A new line coach, too. The line was reconstructed. The best running back in the draft was acquired. The front office could not have been clearer: be more physical, run the football better.
And still, they failed.
The Steelers finished 29th in the league at 93.1 yards per game. That was up from their dismal 2020 performance, where they finished last at 84.1. But it did little to fulfill the mandate. By the end of the season, the run game was struggling so badly that they reduced it to a single scheme: inside zone. Inside zone is a fine play, one of the most versatile ever invented. But, in the absence of complementary schemes, it is limited. The Steelers could not get to the edge. They could not set up the play-action pass. They could not stretch defenses to open the middle of the field. While a poor offensive line was the primary culprit for their struggles, and while improvement in that area is essential, Pittsburgh must diversify its scheme to run the ball more effectively.
With that in mind, Matt Canada would be wise to invest in the outside zone play. Outside zone is one of football’s most useful concepts. Canada loved it as a college coordinator, and today, in the pros, it’s become a staple of some of the best systems in the league. When you examine the offenses of Todd McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Andy Reid, you find that each relies heavily on outside zone.
For an explanation of the outside zone play, and why it would benefit the offense in Pittsburgh, let’s dive in.
The idea at the heart of outside zone is this: stretch the defense horizontally, then gash them in the seams created by the stretch. In that sense, it’s the perfect play for the “spread” notion that has infiltrated contemporary offenses. Additionally, outside zone uses the aggressive tendencies of defenders against themselves. It forces them to be disciplined and gap-sound. When defenders flow hard with the outside zone action, they get washed out of the play by blockers, creating the seams on which outside zone thrives. This displacement of defenders can also be exploited by complimentary actions like bootleg passes, trap plays and RPOs. In short, outside zone is effective because, when executed well, it scrambles the structure of a defense and makes it unsound.
The play is blocked similarly to inside zone, which is designed to hit in the A-gaps. Both are combo schemes, with a pair of blockers working in tandem on a down-lineman and a linebacker. With outside zone, as the name indicates, the aiming point is wider. The running back generally aims for the C-gap between the play-side tackle and tight end. If the edge is sealed, the back will press it. If not, he will look for a seam so he can stick his foot in the ground and go.
Because the aiming point for the back is wider, the blockers aim wider, too. Their goal is to run through the play-side shoulder of their near defender. Since defenders are trained to defeat these types of blocks, they fight laterally to prevent this from happening. This causes the defense to stretch, creating the seams on which outside zone thrives:
As we go to the film, let’s focus on how this concept stresses a defense.
Here’s McVay’s scheme in Los Angeles. Watch how the back, as he heads for the C-gap, recognizes an opening inside when the linebacker tries to penetrate and is washed out by the right guard. The back makes a decisive cut, gets up-field and is into the secondary:
On this one, the back recognizes the over-pursuit of the play-side linebacker, so he cuts up inside, then winds the ball back when the safety over-pursues as well:
And here, he recognizes there is no cut, and that the tight end and tackle are getting movement on their double-team, so he presses the edge before turning up-field:
Notice that these plays were called to both the strong and weak sides of the formation, and that each hit in a different gap. The back didn’t run to a pre-determined hole but instead found open grass based on the movement of the defense. This flexibility is one of the most attractive assets of the scheme.
Even when the run fails to yield a chunk play, it can be valuable. Here’s Shanahan using outside zone in San Francisco. The 49ers do it from 21 personnel, with the fullback leading on the unblocked alley player to the right of the formation:
Dallas does a nice job pursuing and manages to hold this to a moderate gain. Consider, though, what the concept does to the defense. Look at all the defenders running laterally, and how the middle of the field opens as a result. This is just as important as the result of the play itself, because of how it sets up the next concept.
That concept — the bootleg pass — has many variants. Here, San Francisco uses a simple two-man route. They fake an outside zone run, then roll Jimmy Garoppolo the other way. The receiver to the side of the boot isn’t really an option. He’s simply running off the near corner to create space for the Over route, which comes from the opposite side of the field:
Watch the flow of the defense. The front-eight all bite hard on the run action. The safety bites, too, and in attempting to recover, nearly runs into the corner chasing the Over. The displacement of so many defenders creates plenty of space, and Garoppolo makes the throw for a nice gain:
Here’s a variation of that route that integrates a third receiver. San Francisco clears out the corner to the side of the boot again, this time by having him chase a crossing route to the opposite side of the field. This allows them to bring tight end George Kittle, who is aligned on the right wing at the snap, under the formation and into the flat. With all of the run-action going right, Kittle pops out wide open on the other side:
Here’s another variation. This is Tennessee running the clear-out for the Over route, but they add a wrinkle by slipping a tight end up the numbers away from the boot. In the scramble to reclaim proper positioning, three defenders chase the Over while no one accounts for the tight end:
As you can see, these routes complement each other, giving the play-caller options on how to manipulate defenders. And they all capitalize on how the run-action breaks down the structure of the defense.
When we think of outside zone in Pittsburgh, it’s instructive to consider how Alabama used it with Najee Harris. The Tide especially liked it near the goal line, where Harris’s vision was an asset. Look at this run, against Florida, where Harris patiently lets his blocks develop, then cuts in behind the flow of the defense:
Here’s another, against Texas A&M. The end-zone view provides a good look at how Harris uses the movement of the defense against itself. While A&M does a nice job setting the edge, a gap is created when linebacker Buddy Johnson (#1), now Harris’s teammate in Pittsburgh, tries to undercut the block of center Landon Dickerson (69). Dickerson pins Johnson inside, and Harris finds the seam:
Notice, too, on this clip, the pursuit of A&M’s back-side edge player, #20. He comes hard down the line to tackle Harris as he’s crossing the goal line. You can see as the clip develops how quarterback Mac Jones (10) rolls away from Harris once the hand-off is made. There’s no doubt Bama had a bootleg pass off of this look that would have exploited the aggressiveness of the edge defender if necessary.
Any scheme is only as good as the players who execute it. In Pittsburgh, no scheme will thrive until they address their personnel issues. That said, as they do acquire new talent, finding players who are suited for outside zone would be smart.
The Steelers may look for an upgrade at the back-up running back spot, but with Harris in the fold, and with Mike Tomlin’s preference for the bell-cow approach, they’re set up well.
The line is a different story. Their struggles have been well-documented, so expect a shake-up regardless of the scheme. But, as far as outside zone is concerned, linemen who are athletic enough to reach opposing defenders and climb to block flowing linebackers are preferable. The Steelers have several linemen who technically fit this description. Dan Moore Jr, Kendrick Green and Chuks Okorafor are all fairly athletic. All, too, have displayed limitations. Moore and Green both struggled with scheme and strength as rookies, while Okorafor lacked power at the point of attack. Meanwhile, none of the team’s guards — Trai Turner, Kevin Dotson, John Leglue or B.J. Finney — possess much lateral quickness. The Steelers will surely address the line in both free agency and the draft.
A change to the coaching staff could benefit the line as well. Adrian Klemm talked a great deal about making the unit more physical when he was promoted last spring. The results spoke otherwise. The most disappointing aspect of Klemm’s tenure was how the line regressed over time. This is often an indictment of a coach’s failure to teach and make adjustments. Line play is certainly about being physical, but it’s equally about communication and sound technique. Under Klemm’s tutelage, those aspects suffered.
The good news is that Chris Morgan, who replaced Klemm for the final three games, has significant experience in the outside zone scheme. Morgan was with Shanahan in both Washington and Atlanta, where it was used extensively. Should he be hired permanently, it seems reasonable to expect he’ll be a better teacher than his predecessor.
Finally, there’s the question of who will succeed Ben Roethlisberger. Mason Rudolph appears to be in line for a one-year trial. Rudolph is no Russell Wilson, but he moves well enough to be useful on boots and roll-outs. Outside zone also sets up the RPO game well. Roethlisberger was never comfortable running RPOs, so finding a quarterback who is better trained in this area would be helpful. Whether with Rudolph or someone else, Canada must capitalize on the play-action opportunities the outside zone scheme provides.
Defenses were far too comfortable against the Pittsburgh offense in 2021. With just one core run scheme, no play-action game and an inability to use the entire field, the Steelers were too easy to defend. While the personnel must improve for the offense to be better next season, the scheme must improve, too.
Integrating outside zone and its compliments would be a great place to start. It would punish defenses for being overly-aggressive and would open up areas of the field that were inaccessible this past season. Matt Canada used the scheme extensively as a college coordinator. He would be wise to do so again.
Next week, in the final installment of this series, we’ll look at how attacking the middle of the field in the passing game could provide another means of improving the offense.