Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Auburn's Inside Zone and the Iron Bowl

The inside zone read has become a staple of college and high school teams across the country. Combining powerful double teams at the line of scrimmage, with a read on one (or more) defender(s) allows for a very versatile, and downhill running play. The inside zone read has also been coupled with a second read creating a triple option type play, which allows the QB to pitch or throw a quick screen, further stretching the field horizontally. This play has been well documented across the internet.


Gus Malzahn's running game forces defenses to defend the entire field while playing assignment football. The use of multiple formations and motions help disguise his very basic running game and he makes heavy use of ball fakes by the QB, running backs and wide receivers. All of this combined presents a complicated display for defenses (and fans) while allowing Auburn to consistently run the same play over and over with only slight tweaks.

Auburn operates out of a lot of two and three back sets, with at least one of those backs usually being an H-back (a fullback/tight end type player located just behind the line of scrimmage).

Below we see a diagram of a basic zone read play utilizing a two back set. Highlighted in blue are the quarterback and tailback as they mesh, while the QB reads the unblocked defensive end (inside the square). Also note the H who is arcing past and around the read (DE) and up field to block the force defender.

Malzahn has long been incorporating the H-back into his offense for multiple purposes. In the zone running game he is mostly utilized to block the force defender to the read side, this help sets up the QB for when he keeps the ball on the read by giving him a blocker at the point of attack.

Here we see Auburn aligned in 3x1 set with an H-back in the backfield, they will motion the inside man into the backfield deep as a tail back.

We now see the final formation which is a popular Auburn 2x1 set and also the read for the inside zone identified. Also notice stacked just outside the read is another defender. The defenses front line alignment will allow for two double teams by offensive lineman, and the left tackle blocking the defensive end on his own.

Here's a diagram showing the designed blocking scheme. Also note the tight split of the split end to the left side, this is something Malzahn uses a lot in the running game.

Here we see those double teams develop as the QB and TB mesh. Along with that we notice that both the read key and outside defender both keying the mesh and pushing up field. The H-back begins to cross the formation and will be responsible for blocking the next defender outside of the read in case the QB is given a pull read (which will not be the case). 

The QB makes the correct read and gives it to the TB. We now see the linebackers sucked into the line and the double teams being executed well. Also notice the two unblocked defenders (the read key #42 and outside defender #26) who are in no shape to make a tackle.

The tail back will push through the LOS for a great game.

The inside zone read play is not new to college football, but what this will highlight is that Auburn's execution (on double teams, reads, and running lanes) and their ability to go quickly, places defenses in conflict.

The next play they would execute a similar play on second and short. One thing to note is that between the running back being tackle on first down and the snap on second down was 13 total seconds...both actual and on the game clock. Malzahn does not always execute at a break neck speed, but it is a possibility and he utilizes it well.

Malzahn made heavy use of the inside zone early on against Arkansas, essentially pushing Arkansas to completely shut it down in all phases. Naturally the next phase of the inside zone was for Arkansas to place a greater emphasis on stopping the running back, which would then free up the QB to keep.

Here we see Auburn in a 2x1 set with the H-back set to the running backs side.

The H-back has become an important part of the Malzahn offense, providing blocking and receiving threats across the field.

On the snap the QB and running back mesh and the H-back will arc block to the second level.

Nick Marshall, the Auburn quarterback, keeps on the read and the H-back engages a second level defender.

Below is a diagram of the play. Note the will linebacker (W) becomes the force defender as he flows outside, but is engaged by the H-back. Also note the H-back this time aligned to the side he blocks, rather than crossing the formation. Playing games with the H-back and his alignment is crucial for Malzahn as teams heavily key his alignment.


The Iron Bowl was no different, with Auburn storming its way back on a late 4th quarter drive mostly running inside zone variations. The inside zone read utilized by Malzahn (and others) often incorporates a second read for the QB, should he keep the ball initially. This allows the QB the ability to pitch or throw some type of quick screen or route to a wide receiver or slot and stretches defenses to their horizontal limits. This is often compared to the triple option as popularized by the wishbone, split back veer, and flexbone offenses, however with a modern twist to it.

Below we see a diagram of the zone read incorporating that second phase. While the pitch or throw is not heavily utilized the threat of it forces defenses (especially alley and outside defenders) to honor that threat at all times. In this case the Auburn inside linebacker (M) follows the motion by the H-back out of the box.

This works particularly well because of the down and distance (3rd and 2) and the lightening of the box that is created by the exit of linebacker. 


The touchdown score would come a few plays later (all of which were zone read variations) in which QB Nick Marshall would pull the football and find that second option. In this case it was Auburn WR Sammie Coates who released down the field. 

Here is the diagram of the play. Note that it is similar to most of the other zone reads, with an H-back arcing to block the force. However, as Marshall (QB) is being tracked down he is able to find Coates who has slipped by the defensive backs who are now coming up to tackle Marshall.

And here is the video of the play. 


Auburn almost exclusively ran zone read for its final drive. Slowly tearing chunks out of the Alabama defense. However, it was the least utilized part of the read (as some would call it the third option of the triple option) that finally broke the Alabama defense. Malzahn and others like him have worked to create havoc on defenses by forcing them to defend the entire width of the field, multiple running threats, and playing assignment football at all times.


Here are some of the other variations of the zone read that Auburn ran in the Iron Bowl.

Inside Zone with Two H-Backs

Auburn has utilized a lot of two H-Back sets this year, during the Iron Bowl they began motioning them both to one side a lot, helping set up Marshall for keeps. It's also hard to tell what Marshall is reading, or if these are called keeps. I plan on doing a post looking at the two H-back formation and its use by Auburn.

Inside Zone with a Jet Sweep Fake


Late Shift Inside Zone 

An adjustment by many teams is to shift the running back over late as to not give away the direction of the zone play until right before the snap. 


  1. Nice job of diagramming everything and showing the different looks with the H back.

  2. Great read! I really enjoyed this article. The diagramming is well done and the explanations are easy to follow. However, you might want to look at the section about the late shift for the inside zone. I'm pretty sure you meant to write the word "shift". ;-)

  3. On pass to Coates for game tying touchdown, how is it not illegal man downfield? Two lineman are at least three to five yards downfield. Just wondering because if you coach lineman to fire out, in order to keep that option available, your line can not go downfield.

    1. If you watch the play objectively you actually see that no lineman are 2 to 3 yards down the field. The only person beyond that is the the H back who is an eligible receiver.