The zone blocked system is a system of two runs, Outside Zone and Inside Zone. And that's it.
Alex Gibbs is considered the godfather of the zone blocked running game, sprouting 1,000 yard rushers from late round draft picks and launching successful running games wherever he's been. Much like good design of anything, the Gibbs system is efficient, streamlined, and practical.
Gibbs claims to have 12 runs in his offense (a very limited amount for a pro offense). Limiting the amount of run plays allows teams to truly prepare for every defensive response that they will see. Teams only have so much practice time and so much meeting time during the year. By limiting the amount of plays in the playbook, coaches can teach at a more in-depth level.
Not only must players learn their assignment on a given play, they also need to learn to communicate so that the entire team can work together to block the opposing defense. Players must then get practice repetitions to develop their skills. If you have isos, counters, powers, inside zone, and outside zone, you have five times the work. If you only have 2 hours at practice, that means you're going to have 1/5th the time to learn and rep the footwork, hand placement, communication, etc. for each run.
Since good offenses utilize "effective faking" or "constraint" to keep defenses honest, every additional running play also introduces at least one new counter (e.g. a play action pass), and that means even more demand for learning, skill work, and communication. Every new play exponentially increases the preparation involved, or it forces teams to sacrifice preparation for their existing plays.
Because the Gibbs system is streamlined, it is well-equipped to handle anything thrown at it. Defenses may know a zone play is coming once they read run, but if the offense can execute it doesn't matter.
How Running Backs Fit
Much will be made of two aspects of running back play in the ZBS. The first is so called "cutback" running or "one cut" running. The other is the fact that so many no-name backs have seen over 1,000 yards in a season in this system. Those two ideas are intertwined.
The nature of the zone blocked running plays is that the back must be disciplined, have good vision, and do what he is told. He will be essentially reading two defenders and making a cut based on how the blocking interacts with the defense's actions. The offense knows how they will try to block the defense, the offense knows where the defense is lined up before the snap, but they do not know how the defenders will move after the snap. The zone runs are equipped to handle this, but the back must be decisive in reading these players and taking the appropriate action.
Once he has recognized the areas the defense has vacated, the back must plant his outside foot and get downhill in a hurry. There can be no hesitation. The importance of getting downhill in this system cannot be understated. The back doesn't need to be right every time, and he will miss holes from time to time because he will need to take the first crease available. But if and when he's wrong, he needs to be wrong with a full head of steam. It is better to be decisively wrong than to be indecisive and potentially make a big play. Indecision destroys this scheme.
"They say I would have f**ked up Sayers and that guy from Detroit [Barry Sanders], woulda coached them right into the hall of shame. But you know...we've had a lot of runners who've had lots and lots of yards and we get em right up in there before everything [the blocking] falls apart."
The nature of the running back position in most other offenses is very, very different.
"[the running back] has never been told what to do. He is the best guy on your team, he's the most recruited guy on the team or one of them, he's the best athlete on the team and they have always run where they feel, and there ain't-such-a-f**kin'-thing-here. None."
The ideal back for our system is one who is fast enough to hit creases, powerful enough to break tackles, quick enough to break ankles in the open field, but coachable enough to make disciplined reads and get up the field. I'll tell you right now that there are maybe 1-2 of those human beings alive and neither will wear the orange and brown next year. If we had to choose only one of those skills, we need the last one. It is imperative.
So what is the easiest way to convince a back to do exactly what you're asking him to do, and not to rely on his own "feel"? Usually, it is to find a guy who doesn't have the baggage that accompanies having been the best athlete on every team he's ever been on, a 5* recruit, and a first round draft pick. It may also involve convincing a talented guy that he isn't above the team:
"When we went to Denver the head coach said 'I believe if one guy coached the running game to the whole team, every week, every installation, every whatnot, then everyone would hear it said a certain way'...well here's what happens; when you make it as demonstrative as you read that son'bitch, you read that one to that one, everyone on the team learns the reads. So guess what; when he comes off the field and the read was out and he jumped in, the whole team is over there ripping-his-f**kin'-@$s. He ain't never been said to a word in his life!, and now people are asking him where he's running"
Oddly enough, the skill we most covet in a running back might have an inverse correlation with being a high draft pick. And when Gibbs has turned late rounders and UDFAs into 1,000 yard rushers like no one before him, it makes some sense.
Tate and the Team
Interestingly, here you see "coachspeak" for what it can mean on a deeper level: "accountability" is preached across the NFL, as is "not having anything handed to you." How many times have you heard the phrase "do your job" as though it were some sort of gospel? How many empty words have been written on "making the most of limited practice reps?" But here it is, built into the system. And when players with great talent check their egos at the door, when they play truly as a team, when they hold themselves to a standard of greatness...isn't that what sports are about in the first place?
I have no idea how Ben Tate will do in Cleveland. And with his injury history and short contract, I can't even make a good guess as to if he'll be a starter for us for years to come. But I do know that despite being a relatively high pick and a 4* recruit going into college, Tate has played in this system and he's thrived when given the opportunity. He's physically talented, recording a 4.43 40 yard dash, a 40.5" vertical jump, and a 10'4" broad jump at 220lbs at the 2010 NFL Combine. And his skill set fits the system fantastically, even dating back to his scouting report coming out of high school ("+Cutback Ability, +Vision"). When talent meets coachability, good things can happen.
Yes, even in Cleveland.