I should have known better, that an offensive line question about nuanced X’s and O’s would turn into something much bigger than a simple email exchange.
I’ve been around Notre Dame football long enough to realize Irish football fans are dialed into offensive line play as much as any college fan base. Not only do they care, for instance, whether the third-string offensive tackle has a hangnail, they’re intent on being informed about which particular toe it’s afflicting.
So you can imagine the curiosity created by Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s mid-September admission that the Irish had reprioritized blocking schemes since last season under first-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
Specifically, outside zone over pin and pull.
Even though the fifth-ranked Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) haven’t played a game since Sept. 19 due to COVID-19 outbreak that’s since been tamed, it ties in perfectly with their Saturday night Notre Dame Stadium matchup with Florida State (1-2, 0-2).
Perhaps no facet separates these two programs more at this juncture than offensive line play. Florida State is pushing to progress to a point of being functional, while Notre Dame aspires to be elite.
And the change in schemes could be a significant factor advancing toward that. More dynamic perhaps is that Rees, Irish offensive line coach Jeff Quinn and running game coordinator Lance Taylor are collaborating, communicating and cooperating to that end.
That wasn’t always the case in the 2018 offensive meeting room.
Which brings me back to the question in last week’s live chat delivered by Skip from Houston: Please help me understand the offensive blocking schemes: (1) Pin and pull, (2) Inside zone and (3) Outside zone, and when is it best to use which. Thank you.
My answer to Skip, thinking he wanted more than an oversimplification and that maybe only he cared, was for him to email me and I’d talk to former Notre Dame All-America offensive lineman Aaron Taylor (now a college football analyst for CBS Sports), and I’d email Skip back.
More than 100 additional emails later from readers perusing the transcript and wanting the same thing, it became a story.
I’ve expanded the parameters of the original question to provide some additional context, take advantage of Taylor’s expertise and not get too deep in the weeds when it comes to X’s and O’s.
First, a rendering from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly when pressed further about the change:
“We believe with the size that we have,” Kelly said, “with the athleticism that we have, the ability that we want our offense to look like — utilizing multiple tight ends and then the misdirection, the boots, the things we want to do off of that — that’s what we believe is our system of offense from a running game perspective.
“So you’re going to see that as our base and then work off of that week to week. It’s not just exclusively one scheme. It’s that, coupled with some pin and pull, some misdirection, some counter. I don’t know that’s much different than any offensive structure that you’ll see throughout NFL and college football.”
Now here are my takeaways from my conversation with Taylor:
• Both pin and pull and outside zone are looking to accomplish something similar but using very different techniques.
• The decision of which one to deploy should be based on your personnel, and that includes the running backs and tight ends.
• Taylor said if he were an offensive line coach or coordinator, and all things being equal, he’d lean toward the outside zone.
“Because it’s more physical and it allows your offensive line to be physical together,” he said. “Whereas pin and pull, you’re oftentimes dependent on tight ends that have to block and prevent penetration.
“Penetration is the Kryptonite for any run game anywhere on the field, so pin and pulls are great if you can outflank a defense. But if you have a quick defensive linemen who can tell that his guard or tackle is pulling or a tight end that doesn’t get his head across and prevent penetration, then the play is pretty much blown up before it can even get started.
“I’ll probably get crushed for this by people in the O-line community, but pin and pull is what you do if you can’t block straight up.”
• Taylor played at Notre Dame from 1990-93, earning consensus All-America status in 1992 and ‘93 under legendary O-Line coach Joe Moore. Today Moore’s name is on the trophy given annually since 2015 to the nation’s best offensive line. The Irish won the award in 2017.
In Taylor’s All-America seasons, Notre Dame’s bread-and-butter scheme was inside zone.
“That also fit Lee Becton’s running style really, really well,” he said. “He was an extremely patient runner. He wasn’t the fastest, but he had good acceleration and he could change directions.
“The seams that show up are on the back side of an inside zone play. Outside zone is more of a horizontal stretch and seam play, whereas inside zone you’re looking for vertical creases as the back pushes to the play side and often cuts back.”
• Harry Hiestand, a Moore protégé, was ND’s offensive line coach when Notre Dame reached the No. 1 spot in the polls in 2012 for the first time since Taylor’s playing days, and he also presided over the 2017 Joe Moore Award winners in his final season at ND.
“Harry was multiple, and they ran a lot of G-scheme,” Taylor said, “particularly on the goal line. You don’t see it very often, but it’s old school, big boy, blue collar football.
“They ran duo, which is a play that’s taken the NFL by storm over the past six or seven years. That’s basically power without pulling anybody. They ran a fair amount of it, and why wouldn’t you with Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey and the rest of the crew they had there?”
But it wasn’t just what schemes Hiestand used but how he taught them.
“What really stood out to me about Harry was the reach block in the outside zone technique that he taught,” Taylor said. “There was never a practice I saw over his time there — and I saw 20-plus practices — where they didn’t practice reach-blocking on the down lineman.
“The reason that’s significant is that most people take four or five steps and stop. And when you watch tape, that’s what would happen. What was notable about Harry was when you put the tape on, you also saw Quenton Nelson blocking for 25-plus yards. There was a direct translation from the practice field to the games.”
• In evaluating the nation’s top offensive lines in helping pick the Joe Moore Award winners, selection committee member Taylor said there’s not a decided schematic advantage for any particular style.
It’s more about how the blocking schemes fit the offense’s aspirations and the line’s ability to execute that.
Oklahoma, the 2018, winner was completely wide open. LSU, the 2019 winner, almost never kept a running back or tight end in for pass protection.
“It got ugly statistically for them at times,” Taylor said, “but when you watched the film and saw what they were trying to do, it was impressive. That’s why context matters. So that’s why we don’t pay a lot of attention to stats and instead watch the tape.”
• In Notre Dame’s very limited 2020 inventory, left tackle Liam Eichenberg has been the standout in Taylor’s mind.
“He’s fast. He’s agile, and his vertical steps are great,” Taylor said. “He’s finishing. He’s got some toughness.”
• Still want to know the difference between pin and pull and outside zone?
“A pin-and-pull is a play designed to create horizontal seams that allow offenses to outflank the defenses and get to the perimeter,’ Taylor said. “The ‘pin’ are linemen or tight ends blocking inward toward the ball, and the covered linemen are pulling opposite away from the ball. It’s a way to basically crisscross or exchange your blocks.
“It usually involves at least two pulling linemen. And it stretches the defense horizontally so that back can completely encircle and hit the sideline or put his foot in the ground and get vertical because a linebacker overpursued.
“Zone blocking got its name, because it’s literal — a couple of players are working together to block a zone or area on the field. And what it allows for is immediate double teams on the down linemen.
“Your big play in the outside zone is called a stretch play. You’re trying to stretch the defense again horizontally, so that the back can put his foot in the ground and get vertical or cut all the way back depending on what their flow was.”