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LSU and the Alex Gibbs Wide/Tight Zone

An in-depth look at what will be one of the foundations of LSU’s offense in 2018.

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Houston Texans Training Camp Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The changes Steve Ensminger will bring to LSU’s offense has been, probably, the biggest mystery of LSU’s 2018 offseason.

We’ve all heard the buzzwords and cliches about “the spread,” multi-receiver sets, RPOs, tempo — even the classics “multiple” and “aggressive,” which coaches always trot out in these situations because, well...explaining what an offense really is doesn’t fit in a sound-bite, and most media outlets aren’t interested in (or don’t really understand) the game at a high enough level to really capture it all in a way that the average fan will understand.

If you’re a long-time reader of this site, you’ve heard me talk about how an offense isn’t just a collection of plays or formations — “the spread” is a formation, not an offense, and all that — it’s more about an overall approach to attacking a defense, and how you counter their efforts to stop it.

So what did we see from Ensminger’s attack this spring? Exactly what we expected in terms of one-back, multi-receiver and tight end looks. The spread/pro-style distinctions are kind of arbitrary these days, as most NFL teams spend more time in the shotgun anyway. And appropriately, Ensminger has spent time studying with the New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers. All teams that like to spread the field, and have helped bring the run-pass option into the pro-style lexicon.

But one thing the offense showed — and was confirmed by a couple sources that spent some time at practice — was an increased focus and wide and tight zone running.

Now, zone running is something we’ve talked about a lot in the past. It’s nothing new for LSU, or any other college football team. And wide/tight is just another term for inside/outside zone plays:

Breakdown Sports
Breakdown Sports

What’s different is that Ensminger, with new offensive line coach James Cregg, is incorporating a zone scheme based in the principles of longtime NFL offensive line legend Alex Gibbs. And that brings its own unique twists, that we’ll explore here.

As a refresher, zone blocking is a style in which the offensive line blocks in a particular direction, as opposed to targeting an individual player. It was largely developed as a way of dealing with faster and more athletic defensive fronts. To re-hash the legendary Howard Mudd:

“One day I said to John David [Crow], ‘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.”

That’s an excerpt from Tim Layden’s “Blood, Sweat and Chalk” which I cannot recommend enough.

Offensive linemen blocking on a zone play will take what’s known as a “bucket step” or a six-inch step backwards to the play-side, find the appropriate angle then track their way up the field and hit whomever is in front of them. At a base level, zone blocking is really still just man blocking, because if a lineman is “covered” or has a defender lined up in front of him, then he just blocks that guy. If not, he’s either helping to combo-block with another lineman, blocking down (a very brief combo-block before moving on), or just straight tracking to the next level and hitting whomever is in his path — likely a linebacker.

A system like this has generally favored smaller, more mobile blockers to get to defenders in space. On wide zone, linemen get their defenders on track, and mostly just try to lead them where they want to go laterally while getting them down the field — create the traffic for the back to pick his way through. On tight zone, it generally asks linemen to reach block, or engage and turn a defender them away from the direction of the play. Both runs also often feature cut-blocking on the back side.

Teams have been zone-blocking forever, with the late-80s Cincinnati Bengals, and then the early-90s Buffalo Bills really popularizing it. But a few years later, Alex Gibbs would become the system’s Svengali as the offensive line coach of the Denver Broncos.

Gibbs did what a lot of great coaches do — he streamlined and he simplified his approach. Just like Hal Mumme and Mike Leach distilled their favorite West Coast passing concepts down to what became the Air Raid, Gibbs narrowed his coaching to revolve almost exclusively around the wide and tight zone.

From a coaching clinic:

“We run zone wide and tight, and that is it. If you want to run something else, do not call me and ask for help.” -Gibbs

No counter, no power, etc... The beauty of these plays is that they give you the same ability to attack the defense from different angles, because if the offensive line is doing what they’re supposed to do, the running back is just going to take whatever the defense gives him. On a given play the ball may wind up in the A, B or C gaps to either side of the field, based on how the defense aligns and flows with the blocking.

And it worked. The Broncos’ results were known, but Gibbs later installed his system to major success with the Atlanta Falcons in the early 2000s, and then the Houston Texans, where his system helped undrafted Arian Foster make four Pro Bowls and lead the league in rushing in 2010.

So how does an offensive line consistently push a defense around on two plays? Communication, teamwork, and repetition. When the line has their assignments and patterns to second nature, all that requires is applying that information to the defensive front.

It starts with a basic numbering scheme for the defenders, from the inside out to either side of the center. Barking Carnival has this diagram as part of their zone tutorial here:

Barking Carnival

The linemen number the assignments, but not the man. Just their position away from the center. In this diagram, if the play-side Sam linebacker loops insde of the defensive end and the Mike scrapes outside, then the Sam becomes No. 1 and the Mike will become 3. But those assignments don’t change for the blockers.

This diagram shows a zone slice or split play, with a tight end blocking across the formation, but it’s another example of the numbering scheme as well:

The other part of the numbering system involves the uncovered linemen, who, on tight zone plays, will help combo-block the nearest defender to the play side, on their way to the next level.

Gibbs was also a major proponent of cut blocking, especially on the wide zone, on the back side. Whether or not LSU implements that aspect of the Gibbs scheme will be interesting, as the NCAA has made some changes to the rules legislating blocks below the waist. Linemen may still cut, but only within five yards of the line of scrimmage and from the front side. Cut blocks were always supposed to be a front-side block, but we all know sometimes they come off angle a bit. How LSU executes that portion of the the Gibbs style will be a development to watch.

One of the other calling cards of offenses with Gibbs at the helm was their ability to plug and play multiple running backs, including unheralded and undrafted players. It’s a system that values very specific skills — patience to let blocks develop, discipline and patience to read the appropriate landmarks on the zone plays, but with the ability to put a foot in the ground and explode up field when the hole forms.

Another way that Gibbs was ahead of the curve was placing value on running back efficiency as a means to creating explosive runs. Essentially, valuing what we now know as running back success rate over raw yards per carry. From one of his clinics:

“WE WANT NO NEGATIVES! We look at pass as yes/no, big/ little, big plays and zero plays (w/ negatives). Out of a certain number of passes, we expect a certain number of failures. That is the nature of the passing game.

But the run game the exact opposite. We want NO negatives. We do not want to run plays that are big/ little, even at the expense of big plays, we do not want it. We want the system where even the “bad” play gains something. The entire objective is to stay out of 3rd and long. We throw out the run plays with which we cannot consistently avoid negatives.

Screw averages. We want medians. The back might average 7 yards per carry, but how often did he get stuffed and put us in 3rd and 10, causing a turnover.

And we do this by eliminating penetration and running a limited number of plays to perfection.”

In other words, a back who will consistently gain four or five yards on first down is more valuable than a running back who will bounce around and take losses trying to force a big play. Even if he manages to pop one occasionally.

Mechanically, both zone plays involve the back taking a direct angle towards a certain landmark, usually a specific lineman’s hip — different coaches will adjust those target points based on what works for their personnel. By his third step, that’s where the decision comes in. Sometimes a pre-snap read helps make the decision easier — for instance, if the backside defensive end aligns inside of the tackle’s shoulder, on inside zone the running back will automatically cut back. Such as you see Marshawn Lynch do here:

Field Gulls

Credit Field Gulls.

“The back does not know where the cut will be until he gets his third step on the ground. He makes his decision on that step and commits to it. Whatever decision he makes, he lives with it. He does not dodge defenders or double cut with the ball. He takes what the picture says and gets the ball upfield and outside right away.”

A big reason for zone-blocking’s ubiquity in the game is that it functions with almost any scheme or personnel grouping. The only thing that really matters is whether or not there’s a tight end involved in blocking. The offensive line is doing the same thing whether the quarterback is under center with two backs, or in the shotgun with three or four receivers. For his part, Gibbs preferred one-back sets for a wider surface at the line of scrimmage — more gaps to either side of the center.

There’s also it’s natural pairing with the quarterback bootleg, or keep read in the shotgun, which can help create an additional blocking advantage in the running game by occupying a defender. That can help create high-percentage passes for the quarterback, off play action or through RPOs — both of which we saw early and often in the spring game.

More information on Gibbs, particularly videos of his clinics, are easily located with Google or Youtube searches. Although the clinic videos can be longer than an hour in many cases.

None of this is anything particularly ground-breaking, but then I don’t think anybody is expecting LSU to reinvent much this year. Efficacy will be the big question, and as always it will come down to execution. That said, starting with a simple base and building off of that has always been the foundation of the best college offenses.

Time will tell if that pans out for LSU in 2018.