01 Aug Jay Ajayi, Edgerrin James, and the Outside Zone
Putting players in the best position to succeed is the purpose of coaching. Adapting the scheme to fit personnel is a quicker, straighter path to success than jettisoning players with unique skillsets. The Dolphins offense stumbled out of the gates in 2016. Adam Gase’s hurry-up attack introduced communication and execution issues. Rather than staying the course, Gase adapted his offense to fit his resources.
Tom Moore was the architect behind the Colts dynamic offense from Peyton Manning’s rookie year, until his last as a Colt. The stretch-run scheme opened up massive lanes in the play-action passing game from both the shotgun and under center.
Clyde Christensen served as Moore’s apprentice from 2002-2010 in Indianapolis. With 20 years of coaching experience, Christensen was Gase’s first choice to be his number two in Miami. Among Gase’s many impressive qualities, trusting the advice of his staff might be his best.
The Dolphins were 1-4 with no answers for opposing pass rushes. The protection assignments were frequently blown and little room was created on running plays. That fourth came at home to the Tennessee Titans. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was abused behind the likes of Billy Turner and Dallas Thomas along the Miami line.
Following the defeat, the axe of accountability was swung by Gase has he cut Turner, Thomas and reserve lineman, Jamil Douglass. Scraping the tempo-based offense, Gase solicited the help of Christensen and sophomore tailback, Jay Ajayi.
Ajayi responded with consecutive 200-yard rushing performances. As the ground game excelled, Tannehill flourished. Utilizing play-action and boot-legs, the Dolphins quarterback found a comfort zone, posting a 104.7 passer rating during a six-game winning streak.
That brand of complimentary football started with Ajayi punishing opposing defenses. His slashing, downhill style was a perfect fit for a zone-scheme – something Christensen was familiar with for decades.
The principals of a zone blocking scheme are simple:
– Every lineman flows the same direction in unison
– Continuity, technique and athleticism trump size and strength
– The back stretches the defense horizontally before picking a hole and getting up-field.
In a zone scheme, there are no individual match-ups. Every alignment, twist, stunt, you name it, is accounted for in the same manner. The runner has to excel at decision making and lateral movement without slowing down – two of Ajayi’s fortes.
Before Ajayi could get his wheels churning, the Dolphins ran through the tailback gamut. Desperately seeking a bell-cow, Gase featured Arian Foster, and split backup duties between Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, Damien Williams and Isaiah Pead. The highest single-game rushing total of any of these backs was 42 yards (Ajayi vs. Tennessee.) His highest total narrowly eclipsed Arian Foster’s 39 rushing yards on opening day in Seattle.
While the first five weeks of the season showcased a variety of running styles, outside zone was hardly the staple.
The first running play of 2016 was an inside zone play. Notice all of the linemen moving in the same direction with their first step with a crack back coming across the formation. This design seals the backside and allows for the elongated exchange.
Again in the opener, Gase dials up inside-zone. Gase will tell you first hand that one of his biggest mistakes of 2016 was relying on Jordan Cameron to do, well, anything. Here, he’s responsible for sealing the backside. Laremy Tunsil eliminates Jarran Reed from the play and Branden Albert hits his down-block on Bobby Wagner. Cameron’s gaffe and Kam Chancellor knifing in like the pro-bowler he is are responsible for destroying the play.
Two weeks late in Cleveland, Kenyan Drake was given the starting nod in place of the injured Foster. On the Dolphins second drive, Gase went to a man gap-scheme. This look comes from the gun and features a pulling guard. Tunsil is responsible for sealing the play-side edge while the nose tackle is doubled at the point of attack by the right tackle and right guard.
Later in that same game, Ajayi was given a red-zone carry out of a split I formation. There are different variations that can be ran off this, misdirection, power left, or the inside zone that was called. Dion Simms seals the edge, Ajayi presses the hole, Marqueis Gray blows up his man and Ajayi bounces it out for a walk-off winner. This is the play that put Ajayi on the map.
Gase’s confidence in Ajayi grew from that game-winning touchdown. The following week in Cincinnati, Ajayi got more action including another inside zone look with a power concept. The backside guard comes off and Ajayi makes his cut of the guard’s butt and springs a nice gain.
Despite Ajay’s success running the ball in week four and five (albeit in a limited role) things had to change. At 1-4, hosting a red hot Pittsburgh Steelers team, the Dolphins needed more of a ball control offense with better balance.
Ajayi was promoted not just to a starter’s role, but as the team’s primary back on first and second down throughout the game. Brief spells were granted when he needed a breather, or when the third down group came onto the field, but the position was Ajayi’s to seize.
And that’s just what he did.
This run would become the “base” look of the Dolphins offense moving forward. With Tannehill under center, a balanced line and a lone set back, Tannehill would execute a combination of outside zone and stretch zone allowing Ajayi to maximize his skill set. This style was not only beneficial to Ajayi, but also the Dolphins fleet-footed first round lineman, Laremy Tunsil.
This is the play design that was introduced along with the winning streak. The stretch zone picks the widest player on the field as the target point for the back. Jarvis Landry motions wide and Ajayi attacks the perimeter of the formation. With the Steelers selling out to stop the run, that one cut set Ajay off to the races.
When executed correctly, the stretch-zone concept forces the linebackers to attack heavy downhill. Leaking a tight end across that flow is nearly impossible to stop.
Here’s a look at that same misdirection. The linebackers know that in order to stop the run, they have to beat the Dolphins to the play-side sideline. Tannehill tucks it and has an easy completion on the tight end flat route.
Edgerrin James was a special player, and Peyton Manning is on the Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks. Attributing all the success of that offense to the scheme and the stretch zone run concept would be, for the lack of a better word, a stretch.
But that’s all schemes are designed to do – put the player in a position to succeed. James took the real estate created by the offensive line and the play design and did what he did best – made people miss in the open field.
Jay Ajayi isn’t too shabby in that department either.