New Grantland: How Will NFL Teams Defend the Read-Option?

It’s now up over at Grantland:

That second player doesn’t even have to be a linebacker. Alabama, which has won three national championships in four years and boasts the best defense in college football, constantly varies the defenders assigned to the quarterback. When Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart gives a “force” call, he explains, that leads to a gap replacement with the defensive end. “The quarterback sees the crashing end and pulls the ball,” Smart says. “We roll the free safety down to the line of scrimmage and he has the quarterback.” And all this varies based on the opponent. “If the quarterback is a better runner, we make him give to the tailback,” said Smart. “If the tailback is the better runner, we give the force call, and the defensive end crashes inside and makes the quarterback pull the ball.”


Not all the problems with defending these plays last season were tactical. NFL defenders not used to the read-option frequently lacked the mastery of the subtle techniques that made them All-Pros against traditional attacks. Backside defenders — usually the very player the quarterback is reading — have an especially difficult job. “The defensive end gets the shaft because he has to play two aspects: the dive, the bend of the dive to the inside out to the QB,” says Aranda, the Wisconsin defensive coordinator. This fundamental problem is also why the old just-hit-the-quarterback tactic is not optimal, at least as an every-down strategy. If the defensive end or linebacker gets upfield too quickly, that means he is not squeezing the cutback and may be opening up a huge lane for the quarterback.

Read the whole thing.

  • Mr.Murder

    Alex Gibbs clinic he says “read option” is the new gimmick and “it’s all good until your quarterback gets knocked out” then everyone decides they had better try other stuff….

  • Mr.Murder

    Read the piece, and the simplest answer is to flex the end man over Y so he can read the release and get a piece of that tight end, and muddy the give read the same time, so the mesh has to stay longer and someone else might actually hit the handoff in progress.

  • zkinter36

    Pretty crazy that all of this attention is being given to a play that an NFL offense might run 15% of the time. I look at how the Redskins run their offense, and they seem to be cutting edge with how they use zone read, traditional inside zone, outside zone, pistol, personnel, formations, motions, shifts and playaction. I bet that next year they use less zone read, but that they are more explosive in all areas. Zone read is the “equalizer” play, that the offense can use when the defense is getting a little too exotic/aggressive. The patience required to play zone read is totally counterproductive to defending outside zone or rushing the passer on drop backs. Teams that try to overuse zone read without a solid drop back pass game or counter punch run plays will have problems this year. The teams that keep it in it’s right context will continue to give defenses fits… Although it’s frequency may decrease a bit this year, the play isn’t going anywhere.

  • zkinter36

    When the end reroutes the Y, it leaves a huge gap for the RB. The End will also have no momentum going into a tackle on the RB, should he be athletic enough to make it there on time… 4-5 yards every time.

  • Mike

    wouldn’t samurai (sending the alley player towards the scrape or in this case the safety) end this play?

  • Miles_Ellison

    I wonder what happens the first time a QB gets “Clowneyed” by an unblocked defender.

  • Mr.Murder

    Slow playing the D line is what gets coached, they let the end go unblocked so why get upfield so far you make the read easy? If they read the tackle and he stays in the hole it is like the old trap where he is taught to sit if his blocker leaves.

  • stanbrown

    Exactly. Defend the play by having the unblocked defender attack the mesh point and smash the QB every time. It’s a legit hit because the QB is faking the keep. The offense is trying to ‘block’ a frontal defender with their QB. Make sure the QB has to absorb a hit every time he is used to make the ‘block’. Eventually, the wisdom of using the QB’s body to block frontal defenders will be exposed.

  • DuckNelson

    The problem with the scrape is that it wrecks the gap discipline that is required to keep a good running back/O line in check. If you follow Chip Kelly’s Offense at Oregon, they devised a “power play” where the running back would line up on the weak side, presumeably to run across the QB for an inside or outside zone read, but they would pull the strong side guard to the weak side and run the RB straight forward. If the scrape is on, the outside linebacker is taking himself out of the play while the end gets jammed up by the pulling guard. The running back is now shaking hands with your secondary. Nobody is going to just run zone read in the NFL over and over, but if they get it established as a team, it’s a good way to change it up in the middle of a drive. The D is worried about several other things, and then all of a sudden that wacky inside zone read pops up and they give up 15. If it was a “gimmick” someone would have devised a solid way to stop it permanently. So far, the only answer REALLY is “disrupt the line of scrimmage,” which applies to almost every single offensive concept ever created. It isn’t a cure all any more than Lombardi’s sweep play is, but it’s hard to defend if mixed in properly with other plays.

  • Zennie Abraham

    What’s forgotten is, with the entrance of Chip Kelly into the NFL, the introduction of a pace the league’s never seen before for an entire contest. That’s why I think the Eagles will march all the way to the Super Bowl, before losing to The Denver Broncos:

  • Zennie Abraham

    That said, The Read Option’s dangerous. First, because few NFL observers really understand what it is as an individual approach. Second, a number of defensive coordinators have gotten lazy in coaching gap control. Third, it can be employed with any formation.

    Yes, any formation.

    I’ve seen it compared to the WildCat, when the two approaches are not competitive, but complementary. I can run a read-option in a WildCat formation But I can also run it from a four-wide offense, as has been done at the high school level with great success.

    What the Eagles, Titans, Bills, 49ers, Redskins, Panthers, and KC Chiefs (to name the NFL teams that have practiced the read option this year) will do with their variations of the “RO” is the wild card. The organization with the greatest variation of applications of it will do extremely well.

    And regarding the approach of forcing the corner, try doing that from a 3 by 1 set with the run coming to the weakside and the wide receiver on that side split out to 1.5 yards from the out-of-bounds line. Good luck.

  • zkinter36

    If you watch the Redskins, you see them use a “slice” concept where a FB/H-b/TE fakes like he is going to block the end and then loops around him to block the scrape. Wr blocks force.

  • zkinter36

    I think you underestimate these Qb’s ability to avoid that scenario.

  • IrishBarrister

    Iterations of the “option read” have been around since at least the 1950s (the earliest I am aware of being Dodd at Georgia Tech). It was just seen as an extension of option football that had been around for decades. Rich Rodriguez’s iteration is just an outgrowth of those same principles (though I’m unclear as to the story until Rodriguez became the offensive coordinator at Tulane). And its not like the idea of “blocking” a defensive player with the quarterback was foreign to non-option teams: they just used a quarterback bootleg. Since inside and outside zone runs are arguably the most solid run plays in all of football, I really do not understand this notion that the zone option read is a “gimmick”. It is a very sound play for teams that have the right personnel and are willing to commit to it.

    I think the problems that NFL defenses have had against the zone read is twofold. First, they think it is a “gimmick” and fail to take it seriously. That results in being completely unprepared for it and getting blown over by it (e.g., San Francisco vs. Green Bay). Second, since the NFL is a passing league, they are used to flying up field and attacking the pocket passer. But that approach just plays right into the option offense’s hands. You have to play disciplined, gap-oriented defense to stop the option – no matter what version you are facing. I think it telling that the arguably two best defensive coordinators in college football, Saban and Patterson, have taken exactly this approach. (Patterson’s TCU offense actually runs it, which the highest form of compliment a defensively minded coach can give.)

    In short, I think the zone read is here to stay.

  • Mr.Murder

    When i see teams split that wide if the WR is that good man up and push him out of bounds, provided he is on the ball. Otherwise invert the corners so the safeties add tackling help along the scrimmage line as they roll up. Done right it become 11 on 9 football.