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JJ Watt vs. Browns Zone Blocking Scheme

JJ Watt is perhaps the most disruptive defensive player in the NFL. In this article, I discuss what to expect from Watt in Week 11 and what adjustments the Browns offense can make to reduce his impact.

At least this time the Browns aren't facing JJ Watt with Colt McCoy and Shawn Lauvao.
At least this time the Browns aren't facing JJ Watt with Colt McCoy and Shawn Lauvao.
Bob Levey

The Impact

Below, JJ Watt (highlighted with yellow and the ballcarrier is highlighted with red) blows up an inside zone run for a minimal 1-yard gain. He actually stumbles after firing off the snap and ends up on his knees but has the strength to drive the offensive lineman off of him, shed, and threaten the ballcarrier while regaining his feet:


This time Watt beats his man with quickness. He engages the guard, slips past him upfield, and knifes toward the backside to bring down the running back for a 1-yard loss on this inside zone run:


Watt once again gets penetration into the backfield in run defense. This time he doesn't make the play himself, but the depth he gets creates space for the Texans linebackers to step up and make the tackle for a 1-yard gain:


Now on a play action pass off of inside zone action, JJ Watt starts with an outside step. He then cuts inside, powers through the inside shoulder of the right tackle, and hits Foles as he's releasing the ball. This resulted in an underthrown pass and an interception.


This time on outside zone action, Watt doesn't bite on the play action fake and is immediately in the quarterback's face for the sack:


Now without play action, Watt beats the guard to the inside and pressures the quarterback causing an inaccurate pass that is intercepted:


On another pass without play action, Watt beats the guard to the outside and is immediately bearing down on the quarterback:


The Adjustments

Wait, didn't the Eagles win the game these JJ Watt highlights are from? Yes, they did. They won 31-21, despite Watt's 1.5 sacks, 7 tackles, and 2 interception-causing pressures. How did they do it and what can the Browns learn from the Eagles-Texans game film to help them in their matchup?

1. Quick Passes

One of the things that the Eagles did to combat Watt's ability to penetrate into the backfield was to get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. They didn't tempt fate by running any slow-developing screens, instead they ran 7 plays where the ball came out immediately and the receiver had an opportunity to gain yards after the catch. These included 5 wide receiver screens, 1 swing pass to the running back exiting the backfield, and 1 packaged play where the quarterback recognized the corner playing off and threw the ball rather than handing it off. These 7 plays yielded 57 yards. That's 8.14 yards per attempt, a nice reward for very little risk.

This play is a quick screen to the slot wide receiver (red circle in the two images below). The slot corner is playing far off the line of scrimmage, giving the offense a favorable matchup. The slot receiver's initial move off the snap was to move toward the sideline and get behind the split end to set up his block. Then he received the pass with room to run.



On this one, the slot corner isn't playing far off. The receiver doesn't make a move to the sideline here, but instead holds his position and just turns inside for the ball. The split end receiver is there to block the boundary corner and the tight end comes into motion just before the snap and then attacks the slot corner. This play is quite similar to ones the Browns have run several times this season with Taylor Gabriel.



And here is one of the screens to Gabriel:



This time the receiver is all alone outside with no blockers in range to help. However, the corner is playing off. This is an example of a "packaged play". By that, I mean that this play appears to be a called run -- probably inside zone -- but the quarterback has the option to throw a pass if the defensive alignment favors it. In this case, he recognized 8 defenders in the box and the cornerback playing 6 yards off of the receiver, so he threw the quick pass.



2. Safe Play Action Drops

I showed a few examples above of JJ Watt getting pressure on play action passes, including a sack and a forced interception. Play action is a huge part of the Browns offense and it definitely should be used, but in this matchup it would be wise to find the safest possible ways to implement it. I advise limiting the number of slow-developing, lazy bootlegs like in the following example:


Instead, I recommend the Browns use more quick, straight dropbacks in the play action passing game, like those below:



3. Inside Zone

Now, what you will see in the above play action pass examples is that they are coming off inside zone action. The quarterback is able to take a straight play action dropback on these plays because the offensive linemen are staying at home in the box. On an outside zone fake, they would be moving laterally toward the sideline and leaving the quarterback exposed -- something we don't want in this matchup against Watt and possibly also Clowney.

I also advocate employing more inside zone runs. The reason I do is that they are faster-developing, more downhill, and less likely to result in lost yardage than outside zone plays. They also have more of a straight-ahead aiming point for the running back, which gives him more flexibility to change direction away from a defensive lineman getting penetration:


The Browns are reasonably proficient at running the inside zone play. Against the Bengals, they ran it 11 times for 48 yards: 4.36 yards per carry. They also executed 4 play action passes off of inside zone action. They especially like it in short yardage situations, but it also serves as a good changeup when the linebackers and safeties start overpursuing toward the sidelines in anticipation of an outside zone run.


4. Power

Speaking of changeups, the Eagles use the inside zone as their primary running play and then used a play called Power as one of their changeups. They ran the inside zone 23 times against Houston for 92 yards (4.0 yards per carry). They ran Power 6 times for 35 yards, a 5.83 yards per carry average.

iZnCLE_1Q10-45_1 - Copy

The diagram above shows a simplified version of how the offensive linemen block on an inside zone run. They move off the snap on an angled path toward the playside like on the outside zone, but they work their way more upfield rather than toward the sideline.

The diagram below shows how offensive linemen block on Power. Four of the linemen appear to be executing an inside zone run. They angle in the same direction as each other...but unlike with the inside zone, that's actually the backside of the play: the run goes in the opposite direction of where the linemen are going. How this works is that the guard from the supposed playside (in actuality it's the backside) pulls the other way behind the other linemen and lead blocks for the ballcarrier. So, it is a misdirection play that punishes the defense for pouncing on inside zone action.

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So far this season, the Browns haven't run Power very often. When they have, they've struggled to execute it properly. In the play below, Joel Bitonio is the pulling guard. He scrapes behind the other linemen, gets to the playside and has a choice: block the linebacker just off his backside shoulder or continue playside and block the defensive back. He chooses to attack the DB, which leaves an unblocked linebacker in the running back's path and forces him to make his cut to the inside and into the teeth of the defense.


What should Bitonio have done? Here's an example of a guard with experience leading on the play. He squeezes through the playside hole right behind the right tackle's hip, making sure that no pursuing backside defender can cut off the runner. Then, only after making sure the running back has a secure path to the hole, the guard turns to attack the safety in space. He doesn't get the best hit on him, but still manages to take the SS down. He didn't make the mistake that Bitonio made of going straight for the safety without taking care of the linebacker first.


This play confers the advantage of catching the defense off balance when they expect an inside zone run. Additionally -- and this is the biggest reason that I strongly recommend using Power in this matchup -- it is a very good way to take the backside defensive end out of the play, because it puts 4 or even 5 offensive linemen between him and the ballcarrier. In the play below, JJ Watt is lined up at the 3-4 defensive end position on the defense's left. The run is going to the right. Look how far out of the play he ends up:


The Browns have had a long week after the Thursday night Bengals game. They've had extra time to study game film on the Texans as well as extra time to game plan and coach up their players. It's possible that they could have worked on improving the offense's execution of this play during that time.

5. Pin and Pull

The other changeup from inside zone that the Eagles used in their run game was the Pin and Pull play. Similarly to Power, it also attempts to catch the defense expecting an inside zone run and then seal the backside defenders out of the play. The Eagles ran it 5 times versus the Texans for 51 yards, an astounding 10.2 yards per carry.

The play consists of the playside tackle and tight end -- or possibly two playside tight ends -- blocking down toward the backside to take out the playside defensive linemen. Two interior linemen pull to the playside to pave the way for the runner while the backside tackle and the remaining interior lineman overtake the backside defensive tackle and linebacker to wash them out as well:

PinAndPull_PHI3Q4-04_1 - Copy


Before Alex Mack got hurt, the Browns ran Pin and Pull occasionally down by the goal line. They haven't been running it since, but it should be easier to install than Power (which they already use, just not very well yet), because the difficult lead blocks are all the way out on the perimeter rather than in the box. I believe the reason that it hasn't been incorporated into the offense -- aside from just trying to keep things as simple as possible -- is that this play relies on the defense staying inside to be effective.

Against the Browns, defenses get out on the perimeter because they expect the outside zone. That doesn't mean this play shouldn't be considered, though. It could be inserted into a series where the team establishes the inside zone and Power. If they can convince the defense to stay at home between the tackles then a sneaky Pin and Pull play call could result in a big gain.


As I already said, Watt had 1.5 sacks, made 7 tackles, and caused 2 interceptions. Despite these splash plays, the Eagles offense rushed for 190 yards with a 4.6 yards per carry average. The Browns stand a fair chance at having a good day on offense if they take the lessons of the Eagles-Texans game to heart...and of course go out and execute things properly.