Chargers Developing Run Game: Outside Zone – Strong Lead

The Los Angeles Chargers look poised to implement a brand new run game in the style of Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers. This article will break down the Chargers’ struggles in 2020, one 49ers rushing concept, and how different Chargers players will be used in said concept.

To get an idea of where the Bolts are headed we have to start with where they were last season under Anthony Lynn.

Part 1: The definition of insanity

The most inefficient run gaps in the league are unquestionably up the middle; naturally, the Chargers went out of their way to run up the middle 228 times, or about 54 percent of their run plays.

The above figure demonstrates an increasing efficiency in yards per carry as the gap moves from the A gap to the B gap to outside the tackles. While there may be an effect of quarterback sneaks and fourth down fullback dives on the interior gap yards per carry average it likely does not significantly change the figure.

No, the Chargers are not going to abandon runs up the middle in their 2021 game plan, but they will push for the ball to get outside more often than they did last season. One concept they could run to perfection with this offense: Outside Zone Strong Lead

Part 2: Hope on the horizon

The following segment incorporates statistics and information from within film guru Bobby Peters’ book The 2019 San Francisco 49ers Complete Offensive Manual.

In 2019, the San Francisco 49ers ran 11 variations of Outside Zone Strong Lead to the tune of 5.0 yards per carry. Within the same general concept they could hand the ball off, toss it to the back, give it to the receiver on a jet sweep, or have the quarterback keep it off bootleg. For now we will focus on handing it off to the running back.

The above video demonstrates each of the (correct) decisions a running back could make after he receives the football and aims towards the spot where the tight end used to be:

  1. Clip 1: Cut it back inside the B gap
  2. Clip 2: Work outside, particularly if the TE hooks the outside linebacker

To my knowledge, here are how the key first level play side blocking responsibilities are broken down depending on the defensive front:

  1. Tight end: Either combo the EDGE with the tackle or try to reach the outside linebacker
  2. Play side tackle: Combo the EDGE with the tight end or play side guard
  3. Play side guard: Attack the 3-tech DT or help the play side tackle
  4. Fullback: Lead block and either cut inside if the tight end does not reach the outside linebacker or work outside.

The goal of outside zone is to spread the defense out as much as possible and let the running back attack the crease based on the success of the blocking assignments in front of him. By stretching the play horizontally the offense can exploit a defense unable to cover so much ground and fill every gap. Working in space also allows the offensive linemen to win with tandem blocks and fluid movement rather than forcing them to win one-on-ones against more dominant defensive linemen.

The Chargers have the players to run outside zone to perfection.

Part 3: Which Chargers will be involved the most?

To fully understand what the Chargers could look like in this concept let’s break down some of the key players:

  • Justin Herbert: Running this play with Philip Rivers would always result in a handoff or toss; with the much more athletic and physically imposing Justin Herbert, things get much more interesting. Having the quarterback bootleg after handing the ball off forces the defense into either wasting a back side player or giving up a massive gain. If the defense has a back side player, that player will be responsible for watching the quarterback off the bootleg. Run play left, bootleg right, and make the back side defender waste away as a lame duck defender to help win the numbers battle. If for some reason the defense does not have a back side defender then Herbert can take his elite athleticism and pick up an easy first down. I would expect the running back to get the football 95 percent of the time in this concept but would not rule out a QB keeper wrinkle. The Chargers have also been practicing bootleg throws every day in practice and will run play action off outside zone as well.
  • Austin Ekeler: The decision is his to make, and there are few running backs I trust to make the right call as much as Ekeler. No. 30 has enviable contact balance and elusiveness and will be impossible to beat one-on-one in the open field. After receiving the handoff at step three, Ekeler has to make a decision on step four and execute the cut inside or bump outside by the fifth step.
  • Rashawn Slater: Want to run zone? Draft one of the most athletic linemen from this past draft. His ability to reach and climb in the run game will open up the left side. While Slater could potentially excel as a gap scheme guard he should not be routinely asked to blow defensive players off the line of scrimmage; rather, get your best athlete in space and let defenders struggle to keep up with him.
  • Gabe Nabers/Stephen Anderson: Nabers and Anderson both serve as hybrid FB/TE players, though Nabers is likely more the fullback and Anderson more the tight end. Their pass-catching experience adds an extra wrinkle to the game plan. Each will lead block for the running backs on outside zone but can also stay behind the line of scrimmage and pass protect off Herbert’s play action bootleg.
  • Tre’ McKitty: Donald Parham could be considered for in-line blocking tight end responsibilities, but through two weeks of practice it looks like Parham and Cook are interchangeable offensive weapons leaving the majority of blocking responsibilities to the third-round pick. The running backs in outside zone run towards the spot previously occupied by the tight end pre-snap and make decisions partially based on the success of the tight end’s block.

The concept as previously described is not set in stone, and as stated previously the Chargers could run jet sweeps and toss out of this look as well. It is difficult to defend as is but will be an extra challenge for defenses with the personnel the Chargers have. Training camp videos already show the team running outside zone strong and weak lead frequently and it is a concept fans should be excited to watch as the preseason approaches.

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