The Wide Zone concept has taken over the NFL and is prominent in some of college football’s best rushing offenses. Will Mississippi State football adopt the scheme this season?
The story of the offseason for Mississippi State football has been the transition away from Mike Leach’s Air Raid to new OC Kevin Barbay’s offense. Barbay comes from a pro-style background, calling offenses that have been run-first in nature and utilize a wide variety of formations, personnel groupings, and motions.
It’s a drastic shift for a Bulldog offense that has thrown the ball more than 70% of the time while almost exclusively working out of 4-wide sets over the last three seasons. State isn’t simply abandoning the passing game, however. Barbay has been consistent with his messaging that he isn’t locked in to running any specific scheme and will build the offense around what the personnel is capable of handling.
Considering Will Rogers’ capabilities as a passer and the group of WRs in Starkville, you should still expect to see the Bulldogs air it out quite a bit this fall. But even if Air Raid concepts remain present in the passing game, the offense is still going to look very different. Most notably, Mississippi State is about to run the ball a whole lot more.
Frankly, that would have been the case regardless of who Zach Arnett chose to take over the offense. But Barbay specifically has called run-heavy offenses during his time as a coordinator. And beyond simply calling more run plays, you’re going to see a wider array of run concepts from MSU.
What’s changing with Mississippi State’s run game?
Mike Leach generally only carried about three runs at any time to complement his passing attack. In his final season at State those were Inside Zone, Pin and Pull Toss, and a dive play of sorts he called “Base”.
There were a few other concepts mixed in here or there, but by and large, that was the extent of MSU’s ground game. If the only time you’re looking to run the ball is when the defense shows a favorable look to run into, that limited selection of concepts is enough.
But if you’re going to build off your run game and have it be something you choose to lean on, you need more diversity.
Kevin Barbay is bringing that diversity.
Gap schemes like Power and Counter will be introduced. Inside Zone will very much remain a part of the offense, but there will be more variations of that play.
And there’s another zone run scheme that may very well be a big part of what the Bulldogs do offensively. It’s a concept that has taken over the NFL, and some of the top rushing offenses in college football utilize it as the basis of their offense.
Let’s talk about Wide Zone
What is Wide Zone?
We’ll start by defining what a zone run is.
In the absolute simplest terms, zone schemes involve offensive lineman blocking to an area as opposed to a specific defender. The line moves together in the direction of the run at the snap. Lineman utilize “covered” or “uncovered” rules to determine who to block.
A lineman is “covered” if he has a defender lined up directly across from him. If that’s the case, he will simply block that defender.
A lineman is “uncovered” if he doesn’t have a defender directly across from him. In this case, he will work playside (the side the play is being run to) and help a covered lineman by double-teaming his defender. After this, one of those two lineman will come off the double-team and look to block a second level defender, usually a linebacker.
Rather than attacking a specific gap, the running back starts on a track to a predetermined aiming point. But this aiming point is not necessarily where he will end up. The back reads the flow of the defense looking for a seam to open along the line. As he identifies that lane opening, he makes his cut and gets up field.
Zone runs are popular because they create double-teams at the point of attack and can be run against a wide range of defensive fronts with any offensive personnel grouping.
The two most common zone concepts are the aforementioned Inside Zone and Outside Zone. With Inside Zone, the OL is looking to get vertical push on the defense, driving them backwards as the RB quickly gets downhill between the tackles. For Outside Zone, the OL will move laterally and attempt to seal off the edge to allow the RB to get to the outside.
So what about Wide Zone?
Well, this is where definitions can get complicated. For many, Wide Zone and Outside Zone are one in the same. You’ll find plenty of folks, including coaches, who will tell you it’s simply a matter of differing terminology for the same concept. Others will say they’re entirely different plays. But even then, how one differentiates between the two is up for interpretation.
For those who do consider them different, the most commonly accepted differentiating factors are as follows:
With Outside Zone, you are actively looking to get to the edge. As with any zone run, the RB has the ability to get up-field before that point assuming there’s a lane, but the goal is to have the play hit on the outside.
For Wide Zone, the goal isn’t necessarily to have the run hit on the edge. The aiming point is outside, and the play can hit there. But the offense is simply looking to stretch the defense laterally to open a vertical running lane.
Now I need to reiterate that these definitions are not set in stone, so don’t take this as gospel. Most will use the terms interchangeably (also mixing in the name “Stretch” to add to further confusion). Frankly, what plenty of teams refer to as Outside Zone fits into the definition I provided for Wide Zone.
For some, the use of the term “Wide” as opposed to “Outside” is simply done so that players don’t think the run must go to the outside. Again, a lot of this is semantics. But some certainly make a big deal about the terminology used, specifically for the programs that build around Wide Zone such as Baylor under OC Jeff Grimes.
In my own preview of what the 2023 Mississippi State offense might look like, I referred to the play as Outside Zone, and Kevin Barbay himself mentioned “running Outside Zone” in an interview in April. I’m calling it Wide Zone in this piece simply because that’s what the concept’s purists typically refer to it as.
Regardless of what you call it, it’s an incredibly effective play that can be a foundational piece of a team’s offense. And Mississippi State ran it quite a bit in their spring game this year, so it’s certainly possible that it’s a big part of their offense this fall. Let’s look at Wide Zone’s prominence in the sport of football and then break down some of the finer details of running the concept.
Wide Zone’s History and Prominence
Zone rushing concepts have been present in the game of football for decades, but one man is more responsible for the breakthrough of Wide Zone than any other: Alex Gibbs. In 1995, Gibbs was hired by Mike Shanahan to be the OL coach for the Denver Broncos. After serving as OC for the Super Bowl champion 49ers, Shanahan was hired to bring his West Coast offense to Denver.
But rather than sticking with the traditional West Coast playbook that had taken over the NFL, Shanahan decided to pair the West Coast passing game with a zone running game. Gibbs was the man tasked with implementing the zone scheme, and during his tenure, the Bronco’s bread-and-butter play became Wide Zone.
The results were the best years in Bronco’s history. RB Terrell Davis became a Hall of Famer, and the backs who followed him also flourished as Denver consistently produced a rushing attack that was amongst the NFL’s best. And most importantly, the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.
Since those days, the coaches who have come from the Shanahan-tree have embraced Wide Zone as the foundation of their rushing attack. Most notably, Mike Shanahan’s son, Kyle, has taken the scheme and formed his entire offense around it as HC of the 49ers. The success of Kyle Shanahan, as well as that of other former Mike Shanahan assistants turned HCs in Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur, has led to a boom in the scheme’s popularity in the NFL.
Going into the 2023 season, nearly half of the NFL’s offenses will be run by play-callers with ties to the Shanahan tree. And even teams without those ties have at least worked elements of the Wide Zone system into their offenses. The Vikings and Dolphins experienced immediate offensive turnarounds with the system last season, and everyone wants a piece of that action.
The NFL is commonly referred to as a “copycat league”, and there may be no better example of that than with the Wide Zone.
Wide Zone based systems are widely found at the college level, as well. The likes of Baylor, BYU, and Oregon State build around the play. Last season Kansas combined the Wide Zone with spread triple option principles on their way to a breakthrough season under Lance Leipold.
App State has long been a Wide Zone team, and the coaches that have come out of that program, such as Cincinnati’s Scott Satterfield (formerly of Louisville) and Mizzou’s Eli Drinkwitz, have continued relying on the concept.
And App State, of course, is where Kevin Barbay spent last season as OC.
Running Wide Zone
Now let’s get into the details of actually running Wide Zone. We’ll discuss the basic rules for the blockers and the RB. But first, here’s a fantastic thread breaking down how the 49ers run Wide Zone under Kyle Shanahan, complete with play diagrams directly from his playbook as well as clips of all his variations of the play. This will give you an idea of what it looks like drawn up on paper and executed in game.
You’ll notice that in Kyle Shanahan’s rules for the play, he calls it Outside Zone. The fact that a Shanahan is calling it that and not Wide Zone just further validates the idea that the terminology truly does not matter.
The OL and TEs (if there are any) start out by asking the question they’ll ask on every zone play: “Am I covered or uncovered?”
As previously explained, a covered lineman will block the defender covering him while an uncovered lineman will look to help a covered lineman to his playside with the block. But it’s also important for a lineman to know whether or not the lineman next to him on the backside is covered, as this will tell him if he can expect help blocking.
This diagram from Niners Nation does a great job outlining this. Let’s look at the right side of the line. The RG is uncovered while the RT and TE are both covered. Because the RG is uncovered, he will help the RT with his block. But the TE cannot expect help from the RT since both of them are covered.
Specific blocking techniques can vary from team to team, but we’ll speak fairly generally here. For covered lineman, they are aiming for the playside armpit of the defender covering them. For example, if they’re running Wide Zone to the right and the right tackle is covered by a defensive end, then the right tackle is going to try and reach the defensive end’s outside armpit.
As Miami OL coach Alex Mirabal (formerly of Oregon) puts it, his covered lineman want to get their…
Backside knee through the defender’s crotch, backside arm through the defender’s sternum, and face on the defender’s playside armpit.
For uncovered lineman, they are still aiming for the playside armpit of the next defender over. But they also have a three-step decision to make as they work playside to help a covered lineman with a combo-block. On his third step, he will either Take it over, Knock it over, or Climb.
If on his third step he can take over the block of the covered playside lineman, then he will push that lineman off to the second level and completely take over his block. If the defender is fighting for outside leverage on the covered lineman, then the uncovered lineman will knock him outside and then climb to the second level. If the defender immediately widens, then on his third step, the uncovered lineman will immediately climb to the second level.
The “third step” aspect of this is important, as it is by that point that the OL has to have made the picture clear for the RB.
Another key to Wide Zone is for playside lineman to decide whether they will “reach or run” their defender. I mentioned that the aiming point for blockers is the playside armpit of their defender. If the blocker can reach that point, great. Seal off the defender and let the RB get around you.
But sometimes a defender is too wide to reach. In this case, blockers will “run” him. Meaning, they are going to simply look to drive that defender out as wide as possible. Take him completely out of the play, and open up a lane for the RB in the space vacated.
Check out this clip of Baylor running Wide Zone. We’re going to focus on the RT (#64). At the snap, his defender widens, making it impossible for #64 to reach block him. So instead, he runs him horizontally out of the play. “Reach ’em if you can; run ’em if you can’t.”
On the backside of the play, blockers are mostly looking to wall off defenders and keep them out of the play. They must gain leverage on their defenders. To do this, they will often “lose ground to gain ground.” Essentially, they will step slightly backwards on the snap so they can get a create a better angle of attack.
In Alex Gibbs old school version, he would have his backside lineman cut-block defenders. This practice isn’t as widely used anymore, as cut-blocking is nearing its banishment from the sport. For the most part, those blockers are simply trying to get in the way of any backside defenders long enough for the RB to get up-field.
For the RB, his aiming point is at the TE, or if there isn’t a TE, he’s aiming for the “ghost TE”. Coaches will go about the exact aiming point differently. Some may say aim for the outside leg of the OT. You’ll note that in Kyle Shanahan’s playbook, he sets the aiming point at the TE’s outside leg. But the most commonly accepted landmark you’ll see for Wide Zone is the “crack of the TE” (yes, that crack).
But the RB isn’t just blindly running for that point. He has his own read to make on the play to determine where to actually cut up field. Specifically, he is going to read the two defenders on the end of the line of scrimmage. His first read is on the “outer” of the two defenders, typically a DE. If that defender gets sealed to the inside, the RB is going to “Bounce” the run to the outside.
If that defender gets outside, the RB then reads the “inner” of the two defenders, typically a DT. If that defender is sealed inside, the RB will “Bang” the run between the read defenders. If the inner defender also gets outside, the RB will “Bend” the run back inside of that defender, almost cutting-back in a sense.
The RB must make this decision by his third step. This is to put him in unison with the OL, who should make his path clear by their third steps. The RB makes his cut on his fifth step. Wide Zone is a “one cut and go” play. Once the RB makes his cut, he must get vertical. Despite the horizontal stretch, this is meant to be a downhill play. He can’t be dancing around in the backfield. He makes his read and commits to it.
Why Run Wide Zone?
There are quite a few advantages to being a Wide Zone team.
For one, the lateral movement of the line can get the defensive front out of place. Defenses have “run fits” that tell them how to defend the run on any given play. Each defender has the responsibility to fill a gap along the offensive line with the objective of not allowing any open lane for the ball carrier. It’s a lot easier to fit the run if you try and run straight at the defense.
But by stretching laterally, you change the location of those gaps, and the defense still has to fit them. Their jobs get tougher, and they can easily run their way out of position. The other reason this helps is that it gives a smaller OL a better chance at getting blocks on a bigger, stronger DL. Rather than trying to drive a more physically imposing defender straight back off the ball, we’re going to generate displacement with lateral movement.
As with any zone run, you create combo-blocks at the point of attack and have the ability to attack nearly any look the defense throws at you. But with Wide Zone specifically, you can also still run the ball even if the defense as a +1 advantage in the box (one more defender than the offense can block) without having to option the extra defender. Why? Because the angle of the play means the backside edge defender is often in no position to chase down the RB from behind and make the stop, meaning you don’t always have to block him.
But even if that defender can create problems, the counters off of Wide Zone will make him think twice about charging into the backfield, whether that be a jet sweep going the other way or a play-action bootleg from the QB.
There’s an old phrase in football that if you want to be good at play-action, pull a guard. That certainly holds true. But having your entire OL firing off hard in one direction while you QB rolls out to the backside is another.
So why doesn’t everyone run it?
Because if you’re going to run Wide Zone, you need to major in it. To make all of the advantages of the play consistently work, you’ve got to commit to it being a big part of you offense. As Chris B. Brown details in his book The Essential Smart Football, Alex Gibbs famously believed in his teams only having two run plays: Wide Zone and Tight (Inside) Zone.
Gibbs believed that if his teams could master the execution of those two plays and all the variations of them, they alone would be more than enough to tear defenses up on the ground no matter what look they threw at them. But in order to master them, you have to commit all your time to them and therefore can’t devote time to learning other concepts.
It’s the same philosophy Mike Leach had with his Air Raid. Take a handful of passing concepts and rep them constantly until you can execute them against any defense you see. And while today’s Wide Zone teams don’t exclusively run that concept, they make it the focal point of everything they do. If you don’t believe in it as your bread-and-butter, then it’s not for you.
This is particularly true because of the complexities of the play. If you’ve gotten to this point in this article, you can tell there’s very little simple about Wide Zone. Last year Tom E. Curran of NBC Sports Boston spoke with Ed McCaffery, former Broncos WR and father of current 49ers RB Christian McCaffery, about running the Wide Zone scheme as the Patriots looked to make a shift towards that system.
McCaffery explained how much goes into the play and that mastering just takes a lot of time and a lot of reps. You either commit to the Wide Zone, or you don’t run it.
Does Wide Zone make sense for Mississippi State football?
Finally, we can tie this all back to the Bulldogs.
When I sat down to watch the MSU spring game a few months back, I genuinely was not expecting to see the offense that I did. The different motions, formations, and personnel groupings weren’t a surprise. We knew when Kevin Barbay was hired that those changes were coming. And running the ball a lot more wasn’t a shock either given Barbay’s background.
What was a surprise was how much State ran Wide Zone in that scrimmage.
Obviously, Barbay called Wide Zone plenty in 2022 as App State’s OC. But as a mentioned earlier in their piece, App has been a program that has built it’s offense around Wide Zone out of heavy personnel for years. Barbay’s hiring in Boone wasn’t going to change that.
When you watch Barbay’s 2021 Central Michigan offense, they were much more of a spread, RPO-based system. They still ran the ball a ton with RB Lew Nichols III, who ended up leading all of FBS in rushing. But their ground game was more built off of Inside Zone and gap schemes. They mixed in some Outside/Stretch Zone type looks, but these were more complementary plays for their offense as opposed to a foundation.
Considering that Mississippi State, previously an Air Raid team and the most extreme version of one, had no prior experience with Wide Zone and that Kevin Barbay has a track record of shaping his offenses around what suits his players, seeing the Bulldogs line up in twin TE pistol sets, ramming Wide Zone continuously at the defense was not something I anticipated.
Now to be clear, that was not all MSU showed in the spring game.
They still mixed in some spread, dropback passing game that built right off of what this roster was used to. And both Kevin Barbay and Zach Arnett have said nothing is finalized in terms of what the offensive scheme will look like in the fall. But with that being said, I seriously doubt they would’ve ran as much Wide Zone as they did this spring without at least some major consideration towards making that the team’s identity.
But can they handle that?
Will Wide Zone work for Mississippi State?
That will ultimately come down to what the OL can do. When discussing the transition to a more run-heavy scheme, many in MSU circles have pointed out that while the O-lineman have spent the last three years almost exclusively pass blocking, most of the starting group were not recruited for the Air Raid. They were Moorhead recruits that ran lots of power football in high school. The thought process is that it shouldn’t be a difficult change.
But ESPN/SEC Network analyst and former SEC lineman Cole Cubelic disagrees. In an interview with Brian Hadad of Sports Talk Mississippi on the Thunder and Lightning Podcast, Cubelic lays out that even for guys who may be natural run blockers, making the transition to a Wide Zone scheme isn’t easy.
He made the transition himself as a player at Auburn.
But State may have hired its staff with the transition in mind, as Cubelic noted on his own podcast. Bringing in both Will Friend as the OL coach and Mike Schmidt as the Tackles/TEs coach gives the Bulldogs the ability to maximize blocking reps and get more specialized in how they teach the system.
But how about the fit for the players.
I mentioned that Wide Zone can be an answer for undersized lines. State’s starting OL has an average height and weight of 6’4, 318 lbs, so a lack of size isn’t an issue. They’ve got more than enough beef up front to handle more straight-ahead blocking, even in the SEC. And, for what little running they did under Leach, that would be more in line with what they had previously been doing.
But having a big OL doesn’t stop you from running Wide Zone, so long as that unit has enough athleticism to get on the move. And MSU’s group does have some experience with that through the Pin and Pull scheme they ran under Leach. Pin and Pull is often used as a complementary concept with Outside/Wide Zone, and State had success with it over the last few seasons.
To me, it’s not so much a matter of if MSU can run Wide Zone. It’s a matter of if they should.
Wide Zone based offenses have a lot of advantages, and there’s an argument to be made that ultimately going in that direction under Zach Arnett could prove beneficial long-term. But for this season, is that the offense that’s going to maximize the roster’s talent?
The weapons MSU has on offense can absolutely thrive in a Wide Zone system. Just check out the San Francisco 49ers for that proof of concept. But is making the transition to that offense for the 2023 season worth it? It’s been reiterated throughout this article that mastering Wide Zone takes a lot of time and commitment. The time you devote to it takes away from anything else you want to do.
State still has the makings of a “spread to throw” team between Will Rogers and the WRs. That’s not to say you’ve got to be Air Raid to make them work or that they can’t handle any change. But with a veteran roster, do you want to spend the offseason working a transition into a drastically different scheme? If MSU goes in on Wide Zone for 2023, it’s likely that there is a learning curve, at least in the early part of the season. Essentially, while there can be a nice payoff for running that offense, you may not see it until late in the year.
If there’s one thing Kevin Barbay has been consistent with, it’s been his message that whatever MSU does offensively will be what best suits the roster. I’d like to think State doesn’t dive in to being a Wide Zone team if it’s not something they can consistently execute this fall.
Personally, I think the offense Barbay called at CMU that featured more of an inside ground game, RPOs, and dropback passing would fit this team well. But regardless, I would bank on seeing some Wide Zone this season.