A look at Kyle Shanahan’s Zone Run Game, Part II: Cleveland Browns Film Room

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(If you missed Part I, make sure to check it out here.)

The idea that the NFL has become a passing league does not phase new Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. While many other teams turn to more pass-oriented offenses, Shanahan prefers his offense has a similar run-to-pass ratio to teams before the thirty-four year-old was even born. Only in one season since 1982 has the number of rush attempts exceeded the amount of passes thrown in the NFL. Prior to that year, the average number of passes had never once exceeded the amount of rushing attempts.

However, in 2012, Shanahan’s most successful season as an offensive coordinator, the Washington Redskins passed the ball on just 45.99% of their offensive snaps, placing them as the second least frequent passing team in the league, according to Sporting Charts. So, the question must be posed: Why run the ball so often when passing oriented offenses like that of the Broncos are smashing single-season records? For Shanahan, this answer to this question comes down to deceiving the defense.

Running the ball more often sets up the offense in more manageable second and third downs a larger percentage of the time. Back in February, Shanahan told Nate Ulrich of the Akron-Beacon Journal, “You want a [back] who can press holes, can get downhill and always get good yards per carry, not always looking for the home run, but not a guy that has to get a 60-yarder to average 4 yards per carry… I just want a consistent running game where you’re never getting in third-and-long, always trying to be in a manageable down and distance where the defense can never really tee off on run or pass.” The Browns, clearly prioritizing Shanahan’s desire to find a running back capable of accumulating consistent yardage, signed Ben Tate in free agency and drafted Terrance West. Although neither back is a threat to single-handedly outrun the defense, both have the great vision, power, and quick-cut ability for which the Browns were searching. While staying our of second and third-and-long situations, Shanahan will have much more flexibility and can be more creative with play selection.

QuotePrimarily, using an abnormally large amount of run plays allows Kyle Shanahan to set up the rest of his offense. The inside and outside zone runs set up the zone read which sets up the zone read with an option to throw a screen which sets up play action. An inside zone can be turned into a reverse and that can become a fake reverse play action pass. The increased run percentage brings extra defenders into the box which opens the rest of the defense for Shanahan to pick apart.

Specifically, Shanahan loves using play action to get his receivers open and take advantage of the defense’s intensified focus on the run. According to Pro Football Focus, in 2012, Washington led the league using play action on 37.3% of their passing plays. The Redskins continued their play action pass usage in 2013 when Robert Griffin III used play action on 29.9% of his dropbacks, the fifth highest percentage in the league.

The correlation between success in the play action and how the offense performed is stunning. In 2012, the Redskins went 10-6, making the playoff in Griffin’s rookie season. While using play action at a league-leading clip, Griffin also managed to be the most efficient quarterback in this situation, as Pro Football Focus used their formula to rank him number one. Incredibly, he averaged 12.5 yards per attempt on play action passes, good for tops in the league, while only averaging 5.7 yards per attempt on non-play action passes. In 2012, the Redskins used play action much more than anyone else and were simply better than any other team. This success came along with Alfred Morris exploding onto the scene to rush for 1613 yards on 4.8 yards per attempt. With the defense forced to stop Morris, Griffin was able to take full advantage in the passing game.

Contrasting the success in 2012 to the pitiful season the Redskins had in 2013 leads me right back to play action. Unlike the year prior, the 2013 Redskins suffered with a poor defense, bad offensive line, and an offense misfiring on all cylinders. While the Shanahan once again leaned heavily on play action, success did not follow. Pro Football Focus ranked Griffin at the 29th best quarterback on dropbacks using play action. The offense as a whole sputtered. The combined quarterback rating of Griffin and Kirk Cousins dropped from 102.1 to 76.1 and their touchdown to interception ratio declined from 24:8 all the way to 20:19. Along with pitiful defense and a leaking offensive line, Shanahan was unable to set up his offense with the run. Instead, early deficits increased his necessity to pass the ball on 57.42% of offensive plays, up over eleven percent from the prior season.

When asked why more teams don’t operate in a zone-blocking world, Shanahan is unsure.

“I think it’s constantly evolving—the techniques and stuff,” Shanahan said Thursday in Berea. “The schemes aren’t the same as they were, but the philosophy is very similar. It’s something I obviously believe in and I think the results show. It’s just got to be sound schematically and you’ve got to commit to it and you’ve got to work at it.”

In Kyle Shanahan’s ideal world as offensive coordinator, the defense would allow him flexibility to use the run to set up the pass. In Cleveland, the large investment both in recent free agency and in the draft will need to pay off to allow Shanahan freedom to run the ball at his own discretion. Below, I will be focusing on plays that he uses frequently when the offense has keyed on the run game. All these plays have different variations, but the basic principles will likely be seen often in Cleveland.

Wide Receiver Reverse


  • The key to this play’s success is the linebackers biting on the inside zone fake. If they step up to stop the inside run, as the Redskins anticipate they will, then the receiver coming across and taking the handoff will be able to get into open field outside of the front seven.
  • On inside zone plays in this formation the fullback will come across the play and block the back-side defensive end. However, he bypasses the end and loops around as lead blocker on the weak-side linebacker.
  • The offensive line must step hard to the left in order for the defense to believe this run will occur to the left. In fact, they block it like and inside zone but their increased lateral movement tells the linebackers to read outside zone.
  • The entire defensive line along with the strong-side and middle linebackers have bit on the fake, filling their holes as if the play is a zone run. Even though The weak-side linebackers has stayed home, he does not pose an immediate threat to the offense who is using a pulling fullback to take him out of the play.
  • The wide receiver on the top of the formation does a great job running his cornerback out of the play. This play succeeded because the defense played man-to-man defense and the linebackers flew to stop the inside zone.


Fake Inside Zone/Reverse Pass

Reverse Pass1

  • The offense fakes two runs, an inside zone handoff and a reverse in order to get the defense to bite on the run fake. If the linebackers fill their holes for the run, the tight end coming across the field may get open underneath the safety and behind the linebackers.
  • The offensive line blocks this exactly like they would a normal inside zone. They decide to run the play action because the linebackers are flying up to stop the inside run which allows  receivers room behind them to find space in the passing game.
  • Although the idea of using a double run fake to allow the receiver and tight end to get behind the linebackers, the route combinations are questionable, at best. The deep safety must cover the entirety of the portion of the field, so the offense should try to beat the defense throwing outside the safety. Instead, the Redskins run a play in which the receiver run straight at the safety.
Reverse Pass2
  • As I said above, the receiver’s routes aim straight for the deep safety. This allows the free safety to play over-top both routes rather than be forced to cover just one. If the tight end goes across the field rather than head straight for the safety, he would be open.
  • Check out how much the linebackers were influenced by the inside zone fake. All three filled their gaps leaving the receiver on the reverse open when he continues his route into the flats.


Zone Read

Zone Read1

  • A favorite of Shanahan’s in Washington, the zone read allows the quarterback to read the defense and decide whether to run the inside zone or keep the ball.
  • The quarterback is reading the defensive end on this play. If he goes upfield to stop the quarterback keeper, the QB will had the ball off. If he crashes down on the running back, as he does on this play, the quarterback keeps the ball and follows the lead blocking fullback.
  • The offensive line once again blocks as if this is an normal inside zone. But unlike the other plays in this series, the play may end up as a normal inside zone if the quarterback hands the ball off.
Zone Read2
  • As you can see, the defensive end crashed inside to take out the running back. This allows the quarterback to keep the ball and get outside on the edge to make a play with his feet.
  • A key on this play is blocking by the wide receivers. Often, the quarterback will stretch the ball all the way to the sideline which necessitates lengthy blocks by wideouts. Kyle Shanahan places a high importance on his receivers being able to block for both this play and the outside zone.


Zone Read Play-Action Pass

Zone Read Pass1

  • The fake zone read forces the linebackers to account for the inside run and the quarterback keep. However, the offense has no intention of keeping the ball. The idea of this play is for the linebackers to bite the run fake and sneak a receiver into an area where they normally would be stationed in coverage.
  • Many teams played Cover One defense against the Redskins due to their strong running game. This allowed teams to stack the box with extra defenders and creep up safeties, like the Vikings do on this play.
Zone Read Pass2
  • The linebackers go for the run fake, opening up a small window on the post route just behind them. Had the Redskins run this play without the zone read play action, the linebackers would be in position underneath the post route to take away the pass.
  • Although this play looks similar to the reverse pass above, this play succeeds because the post is only eight yards. The receiver aims for the area in between the safety and the linebackers.
  • The offensive line fired out hard to the left on this play, allowing the left defensive end to rush the passer one-on-one against a fullback. Therefore, the quarterback must release the ball quickly. In Cleveland, Marquis Gray, if he wins the starting fullback job, must prove to be extremely versatile in blocking and passing as Shanahan will rely on him for many duties.


Inside Zone Play Action

Play Action1

  • A classic play action pass from under center, the quarterback must fake the handoff and release the ball on the slant or curl route quickly. The defense is showing blitz and the run fake will draw in extra linebackers which opens up enough room for the routes.
  • Not only does the line block down as if this is a run hard, but the right guard pulls to the left to pass block as well. This movement messes with the linebacker’s reads, forcing them to bite on the fake an extra second.
Play Action2
  • On this play action pass, the quarterback must make a pre-snap read and release the ball quickly. He makes a good play and finds the receiver on the slant open because the linebacker had to play the run first.
  • The Redskins had trouble all year with their interior line both on run and pass blocking. In Cleveland, I anticipate a much more proficient front five for Shanahan to work with which will open up more holes and protect the passer better than the line in Washington.


Naked Boot


  • Once a favorite of Kyle’s dad Mike Shanahan, the Redskins ran a rollout on 23% of their play-action passes. The play-action pass succeeds for one reason that produces multiple results: the defense biting on the run fake.
  • The defensive end’s job is to contain the quarterback, but if the offense is consistently running the ball for positive yardage, he will be enticed to chase the running back down the line of scrimmage. In a naked boot, the play fails if the quarterback is pressured, disallowing him to find a passing option downfield.
  • If the linebackers bite on the run fake, they will not be able to run back to their zone or cover their man. On this play, the left outside linebacker covering the whirl route will bite the fake for the extra second that the tight end needs to get open.
Naked Boot2
  • The Redskins offensive line did a great job selling a run to the left, but the play-side linebackers did not bite. However, the left outside linebacker does not realize that the tight end stopped and is doing a whirl route. This will give the quarterback an open window to throw to.
  • The defensive end crashes down on the running back before realizing the quarterback did not hand the ball off. This gives the speedy Robert Griffin III the extra room in which to roll out and find the tight end on the whirl route.

Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY

  • 6thCity

    Great analysis, as always. You can certainly see Shanahan’s zeal for Manziel in his offensive scheme. You can’t exactly rely on Hoyer for naked boots and designed runs, though he’s shown the quick decision making needed to operate some reads and options. It will be interesting since we will probably see both QBs run the offense.

  • mgbode

    Great breakdown in both articles and I do love that we will be bringing the play-action fake to the forefront. Done correctly, it just makes so many things on offense easier.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    This was awesome, II.

    Basically Hoyer should be solid in this O with his quick reads, etc., while Johnny sits and learns for a bit. Once he’s all caught up, Johnny gets to expand the playbook with his feet and playmaking ability.

  • Harv 21

    Won’t have time until the weekend to go through your always excellent breakdowns, Colin. Just wanted to initially point out that the two coaches in the photo appear to belong to different species.

    (No GIFs, please).

  • The_Real_Shamrock