With many NFL teams using zone blocking concepts to run the ball, the Split Zone is a variation of both inside zone as well as the zone read. It is a great complimentary concept because it aligns with an offense’s zone principles but gives the defense a different look and blocking scheme. Split Zone can be run from both Shotgun and under center. Here, the Seahawks run Split Zone against the Packers for a Touchdown from Shotgun in 11 personnel (1RB 1TE 3 WR):
Split Zone (like inside zone or zone read) entails all lineman taking a play side zone step, or stepping with their play side foot first toward where the run is designed to go. Like Zone Read, the end man on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked by the offensive line. However, the quarterback is not making a read on this defender; instead, an H-Back, Fullback, or Tight End will come across the formation for a kick out block, creating a natural crease for the running back to cut back. The kick block makes the play a bit like a trap. The running back steps downhill for the ball and has a 3-way go: continue outside (if every defender has been reached), plant his foot and press up field once defenders spill over the top, or see the cutback lane and attack the crease backside.
Split Zone creates a natural crease because inside linebackers must flow downhill play side. Meanwhile, the defender unblocked by the offensive line may see the play as zone read and play a feather technique to prevent the QB from keeping the ball. This gives the H-Back/TE a clear advantage, as he is coming to kick out the defender on his heels at full speed. This is likely what happened on the Seahawk Touchdown, with Luke Willson (#82) getting a clean shot at Clay Matthews:
The play is blocked exactly how a coach would draw it up, with both guards reaching play side and controlling the defenders in head up 2-techniques. The right tackle steps play side and has a relatively easy block on the defensive end/OLB, Julius Peppers. The center helps the right guard control the 2-tech and then continues to the closest second level defender. The left tackle steps down hard play side and is able to easily wash (#50) A.J. Hawk, the inside linebacker who has flowed play side far too much. Take note of what the pre-snap motion did: When Willson moves across the formation, A.J. Hawk steps two full yards to his right. This leaves him out of position and unable to recover.
Below is an example of a defense playing Split Zone more soundly:
Washington’s outside linebacker Perry Riley (#56) is head up on the guard, instead of a shade inside, where A.J. Hawk was washed inside. Riley diagnoses the play well and doesn’t step too far downhill or inside. Riley also gets help from #98 Brian Orakpo, who stonewalls the kick out block and makes the cutback crease very small. Running back LeSean McCoy has no choice but to press up field into a scrum for a yard. Note that the Eagles have 2 tight ends, thus condensing the box. While in shotgun, Split Zone may be best with a more spread look (3 WR 1 TE and 1 RB).
Split Zone can be run by offenses with no zone read element as well. While nobody would call Tom Brady a speed demon, the Patriots are successfully able to execute Split Zone below:
The Colts linebacker (#52) D’Qwell Jackson starts over the guard and is over aggressive downhill and inside, making it easy for the right tackle (#76) Sebastian Vollmer to wash him down. The kick out block is essentially a stalemate, but there is still a cutback crease for the running back.
Split Zone also gives offenses play action options, both from under center and shotgun. The blocking scheme remains the same for the offensive line, who must sell run. The kick out blocker attacks the unblocked defender but avoids him and heads to the flat. It’s a win-win for the offense: If the unblocked defender crashes down hard, the receiver will likely be wide open in the flat. If he feathers, the quarterback will have room to throw. The play will almost always end up going toward the quarterback’s throwing arm:
As seen above, the play action element of Split Zone can also be run with a WR/RB hybrid to maximize speed from route runners. From under center, Split Zone play action is more effective with the TE/H-back/FB because it looks more like a run. However, the play action element may be harder to run from under center because the kick out blocker could get lost while sifting through traffic. Below, Seattle is able to pick up a key first down on 3rd and short:
Overall, Split Zone is a great complimentary concept to both inside zone and the zone read. If linebackers are being over aggressive and making tackles downhill against inside zone, or read men are feathering against zone read, Split Zone is the way to counter. Once defenses are aware of Split Zone as a run, play action is the next progression. While the primary focus here was Split Zone from shotgun, other analysts have focused on Split Zone from under center.