Over the next few months, we are going to spotlight Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense. Daboll entered the NFL in 2000 with the New England Patriots, and over the course of the next 16 seasons he held several positions, including Defensive Assistant, Wide Receivers Coach, Tight Ends Coach, Quarterbacks Coach, and Offensive Coordinator. When the opportunity arose to jump to the college ranks at Alabama, Daboll seized it. As the offensive coordinator and QB coach at Alabama he got to learn from one of the best organizational managers, but it also gave Daboll a chance to work with college talent and to incorporate some college concepts into his playbook. This could be extremely useful, as more and more of those concepts are seeping into NFL playbooks. The move worked, and it landed him an offensive coordinator gig with the Bills. This series is meant to give you an idea of what is available and taught in Daboll’s offense; it doesn’t necessarily reflect the extent to which he will use these concepts, though. I will be periodically using cut-ups from Charlie Weis’s playbook to give you an idea of the terminology and basics of the concepts.
Base Offense: Run Game
In every playbook there is a core set of plays and concepts that a team hangs its hat on. Base offensive concepts are typically run on 1st and 2nd down, or even on critical down-and-distances. For Brian Daboll, one of the main concepts in his base run offense is zone runs. According to SportsInfo Solutions, Daboll and the Bama offense ran a zone run concept 59.7% of the time. That encompasses 301 attempts for 1,770 yards and 23 touchdowns. Zone runs can be further broken down into outside zone and inside zone, and today we are going to look at outside zone and its variant, the pin and pull.
The Tide were obviously a heavy zone run team. Specifically, they ran outside zone about 31% of their attempts in 2017. Most of the outside zone runs were out of the pistol formation to pair with the play-action and dropback passing game. This helped the starting quarterbacks see the field better when they chose to pass. Outside (or wide) zone runs are characterized by the entire offensive line blocking in unison in the direction of the run. The running back has three options to choose from. He can bounce, bang, or bend the run, but he must be decisive, make one cut and go.
Generally speaking, upfront the linemen need to determine if they are covered or uncovered. This will determine the type of block they each need to execute. If covered, a lineman will block the defender across from him. If uncovered, he will assist the playside lineman.
The left tackle is covered, so he is tasked with reaching/cutting off the backside defender. The left guard is uncovered, so he is supposed to help the center, but because the defensive tackle continues to flow to the offense’s right, he is unable to really assist and/or take over the block. The center is covered and works a stab and demeanor block. He is going to first step play side, then his second should be down the midline of the defender (pictured below). His left hand will be placed on the play side number, and he will be in close quarters with the defensive tackle, guiding him, keeping his outside hand free, just in case he needs to pick up a linebacker who is shooting the gap late.
The right tackle is covered backside (with the play going right). So the right tackle will stab with his inside hand to ‘hold up’ the defensive lineman until his teammate, the right guard, can reach block and overtake the defender, at which time the tackle will then climb to the second level. The tight end has the end man of the line of scrimmage, and he is going to take him where he wants to go.
On the snap, the defensive end sets a nice edge, so the ‘bounce’ is taken away, so the back gets upfield for a good gain.
While the terminology is likely different in Daboll’s scheme, under Charlie Weis in the early 2000s they called this play 38/39 sprint. You can see some of the most basic defensive looks that offense expected that season (below) and how this play should be blocked up versus those looks.
Alabama averaged over 70 yards per game running this concept, 635 yards after contact, 5.9 yards per attempt, and a whopping 29.9% broken tackle percentage. Two hundred and twelve zone run attempts were made out of 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs), and since it was part of Daboll’s base offense, outside zone on 1st and 2nd down was part of their bread and butter. Check out some of the outside zone run calls to the strength (TE side) below. This reel includes plays from the Vanderbilt game, a game where they rushed the ball 66 times for 496 yards and 6 touchdowns!
Of course, Bama ran this concept out of other personnel groupings. Outside zone was prominent when the offense sent out 12 personnel.
Defenses attempted to play with an Over front to combat the amount of strong side runs Alabama utilized. The Over front means that they often aligned their 3-technique defensive tackle to the strength (TE side).
Below, you will see a variant of the Over front referred to as a G-front. The main difference between the two fronts is the nose tackle. In a normal Over front, the nose tackle is typically in a 1 technique, which would be outside the left shoulder of the center. The G-front puts the nose tackle in a 2i technique just inside the guard. Defenses play this so that they are still strong versus runs to the strength, and equally as strong against weak side runs.
When Alabama got their outside zone runs going, teams would throw these fronts at them and dare them to run to the weakside, and Daboll and co. obliged. The offense showed the ability to run outside zone runs to the weak side; take a look:
But when Bama met a formidable opponent in the National Championship, these outside zone runs were not hitting like they had during the regular season. That’s because Georgia HC Kirby smart, a former Tide coach, knew the ins and outs of how they were going to attack. When Daboll wanted to run outside zone weak, he typically did so into the boundary. So the Bulldogs ran a lot of slants and gap exchanges. If you look at all of the down linemen, their heads are down, essentially looking at the offensive linemen’s feet across from them; they are not looking at the ball attempting to time the snap. That’s because they are reading the offensive linemen.
When the ball is snapped, the defensive linemen recognize the zone blocks, so they execute the game planned gap exchanges. The gap exchanges throw off the timing and execution of the reach or combination blocks. The blocks become muddied, and the defense is able to shut down what had been a relatively effective run the entire season.
Pin and Pull
The chess game between an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator is fun to witness. As you saw on the prior play, the Bulldogs got the best of the Tide on that outside zone run, and did so for most of the game. So Daboll had to pull out some tricks that he had not utilized much during the regular season. Those tricks were pin and pull runs. This concept is basically a hybrid scheme, part outside zone, part gap/man. The running back has the same aiming points, but the offensive linemen are executing blocks from both types of blocking schemes. Depending on the defensive alignment, the offensive linemen will communicate who will be executing the down blocks (pin) and who will be pulling wide. On this play from the National Championship, the pin is quite easy because of the 4i technique defensive end, so the tight end and left tackle work a combination block, then the tight end works to the backside linebacker. This sets the edge for the entire play. The center and right tackle then reach block so that the left guard and right guard can lead the play to the field.
The QB executes a ‘flash mesh’ to make the play look like he is reading the backside defender. This allows the offense to get the extra blocker frontside. The running back gets a great crack block by the slot receiver, which allows the left guard to pick up the safety. The right guard picks off the linebacker, allowing the back to get into the open field.
Adding this concept to the game plan for the second half was one of many adjustments that Daboll made to help Alabama overcome the 13-point halftime deficit, a game in which they finished with 184 yards and a healthy 4.7 per attempt rushing against the 6th-ranked defense.
This concept can be run from under center or shotgun. Daboll ran it from under center in 2012. He sends out 12 personnel and gets a pin block by the tight end with the guard and center pulling. The center kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage while the guard cleans up the gap and then blocks the linebacker.
This hybrid concept is perfect for the Bills’ offensive linemen because they are not your typical lighter, athletic zone running linemen. They possess more girth and power, so using the down blocks reminiscent of a gap run allows them to gain the advantage with angles instead of athleticism.
One of the reasons Daboll was brought in was because of the multitude of run concepts he employs. This should be exciting to the offense because most of the players have experience running the pin and pull and outside zone concepts. Under Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn, the Bills were multidimensional. They ran zone concepts from both under center and gun, and even incorporated the QB as a threat in the run game. Last season, Rick Dennison primarily ran outside zone run concepts, but he sprinkled in some hybrid concepts, including this pin and pull with the fullback helping lead the play rather than an offensive lineman.
It’ll be interesting to see how Daboll crafts his playbook to incorporate the outside zone and pin and pull runs. The Bills’ 1st round pick, Josh Allen, has the athleticism to be a threat on these concepts if Daboll chooses to blend them with zone-read elements. But Nathan Peterman is an average threat athletically, and AJ McCarron is even less athletic, and would probably run these plays from under center.
Finding a balance will be the key to the Bills’ success in these concepts.