Today we’re going to take an in-depth look at the split zone running concept. Split zone is one of my favorite plays not only to watch as a fan but to install and call as an offensive coordinator. It has all the benefits of counter without pulling a lineman or being married to the backside of the play. It’s also easy to tag RPO’s (run-pass options) with and comes easily equipped for play-action passing and naked bootlegs.
I covered split zone way back in 2016 with a rudimentary knowledge of the play compared to where I am standing today (yes, I feel 100-times more knowledgable about it in only three years; that’s football for ya!). After having ran the play myself for the past four seasons I really have a new understanding and even better appreciation of it.
Like I said in the dart article I wrote back in March of 2019, I like to call an offense based on picking on certain players. For my offense, it’s the defensive ends (often called five techniques because of where they line up) and flat defenders. The best way to pick on defensive ends is to give them multiple looks and not only does deploying split zone do that compared to other run concepts, but it gives you multiple looks in itself when you add in the naked bootleg.
The basics of split zone
Above, you can see a diagram of the split zone from the shotgun, 11 personnel, winged h-back 2x2 offensive set. 11 personnel stands for one running back and one tight end, while the 2x2 means that the outside receiver and slot are on one side (two pass threats) and the h-back and outside receiver are on the opposite side of the center (two pass threats).
Again, the purpose is to not only allow for a zone-based cutback play (on base zone and inside zone the running back should stay to the play side from the A-gaps over) but also a way to confuse the defensive end. The more looks the defensive ends get, the slower they are to react which is how offenses beat defenses.
The running back is still determining if it stays play side or cuts back to the back side. He’ll read the guard’s butt, if the guard is square the back cuts under him. If the guard is driving away from the center the back can stay play side. From the guard and 3-technique defensive tackle, the back also reads the linebackers. The flow of the offensive line to one direction will cause the linebackers to over pursue with the goal being the running back can cut back in between the back side guard blocking the 1-tech nose tackle and the kick out of the 5-tech defensive end by the h-back.
Just like base and inside zone read the play side tackle on split zone will have his man 1on1 just like the play side guard will. The center can jab the 1-tech while the guard picks him up (but must stay square). The center is aiming to block the strong inside linebacker while the back side tackle should pick up the weak inside linebacker.
The H wants to use his outside shoulder and thigh to pick off the defensive end, jamming them into his midsection and crotch, respectively. This keeps the inside open for the running back and the h-back’s inside arm free.
Why I like split zone (+ Post-Snap RPO)
I’ve told you a lot of the basics to why I like split zone: I can cutback off of it without pulling a lineman and it’s another way to pick on the defensive end. I also like split zone because it’s easy to tag an RPO off of it and stay with a double option versus a triple. For instance, running inside zone read with a post-snap RPO makes it a triple option play. Running split zone with an RPO is still a double option play.
Hey- first up this means you don’t have to run the quarterback to have an RPO, so we can FINALLY put that rumor to bed. Thanks Joel Klatt (Klatt totally will get this on a Google alert). Second it means we can beat the defense because if they load the box we can throw the RPO and if they play the receivers we have a nice 6-man box to run against with six guys blocking six.
In the image above- we get a 6-man box but the pressure from the flat defender makes 7. We’re reading him. As he comes in on the play as a run blitzer we pull and throw the bubble. I hate the back out bubble but I didn’t make that decision so yeah we can 10+ instead of a touchdown.
And it’s not just stalk-bubble for a good RPO off of split zone, we used a tunnel RPO at the past four stops I’ve coached (O.C. at either the varsity or JV level for all four) and it’s worked wonders as a nice change-up. Just like you can’t keep throwing your fastball you can’t keep throwing bubble, something has to give. Below- you’re getting a look at a tunnel screen off the split zone as an RPO tag.
Don’t forget, you can always tag a pop pass (aka stick) RPO off split zone as well. It will work when the flat defender plays run and the will linebacker is picked up by the tackle. The offensive line just needs a “house” call to stall from going downfield too quickly.
Play-action/pre-snap RPO and naked off split zone
I had some really good film of pre-snap RPO (basically becomes play-action pass) off split zone that I no longer have. #HudlProblems when you change schools this often. However, I can diagram up the concept the best I can for you. We’ve talked snag on here before, it’s something that I truly believe in both in the classical Air Raid way and in the Stop-Bubble way as a play-action pass.
Above is the stop-bubble concept I love to use. Pre-snap the QB would read the box and leverage. If he has a 7-man box it’s an easy to throw, a 6-man he’ll likely handoff. The linebacker is the read- if he drops: throw the bubble; if he runs the bubble- throw the stop. It’s rare to have a cornerback playing inside leverage and a linebacker out over the slot receiver. If there’s three defenders over two offensive players- that’s why it’s a pre-snap RPO and the QB will just hand the ball off on split zone.
The naked boot is a great change-up to the split zone run concept and play-action pass. With the naked boot- the QB will fake to the running back and work his way outside. The h-back will chip the defensive end to slow him but then run into the flat. The QB will “peek” the vertical route, then read flat vs out against the flat defender.
It can be ran out of 3x1 as well, as you can see above. It’s almost the same concept, except the slot receiver runs a drag route that gets to 10-12 yards versus an out route that gets to 7-10 yards. Still, it works the same way.
Below you can see a naked boot that gets dropped off to the h-back with the QB under duress.
Here’s another example of a naked boot in the GIF below:
Split zone at the U
Why do I want to see split zone at the U? It’s going to take pressure off of Zion Nelson at left tackle because he can get to linebackers instead of having to always mash a defensive end on his own. The multi-talented duo of Will Mallory and Brevin Jordan can be the kick out block (or even Michael Irvin II, we’ve been reading good things). It will help slow down the pass rush the more the defensive ends are battered and confused. Also two of the backs in Cam’Ron Harris and Deejay Dallas are one-cut and go inside backs while Lorenzo Lingard is more of an outside threat.
I love tagging RPO’s and split zone is obviously a play that’s easy to tag post-snap and pre-snap RPO’s to. It’s also easy to use the naked boot combinations I’ve shown you, too. It’s a great play and I can see it working with great success at Miami as it’s worked well under Mark Richt both at Miami and UGA.
Here’s more film to watch of split zone.