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Summer School: D.J. Fluker And The Inside Zone Running Scheme

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Summer School is back in session!

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at San Diego Chargers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to offensive line play, the casual fan tends to only pay attention when things go wrong. That is true for pretty much every franchise, not just the New York Giants.

Sure, offensive linemen need to be big and powerful and need a kind of sheer bloody-mindedness to play their positions. But OL play is also so much more. It is equal parts art and science; it is teamwork and chemistry; scheme, technique, timing, angles, and leverage.

As a part of last year’s summer Alex Sinclair broke down the basics of offensive line play — from what each position’s role is to the basics of pass blocking, man blocking, and zone blocking.

I encourage everyone to go back and review last year’s lesson, but this year I want to take things a step further. Eyebrows were raised this off-season when the Giants elected to largely abstain from adding to their offensive line. It was the team’s most obvious weakness in 2016, but they clearly believed their resources could be more efficiently invested elsewhere. The team is — by all appearances — trusting the work of offensive line coach Mike Solari, left tackle Ereck Flowers, and right tackle Bobby Hart to upgrade the tackle positions from what was fielded last season. The Giants did, however, invest in competition for the right guard position by bringing in former Chargers lineman D.J. Fluker.

There is no guarantee that Fluker will be the Giants’ starting right guard. However, in talking to the New York media this off-season, he might have given us a glimpse into what the Giants have in mind for their run game in 2017.

“It’s a lot better,” Fluker said. “They work a lot harder. It’s a whole lot better here as far as the plays and everything. Very similar to college actually — same terminology. Things are going a lot better and a lot more understanding of what to do — the aiming points and where to put yourself in the right position to be a better blocker — so I enjoy it.”

In college, Fluker played for Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide, a team built on a brutal rushing attack. That what he has seen from the Giants’ offense thus far as being similar to that Alabama team’s attack is intriguing.

When it comes to the running game, generally there are two types of schemes — man/gap runs and zone runs. Of the two, “Man” blocking (where blockers block a defender and try to move him off the line of scrimmage), is generally considered the more physical style, while “Zone” runs (which tend to feature more athletic blockers who can stress a defense) are more finesse based.

But the last thing you would think watching the Alabama offense was that it was “finesse.”

That offense was built on a specific concept within the zone blocking run scheme: The Inside Zone.

Perhaps the best way to describe a good Inside Zone scheme is “precise power.” It isn’t a scheme that looks to take the advantages of the zone scheme in general — that it can easily adapt to stunts, twists, slants, and blitzes along the line of scrimmage — and marry them to the “punch them in the teeth” ethos of a traditional man/gap power run scheme.

What It Looks Like

At its core, the inside zone is a pretty simple play.

The first step is for the center to identify the middle linebacker (easily seen in the 4-3 Over defense above). From there the other linemen are able to quickly identify who to block. As in the more widely-discussed outside zone runs, blockers start by identifying if they are covered or not. If there is a defender in front of them, they block him. If there isn’t, they look to the play-side gap and if there is a defender there, they block him. If they are completely uncovered, the blocker looks to the second level to block a linebacker.

As in outside-zone plays, athleticism is still at a premium, but footwork is even more important thanks to the “power” nature of the play. Where an outside zone run looks to get the defense flowing laterally, the inside zone still looks to move the defense off the ball. The offensive lineman needs quick and accurate footwork in order to deliver the maximum amount of power to create an opening, otherwise he is likely to be stalemated or pushed back.

The play-side offensive tackle needs to be able to control his defensive end while the double-team needs to blow the defensive tackle off the ball, or at least secure the block enough so that one lineman can work up to the second level (the center in this case).

The blocks at the line of scrimmage are essential in any scheme for a run to work. In this scheme it’s the blockers climbing to seal off the linebackers that turns a good run into a great run. The blockers will need to play with power and technique to open those holes, then sustain the blocks for the runners.

Finally, as in most zone blocking plays, there is an element of “run to daylight” to inside zone plays. While the blockers and runner all have keys they read to lead the play in a certain direction, there are often cut-back lanes for runners to exploit. The runner needs to be able to see those lanes while having the ability to make the cut to find it.

Final Thoughts

The inside zone is very versatile and can be run from a variety of formations and personnel groupings. The inside zone is run throughout college by “Pro Style” offenses, spread offense, and read/option offenses, and it works with all of them.

At Alabama, the inside zone was the foundation of the offense. It was the first concept installed and everything else they did grew out of it. Former Alabama center Williams Vlachos explained,

It’s a scheme. It’s a concept. You can have play-action off the inside zone. You can line up in the same exact formation and run the outside zone. The difference between inside zone and outside zone is just your aiming point and footwork. You’re still trying to accomplish the same thing. The backs end up going a little wider. As an offensive lineman, you’re aiming for the defender a little wider for leverage. What you’re trying to accomplish is the same thing. We run the zone out of several formations, but you can’t always tell if it’s inside zone or outside zone. You’ve got to read linemen and read running backs. It’s definitely not a play. There are many variations, formations. There’s a lot of stuff you can do out of it.

The Giants’ passing game is built off the slant pass, and it pairs well with an inside zone-based run game. Assuming the offense can establish an inside running game, keeping it largely between the tackles, it forces the defense to contract. That potentially opens up for quick strikes to the perimeter, such as slant passes or bubble screens.

If what Fluker said is true, that the Giants’ offense and run blocking scheme in particular, is familiar from his college days, that bodes well for his new team. It should be remembered, though that college isn’t the NFL. No team in the league enjoys anything like the overwhelming talent advantage that Alabama enjoys over many (most) of their opponents.

However, it should make for an interesting competition once the pads come on in training camp, and suggests some interesting schematic changes to the offense going forward.