The first (full) year of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense heavily features the zone play, but that does not mean the Bengals lack diversity in their running game. The Bengals run zone in a variety of ways, helping to set up cutback lanes and put them in the best position based on the defense’s alignment.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the different ways the Bengals run zone.
Please note that for the purposes of discussing scheme a position refers to the alignment rather than the player. For example, Terrell Suggs is considered a linebacker, but often lines up as the end man on the line of scrimmage and thus would be referred to as the defensive end.
As another example, the Bengals like to move their players around on offense, so if Tyler Eifert or Joe Mixon were lined up spread out they could be referred to as the receiver on that play, despite the fact that they play tight end and running back respectively.
The first clip is a pretty standard way of running inside zone to the right. Right tackle Bobby Hart is responsible for blocking the defensive end. Hart does not get much movement, but he at least gets a stalemate here. Right guard Alex Redmond and center Trey Hopkins will work a combo block from the 2i defensive tackle (who is shaded to Redmond’s inside) up to the mike linebacker.
On inside zone, first linebacker to the play side of the center is declared as the mike linebacker so in this case that is Chris Board. This block is very good at first and Redmond starts to off to the linebacker, but then Board jumps to the inside. Redmond stays on the block, and Hopkins should come off, but his face is buried in the block.
On the backside, left guard Clint Boling and left tackle Cordy Glenn have a combo block from the 3-technique (the defensive tackle who is shaded to Boling’s outside) to the backside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor.
Good read by Mixon, but Glenn has to climb up to that backer pic.twitter.com/OXftKldppk— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 16, 2018
They get very good movement on the defensive tackle, but Glenn never comes off to the linebacker. Finally, tight end C.J. Uzomah is responsible for the defensive end. This doesn’t need to be a very strong block, he just needs to prevent the defender from screaming down the line of scrimmage to make the play.
Here, Uzomah basically boxes him out, which is effective. Running back Joe Mixon will read the front side double. When he sees the movement they are getting, he cuts inside. Unfortunately, since Glenn never makes it up to Onwuasor, the linebacker is unblocked and makes the tackle.
This inside zone is executed very well. Hart does again doesn’t get great movement, but does a decent job on the blocking the left defensive end. Redmond and center Billy Price have a combo block on the 3-technique and mike linebacker Kenny Young.
Since 3-technique Chris Wormley stays in the “B” gap between the guard and tackle, Redmond blocks him, while Price zone steps to his right, then works up to make the block on Young. Boling and Glenn have the backside combo on Brandon Williams, who is lined up head up up Boling and Onwuasor.
What Mixon does to this safety is what makes him special pic.twitter.com/72zgAS625F— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 16, 2018
Boling is able to handle the defensive lineman, while Glenn blocks the linebacker. Finally, tight end Tyler Kroft secures the backside, blocking out on the defensive end. Mixon’s first read is the front side double and his second read is the backside double, so he ends up cutting back outside of Glenn.
Ravens safety Tony Jefferson comes down in run support and Mixon shows his incredible athletic ability by continuing to cut back and making Jefferson miss. This play shows what can happen when an elite running back has good blocking in front of him.
The inside zone can be run in a few different ways, and the most common way to change it up is altering the way the backside defensive end is blocked. On this inside zone to the left, the front side is blocked in a straightforward manner. Kroft is lined up as the tight end on the right side of the formation and blocks the outside linebacker to the play side.
Glenn blocks the defensive end who is lined up over Kroft, and Boling blocks the 3-technique. Hopkins and Redmond work a combo block from the 1-technique (lined up shaded on the center) to the mike backer, Young. Hart free releases for the backside backer, Onwuasor. The backside defensive end for Uzomah comes all the way across the formation from the h-back position on the left side and he kicks him out.
This style of running zone often opens up a great cutback opportunity. Mixon reads the front side guard’s block back to the double team and cuts back. Redmond fails to climb up to the Young, but Mixon has the speed to make him miss. This is a big pickup which could have been a touchdown with some downfield blocks from Ross and A.J. Green. Ross releases wide, attempting to influence the defensive back and does attempt a block late, but Green is does not block at all.
Uzomah swiping back to block the backside DE is what makes this cutback possible pic.twitter.com/fWV3eDOXCZ— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 16, 2018
This clip shows another variation of inside zone. Hart blocks the defensive end to the playside as the Bengals run the ball to their left. Redmond and Hopkins work the combo block to Onwuasor (#48) while Boling and Glenn combo to Young (#40). Kroft is lined up at the tight end and blocks out on Terrell Suggs who is lined up as the stand-up defensive end.
Ross is lined up in an h-back between Glenn and Kroft. He inserts between them and blocks Jefferson (#23) who has lined up in the box. Mixon cuts back off the front side combo block then hits it straight up cutting right off Boling’s block as he engages with the linebacker.
John Ross getting his hands dirty inserting for the backside linebacker pic.twitter.com/45JXKHelYc— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 16, 2018
Of course, another way to change things up on the backside is to not block the backside defensive end at all and read him instead. This is the basis of the zone read.
The Bengals did not show this look in this game, but did run the run/pass option (RPO) which is conceptually similar. In this look the Bengals have five blockers to account for six defenders in the box. This means that they have one-on-one coverage on their backside receiver, in this case tight end Tyler Eifert.
You can distinguish an RPO from a play action pass because the offensive line (or at least the linemen to the side of the run action) are actually run blocking.
5 blockers for 6 defenders so Dalton throws the slant on this RPO pic.twitter.com/2Dp7fGPchO— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) September 16, 2018
Here, Glenn is the only lineman pass setting while the others are zone blocking. Eifert is to get the inside release on the slant and make the catch for a five yard gain. If there were five defenders in the box, quarterback Andy Dalton would have handed the ball off to running back Giovani Bernard.
The Bengals also run the outside zone. As the name would imply, the distinguishing difference between inside zone and outside zone is the angle of the play. Both the running back and his blockers take a wider path on outside zone.
Here, Kroft is lined up as the tight end on the left while Eifert is lined up as an h-back. The pair combo block the end man on the line of scrimmage up to the safety. Glenn and Boling take a wide path and combo the defensive lineman lined up just inside of Kroft up to the mike linebacker. Hopkins has a solo block on the 1-technique.
On the backside, Redmond and Hart combo block the 3-technique up to the linebacker and Uzomah cuts off the pursuit of the backside defensive end.
The Bengals are running some toss, power, and counter, but they are running zone more than any other type of running play. This is a great fit for Mixon who has excellent vision and the quickness to make cut backs into big plays. The offensive line will need to continue to work on their combo blocks in order for the Bengals to make full use Mixon’s talent.