ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – As the Denver Broncos wrapped up their offseason program, coach Nathaniel Hackett dropped the phrase “outside zone” early, often and with plenty of anticipation for the 2022 season.
The outside zone run scheme, one that attacks space and stresses defenses along the perimeter, should have plenty of folks – NFL and fantasy alike – trying to figure out how the Broncos will divide carries between running backs Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon III, Mike Boone and the rest. Hackett’s track record as a playcaller with outside zone helped put two MVP trophies on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ mantle and made a star out of running back Aaron Jones during Hackett’s three years as Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator.
“We brought this whole system into this [Denver] organization, this outside zone world, and it hasn’t been that way [before]”Hackett said.
Hackett, of course, is talking about this generation of Broncos players. In the big picture, the roots of outside zone can be traced to the Broncos with then-head coach Mike Shanahan, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and running backs coach Bobby Turner during the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl winners to close out the 1997 and 1998 seasons. That offense put running back Terrell Davis into the Hall of Fame and versions of it fill current NFL Sundays under the influence of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, Rams coach Sean McVay and Packers coach Matt LaFleur – all former Mike Shanahan assistants.
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It’s simple on the surface, can be difficult to teach, can be difficult to learn and requires discipline, patience and when the moment is right, unfailing decisiveness from the running backs to make it all go. Any defensive coordinator will tell you if it’s done well, if a team’s offensive linemen, tight ends, wide receivers and running backs all get it right, the big plays lurk around every corner.
“Whenever you’re dealing with the outside zone action, the [defensive] line not only has to step up to fit the run, but now they have to run sideline-to-sideline, “Hackett said.” It’s almost like you give them a two-fold area that they have to cover. When you add in the play pass that looks just like it, whether you’re booting out with [quarterback Russell Wilson] or he’s setting up in the pocket, it makes them have to step up and go sideways, which voids the zones behind them. “
In a nutshell, linemen all fire out the same direction in an outside zone run play, to block the “most dangerous” defender in a specific area rather than a specific defender lined up across from him. The backs are then, if all goes well, presented with three options on each carry. Some refer to the three options as “bounce,” “bang” or “bend”: take the run outside, cut upfield between two linemen or cut back across the formation.
Kubiak, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, still had some elements of the scheme in the Broncos’ offense during the Super Bowl 50 run of 2015, but Manning’s comfort level and a foot injury dictated a scheme different than the one Kubiak and Shanahan had used.
Hackett’s version will have all of the elements of the Broncos’ glory years, plus updates to the passing game for today’s NFL. That includes a bigger variety of personnel groupings, a bigger variety of formations and more pre-snap motion, all cocooned around the play-action passing game with a mobile quarterback who has to be accurate on the move.
“It’s just get the ball and run to the open hole,” Williams said of his part of the equation. “People try to complicate it and try to make it more than what it really is, but it’s really the same.”
“I learn the plays, I go out there, they call them, and I run it,” Gordon said. “… It doesn’t matter what system it is. My job is to make it work.”
The Broncos’ offensive linemen have faced the biggest challenge this offseason, working far more on the move. Hackett and offensive line coach Butch Barry have preached proper spacing on the move to prevent defenders from slicing through gaps to disrupt the flow.
Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, who worked with Shanahan for seven seasons, once said of the scheme, “As a defense it tests your patience, your eyes and your ability to keep doing the right thing down after down. Because you miss one time or get your eyes in the wrong spot one time, all the good work you did the 40 plays before that is long gone. “
In the end, the Broncos expect Williams to flourish in the offense and Gordon to have a significant role, but when their minicamp ended this week offensive coordinator Justin Outten said a training camp competition still remains to pick the starting five offensive linemen.
But the play-action deep passes with Wilson on the move and the backs popping out of the crowd for big gains were on display.
“Those are things where you’re always trying to get that run, get [defenders] stepping up, get them thinking and guessing, “Hackett said.” Then you have a chance to get those deep shots behind them, which we all love the most. “