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ATVS Study Session: the Auburn Offense & Zone Blocking

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It’s been a few years, and we can probably use a refresher.

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The Gus Malzahn offense gets characterized in a lot of ways. Spread. Hurry-up/no-huddle. Cutting-edge. High-school.

Honestly, it's still kind of funny to me that a lot of these memes still are still out there. I mean if Malzahn hasn't gotten enough attention in the last year (and rightfully so), he's been a relatively big name in college football for about the last 10 years. Yeah, there was the association with the uh...zaniness in Arkansas... but he's been making waves over in Auburn since Gene Chizik hired him in 2009.

Remember making Chris Todd look competent? Crazy.

Anyways, with it being Auburn week I figured it'd be a good idea to give us another chance to study up on just what we're going to see on Saturday. A lot of people get caught up in the elaborate fakes, actions and other misdirection, but the truth is that at the end of the day Auburn runs an ol' fashioned power offense with a twist. Spread the field, set the pace and hammer a defense with pulling guards and fullbacks.

The pace part is best summed up by the man himself. Malzahn, paraphrased from his book, "The Hurry-Up, No-Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy," published when he was merely a wildly successful high school coach:

  • Speed up the game - Accomplished by snapping the ball within 5 seconds of spotting it. This makes the offense the aggressor and takes the defense out of their routine of reading and adjusting to the formation.

  • Lengthening the game - Making the game take longer to finish, and subsequently testing the conditioning of the defense. In his words, a 48-minute high school game involves only 7-8 minutes of actual playing time (a few seconds for each play). If you can lengthen this by 2-3 minutes, you are effectively making it a 5-quarter game. You go for it on 4th down, try onside kicks, and do anything you can to get the ball to your offense's hands.

  • Mentally and physically wear down the opponent - a 5th quarter of game play plus the pressure of having to line up correctly within a few seconds will wear your opponent down both ways. The defense must maintain concentration for that extra quarter.

  • You set the tempo of the game.

  • Coaches can reset the play after noting the defensive alignment - meaning they'll line up and make you show what you're running, and change the play.

  • Defenses cannot simulate it in practice - Your scout team is not going to be able to run at this pace and prepare your defense. Thus, your defense will need to spend extra time to prepare for it.

  • More snaps for the offense means more possibilities for scoring, finding weaknesses, etc.

(H/T to Shakin' the Southland for this old primer on the attack, which has always come in handy)

Almost as important as the pace, are the plays that are the backbone of Auburn's rushing attack, particularly power and counter.

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Kudos to College and Magnolia's WarRoomEagle, who does tremendous work -- including this breakdown, which was a fantastic source.

The object of a power play is, well, exactly what the name suggests. The offensive line exerts its will on the defense and tries to create a moving wall -- collapsing the defense inward and creating a nice big lane for the running back with a pulling guard leading the way.

And of course, as you can see in the diagrams, a counter play is blocked similarly, only with the assignments of the H-back and pulling guard switched slightly, along with a reverse jab-step from the running back to create the illusion that the play is going the other way.

And of course, both plays feature a backside defensive end, unblocked, to give the quarterback a read-option on the shotgun handoff. Which creates another twist that Malzahn has added to his running game -- changing up the read player in his option schemes. There's the midline read of the defensive tackle, which we're all pretty familiar with by now.

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Or this packaged zone-read/bubble screen, in which the H-back blocks the defensive end and the quarterback reads the nickel defender to key whether he hands the ball off, keeps or throws it out to a slot receiver.

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That H-back also adds a little more versatility and power to the play, as he can attack the defenses from different spots in the formation. Below, he attacks the unsuspecting defensive end with an arc block.

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Now, if you're wondering how Auburn blends zone-blocking schemes with man-blocked plays like power and counter, it's really something that teams that prioritize the running game have done forever, be it Wisconsin, LSU or Oregon.

It's not as hard to do as you think, because at its heart, the styles aren't as different as you might believe. Nominally, the difference is that with a man scheme, offensive linemen have a specific target, like a defensive end, strongside linebacker, etc...whereas with zone, a lineman's job is to get to a specific area and block whomever happens to be there. Whereas man blocking is a little more aggressive, and is built more for the offensive line to really take the play to the defense, zone blocking is a little more versatile. With a smart running back that knows how to read a play, it allows the offense to basically take whatever the defense is trying to do and use it against them.

We think of it as fairly recent phenomenon, popularized by teams like the late 80s Cincinnati Bengals or the 90s Denver Broncos, but it's been around for years in some form or fashion. Old-school offenses like the Wing-T or single-wing have always used double-teams and combination blocks that are a principle feature of the style. And read plays where a runner keys on one particular block and then picks one direction or the other were popular throughout the 50s and 60s.

Legendary NFL offensive line guru Howard Mudd gave a great anecdote on zone blocking's development in the fantastic read "Blood, Sweat and Chalk" by longtime Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden. During his time with the San Francisco 49ers in the 60s, Mudd worked with former Heisman Winner John David Crow, and the two later coached together in the 70s with the San Diego Chargers:

"One day I said to John David, ‘What do you look at when you're hitting the hole?' I asked him because we were always telling running backs, ‘Look at the butt of the blocker you're following.' So I wondered if that's what they actually did. John said ‘I'll tell you what: I'm not lookin' at [the blocker]. I'm looking at that sumbitch that's gonna hurt me.' Well, that really helped me because then I realized that running backs aren't watching offensive linemen, they're watching defenders. That's a big difference."

So when an offensive line is doing their job, a running back will have options based on exactly what the defense is doing.

It's overall an easier style to teach. Offensive linemen take their step, get on track and combo based on defensive linemen position (which linemen are covered versus uncovered typically influences combinations) before moving to the next level. And as linemen have gotten bigger and bigger over the years, constant pulling, trapping and scooping has become a much harder style to maintain play-in and play-out.

For Auburn, you combine the versatile blocking style, with a core group of plays to build around with play-action, creative formations and motions to disguise, and of course add that breakneck pace and it's only a matter of time before the defense makes a mistake and there's an opportunity for a big play.

As for defending all this...you'll have to read Friday's preview to find out.