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What Saquon Barkley can do to make the Giants’ inside zone runs better

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Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz takes a closer look at an almost perfectly executed inside zone RPO.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I started writing two years ago because I felt there was a need for the voice of the offensive lineman to be represented in this space. We have former skill position players all over the place, and with the rise of social media, advanced stats and grading, a lot people try to cover the ins and outs of offensive line play. Some do a fantastic job, but there are still some nuances that I can provide about the position that most can’t. This week, I noticed a very specific nuance in need of a lineman’s touch.

It’s a simple inside zone RPO by the New York Giants. At first glance, not much about this play looks out of place.

Running back Saquon Barkley takes a shotgun handoff and runs directly to the right where he’s tackled by defensive end Cam Jordan and Demario TDavis. Positive play, 5-yard gain.

But it could have been so much more.

First, I want to make it clear this isn’t an article bashing Barkley. He’s an outstanding talent and has shown that so far on the field. But just like any young runner there are times it’s clear his vision can improve.

I’m using this one specific play to illustrate a bigger point about inside zone.

Running plays, and especially zone plays, have aiming points for the running backs. If you’re running inside zone from the home position, behind the center with either the quarterback under center or in the pistol, the aiming point for the running back is the inside leg tight end, or the ghost tight end. Or, in some schemes, it’s the outside leg of the play-side tackle.

The running back aims for that spot on his track as he takes the ball. He’s supposed to press the line of scrimmage on his track while reading the front side defender, whether that’s a three-technique (lined up over the outside shoulder of the guard) or a defensive tackle lined up inside of the guard. If the player the back is reading flows front side, the back should veer into the backside A gap behind the double team.

Getting back toward the double team is important because that’s probably where the most movement is occurring up front.

Linemen must know all these things to block on the proper angles. If they don’t know where the back is going, how can they execute blocks properly?

How they block double teams is also based on the aiming points and the linebacker location. For example, on inside zone, they know the running is trying to cut it back, so they stay longer on our double teams to get movement toward the linebacker. If it’s outside zone, they might leave sooner because the ball is going so far front side and they must have the proper angles to block flowing linebackers.

X marks the aiming point here. It’s drawn with the front shown on the play, even though it’s blocked a tad differently.

When they run inside zone, or any zone play from shotgun, the aiming point for the back changes because of where the back is located in the formation. With the back being offset to one side, and accounting for footwork to handle the mesh point, it’s nearly impossible for the runner’s track to mirror what it would be if they’re in the home position. So inside zone from shotgun rarely even gets to the front side B gap. It’s a run scheme that should hit between the A gaps and most often in the backside A gap.

So with the understanding of where inside zone is supposed to go, the guys up front can set up the type of blocks they want. When there’s a shade (defender on the center) and the running back is in the home position (behind the center), they aren’t going to be as thick on the double team between the center and the guard. Because the running back could go front side, they double the shade and then work to the front side linebacker when he shows.

When the running back is in shotgun for inside zone, our double team is thicker because the running back shouldn’t be going front side. Also, the timing of the run is a tad slower with the backfield action, so they must maintain our double teams just longer. They have to take that defender vertically off the ball and let the linebacker come to them.

Let’s review the play in question. Here’s the still shot from behind the play when Barkley gets the ball.

Working backside to front, the backside linemen, the left tackle and left guard, are blocking man-on. They have those defenders by themselves and they must maintain inside leverage so their man doesn’t cross them to the play side of the run. The linebacker circled in the red is “blocked” by the RPO concept. While the mesh is happening, he takes three steps towards his zone to protect for the possible slant route heading into his area from the run fake.

Moving to the front side of the run, the right tackle is blocking his defender and doing a decent job moving him and trying to be strong with his inside arm. The focal point of this play is the double team on the shade between the center and right guard.

As you can see, both players are hip to hip and taking the shade off the ball vertically. It’s textbook. Both players have eyes on the linebacker and are waiting for him to declare which side he’s going to defend. That’s how it’s drawn up. They are blocking their defender with the knowledge that in this front Barkley is supposed to run up the hash, as the orange line indicates.

If the right guard, number 70, leaves the double team too quickly, a few things can happen. First, the shade can press the center back into the hole, clogging up the middle. He could split the double team and make a tackle for a loss. Also, the linebacker could show himself in the B gap, then as Barkley runs up the hash, he tucks himself back inside and would be unblocked as the guard couldn’t get over the top to get the linebacker. So, in short, both players are doing their jobs.

I’ve been asked, or told, the linebacker circled would have easily made the play if Barkley runs up the hash, but I disagree. That linebacker is moving away from the hole as Barkley gets the ball. If Barkley pours through the A gap, I’d bet on Barkley breaking that tackle. And that’s assuming the lineman on the double team block their linebacker.

With everything I’ve said above about where the run should go, running backs are allowed to hit other holes as they see fit. The only issue that arises from that is unblocked defenders. Running backs get paid to make them miss, so when Barkley goes to his right, he’s got to make these guys miss. He doesn’t do that here. It’s an area where the Giants can push for some improvements from Barkley as he grows as a player.

Hopefully that gave y’all a little insight into the inside zone run game. I did my best to make this simple and easy to understand. If you have anymore questions, send them my way, to my Twitter account.