Film Study Fundamentals: The basics of the Tight Zone

By Kyle Jones on July 24, 2014 at 3:30p
Carlos Hyde rips off yardage against Michigan running Ohio State's tight inside zone run.

"Foundation - An underlying basis or principle for something"

When breaking down the offense of the Ohio State football program under Urban Meyer, every gameplan since his hiring has started with one core concept: the Tight (or Inside) Zone. While the play can be found in the playbook of every single college and pro team, the concept truly acts as the starting point for the entire Buckeye offense. 

While we here at Eleven Warriors consistently reference the concept, we rarely give the Tight Zone the credit it's due, especially given the success with which the Buckeyes executed it last fall. Make no mistake, the Tight Zone can take credit for a huge chunk of the 4,321 yards the Buckeyes rushed for in 2013, even those from quarterbacks Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton.

OSU Tight Zone

The simplicity of the scheme is it's main attraction, as it can be run from virtually any formation regardless of personnel.

Hyde Inside Zone TD

While it appears that all a linemen needs to do here is block the closest man, there is much more that lies beneath the surface. The subtle complexities in alignment, footwork, and, most of all, teamwork allow the Buckeyes to run the same play over and over with success, even though it's the first play defenses are looking to stop.


There are nearly as many ways to coach the Inside Zone as there are teams that run it. But, according to an poll of coaches, 63% like to line up with a two foot split between each offensive linemen. Some coaches, like Air Raid guru Mike Leach, prefer an even wider split to force the defensive ends to start even further from the ball. However, like the majority of coaches poled, Urban Meyer and OSU Offensive Line coach Ed Warinner prefer the smaller gap.

More importantly though, is the depth that the OSU linemen try to create on the line of scrimmage. As seen below, the rest of the Buckeye linemen like to get as far back from the line as the rules allow.

OSU OL Depth

While the ball is spotted on the 20 yard line (as the black line for TV shows), all the Buckeye linemen besides the Center, Corey Linsley, are nearly a full yard behind the line. The reason for this is simple, leverage.

As Tom Lovat, an NFL offensive line coach for 23 years noted,

“The defensive linemen have to align on the ball. So this creates an area where you can be moving forward all the time. You shouldn’t have to move laterally. Even if you’re covered, that player is a half of a yard off you anyway. If you crowd the ball he’s up in your face. By the time you’re foot is off the ground he would stuff you.” 

This extra space gives the Buckeyes a chance to move laterally while still moving upfield toward the defender, gaining momentum in the process.

From there, the Buckeyes survey their opponents. While the scheme relies on the fairly simple premise of linemen doing one thing if they're covered (an opponent lined up directly over them), and another if they're not, they must first determine where they're going.

This is one area where coaches begin to differ in opinion. Some coaches determine the rules the line will follow depending on if the defense is lined up with an even (four defenders on the line) or odd (three or five on the line) front.

Others that trace their roots back to Alex Gibbs, one of the pioneers of zone blocking with the Denver Broncos in the 90's, will identify defenders based on a count system, assigning blockers with numbers. In this case, the man closest to the ball is a "0" and will be blocked by the Center, the first defender outside of that on both sides is a "1" and will be blocked by the guard to that side, and so on out to the end of the line.

But the Buckeyes identify the opponent's alignment based upon the location of the "3 technique" defensive tackle. This is the defender lined up in the gap between the guard and tackle (commonly known as the B gap) to one side, as seen in the diagram of defensive line positioning below.

D Line alignments

From there, the side of the formation where the 3 technique is present becomes known as the RED side, with the opposite side labeled as WHITE.

OSU Red and White

Ideally, the Buckeyes would like to run the Inside Zone to the RED side, as there is a natural lane that exists in the "A" gap to that side, as there is no one lined up between the Center and Guard.

By splitting the line into two halves, essentially a playside (RED) and a backside (WHITE), the linemen are split into two groups, and know both the defender and gap for which they're responsible, but also which teammates they know will be working with them on a combo block. 

OSU Red and White Tight Zone

In this case, the RED side Guard must block the 3 technique on his own, as the Tackle and Tight End combo block the 9 (Defensive End) before one of them breaks off to block the linebacker. On the WHITE side, the Center will combo block the 1 technique (Nose Tackle) with the Guard before taking on the middle linebacker, as the Tackle immediately goes upfield to block the linebacker to his side.

In the Ohio State scheme, the 5 technique defensive end on the WHITE side is effectively blocked by Braxton Miller. While hopefully the two never make contact, this defender must stay home to protect against the chance that the quarterback keeps the ball and runs outside. If the defender begins to cheat and overplay the handoff, Miller's now speed will make the defense pay, thanks to the now (in)famous Zone-Read Option.

Knowing that the Buckeyes prefer to run the Inside Zone towards this gap, opponents will often set their alignment based on that of the OSU Running Back. Since the Buckeyes operate almost exclusively from the shotgun, the back is lined up next to the quarterback, and he is already headed in one direction when he receives the handoff. As such, the play gets blocked to the opposite side of his original alignment.

As seen in the video above, the Buckeyes will often line up in the Pistol formation with the back behind Miller, not declaring one side or the other and preventing defenses from immediately plugging up the hole.

Additionally, the Buckeyes will use the hand clap snap count to mess with the defense. OSU often snaps the ball after the QB claps his hands, but they'll often line up with the Running Back on one side of Miller, then motion him to the other side at the first clap and snapping the ball on the second. The offense is able to keep the defense off balance not only with the snap count, but with the entire alignment of the defensive front.

Once the ball is snapped though, the play doesn't get any less complicated. Next week, we'll take a look at the technique, steps, and rules the OSU offensive linemen use to block the Tight Zone.


Comments Show All Comments

Mortc15's picture

These film studies are always so in-depth and easy to understand, assuming you have a basic or better comprehension of football. Excellent job, Kyle. 


+4 HS
BeijingBucks's picture

Wow that Oline truly was a thing of beauty to watch.  more precise than TBDBITL and no bananas.

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BigKat45's picture

I concur. When you did an 11W reach-out to find out what we want more of, I said Xs and Os, and 11W delivered, as always. Can't wait to see it all come into play on gameday!

"Well-prepared players make plays. I have yet to be in a game where the most prepared team didn't win.” - Urban

+4 HS
BuckeyeGrownFloridaLiving's picture

Wow, so simple but yet so intricate. Great read.

+3 HS
Tater_Schroeder's picture

As always, great breakdown. 

I never had the chance to play football (high school was too small to support it), so analysis like this really help me become a student of the game. I appreciate your efforts!


+2 HS
apack614's picture

I can't wait to poop in the PL bathroom.

+1 HS
Doc's picture

I learn so much from these and Ross' columns.  Another reason 11W is the best.

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+2 HS
Killer nuts's picture

You and ross do a great job demonstrating the complexity and strategizing that goes into a play that we so commonly see as a simple 4 yard run up the middle, we as a community are smarter because of your efforts. Thank you

+3 HS
Fugelere's picture

In the first GIF Hauerman blocked the EMLOS.  Was that by design or because Braxton was reading a second level defender?

Either way El Guapo aligned to the strong side and yet still hit the strong side A gap I can't tell if it was by design or he cut up because the D flowed towards the weak side.

+1 HS
Kyle Jones's picture

We'll get more into that next week, but Heuerman was responsible for that guy inside, due to his alignment. Braxton was reading the OLB (I think his number is 41) who comes late into the picture after being held by Miller.

Hyde did a great job of reading that backside gap as the defense slanted that way. This is another area we'll cover in this series, but if the defender is already working that way, the line will ride them all the way sideways and let the back cut back against the grain. 34 was a master at not only knowing when and where to cut, but not dancing and losing his momentum along the way.

Fugelere's picture

Thats true about Hyde. Not a lot of wasted movement, one cut and boom gets headed north/south which is what you want from a back in a zone scheme.

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

+2 HS
GlueFingers Lavelli's picture

I'm really looking forward to see who emerges as our downhill back. I like Rod, but I feel like he dances around too much. I'm excited to see what Elliott can do.

Dustin Fox was our leading tackler as a corner.... because his guy always caught the ball.

+1 HS
yrro's picture

Very well done, thanks! The explanation of the blocking scheme was superb.

+1 HS
whiskeyjuice's picture

That was good stuff. I have often wondered why the O line lined up the way they did. But I also wonder where the line can go from here? Could there be any more evolving? A change of scheme or alignment?

"Championships are not won on Saturdays in November. Championships are won on Tuesdays in August." -- Kerry Combs

+1 HS
Seattle Linga's picture

Kyle - great write up - it's always nice watching the plays develop from the other angles that we normally wouldn't see on TV replays.

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

This was a great article.  Thanks for your hard work.

Read my entire screen name....

GVerrilli92's picture

If Braxton can just learn to sell the jab step incorporated with the exchange he could help his read % increase a crap ton.

That's honestly what people saw when they watched Kenny G that made them think he ran the option better, which he probably did. Braxton would lose focus on those exchanges and become predictable. The sharper he sticks that weakside foot in and the quicker he jumps behind the RB, the easier it is to get that DE sucked into "no man's land." If he consistently drops his hip on that cut to sell the option of him being the ball carrier this offense becomes impossible to defend over a sequence of 3-4 plays. 

KG was nowhere near the runner Braxton is, but his ability to hide the play for soo long made the base/restraint impossible to distinguish. The only time this play failed is when Braxton would change his body language to indicate early that either he or the RB were definitely getting the ball.

This is where I'd like to see Braxton show a little more competitive fire. If he knows in his mind that he's about to make that DE his bitch and attacks the fake consistently, everything else falls into place. You need sauce on the exchange, gotta be a little cocky about faking that cue man out.

I got a gray kitty, white kitty, tabby too, and a little orange guy who puts snakes in my shoes. Got mad MC skills, that leave ya struck, and I roll with my kitties and I'm hard as f*ck.

+1 HS
CGroverL's picture

Excellent breakdown. All plays start with the O-Line, I admit that...But if Braxton Miller was not so good at pitching or keeping, and putting the ball in the RB's stomach and either letting him keep it or pulling it back at almost unreal times with very few mistakes, these plays wouldn't be quite as effective as they are. When you throw in the fact that we have seen Miller run this offense for just 2 seasons, it almost brings out words like unbeatable and even possibly the best ever at running that read from the QB spot. All you have to do is think about the 2013 play where Miller tucks the ball in Hyde's stomach, only to pull it out as Hyde gets smashed by a DL and follows is a dance by Miller, then a TD run, then a TD dance after Miller scored the TD. I understand that this play starts with the OL and that was your show how important the OL was on these plays. I'm only pointing out that Miller probably adds 35% to 50% of the yardage gained on those plays because of how well he reads and does the best play possible after he makes his read. Truly awesome write-up and research (unless you knew that without any research...I know football pretty well and even knew about the "scrub" play run by defenses that tricks a QB into making the CORRECT read which makes him sometimes run into an untouched LB sometimes behind the line of scrimmage that you guys talked about the other day). If you really needed no research, you are truly into football and I easily make these so-called football fans in my state of Florida (I'm a Buckeye, originally and a Buckeye fan for life) look kind of silly especially when it comes to football plays. My strength is more on defense than offense, but lately, I admit that you guys have been teaching me tons, and I appreciate it. Thank you and Go Bucks!

"I hope they're last in everything". One of Meyer's comments when speaking of TTUN after being hired at Ohio State.