Zone Blocking and Nebraska’s Running Game – Pt. II

Here is the second part of my look at Nebraska’s zone blocking schemes and their impact on our running game. If you missed part one, just look down the page, you idiot!

Our Bread and Butter

For all of Bill Callahan’s offensive acumen and 1,200-pound playbook, his playcalls in the running game are decidedly unimaginative. If you’ve watched any Nebraska games over the past few years you have been inundated with the stretch play. The stretch play is a major component of a zone blocking scheme. With the stretch play you are trying to force the defensive front to flow and to stretch horizontally so you can create seams. The idea is that the running back will generally head off-tackle looking for a seam between the tackle and the tight end or even outside of the TE depending on the style of defense you’re facing. For this to work the offensive line must again be in tune with the goal of getting bodies on the second level of defenders to help spring the running back.

The tightend (or tightends in Nebraska’s case) are key to the success of the stretch play. The TE must recognize the type of defense end he is facing and adjust his blocking accordingly. In some cases, he will merely attempt to seal the edge, forcing the running back to bounce aggressively the outside. This is especially useful when facing a strong, tough DE. If the DE is aggressive, quick and committed to getting up field, the TE may let him go that way while forcing him far to the outside. This allows the RB to cut up right off of the block of the tackle.

Here’s a diagram of the stretch play with blocking assignments included.


Again you can see that the RB is going to need patience to see where the lane develops and how the TE blocks the defensive end. As you’ve probably noticed, the stretch play is fairly useless when the running back is forced to run up the backs of his offensive linemen, or worse yet when the offensive linemen are forced back into the back’s running lane. For good examples of both see the USC game.

Why Stick With It?

You might wonder why Nebraska remains so committed to the stretch play even when it fails to produce consistent gains and often looks poorly executed. Callahan has a very good reason for this. Take a look back at the diagram and see what the QB is starting to do after handing off the ball to the running back. If you’re paying attention you’ll see the makings of a nice play-action bootleg. And that’s the true value of the stretch play to Nebraska’s playbook.

If you’ve ever watched the Indianapolis Colts a major part of their passing game is the bootleg off the fake stretch play. After taking the snap, Peyton Manning takes a couple of steps to his right or left and then starts to work his magic. A master of execution, Manning either gives the ball to the back or pulls it back, hides it and works a play-action pass. Nebraska has been doing more and more of this with Sam Keller and the stretch running plays set it up perfectly.

By setting the bootleg up with the stretch play you are trying to make the linebackers somewhat hesitant. If things go as planned, the linebackers sell out for the run which opens up a lot of space for Maurice Purify or Terrence Nunn on crossing routes. But for this to occur, you again need everyone on the same page. The quarterback needs to help set up the play action by carrying out the bootleg even on the stretch running plays. He also needs to master the sleight of hand necessary to fool the defense and giving himself time to throw. The offensive line also plays a key role, because defenders should be watching them instead of the QB in order to determine if the play is a run or a pass. As a result, if they sit back on their heels immediately to pass block, all of the faking in the world, isn’t going to convince the D that a run is coming. On the other hand, if they show the same zone scheme (while avoiding going downfield) it improves the run fake and helps to keep the hands of the defensive linemen down preventing tipped passes.

Here we see examples of some pass patterns that can emerge from the bootleg action set up by the stretch play.


Notice the options the QB has off of this play. If an aggressive set of safeties gets too far upfield, Keller can throw over the top of them to Purify or Sean Hill. If the linebackers bite on the run, he’ll have Phillips crossing over the middle into the space they vacated. If he needs an outlet or only a few yards (think 3rd and short) he’ll have Nunn out in the flats. Notice that sending Nunn in motion into the formation sets up the run even more.

Now remember, each time you see this particular bootleg play-action pass have success, you can take heart in knowing that all of those stretch plays for short gains did have a purpose.

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