Skip to main content

Seahawks Analysis: Breaking Down Run Game Concepts in Ryan Grubb's Offense

Calling plays in the NFL for the first time, what will Ryan Grubb's offense look like with the Seattle Seahawks from a run game standpoint?

Making his first jump the NFL as the new offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, Ryan Grubb landed on the radar for teams in the league in large part due to the aerial success of his offenses at Washington and Fresno State.

With quarterback Michael Penix and a trio of talented receivers leading the charge, the Huskies emerged as one of the nation's best teams behind an explosive passing attack that finished in the top-five in passing yards each of the past two seasons. In 2023, on the way to a berth in the National Championship Game, they tallied 5,155 yards through the air, the most in the country.

But while Washington's prolific passing game put the spotlight on Grubb, looking back at his entire coaching history, he shouldn't be mistaken as an Air Raid connoisseur. In fact, with head coach Mike Macdonald calling him an offensive line coach "at heart," the run game has been an important part of his offense everywhere he has coached and played a key role in opening up the passing game to begin with.

“We are going to be a physical team in Seattle," Grubb declared in his introductory press conference earlier this month. "And over the years, that's something that we've certainly done. When the components all matched up, we ran the ball very effectively and I look forward to it. I think that when you have an established run game, it makes calling those other plays, the auxiliary plays off of it a lot easier honestly. It's when you don't have the presence of a run game that things can get really tricky.”

Even when Penix and his stable of future NFL receivers were lighting up the skies, the Huskies got the job done on the ground as well. In 2022, they averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry as a team while eclipsing 1,800 rushing yards and last season, Dillon Johnson rushed for north of 1,100 yards while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, providing much-needed balance for one of the nation's top offenses.

Without any prior NFL coaching on his resume, how Grubb's run game will be structured with the Seahawks remains to be seen, as personnel will be a big component that has yet to be finalized. What types of concepts should fans expect to see with an exciting backfield duo of Ken Walker III and Zach Charbonnet as he takes his play calling chops to the next level?

Zone Concepts

Every team in the NFL runs variations of inside and outside zone and with Grubb at the controls, the Seahawks will certainly be no different. In fact, based on his track record at Washington and Fresno State, there's a strong likelihood the team's run game will be built around zone concepts. In his previous five seasons as an offensive coordinator, his teams have finished the season with a zone run rate of 65 percent or higher, with last season being the lone exception.

Inside Zone

As a staple for every NFL offense in the modern era, inside zone runs generally have a basic set of rules for offensive linemen. If a lineman has a defender head up across from him, then he will block that defender. If he isn't covered, he will step towards the play side and either initiate a double team, climb to the second level, or execute a combo block initially doubling before working upfield to the second level.

With inside zone concepts featuring vertical blocking, backs have to be decisive making reads and get downhill quickly once a crease opens up with the aiming point being between the A and B gap on the play side. In most systems, backs are instructed to read the play side defensive tackle to determine their cut, though defensive front played by the opponent often dictates that.

Going against Washington State, Huskies running back Dillon Johnson correctly read to "bang" the run back side with his blockers successfully washing the Cougars front down the line of scrimmage, creating a big cut back seam for him. Sticking his cleat in the turf and turning on the accelerator, he picked up 14 yards on a well-executed inside zone out of gun.

Smart teams find ways to spruce up inside zone through pre-snap motion and different formation/personnel groupings. In Grubb's offense, the Huskies loved to use their tight ends like fullbacks, starting them in the backfield before assigning them a lead blocking role or "wham" blocking across the formation.

In just one variation that Washington ran quite a bit in 2023, tight end Josh Cuevas motioned across the formation and immediately after Michael Penix took the snap, he pivoted back towards the back side. With the rest of the offensive line blocking to their left, he executed a wham block on an unblocked edge defender, which created a bit more wiggle room for Johnson on a six-yard carry.

Outside Zone

While inside zone runs feature vertical blocking, outside zones are structured around horizontal blocking aiming to create displacement towards the play side. In a basic outside zone scheme, the back will be instructed to aim towards the C/D gap and cut back against the flow of the defense, as creases normally develop with defenders quickly moving towards the perimeter.

As for blocking rules, just like inside zone, if a blocker has a defender head up or covering him, he will block that player. If he is uncovered, he must take a step towards the play side and block the next player down the line. Ultimately, the goal is to get outside of their defender and the play side sideline, sealing or "reaching" them back inside aiming to open up a crease as the back runs to the edge.

Against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game, Washington dialed up an outside zone run from pistol with 11 personnel. There are two tell-tales here off the snap. For one, the Huskies linemen can be seen taking kick steps towards the play side after the snap, signaling horizonal blocking for an outside zone. Second, Johnson takes a wider path to receive the handoff with an aiming point to the middle of the right tackle, cutting off a combo block by the right tackle and tight end Jack Westover.

Split Zone

With zone runs being so prevalent in the NFL, many teams like to turn to split zone concepts that blend inside zone and zone read blocking principles. As is the case on inside zone runs, linemen will block defenders covering them and take a step towards the play side to the next defender if not covered. As seen on zone reads, the backside edge defender will be left unblocked.

What is different on mid-zone schemes, however, is that the edge defender on the backside will be left unblocked without the quarterback reading him. Instead, a tight end. H-back, or fullback will execute a kickout "wham" block, opening up more cut back options for the ball carrier, depending on formation and personnel. The back will operate with a 3-way go, having the ability to run straight up the gut, bounce the run outside towards play side, or cut back behind the wham block.

These plays can also be ran with a wider aiming point for the back on wide split zones similar to outside zones with the tight end blocking across the formation looking for the unblocked edge defender.

In an offensive marathon against USC, Grubb called a wide split zone from gun with 11 personnel on the field, sending the tight end from the slot across the formation on a wham block assignment. The Trojans didn't have an unblocked defender for him to block, however, and Johnson wound up cutting the run upfield behind a quality seal block by the center, picking up nearly 40 yards on the explosive carry.

Pin and Pull

Offering some zone wrinkles to a toss/sweep play, the Huskies also utilized pin and pull concepts in their run game. Aptly named, the center and right tackle pull outside as lead blockers, while the right guard "pins" or down blocks on the defender across from where the center vacates. Depending on whether there is an in-line tight end on play side or not, the tight end or inside receiver will work back inside to an edge defender or linebacker at second level.

In the same game against USC, Washington went under center in the shadows of its own goal post, calling a pin/pull sweep away from the strength of the formation with Westover inline on the left side. Taking advantage of a Trojans front that didn't have an end on the right side, the center and right tackle were able to quickly pull outside and get upfield for successful blocks and the slot receiver did a fantastic job sealing the linebacker outside, allowing Johnson to bolt for a 55-yard run.

Gap Concepts

For most of Grubb's time as a play caller at the college level, his run game has foundationally been structured around zone concepts. However, adjusting to personnel, particularly along the offensive line, he turned a new leaf in 2023 as the Huskies suddenly became a gap-heavy offense, running gap schemes north of 54 percent of the time on their way to a college football playoff berth.


Often nicknamed "God's play," Power has been around since the early years of the sport. While there are many variations in regard to how NFL and college teams run it schematically, traditional Power involves a double team at the point of attack on the play side, a backside guard or tackle pulling to the play side and turning upfield looking to smash a linebacker as a lead blocker, and a full back or tight end kicking out the end defender on the line of scrimmage.

Since Washington primarily used 11 personnel with one running back, one tight end, and three receivers on the field and rarely ran plays from under center, Grubb didn't call any traditional Power plays in the five games I watched. However, he frequently ran Power Read, a modernized variation where the quarterback reads the MIKE linebacker as the key for keeping or handing off the football at the mesh point.

A popular variation in today's spread offenses, Power Read has slightly different blocking rules than traditional Power. While there's still a double team at the point of attack, the pulling guard from the back side will no longer be looking to turn upfield, instead kicking out the unblocked edge defender that normally would be reserved for a tight end or fullback to block out of the backfield.

As demonstrated by Washington against Utah last season, Penix reads the MIKE linebacker, keeping the ball if he chases the run outside and handing it off if the defender sits or crashes downhill. In this instance, the linebacker crashed hard, making this an easy read to hand off to Tybo Rogers, who promptly cut behind the kick out block by the guard for a 23-yard gain.

Counter/Counter Trey

If there was a gap concept that truly became Grubb's bread and butter last season, as Oregon begrudgingly will attest from a pair of losses, Washington consistently battered opponents with a dynamic counter run game. Blending physicality and deception that perfectly fit personnel in the trenches, counter trey evolved into the staple concept in the team's run game toolbox.

On the play side, the center, guard, and tackle all execute vertical down blocks, selling a downhill back side run that can cause linebackers to make the wrong read. On the other end of the line of scrimmage, both the guard and tackle pull to "replace" the blockers on the other side, turning upfield functioning like lead blockers out of the backfield. The running back completes the sales job with a quick counter step, freezing the defense long enough for the pullers to get out in front.

Possessing an athletic offensive line with plenty of physicality, the Huskies leaned heavily on counter trey in several big games, including a rematch with the Ducks in the Pac-12 title game. In a changeup from the typical counter play from gun or under center, Johnson took the handoff to his left from Penix in pistol and quickly cut back behind his pulling left guard and left tackle, bruising his way through the teeth of the defense for nine-yard gain.

Seemingly running counter try from every formation and personnel group in the playbook, Grubb went back to the play later in the game out of gun with 10 personnel. Spreading Oregon's defense out with four receivers, Johnson took a quick counter step left before taking the handoff running right with both his pulling lead blockers getting out in front. Left guard Nate Kalepo blew up the MIKE linebacker at the line of scrimmage, while left tackle Troy Fautanu eventually chipped a safety without any immediate defenders to block.

As a result of the massive hole created by the pullers and down blocks, Johnson wound up picking up 16 yards in another chunk play on the ground against an overwhelmed Oregon defense.

Toss Sweep

While the Pin and Pull concept from earlier is widely considered a hybrid zone concept, a toss sweep play would be defined as a gap concept with physical, downhill blocking from pullers and receivers alike, and Grubb found intriguing ways to run these perimeter plays from a variety of formations and personnel groupings.

In the red zone against Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, Grubb called a toss sweep from gun with a quads look, or four receivers to the strong side of the formation. Taking advantage of the Ducks being in man coverage, when the outside receiver sprinted inside off the snap to crack a linebacker, the cornerback followed him inside, creating a huge void on the left side of the field with a pulling tackle and pulling guard forming a caravan out in front of Johnson, who powered his way into the end zone.

Wide Trap

Continuing the trend of happily sending guards as pullers, Grubb also mixed in trap concepts out of pistol and gun. A play ingrained throughout the history of football, the play side defensive tackle or defense end - depending on front - is left unblocked with the guard down blocking or going directly to the second level to the linebackers. The aim of the concept is to catch the defender penetrating upfield, allowing the pulling backside guard to clean him out with a kickout block.

In just one example of a successful trap play, which the Huskies also used to generate a few big gains on the ground in the Sugar Bowl, Grubb called a wide trap against the Ducks out of a trips right bunch formation in gun. With Oregon running an odd front, they left the play side 3-tech defensive end unblocked and Kalepo knocked him backwards on a kickout block, allowing Johnson to move the chains with a seven yard run on 3rd and 2.