Gus Malzahn’s Zone Read Load Scheme

Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game had all kinds of highlights, both offensively and defensively, but ask anyone who knows football, and they’ll tell you some of the most interesting things happen on plays that aren’t necessarily defined as explosive or memorable.Football people find just as much satisfaction in watching a well-executed kick out block or an interesting option play that goes for five yards as they do by watching an 80-yard bomb. What makes Gus Malzahn’s offense so successful is his obsessive attention to detail, investigating every contingency, every formation against every available defense, and trying to discover an alignment that gives his guys the best angle on the defense, whether it’s to run inside, outside, or gain leverage on a secondary to spring an athletic receiver wide open over the middle (as he managed to do successfully again, and again, and again on Monday).

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During the hours leading up to kickoff between Auburn and Florida State, I posted some cutups of Auburn’s run game under Malzahn in 2010 with Heisman winner Cam Newton. The head coach of the Tigers is constantly in the lab tinkering with formations and blocking assignments, and Monday night did not disappoint.

One of the plays that captured my attention, and many other people I was talking with during the game on Twitter, was the variation of the basic zone read concept, where the quarterback Nick Marshall reads the defender (it can be a defensive end or a linebacker, depending on how the defense lines up), and reacts accordingly. Should Marshall decide to pull it, he’s got not one, but TWO men in front of him leading the way. Depending on the formation and the pre-snap alignment of the defense, this could mean that Marshall could get to the secondary before he’s touched. Of course, the inside zone scheme by the offensive line means that should the defender choose to play the QB, he can still hand it off to Heisman finalist Tre Mason at the tailback position.

This is an adaptation of the more common version of the zone read where a man will “bluff” at the unblocked defender and act as if he’s going to wham block him, when in fact he’s going to duck around the end and log one of the defenders at the next level. This play adds an extra man to that side, where now the two blockers have to work in conjunction with one another, almost like pulling guards on a bucksweep.

With three other players in the backfield with him at the same time, the resulting picture can look like a blur from a defender’s point of view. When in doubt, a defender will usually do one of two things; make a decision on impulse (which is usually wrong), or hesitate. Either one of these options is fine with Malzahn, since it means by the time the ball has made its way into the hands of the intended ball carrier, they’ve usually got more than step or two on the defender.

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This is a great short-yardage play, since the unblocked player for the defense will squeeze down the line, and it’s much more natural for linebackers in the box to attack the run threat straight in front of them, especially on 3rd and short. Meanwhile, when everyone’s eyes are one the mesh point with the tailback, Auburn brings two men around to block the perimeter defenders, meaning that this is one play that’s tough to stop for no gain, especially when Marshall makes the correct read.

Take a look at some examples from the National Championship Game and from the SEC Championship Game against Missouri, complete with diagrams.

First Example

You can’t tell it from the diagram, but as you’ll see in the video below Auburn is lined with their strength to the boundary. The H-Back motions into the backfield, and Marshall takes the snap and reads the defender while Mason, the tailback, gets to the mesh point. That’s a key coaching point to remember: the back is responsible for getting to the mesh point, not the QB. The QB’s eyes should go immediately to the read key, while the back should form a pocket with his arms at the mesh point and let the QB make the decision about whether or not to keep it.

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Another interesting part of this play is that the LT does not really attempt to climb to the second level like you’ll often see on the backside of an inside zone play. With an open B gap to his right, and the read key to his left, the LT shuffles right while still keeping an arm free to deliver a punch to the five technique. His main job here is similar to a hinge block on the backside of a power play, though he’s going to stay flatter to the line of scrimmage than on a hinge block so he does not impede the progress of the QB or the back pulling around the edge to get to the linebacker. He wants to close the space between himself and the LG, so there is not a huge open gap on the backside for a defender to leak through and disrupt the mesh point in the backfield. It’s also important because Florida State had been running a lot of field pressures during the game, and so the offensive line was definitely coached up on this in practice, to anticipate pressure from the field and not allow any easy penetration by creating large gaps where there shouldn’t be.

Second Example
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This play is a little different, because the offense is reading a linebacker as a change up to attacking a defensive end. We don’t know if Malzahn planned to read a linebacker instead of an end on this play, or if the alignment of the defense required it. The basic rule for who to read is usually the first defender, outside shoulder of the tackle (5 technique) or wider. This is the 5 or wider rule that most teams use. Here we have another unbalanced formation, with a receiver lined up on the line of scrimmage who is ineligible because of the other receiver on the line of scrimmage to his right. Still, the defense has to align a defender over the #2 receiver because of the man lined up behind him, a player who could easily be thrown a quick bubble or spot pass and take off with blockers in front of him. Once again, the threat of Malzahn’s offense attacking anywhere at anytime stretches the defense to the breaking point. This time, the defender being read on the play, LB Mario Edwards, shows incredible athletic ability in first pursuing the tailback inside, but quickly changing direction and bringing down Marshall from behind.
Third Example
This play comes straight from the shootout that was the SEC Championship Game this season. By their pre-snap alignment, Missouri shows no real deep safety shell, at least until Tre Mason motions back into the backfield. Missouri makes it clear that they’re going to play aggressive defense this close to the goal line, and they’re determined not to give up any easy yards up the middle. Once the tailback moves to the backfield, the safety to the open side softens up a little, and leaves the corner to that side as the force player on defense.
Once again, however, the threat of Mason inside freezes the linebackers and gives Marshall time to get out on the edge, behind two blockers. The first man kicks out the widest man he can find, which in this case is the corner, who’s no match for him physically one-on-one. The next man will pull around and log the first wrong color jersey he finds at the second level. Marshall and his team mates execute this play perfectly, and the result is six points for the (Auburn) Tigers.
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Want more information about Gus Malzahn’s offense, including an installation handbook from his days at Tulsa? You can get a PDF copy of Gus Malzahn’s playbook sent straight to your inbox.

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