From the Far Hash: A Preseason Primer On the Zone Read
This is part one of a two-part series on the option football currently becoming popular in today’s NFL. Stay tuned for the upcoming part two. This first installment is on the zone read option.
One thing we know about the NFL is it’s a copycat league, especially when it comes to new gimmicks designed to give any advantage over an opponent. One such strategy that emerged last season was the zone read. This offensive concept arose from the high school and college ranks, and NFL coaches realized it was a way to use physically gifted quarterbacks to gain a rushing advantage over the defense. We saw some limited doses of it from Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson. Expect to see it in even larger doses during the 2013 NFL season. Chip Kelly will no doubt unleash his Oregon zone read in Philadelphia. Mike McCarthy was so concerned about the zone read, he sent his defensive coaches to Texas A&M to learn about their zone read and how to defend it. After watching the 49ers thrash the Packers defense in the playoffs, you can bet the zone read will part of all offensive game plans written to play the Packers. We will also see it in limited doses during the preseason game against the Seahawks on August 23, especially if Russell Wilson takes the field. I predict you’ll see a heavy dose of it on back to back weeks between September 8 and 15 when the Packers play the 49ers and Redskins, respectively. The Eagles will likely deploy it against the Packers on November 10. I also suspect any team playing the Colts and Erik Walden will run a lot of zone read.
After reading this primer, you should have basic understanding of the zone read. While watching the games, don’t even bother to listen to the television commentators because they usually have no idea what’s going on. They’ll use terms like “ball fake” “veer,” “counter,” or “trick.” However, there are no fakes or tricks about it. It’s not a veer or counter play, either. It’s simply the offense reacting to what the defense offers. Understanding the zone read will make watching football games more enjoyable because you’ll see that it’s not a cheap trick; it’s a legitimate offensive concept no matter how long-lived or short-lived it is. Gunther Cunningham, the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions, thinks it will come to an abrupt end when a quarterback is carried off the field in a body bag.
So, what is the zone read? It is a surprisingly simple offensive concept that is remarkably difficult to defend. It is an option at heart. You’re probably asking yourself, what is an option? What is being optioned? This can mean several things, such as an option to where the ball goes or who gets the ball. But, in the most simple terms, it’s meant to “option” a specific defender. The offense wants to make that specific defender make a choice, or make him “option” his assignment. Option offenses are designed to neutralize the defense through scheme. In other words, the offense can have smaller, weaker, and slower players than the defense, but can still achieve the upper hand through play calls alone. This is why option offenses are popular with smaller college programs, such as Navy and Army. But, when you have superior talent running the option, the results can be devastating. Just look at Urban Meyer’s option attack at Florida and The Ohio State. Braxton Miller may very well win the Heisman Trophy this year. Johnny Manziel won it last year as a zone read quarterback at Texas A&M.
Usually, the plays are designed to option one of the most skilled line-of-scrimmage-defenders on the field, which is often the defensive end in 4-3 defense or the outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Essentially, the zone read is designed to completely neutralize this defender in the play. In fact, it removes this player from the play without ever blocking him! That’s right, he is never blocked, but if executed properly, he will not have a chance to tackle the ball carrier. It’s just a sandlot game of “keep away.” In the end, the ball goes wherever the defensive end (or outside linebacker) is not. For the rest of this article, we’ll assume that the 4-3 defensive end is the optioned player, but you can easily apply these concepts to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Why would you ever want to leave an extremely talented defensive end go unblocked? Aren’t you asking for certain pain and death? Is this what Dennis Hopper meant when referring to Bruce Smith as, “Bad things, man”? Well, the zone read actually gives the offense a tremendous advantage by leaving the defensive end unblocked. By taking a blocker off of the defensive end, it means there is another free blocker to block elsewhere. This produces an extra blocker on the play side. You’ve heard the expression “hat on hat.” Well, the zone read allows one more offensive hat to block a defensive hat. Essentially, it overloads the play side with more blockers than the defense normally is schemed to take on. And, since the play is designed to carry the ball where the defensive end will never be, the unblocked player is really of no consequence. It takes the attack mentality away from the defense and makes them more of a read and react scheme. It is particularly effective against over-eager over-pursuing defenses.
There are two basic versions applied in the zone read category: the inside read and the outside read. They differ by formation, the blocking scheme of the offensive line, and the movement of the running back. In fact, the offense usually tips it hand during the pre-snap alignment if the formation is an inside read or an outside read. This is very Lombardi-esque in nature. Here we come. Try to stop us. We will make a seal here and a seal here, and we’ll run in the alley you unknowingly give us.
First, let’s take a look at the inside read. As previously stated, this concept is designed to option the defensive end. More specifically, it options the back side defensive end (the defensive end not on the play side; the play side is the side of the formation where the ball is designed to go). The formation used during inside zone reads has the quarterback in the shotgun or pistol with the running back behind him, but slightly askew; the running back lines up on the back side of the formation. See Figure 1 below.
[Figure 1; click to enlarge]
Once the ball is snapped, the offensive line blocks straight ahead in a zone-blocking scheme. The back side defensive end remains unblocked, allowing a free offensive lineman to block to the next level (pick up a linebacker) or double team a defensive lineman.
While the quarterback has the ball in his hands, he is watching the back side defensive end. At the same time, he tucks the ball into the belly of the running back. Defensive ends are trained to “stay home” and remain gap integrity. So, he should stay in his lane and not go chasing the running back to the play side. If the defensive end stays home, and doesn’t chase the running back, the quarterback allows the running back to keep the ball and run to the play side. Since it is an inside zone read, the play is designed to be run between offensive linemen. This should take place between the center and guard or between the guard and tackle. The running back will make one step, read which hole is open, and quickly hit that lane. The offensive coordinator loves it when the defensive end stays home because he won’t be able to tackle the running back. The quarterback, since he’s not carrying the ball, is less likely to be decapitated by someone like DeMarcus Ware, JJ Watt, or James Harrison. See Figure 2 below.
[Figure 2; click to enlarge]
Now, what happens if the defensive end doesn’t stay home? Even though he is coached to maintain gap integrity, he can become frustrated he isn’t contributing to tackling the ball carrier. If he sees a heavy dose of the running back rushing away from him, he may begin to react and begin to pursue the spot of the field where he believes the ball will be going. This is called “over-pursuing.” Essentially, he is crashing down parallel to the line of scrimmage. If the quarterback gives the ball to the running back, it’s highly likely that the defensive end will tackle him for a loss. So, if the defensive end begins crashing the play side, the quarterback must do something different. Once the ball is snapped, the quarterback once again tucks the ball into the belly of the running back while reading the defensive end. If the defensive end options the running back and crashes down the line of scrimmage, the quarterback removes the ball from the belly of the running back and runs to the space just vacated by the crashing defensive end. See Figure 3 below.
[Figure 3; click to enlarge]
Now that we’ve covered the inside read, let’s go over the outside read. This concept uses a slightly different formation and is designed to have the running back run around the offensive line. In this formation, the quarterback is still in the shotgun, but the running back is no longer behind him; the running back is to the side of quarterback on the back side of the formation. The running back is to the side of the quarterback, and not behind him, to generate a quicker angle for an outside run. See Figure 4 below.
[Figure 4; click to enlarge]
In the outside zone read, not only is the formation different, but so is the blocking scheme of the offensive linemen. Rather than blocking straight ahead, they will aggressively slide and block down the line of scrimmage toward the play side. This zone blocking concept is designed to have the running back begin his approach in parallel with the line of scrimmage while he waits for a hole to open. Usually, the hole opens outside the play side tackle, which is why this is called the outside zone read, but if the running back finds a more interior hole, he is free to make a cutback and pursue that lane.
The outside zone read has the same decision-making as the inside zone read. If the defensive end stays home, the quarterback allows the running back to keep the ball and pursue an outside running lane. See Figure 5 below.
[Figure 5; click to enlarge]
If the defensive end crashes down the line of scrimmage, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs to the space the defensive end vacated. See Figure 6 below.
[Figure 6; click to enlarge]
Since the blocking is aggressively sliding to the play side, but the quarterback pivoted in the opposite direction, many commentators will mistakenly call this a counter play. It’s not really a counter play in the truest sense. A counter play lacks an option concept and was always designed to run in a misdirection.
These are the most basic tenets of the zone read, which I expect you’ll see during NFL games this upcoming season. I hope this primer was helpful to you and you’ll be able to identify these plays while they unfold. Happy watching!
Stay tuned for part two of this series. I’ll cover another type of option that we expect to see a lot of this upcoming season.