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Steelers Playbook: Examining Arthur Smith’s favorite run concepts, outside zone and stretch

With the draft and free agency in our rearview mirror, and NFL teams now bunkering in to shape the rosters they’ve constructed, I thought it would be a great time to launch a “Steelers Playbook” series focusing on schemes the team already uses or is expected to use in 2024. If you’re a football nerd like me and you want to know how the game works on an X-and-O level, this series is for you.

First up, we are examining new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s favorite run concept: the outside zone play. I’ll break down both outside zone and its companion, stretch, and will discuss how they work and why Smith likes them.

The outside zone play functions as a compliment to its more popular twin, inside zone. Think of these twins as fraternal rather than identical. They are born from the same philosophy, which is to use area-blocking rather than man-blocking so linemen can adjust to any front, stunt or twist a defense throws at them. Both schemes involve linemen moving in uniform fashion in the same direction. This is called “full flow,” and it causes the defense to react quickly and move with them. The fast flow of the defense can allow offensive linemen to displace them from their run fits, creating seams through which a back with good vision can find openings.

Inside zone generally hits in the A-gap between the center and guards but can wind to the backside B-gap as defenses over-pursue. Outside zone has a wider aiming point. There are various ways to teach the play, and coaches often argue until they’re blue in the face over the minutiae of aiming points, but running backs are commonly directed to the inside leg of the tight end (or of the “ghost” tight end if the play is being run to the weak side). From there, a back can bang the ball into the B or C gaps or bounce it wide depending on the flow of the defense. Outside zone is not a predetermined outside run. It simply hits wider than its complement:

For the past three seasons in Atlanta, outside zone and stretch were overwhelmingly Smith’s favorite run schemes. Stretch is similar to outside zone with the big difference being it is a predetermined outside run. Teams will block the two nearly the same but on stretch there is some sort of scheme on the edge designed to spring the back wide. This could be a crack block from a receiver, a shift to an unbalanced set to create leverage on the defense or a pin-and-pull scheme with a guard, tackle or fullback as a lead blocker. A coordinator will often call stretch when a defense is sitting in its run fits and clogging up cutback lanes.

Smith called the stretch and outside zone plays in Atlanta nearly twice as much as any other run. Between 2021-2023, he dialed these up 630 times for 2,836 yards for an average of 4.5 yards per play. His next most common call was inside zone, which he ran 336 times. That’s a wide disparity. The previous two seasons, as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, Smith had even more success with outside zone and stretch, running them for an average of 5.5 yards per play. Why was Smith so successful with these concepts, and can he duplicate that success in Pittsburgh?

To the first question, in Tennessee, Smith was blessed with Derek Henry as his feature back and an offensive line among the best in the league. Outside zone and stretch were good schemes for Henry because his combination of size and speed allowed him to run both vertically and horizontally. Henry is also a decisive runner whose one-cut-and-go style was ideal. This often allowed him to cut up the field and take on cornerbacks and safeties who were forced into roles as run stoppers. Those encounters rarely ended well for the defense.

In Atlanta, Smith attempted to replicate that success. The results weren’t quite as spectacular but the scheme remained effective. Atlanta did not have a back as accomplished as Henry, nor a line as good as Tennessee’s, but players like Tyler Algelier, Bijan Robinson and current Steeler Cordarelle Patterson were able to operate it effectively despite three disparate running styles. Algelier is compact and powerful, Patterson is big and runs upright and Robinson is smooth and shifty. All three, though, possess good vision and the single-cut mentality that makes these schemes effective.

In Pittsburgh, Smith will have Najee Harris as his primary back, Jaylen Warren as his “1-A” and Patterson in reserve. The Steelers have run a decent amount of outside zone and stretch the past few seasons, so all three have experience with the scheme. From 2021-2023, Pittsburgh called these plays 345 times for 1,374 yards for an average of 4.0 yards per play. The Steelers weren’t as successful as Atlanta or Tennessee with them, but that’s not all the product of running backs who couldn’t execute them well. The line has been a work in progress and their coordinators over that time – Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada – were not among the league’s best, to say the least. Smith is an accomplished run-game coordinator who teaches the scheme well and should be able to orchestrate more success than his predecessors.

The other benefit of outside zone and stretch is the way they set up play-action. This is another element of Smith’s offense that should be a significant improvement over the past few seasons. These schemes force defenses to run horizontally, which creates seams in pass coverage when quarterbacks pull the handoff and either boot away or set in the pocket to throw. Pittsburgh’s play-action frequency and EPA on play-action passes has been among the worst in the league recently, while Smith’s has ranked significantly higher. If there’s one aspect of offensive football the Steelers have failed to capitalize on in recent seasons, it’s their play-action game. Blending outside zone and stretch with more effective play-action passing, and taking advantage of the athleticism and deep-ball ability of new quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Justin Fields, could be a key to significant progress.

For my video breakdown of the outside zone and stretch concepts, check out video below on our SCN YouTube channel:


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