Brian White - Split Zone - Technical Manual - WP

Manipulating Second Level Defenders With Split Flow Inside Zone [VIDEO]

Part of an effective offense is placing defenders in a run-pass conflict.  For this reason, our offensive staff has decided to make Run-Pass Option (RPO) plays a major part of our offense.  These plays allow us to read defenders that may be difficult for us to block, either by alignment or ability.  One of our most useful RPO plays has been Split Flow Inside Zone packaged with a Bubble screen (Figure 1).  This play allows us to block six defenders in the box, while reading any potential seventh defender that would outnumber our blockers.

Split Zone - Fig 1

In this concept, our Offensive Line, H-Back and Running Back are all executing Split Flow Inside Zone.  Simultaneously, our Slot WR is running a Bubble screen.  The Outside Wide Receivers to the Bubble will block for the Bubble, while any WR away from the Bubble will block run support.  The Quarterback will read the reaction of the “Leverage Defender,” as described below, to make the play result in a run or pass.  One of the important elements of this play is that all eleven of our players are able to play fast because of the simplicity of the concept.  The Offensive Line does not need to know what is occurring out on the perimeter, they know they are blocking Inside Zone.  Likewise, the Slot WR is not concerned with the run concept, he knows that he is running the Bubble (Video 1).

Quarterback Rules

As previously mentioned, the Quarterback’s responsibility is to identify and read the Leverage Defender to execute the Run-Pass Option.  We identify the Leverage Defender based on the alignment of our Bubble runner.  For example, if the Slot WR running the Bubble is aligned as the second WR from the outside, then the Leverage Defender will be the second defender from the outside underneath ten yards.  If the Slot WR is aligned as our third WR, then the Leverage Defender would be the third defender from the outside under ten yards, and so on.

Once the Quarterback secures the snap, he will take a lateral step with his playside foot then hinge with his backside foot to clear the midline for the Running Back.  As he takes his footwork, the Quarterback’s eyes will lock on the Leverage Defender.  If the defender is fitting the run then the Quarterback will pull the ball, set his feet and throw the Bubble to the Slot WR.  The aiming point for this throw is one yard in front of the Quarterback’s launch point at a width of 18 yards.  The throw is aimed at this point as it allows for the Slot WR to catch the ball with some momentum going forward towards the line of scrimmage.  If the defender is drawn out by the Bubble screen, then the Quarterback will hand the ball off and carry out a throw fake. 

Running Back Rules

Our preferred backfield alignment on this play is the Pistol, meaning that the RB will align directly behind the Center and Quarterback with his toes at 7 yards.  On the snap, the RB will take a drop step with his playside foot then step forward with that same foot.  He should aim his shoulders at the landmark as he gets to the mesh with the QB.  The Running Back’s aiming point is at the original alignment of the inside leg of the playside Guard.  We refer to this landmark as the “Read Spot” (Figure 2).  Split Zone - Fig 2 The Read Spot concept allows our blockers and ballcarriers to understand how they can affect each other.  The ballcarrier’s responsibility is to run at the Read Spot before making a cut (Video 2). 

Running in this fashion keeps the Offensive Line and Running Back moving in the same direction, which makes the OL’s combination blocks more effective because the Linebackers react in a more predictable fashion.

Offensive Line Rules

The Offensive Line’s responsibility is to block their playside gap.  Our zones follow covered/uncovered rules, meaning that if a first level defender aligns in the Offensive Lineman’s playside gap that lineman will block that defender.  If the Offensive Lineman’s playside gap is not covered by a first level defender, then that lineman will combo up to a second level defender.  We stress to our Offensive Line that an efficient run is any run that gains four or more yards.  This helps our staff emphasize to the OL that our primary responsibility is to take care of level one.  In order to accomplish this, our uncovered OL will be slow to climb on their combos.

Each Offensive Lineman must understand where he is in relation to the Read Spot in order to determine their footwork and landmark.  The Playside Guard and Tackle are aligned outside of the Read Spot.  Their landmark will be down the middle of the defender.  One of the reasons we like zone concepts is because the frontside OL can be very aggressive with their blocks.  When covered, they will take a short lateral step with their playside foot, opening their hips slightly, then a vertical step with their backside foot.  We expect contact to happen as the second step is taken.  In light of this, we work bringing our punch with the second step (Video 3).

If the defender crosses the face of the playside OL on a stunt, that OL will stop and shove the defender onto the adjacent Offensive Lineman while keeping his eyes in his gap.

An uncovered Offensive Lineman on the playside will take a slightly deeper step in order to aim his hips at the near knee adjacent first level defender.  If the defender’s knee works into the previously Uncovered OL’s gap, the OL will quickly work to strike the defender and drive him out of the gap (Video 4). 

If the defender’s knee works upfield, then the Uncovered OL will drop his backside shoulder to provide presence for the adjacent Offensive Lineman behind him.  He will keep his eyes in his gap and slowly work to the second level.  Again, we stress taking care of level one, we really do not need to block a second level defender until he steps up closer than four yards from the line of scrimmage and becomes a level one defender (Video 5).

The Center and Backside Offensive Linemen are aligned backside from the Read Spot, so they must have more urgency with their footwork and execute their blocks with a playside number landmark.  In order to gain the required leverage to the Read Spot, our Offensive Linemen will move laterally.  When the Center or Backside Guard is covered, they will shuffle laterally until their backside knee is down the middle of the defender.  They will then strike the defender with their backside arm on the defender’s sternum and playside hand on the defender’s playside breastplate.  Ideally, the blocker can knock the defender backwards.  If this is not accomplished, the blocker must use a strong backside arm to tear the defender past the Read Spot (Video 6).

An uncovered Center or Playside Guard will follow the same mechanics as a Playside uncovered OL.  However, the Backside Tackle is in a different situation.  When he is uncovered, he will shuffle through the backside B gap, being alert to use his backside arm to collect any defender stunting from the outside into the B gap.  If no such stunt occurs, the Backside Tackle will continue to slowly work through the gap.  Unlike the other OL, he does not need to provide presence for his backside gap.

H-Back Rules

The H-Back’s responsibility is to block the backside C gap defender.  Based on the formation, he may align on the frontside or the backside of the play.  In either scenario, the H-Back will align with his inside foot aligned down the middle of the Tackle he is aligned one yard behind.  If the formation call dictates that the H-Back aligns to the playside, then he must cross the formation to get to his assignment.  To cross the formation, on the snap, the H-Back will take a step with his playside foot aiming at the outside hip of the Backside Tackle.  He will run his course tight to the line of scrimmage.  Our coaching point is to have the H-Back run on the heels of the Offensive Linemen.

Once the H-Back crosses the formation, he will make contact with the backside C gap defender.  He must ensure that the defender does not beat him to the inside.  Taking a great course to cross this formation is critical, as is blocking the proper landmark on the defender.  The H-Back will block the defender with his hands by delivering a punch with both hands, then running his feet through contact. 

The blocker must ensure that his hat remains inside of the defender’s hat throughout the entire block.  Sometimes, this relationship can be difficult to accomplish.  This is especially true when the backside C gap defender is using a “Spill” or “Wrong Arm” technique.  The defender executes this by taking his outside arm and ripping it through the inside arm of the blocker.  When done properly, this can disrupt the Inside Zone by creating penetration.  The H-Back will counter the Wrong Arm technique by getting his hips parallel to the line of scrimmage after contact and pushing the defender into the line of scrimmage.  Keeping the defender on the line will avoid any disruption to the play.

When the H-Back is already aligned on the backside of the play, he does not have to cross the formation as he is already aligned in the gap he is responsible for.  In this case, the H-Back will take a quick shuffle inside, keeping his feet close to the ground, to replace the original alignment of the Backside Tackle.  He must anticipate that the defender is going to chase the Tackle’s hip.  Just as when crossing the formation, the H-Back must make sure that he does not get beat to his inside (Video 7).

Once the H-Back takes his quick shuffle inside, he will work into the line of scrimmage.  If the defender has chased the Tackle’s hip, the H-Back will strike him with two hands maintaining the critical inside leverage.  If the defender plays wide, the H-Back will ensure that the backside C gap defender is not coming from a blitz or stunt before working to the block the nearest defender.

Wide Receiver Rules

In addition to the interior blocking for the Inside Zone, the blocks occurring on the Perimeter are critical to the success of the play.  This is especially true on the side of the Bubble screen.  The Outside WR on the Bubble screen play must execute a block that will determine the success of the play on instances that we throw the Bubble.  Just as the Inside Zone portion of the run has a Read Spot that the ballcarrier aims for, the Bubble portion is the same.  The Read Spot for the Bubble runner is the Red Line, or four yards from the sideline (Figure 3).  The Outside WR uses this knowledge to his advantage.  The result of the block must be that the defender is not on the Read Spot.  The blocker can drive the defender all the way to the sideline or he can keep outside leverage to reach him.

In order to perform this block, the WR will use “Ooze” footwork.  This means that the WR will not sprint off the line of scrimmage.  Instead, the WR will take one big step and two little steps aiming two yards outside of the defender’s alignment.  Once these steps have been executed, the blocker should be in a balanced position.  He will continue to fire his feet into the ground and slowly close the distance between him and the defender.  While the blocker closes vertical distance he must also maintain his outside leverage on the defender.  This may require that the blocker “mirrors” the defender with a lateral shuffle.  He must keep his inside knee down the middle of the defender.

Once the distance has been closed, the blocker will execute a punch aiming his inside hand at the defender’s sternum and his outside hand on the defender’s outside breastplate.  Ideally, the blocker is able to reach the defender by driving his inside knee vertically and drive the defender backwards (Video 8).

Often, this is not accomplished but the Read Spot concept allows the blocker to use a strong inside arm in order to force the defender towards the sideline and away from the Read Spot.

Conclusion and Other Thoughts

The Split Flow Inside Zone Run-Pass Option has been an effective play for our Offense since our staff arrived at Rose-Hulman in 2011.  The play is simple for the Offense to execute while providing a full-field stress on the defense.  Once the fundamentals of the Bubble Screen RPO are mastered, there is a wide variety of concepts that can be added to an offensive arsenal with relative ease.  Our staff has explored expanding this package to include additional pass options, such as a Bubble-Slant concept (Figure 4). 

This variation allows us to account for a Cornerback, or other secondary support player, that is a difficult match-up for our Z to block.  We also instruct the Quarterback to pull and throw the ball to either the Bubble or the Slant unless the Leverage Defender drops into the Slant window (Video 9).

I hope you have found this article beneficial and see how utilizing a RPO concept in your offense can be an effective way to protect your core run plays.  Our staff feels that games are won and lost by being able to run the football successfully.   RPO concepts allow us to improve our performance running the ball by challenging the run fits of our opposition while adding the potential for explosive plays.


Brian White joined Hampton University in 2018 after serving the last seven years at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology with the final six of those being the offensive coordinator. He has led Rose-Hulman’s offense to more than 50 school records since 2014, including three performances of 70 or more points in a game.  The team has recorded back-to-back eight-win seasons in 2015 and 2016, including the team’s first trip to the NCAA Division III Playoffs in 2016.


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