Defending Split Zone

Ideas on combating a simple yet effective play.

Inside zone is not a new play to defensive coordinators; neither is the split zone, but it can give defenses fits if not fit up correctly. In its simplicity, it is a creative play to challenge a defense. Unlike its zone counterpart, the split zone creates an extra gap. The play itself is much like the counter without the pulling guard. When offenses run counter the linebackers can react to the pulling guard and fit the extra gaps. The split zone forces the linebackers to fit their gaps. This puts pressure on the secondary (mainly the safeties) to ensure their fits are correct.

In the clip below, Iowa St. runs a gap plug blitz and the defensive end to the H-back runs up the field to hold the “C” gap. The out block by the “H” creates an extra gap. The safety to the play should have fit the inside shoulder of the “H” because the DE was taking the outside. Instead, the safety stays outside and is blocked out, leading to Baylor’s first score of the day. Bottom line, Split Zone has to be treated as though it is a gap play (think power/counter) or a defense will be gashed.

Teams that run inside zone are looking for the cutback. Versus a zone play, the linebackers have to fill their gaps (there is no puller). The offensive line creates a wall and allows the running back to cut back to the open weak side. In the clip above, ISU was running a run stop blitz, but because the safety didn’t fit his gap, it led to a touchdown.

Teams that run split zone and the read-option offshoot, need to be played as though they are gap scheme heavy teams. Add RPO’s to this play, and it puts tremendous pressure on a defense, all from a simple zone scheme. There is hope, much like the Zone Read, a defense can attack this play on the principles of the offense.

Stopping the Split Zone

The key to stopping the split zone is to treat it the same as any other zone concept and use gap exchanges by the linebackers to defeat the offenses zone principle. Running a “G” front, where the Nose is in a 2i, allows the defense to exchange gaps versus zone. This exchange is called a “belly key.”

As demonstrated below, the Mike and Will exchange their gaps with the interior D-lineman. This simple technique by the front seven helps eliminate the need to “hold” a gap. As the offensive line zone steps, the D-line reacts to the zone and cuts off the backside of the departing lineman. In theory, this closes the opposite gap and allows the LBs to “rock back” to the now vacated gaps. This “rock back” is where defenses can gain an advantage.

If the zone is run away from the 3-tech, then the backside end will stay square and close off the butt of the tackle. As the kick out block approaches, he will spill the block. This spill allows the Mike to keep rocking back because it should close the “B” gap. Now the Mike, who is gap-less, should be able to play the RB on the cutback along with the “sky” safety. In the box, the Will is in charge of the play side “A,” and the DS is there as the trashman (clean-up duty). Using a base defense and teaching gap exchanges can eliminate this play if fit upright (and, because of the cover down and two-high look, eliminate the RPOs).


Stop Calls

1. Full Line Movement – I am a big proponent of full line movement. It cannot be used every down (teams figure it out and use it against you), but it is a great changeup. The movement makes the cut back of the back sudden and allows the Mike to “rock back” right now. The best way to keep a back contained is to make him run east-to-west. The sudden cut back created by the movement stalls the play. If the back presses the gap play side, the Will and DS are there to wrap him up. This is also a great call to the “H” because if a team runs Power you are cutting it off as well.


2. Fan (DS “B” gap blitz)Leveraging the safety to the boundary can be an effective way to combat RPO teams as well as teams that like to run split zone or counter to the single receiver side. The key here is making the DE step up the field and build a wall. Running too far up the field can create a large gap, so the DE needs to sit and take the outside shoulder of the kicking “H.” The DS inserts in the “B” gap (inside shoulder of kicking “H”) and should cause havoc to the run scheme. The Will is a free player and should insert himself to make the blitzing safety right. If it is a pass, the Will needs to cut underneath the #1 receiver to his side.


3. Gap plug blitz – If you go back and look at the video, a gap plug blitz was a good call, the safety just inserted himself into the wrong gap. If the DE is going to step up the field (outside shoulder), then the safety has to fit inside. There must be two people on every puller. As stated earlier in this article, Split Zone is nothing more than counter without the wrap. Stay gap sound and have a plus-one!

**Bonus Stop Call:**

Don Brown, the Defensive Coordinator at Michigan utilizes a Cover 1 Robber concept to gain a plus-one versus the split zone, or any H-back run concept. The safety to the direction of the H-back drives down and to the outside of the box. The safety away from the H-back’s movement drops to the middle third reading the QB for pass (protect the post!). All gaps are filled with nowhere for the RB to go, except cut back and bounce right to a dropping safety. This scheme can be used versus any 20p Power team that utilizes an “H” or a true fullback, even under center teams (UTC). Take a look:

City Check


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Author: MatchQuarters


11 thoughts on “Defending Split Zone”

  1. Coach how about teams that like to use that H back and slip block the defensive end. So sometimes they are kicking out and other times they are slipping and giving the qb pull a blocker on that safety. I think Nevada does this a lot with there H back. This seems tough to defend. BTW Thanks for everything on this site so detailed and organized very helpful.

    1. When designing your fits you need to have someone on the inside and outside shoulder of the “H.” This allows you to fit correctly. Arc Reads are tough to defend. The OLB or SAF must be the outside fit. Where teams get you is the “H” Pop Pass when the the “H” is the #3 WR. The Mike has to carry the vert, but it looks like pass. Thanks for the comment on the site. Really appriciate it.

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