One Play: How James Cook takes advantage of the Bills’ sparing use of zone runs

10/19/2023
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The Buffalo Bill’s context versus the New York Gants and former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll didn’t go exactly as planned because the Giants put up a fight and the Bills had trouble with execution throughout most of the night. One of the plays they were able to pull off was a mid-zone run by James Cook. A mid-zone blocking scheme looks to attack the middle or strongside linebacker. Cook demonstrated success with this style of run for most of last season, and zone runs in general have worked again this year for the Bills.

Through Week 6, the Bills have run 68 zone runs, which is only the 23rd most in the NFL. They are tied for third in total touchdowns on zone runs with five (San Francisco has 10), and they are also third in EPA and EPA/Attempt. Cook has 28 of those attempts and averages 4.9 yards/att (9th for RBs with 15+ such carries), and his four missed tackles rank eighth, while his EPA/att is 14th. Latavius Murray has the second most carries (16) on zone scheme runs, but Damien Harris has been the most successful RB generating an EPA/att of 0.37 on his 11 carries.

Let’s look at one play where the Bills ran mid-zone with James Cook against the Giants for 14 yards.

The Play

Pre-Snap

The Bills are in 11 personnel with one running back and one tight end with Cook in the I behind Josh Allen under center  Dawson Knox is tight in-line to the field side of the formation. The wide receivers are in a three-by-one set with Khalil Shakir and Gabe Davis tight to the field side of the line with Knox, and Stefon Diggs the single outside the numbers to the boundary side.

The Giants are in nickel with five defensive backs: Tre Hawkins and Deonte Banks wide, Cor’Dale Flott inside over Knox as the cornerbacks and Xavier McKinney and Jason Pinnock are in a two-deep look as the safeties.

The Giants have four down linemen in an over front, with defensive tackle Jordon Riley shaded to the weak side of center Mitch Morse and the other DT to the formation’s strength in a three-technique right over the B gap between right guard O’Cyrus Torrence and right tackle Spencer Brown. The left defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is in a five-technique outside left tackle Dion Dawkins. the other DE is in a wide nine outside Knox on the right side. Weakside linebacker Micah McFadden and strong side LB Bobby Okereke are each five yards deep over the B gaps.

There is no pre-snap motion from the Bills, and the Giants’ defense holds its position.

Post-Snap

The play begins with two combo blocks on the DTs by Morse and McGovern on Riley and Torrence and Brown on Robinson. LY Dawkins turns and kicks out Thibodeaux on the left. On the right, Knox attacks Flott while Shakir and Davis work to seal off DE Ward with reach blocks. Torrence will pull off his combo block with Brown to get to the second level and try to nullify Okereke, who just had a tremendous night in almost facet of the game. McGovern puts a hand out to Riley before focusing on McFadden.

The play is well blocked and Cook has three seemingly substantial lanes. His next few steps set up the big gain.

Knox blocks Flott.

Immediately after taking the handoff, Cook sees Okereke and continues toward that A gap.

Knox blocks Flott.

Cook continues to show himself in that gap, which has now drawn the attention of McKinney, right until he gets up on his linemen until he puts his foot in the ground and cuts behind Brown.

Knox blocks Flott.

Cook is five yards downfield and has yet to be touched.

Yes, Knox is still blocking Flott. Why do you ask?

Hawkins and Pinnock do eventually converge on the tackle after the 14-yard gain.

Somewhere in the mysteries of space and time, Knox blocks Flott…

Conclusion

The Bills don’t use zone runs at a high rate compared to most other teams, but when they do use them, Cook has shown the ability to read his blocking, use sound footwork, and maximize his quickness to create explosive runs.

 

You can find Chris on Twitter (@lowbuffa), getting dirty in #MafiaGardens, or watching football. Go Bills!

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