A type of running play in football that is based on pre-determined zone blocking schemes.
To understand zone running plays, you first have to understand zone blocking. Zone blocking is different from man-blocking in that offensive linemen are not necessarily “paired” with an opposing player on the defensive line. Instead, they block based on pre-defined zones that are dictated by the running play that is called.
Zone running plays have a lot of variation, but they typically target three specific blocking zone schemes that either attack inside the tackles, outside the tackles or just inside the last offensive player. These are designated as Inside Zone (IZ), Outside Zone (OZ) and Stretch.
Zone blocking operates in successive levels of blocking down the field. The first stage’s objective is to block the first level (at the line). Usually this involves linemen double-teaming a defender, with one lineman (inside or outside, depending on the position of defenders) coming off the lead block to block the linebacker at the next level. As each level is blocked, this creates potential running lanes for the running back, who is then responsible for reading the blocks in front of him and making cuts into available gaps.
Zone runs and zone blocking schemes became common in football primarily as a response to more complicated defenses that shift the line around, and take advantage of teams with especially athletic backs and offensive linemen. For this reason, most zone blocking is used by Division I college teams and professional football programs. Zone runs became more widely popularized under coaches Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos.