Chip Kelly Playbook 101: Shotgun Formation, the Inside Zone and Outside-Zone Run

Aug 14, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly watches the game against the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium. The Texans won 24-13. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 14, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers head coach Chip Kelly watches the game against the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium. The Texans won 24-13. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports /

This is the first in a series of articles over the next several weeks examining the playbook of first-year 49ers head coach Chip Kelly. Today we look at the shotgun formation and inside and outside zone runs.

Chip Kelly is no stranger to criticism.

The minute he was hired in Philadelphia, he was met with the criticism that his offense is too gimmicky for the NFL.

Kelly is best known for his days as the head coach of the Oregon Ducks and then as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. He has endured his fair share of criticism for his particular offensive style.

But what is his “style?”

Kelly runs the spread offense out of a shotgun formation. But the single best identifying factor is the tempo at which he runs his offense.

Otherwise, 100 percent of what he does on offense is nothing new.“I’ve said it since day one: We don’t do anything revolutionary offensively.

We run inside zone, we run outside zone, we run a sweep play, we run a power play. We’ve got a five-step [passing] game, we’ve got a three-step game, we run some screens. We’re not doing anything that’s never been done before in football,” Kelly told media members at his second NFL training camp in 2014.

Philosophically, there is not much difference in former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s ground game and Kelly’s. Whereas Harbaugh would line up the offense with multiple tight ends, linemen and running backs in tight to run the ball at the heart of the defense, Kelly spreads the field to run it up the middle.

The other main difference lies in the formation.

In a traditional quarterback-under-center formation, the defense outnumbers the offense as soon as the quarterback turns his back to hand the ball off. The shotgun formation leaves at least two unblocked defenders, a safety and usually a defensive lineman.

What does this accomplish?


Kelly will frequently use the shotgun formation to even up the blocking assignment due to the ability of the quarterback to become a runner. Shotgun gives the offense the ability to block the unblocked defender with the quarterback by freezing him and taking him out of the play.

That makes the defender wrong every time and puts the onus on the safety or another alley defender to make the play on a bigger running back like Carlos Hyde.

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Quarterback Nick Foles freezes the defensive end and the Eagles gain a 6-on-5 advantage with the handoff. He takes the safety right out of the play due to the possibility of a run-pass option covered here.


The shotgun formation compliments the running game in Kelly’s offense. The foundational play of his offense is the inside-zone run.

The inside-zone running game is as old as football itself. It is a downhill, fast, physical attack that punishes a defense for over-pursuing.

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Kelly said in a 2009 coach’s clinic “the inside zone play is our ‘go-to-work’ play. It has become our signature play. We want to get off the ball and be a physical, downhill-running football team. This is not a finesse play.”

The zone running play works by having the offensive linemen block a space or a “zone.” The zone helps the linemen determine who and where to block. The blocking is determined by the defensive alignment.

Covered linemen block the guy in front of them. Uncovered linemen take a step toward the play side and help double-team block with the linemen next to them before proceeding to the next level. Usually to block a linebacker or crashing safety/corner.

The double team blocks are what really form the pinnacle of Coach Kelly’s offense. As he says, the goal of his offensive line is to “knock the crap out of the defender, and deposit him in the linebacker’s lap.”

In Kelly’s version of the zone run, the process of who’s blocking who begins with the center. The center will identify the point defender or “zero” defender. The zero defender is the defender lined up in the play side A-gap.

The responsibilities extend outward from there with the guards handling the number one defenders and the tackles handling the number two defenders.

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The uptempo pace defines the look of the defense. And there is no need to identify the defensive front as there will be generally always be six in the box due to the shotgun spread formation. All the linemen have to do is simply count the defenders to their side and go.

As Kelly put it, “if the offensive line can count to six, you have a shot to run this play.”

Against a six-man box at Dallas, the left side of the line gets a combo/double team block from left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis. On the right side of the line, guard Andrew Gardner gets a nice block in space.

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Mathis moves on to the second level, and a huge hole opens for LeSean McCoy en route to a 39-yard touchdown run.

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Against a five-man box, the offensive line’s job gets easier: one lineman for one defender.

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The Eagles get a five-man box due to a four wide receiver formation, leaving five defenders in the box.

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The five-man box leaves the Buccaneers defense vulnerable and a leads to a breakdown in the run fits of the defense with no B-gap coverage. McCoy has a clear lane on his way to a 19-yard gain.

Each lineman blocks the man in their man in the numbering scheme. In this case, a hat-on-hat scenario for the offense.

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If there are more defenders than offensive linemen, then the offense will create double teams as required by the numbering scheme.

As Kelly explained, “We must secure the down lineman before we think about coming off on the linebacker. If the linebacker is within an arm’s length of the block, [the offensive lineman] can come off. Never disengage from a double-team block and have to run to get to the linebacker.”

In a six-man-or-more box (below the Rams play seven-man box to counter the Eagles two tight end set). The offensive will stick with the double teams until the down linemen are controlled before moving on to the next level linebackers.

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Eventually the defense will drop and extra defender or two into the box in order to tighten up the interior of the defense. Kelly has an answer for that too.


At the 2009 coach’s clinic referenced above, Kelly said “If we feel [the defenders begin to tighten their techniques] or we start to get twists and blitzes on the inside, we run the outside zone play.”

The outside zone uses the same blocking rules as the inside zone. The linemen still count their defenders to the play side when determining their responsibilities.

As Kelly puts it, “the who we block is the same, but the how we block is the difference on the outside zone.”

While the inside zone seeks to push a defense vertically, the outside zone seeks to move a defense laterally and pin them to the inside. To accomplish this, the linemen will use a blocking technique known as the “rip and run” to either pin defenders inside (rip) or, if they have that not reached their defender by the third step, seek to run them to the sideline (run).

At the snap, the telltale sign of an outside zone run is the kick step to the sideline the offensive line takes. On this particular play, each lineman’s goal is to get outside of their assigned defender and get between the defender and the play-side sideline.

Also note on this play that the Eagles are running an unbalanced line with Jason Peters and Lane Johnson on the left side of the formation away from the play side.

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Brent Celek (49ers tight end Garrett Celek’s brother) and Todd Herremans excute a perfect playside combo block, while the rest of the play side line reach their defenders to “run” them out. At this point a number of natural running lanes for McCoy.

He can either “bounce” to the outside by reading the block on the defensive end, “bang” by reading the block on the nose tackle if the defensive gets up field, or “bend” back to the backside if the play-side defensive linemen both get up field.

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McCoy selects the “bend” lane between Mathis and Peters, and it’s off to the races on 34-yard touchdown run.

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The 49ers are getting plenty of reps with these running plays. And it helps that Kelly minimizes the amount of stuff his linemen need to know since, for Kelly, it’s better to a few things really well than do many things poorly.

I’ve written extensively on Hyde here, but it’s worth repeating: If he stays healthy for an entire season, the 49ers will have a top-three rushing attack guaranteed. Hyde is utilized best as a downhill, one-cut runner, where he can get his shoulders square, burst through the hole, and often, through defenders as well.

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That skill set is best suited for a zone-blocking scheme, and that’s shown in Hyde’s production during his time in San Francisco thus far. The 49ers offensive line was giving up contact in the backfield nearly 29 percent of the time, yet Hyde averaged nearly three yards per carry after contact.

However, 49ers fans should be remain optimistic about this offensive attack despite a lackluster performance last season.

Next: Jim O'Neil and 49ers Run Defense

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All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.