Defending the zone-read: athleticism and the “scrape-exchange”

Much of what is new in defending the spread involves giving different looks on the backside of all those “zone-read” and other read plays that spread teams are so fond of. For example, on the typical zone-read play, the line is responsible for blocking everyone but the backside defensive end; the quarterback “reads” him. If he crashes to take the runningback (or at least to eliminate the runningback’s cutback lane), the quarterback keeps it; if the defensive end is not in position to tackle the runner (either because he stays put or takes the quarterback, the QB simply hands the ball off to the runner.


Defenses began reacting by using a technique called a “scrape exchange” to mess up the read. With this defensive adjustment, the defensive end always crashes for the runningback, while the linebacker “scrapes” over to take the quarterback. If the quarterback doesn’t see this, he will pull the ball, thinking he will have an easy lane on the backside, and instead runs straight into the linebacker.


If the offense knows that the defense is shifting to this (a big if), what is the adjustment? Tell the tackle to block the defensive end, and the quarterback to read the linebacker. Often the linebacker will take himself out of the play, and with good blocking, the offense should be able to get a good run play, or a big play if the runner can cut back.

But let’s step back from scheme: what else can a defense do? One answer, is just to get more athletic. As TCU’s excellent coach Garry Patterson recently told the NY Times’s Pete Thamel:

Patterson’s base defense consists of four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Many teams have gone away from four-man defensive lines and have added a linebacker for a 3-4 alignment, but Patterson chooses to keep the front stout and the back end of the defense flexible.

It is a simple concept for a complicated challenge.

“You’ve got to spread out with them,” he said. “We try to coach defense like coaches coach offense.”

Patterson’s theories on slowing down the spread quickly come back to speed.

“If the defensive end is fast enough to be able to play the running back or the quarterback instead of some other person on your defense, that frees up a guy,” he said. “If nine guys out of your 11 can run somebody down, it always helps.”

This last quote is the most important. Reconsider the diagrams above. Now, let’s say (a) that the defensive end (or linebacker in a “scrape-exchange” scheme) is a real stud, and (b) that the quarterback is nothing special — not a Pat White or Vince Young. In that case, when the defense sees the zone read the defender being “read” can pretty much just wait until he knows whether the QB or RB is keeping it, and then attack accordingly. Unless the quarterback is a real athletic threat (think of Michigan’s motley quarterbacking crew from last season), that defender can play both the zone-read and not fear having the quarterback run by him; if the QB runs, he’ll get ’em.

The obvious answer for the offense is to get more athletic at quarterback (like Michigan is trying to do), but there are other things, like amping up the options on the backside reads for the QB if he doesn’t give it to the back. But, as always, the chess match goes on and on . . . .

  • The “zone-read” must be a good concept. At TCU, Patterson and his staff have adopted the “read zone” as they call it, installing it in their offense. But Patterson is the guy to talk to if you want to learn how to defend it. He uses guys on the defensive front who were skill players in high school, ie. Jerry Hughes. Hughes was an outstanding running back in high school rushing for over a 1000 yards. Now, he is running down QB’s and running backs.

  • DrB

    It also helps that TCU puts in big LBs that are essentially both MIKE-body types up the middle to offset the shortcomings of having one less LB against the power running game.

  • beermotor

    Watched TCU play somebody last year (BYU?) and the commentators could not shut their traps about how fast the defense was. It was a pretty brutal game, TCU just slaughtered them. So there’s definitely something to what he’s saying/doing.

  • Zac

    I agree with the comments about athletic DE’s being able to take away (or at least greatly impact) both parts of the Zone Read. I think that is the main reason why teams are hesitant to use it in the NFL. The defensive pursuit is just so quick. Watching Vick’s first game back was pretty intriguing for me, as I am very interested to see how the single wing concepts work in the NFL for a very athletic QB who can also sling it. With all due respect, I think that the “wildcat” will be declawed this year as teams check to zero looks against non passing threats. With an athlete who can throw however, who knows how it will go.

  • Beano Cook

    Regarding the NFL not using a spread offense. I must say that many NFL QBs played college ball in the 90s, when almost nobody was running such an offense. It will take time for all of the QBs and personnel to filter up to the NFL. In time, I think you will see the spread impact the NFL.

    Players like Percy Harvin, J Maclin, who are just as good running it as catching it will make the transition almost certain. The NFL creates most of their own busts, like Alex Smith, by ignoring the systems these great QBs ran in college and trying to impose totally different systems in the NFL, all in a compressed time period, and against better competition, this (the NFL) is no place for teaching and learning.

    Eventually the NFL will have to accept, or deal with the talent college produces, as I see it, there is going to be a major shortage of NFL style drop back passing QBs produced by college in the foreseeable future. At the very least, the NFL should start adopting more shotgun.

    It only makes sense that better athletes at the QB position mean better QBs. They only reason NFL QBs tend to be lesser athletes than your typical college QBs is because they (the NFL) wants to continue to teach what it has been teaching, which is dropback passing. They know this is little opportunity to teach at the NFL level. Even this preference is a relic of a time when the best athletes were moved to RB or WR or def and lesser athletes were made QBs.

    I hope the NFL joins the modern era of football and starts to accept better athletes at QB. As of now the NFL remains stuck in the past.

  • Beano Cook

    Also, I am sick and tired of the term “wildcat”. This term is being overused and it is even being used mockingly. The NFL is uncomfortable with the fact innovation on offense came from college and it is really an attempt to minimize how complex and advanced college offenses have become, by seeking superior athletes at the QB position.

    I don’t want to hear anyone say the spread wouldn’t work in the NFL until at least 3-4 NFL teams install it and commit to running it. To say speed on D would kill the spread is a joke, it is designed to emasculate speed on D.

  • Dave

    “At the very least, the NFL should start adopting more shotgun.”

    They are, and we’re beginning to see teams go to it a majority of times. In 2007 the Patriots ran over 50% of their plays from shotgun, in 2008 the Pats and Chiefs did.

  • Art

    Add in shotgun veer play a la Florida to go along with the zone read option and the offense can really keep a defense guessing. I sure am looking forward to the season getting started…thanks for helping me keep my sanity the past few months! Art

  • Tim

    One thing I’ve seen at Michigan practices this year might help the Wolverines counter that “scrape” technique.

    The Wolverines have practiced with a tight end (typically Kevin Koger or Martell Webb) lined up in the backfield as an H-back to the playside. When the team runs the zone-read play, the H-back pulls across, but doesn’t block the crashing defensive end. He’ll take the linebacker scraping over the top, or if there isn’t a defender assigned to the QB keep, he’ll work upfield to the next defender.

    I imagine this scheme only works really well when the defense is trying to run this scrape technique, and will primarily be used only when the offensive coaching staff expects it from the defense.

  • MTK

    The “have better athletes” approach is self evident and not a counter-scheme, per se. Fundamentally the zone read works because the offense occupies all defenders at the point of attack. The scheme will evolve long before offenses allow one defender to repeatedly beat two offenders.


    I disagree with Patterson. His team doesn’t face a team with similar athletes very often, particularly not one running ZR. Smaller is not better against spread to run teams, unless all they run is ZR, which is not the case.

    The best defenses at the elite level were the biggest. It’s about being able to widen out just a tad because you have the overall strength and beef to fight through blocks back to the inside, IMO.

  • Orangeman

    We run the spread and teams have learned how to make us “give” the ball. That DE will come up field for 2 steps w/ his shoulders square then crash down and play the zone from the backside. We’ve gone to running inside veer at that 5 technique (no crossover by RB) as well as running “same side” zone. If they want to play scrape and we run same side zone (again, no cross over fake. RB takes a slide step to QB gets ball and aims at the outside leg of the same side Guard. QB doesn’t boot but carries his fake out around the play side end) we are out the shoot. No if your X’s are better than my O’s…

  • steve sharik

    A couple notes:
    1. What defenses are going to do may differ depending on whether the zone is an inside or an outside zone. Let’s refer to your diagram. If it is inside zone, then the TB will almost surely choose the “wind back” route: all the way behind the LG. Because of this, even a high school defensive end can step towards the mesh, see who is getting the ball, and then make the play. Both QB and TB are deep enough and run paths are close enough so that the DE can play both. If it is outside zone, however, the DE *must* choose b/c the ball is going to one of two flanks.
    2. Another defensive adjustment: play off the backside tackle. Both the backside DE and backside ILB read the block of the backside tackle. If the backside OT pulls (for dart) or zone blocks away, the DE chases and the LB plays the “thief” (a common term for the 2nd/3rd level defender assigned to the QB on read plays). If the backside OT blocks the DE, the DE climbs upfield for the QB and the LB plays the TB.

  • steve: I disagree about it it being totally different if it is IZ or OZ. You are right that it is a bit “easier” to squeeze the cutback, but then again on OZ it’s not clear that you “need” the zone-read as much to control the backside DE.

    2. This adjustment is better but is always susceptible to more key breaking. Pat White often would read the backside but instead of arcing back just cut it straight upfield. If the LB is the “thief” he can take himself out of position. Now, Sheri-Threet was not threat, so that gets to Patterson’s point about the general need for guys who can handle speed in space.

    This is the point for someone above: if the DE can play both, then you don’t need anything fancy. But that requires you to have a great and athletic DE, and the offense to have a QB who isn’t very athletic.

  • Mr.Murder

    Got some screaming ends and we plan on doing the exchange a lot. They fight being reached to playside but when the play comes their way it’s about attacking the mesh from the heel line.

    Have to go from the same saying used to describe a two gap nose. “The nose is always right/the center is always right.” The end is always right he’ll take one of the two out every time and you have time to see and get around it.

    We will invert safeties off a shell coverage a lot in terms of the pitch force, the end will make the QB’s mind up for him every time. On an inside track he’s spilling and on a pitch he’s fighting a reach. Backfield flow is a necessity key, so few teams effectively pull on our front that it’s all about getting to the fullback lead and reading it off how wide the deep set halfback gets his hips. If he turns for a pitch and you’re being reached at, fight it. If he’s tracking down and you get past the heel line, spill it.

    Had the weakside end coming across three blocker’s faces from a six tech, he just launches at the ball. Once we restrain some of that explosiveness he’ll probably arrive at the heel line every time, with a lot of energy to spare.

  • Will

    Anytime you are defending the option, you have the luxury of dictating the ballcarrier, though you have to be careful because the offensive guys always have another option play to counter any over-commitment. The difference between the shotgun spread-type option and the under center type is that when you dictate the ballcarrier you also dictate the direction of the play, so the whole defense knows where the play will go. As Chris points out, the offense’s next move is to block the backside DE and run a called handoff, but then the defense can come back with a boxing end, to which the offense responds with a QB counter… Still, the direct snap option scares me less than the IV/OV/midline under center stuff, where the offense knows the direction of the play and the defense doesn’t, rather than the other way around.

  • Mr.Murder

    The Alex Gibbs adjustment is to motion and crack toss off the end being blocked down. We walked that through as a reminder berfore a game Saturday and the slot man and end both converged for an eight yard loss on a tackle. Set up our score for the first game off the resulting field position.

    That is the most common way to stay outside someone that far out. They do more of a veer invert to play said, read a wide give then hit the open space inside off guard or tackle depending upon the front. It’s more of a called play, if the tackle squeezes as his man pinches(three or four tech) and that line starts to compress and your end is good enough he can make plays on both the give and keep to the same side.

    So now the trend is to go puller and stay on play side. Works well against whoever contain is, they continue a wide track and you get inside of that.

  • nblue

    Beano — you nailed it 2 years ago!  John Fox, Tim Tebow are doing exactly as you predicted.  Well done.

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  • BigJared

    He nailed it 3 years ago! RG3 and Russell Wilson are doing exactly as he predicted.