The Evolution of the Inverted Veer/Power Read … and of Alabama and Clemson’s newest wrinkle, the “Toss Read”

For the last five or six seasons, the so-called Inverted Veer (also known as the Power Read) has been one of the most effective plays in football, and it has been the weapon of choice for some of college football’s greatest talents, including Cam Newton and RG3 and now Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Jalen Hurts. Yet, as is always true in football, defensive coaches do not stand idly by as offenses innovate and have begun devising better and better ways to shut down the play.

But the cat and mouse continues, as while defenses have gotten better at defending the Inverted Veer offenses have, in turn, responded with new wrinkles, particularly this season and particularly from the two teams who will be playing in the National Championship Game, Alabama and Clemson. But to appreciate those wrinkles one must understand why the Inverted Veer was developed and why it works.

For most of its early history, the play most synonymous with the so-called “spread offense” — at least the version that featured multiple receivers and a dual-threat quarterback lined up in the shotgun — was the zone read play, in which the offensive line blocked an inside zone running play while the quarterback read or optioned an unblocked defender. An ingenious evolution (typically credited to current Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez when he was at tiny Glenville State), the zone read allowed teams to dress up their traditional zone blocking by leaving backside defensive end unblocked and thus either eliminating the threat that he tackles the runningback or making the defense pay if he crashes down.

But the zone read, while a great concept, is essentially just a hypercharged bootleg, and works best as a constraint to control the backside for an otherwise effective zone running game. But traditional option football, which the zone read in part derived from, almost always involves reading a frontside, not a backside, defender. And the reasons are simple: numbers and angles.

As the diagram above shows, a well designed and executed playside option play should give the offense a numerical advantage as well as great blocking angles; in short, the playside of the line can ignore one or two playside defenders who are being read (and thus should be made wrong by the QB’s reads) as they build a wall to seal off the backside.

Birth of the Inverted Veer/Power Read

By the mid-2000s, the shotgun spread-to-run and specifically the zone read had begun sweeping across college football, both as pioneers like Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer lit up scoreboards and moved up the coaching ranks and also as bluebloods like Texas used zone read tactics to unleash rare talents like Vince Young. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that spread teams found a way to successfully meld these shotgun spread tactics with old-school, playside reads. And one of the original vehicles for this innovation was an unexpected one: then TCU quarterback Andy Dalton.

Specifically, TCU, under head coach Gary Patterson and then-offensive coordinator (and current Virginia Tech head coach) Justin Fuentes, unveiled a new read play en route to an upset victory over a Clemson team coached by a first year head coach by the name of Dabo Swinney.

“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. When one reporter asked [then Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin] Steele why the zone read was giving his defense so much trouble, Steele explained the difference between a true zone read and what Dalton was running on Saturday.

“Not to get too technical, but on the zone read, the quarterback fakes to the running back going this way and the quarterback goes the other way,” Steele said. “What they were doing was faking zone read one way, the quarterback would step like he was going this way but they would pull the guard and chase it the other way. It was a new look. We got over there and drew it up, got it adjusted out, but we were doing it on the fly and adjusting it on every call.”

In other words, Patterson and Fuentes had discovered a way to combine the philosophy of traditional offense with the technology of the shotgun spread, and it was so good that Andy Dalton was able to carve up Clemson on the ground. I coined this concept an “inverted veer” because it took the old-school “veer option” philosophy of sending the runner and the QB to the same side but inverted their paths: instead of the runningback inside and the quarterback going around edge, the runningback ran a sweep and the quarterback was effectively the dive player.

I named it “Inverted Veer” in part because I anticipated teams using a variety of blocking schemes for this concept, including traditional veer blocking. But one of the most appealing aspects of the play for coaches was its “cheapness,” meaning that it used a blocking scheme that was already in every coach’s repertoire: the Power-O play. “Power” blocking schemes use the same philosophy as a veer or playside option scheme: the playside linemen leave one or two defenders unblocked in order to get angles and double teams so they can effectively cave in the defense, but instead of reading the playside defenders, in Power the offense brings in additional blockers, typically the fullback and a backside guard.

TCU’s Inverted Veer elegantly combined both concepts by pulling the backside guard to lead around and reading the playside defensive end. As Swinney’s Clemson team learned that day, it was a fantastic concept, but throughout 2009 the play remained on the fringe, a novelty that allowed a QB like Andy Dalton to get a few rushing yards. But it wouldn’t take long for the Inverted Veer’s prominence to rise.

The Explosion: Malzahn and Cam Newton

The 2010 college football season was a wild, fun, rather weird season, as evidenced by the top four teams in the final postseason BCS rankings: #4 Stanford, #3 TCU, #2 Oregon and #1 Auburn. Out of that group only Auburn could be considered one of college football’s traditional blue bloods, and even then the Tigers were just two years from a 5-7 season. But there was a very special reason that particular Auburn team went 14-0 and garnered a National Championship: Cam Newton, and even more particularly the blend of Newton’s rare talents and a novel, uptempo “power spread” offense orchestrated by offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

I’ve written elsewhere about Malzahn and his schemes, but for this purpose suffice to say that Malzahn and Newton made the Inverted Veer/Power Read such a prominent part of Auburn’s offense that year — and it was so spectacularly successful — that Newton is essentially synonymous with the play. Indeed, the Inverted Veer was the vehicle for some of Newton’s most spectacular highlights as he powered Auburn to a national title and himself to a Heisman trophy.

And after Newton and Auburn’s spectacular season, the word on the play was out. By the next season seemingly every college and high school team had added the Inverted Veer to their playbooks, including, with the arrival of Malzahn associate Chad Morris as offensive coordinator in 2011, the Inverted Veer’s original victim: Dabo Swinney’s Clemson team. Below is a diagram of how the play crystallized, which comes straight from Clemson’s playbook.

And the play even found its way to the NFL too — though NFL teams were understandably cautious about using their quarterbacks as inside rushers — though eventually the Carolina Panthers realized that Newton was such a rare talent that they incorporated his old college play into their attack, and it was one of the plays that powered them to the Super Bowl last season. (Hat tip: Ted Nguyen.)

Indeed, six years later Inverted Veer is still one of the best plays in football, as it’s a staple play for both teams in this year’s national title game, Alabama and Clemson, and Louisville QB Lamar Jackson just won a Heisman trophy with many of his highlight reel runs coming on this very play.

But while in 2009 Clemson was trying to defend a play they had literally never seen anyone ever run before, by 2016 the every defensive coach in the country has studied, analyzed, and spent extensive time on defending the Inverted Veer. For example, Nick Saban’s 2015 Alabama playbook — which is otherwise essentially unchanged from his 2008 Alabama playbook — includes an extensive section analyzing how to defend the Inverted Veer, or in his terminology, “Read Sweep Q Power.” (Click on the diagram to enlarge it.)

And so, as always, the cat-and-mouse game has continued for the Inverted Veer, with coaches on both sides trying out different tactics and wrinkles.

Early Wrinkles: Jet Reads, Changing Reads, Lead Blockers

The real purpose of the Inverted Veer/Power Read is to widen or at least freeze the defensive end in order to open up the inside power run for the quarterback, but if that end squeezes that runningback on the edge should be a good play. But as defenses have seen the play more that isn’t always necessarily the case, and all too often the read player or even a runningback can successfully play the quarterback from outside-in and also play the sweeper inside-out.

One early wrinkle was to bring the sweeper in motion, transforming the play into a hybrid jet sweep/inverted veer. This was simply a way for the sweeper to have a little extra speed to either threaten or actually hit the edge.

The next obvious wrinkle — already shown in some of the clips above — was to add additional lead blockers for the sweeper. When executed correctly this can put the defense in a bind as the defense must “fit” the extra blockers and get additional defenders to stop the sweep…

… but if it does, it runs the risk of overplaying the sweep and being vulnerable to the quarterback cutting it back. (Hat tip: Mike Casazza.)

The other common wrinkle is to borrow a page from traditional option football and the zone read and to change who the offense reads. Specifically, many teams that feature the Inverted Veer/Power Read like Ohio State often have the backside guard block the defensive end while the quarterback actually reads the playside linebacker whether to hand off or pull. This can be particularly devastating if the linebacker is flowing fast to fit up on the sweeper; the result is often that the guard blocks the defensive end while the linebacker opens up the QB run by simply taking himself out of the play.

These are great, solid concepts, but in the last year or so there have been some truly fascinating new wrinkles, including one that will be featured by both teams in the national championship game. But first a wrinkle run by the only team to beat Clemson this season.

Inverted Veer for the Non-Running QB

The obvious drawback of the Inverted Veer is that it requires the quarterback to be an inside runner; unlike the zone read he can’t take it around end and get out of bounds or take a knee, he must run it inside and take on linebackers and safeties. If you have Cam Newton, great, but if not, then you either can’t run the play (because your QB is not an effective runner) or you can’t run the play very often (because you don’t want him to take many hits).

A somewhat surprising team found a solution to this quandary this year: Pittsburgh, led by offensive coordinator Matt Canada. (Canada has since been hired as LSU’s new offensive coordinator.) Canada has always been a somewhat out-of-the-box thinker and is known for his creative use of jet sweeps and pre-snap motions and shifts, but this year he turned the shovel pass into an offense unto itself. Canada even ran a play that I had once merely theorized about, which combined a shovel pass read with a sprint-out pass:

But maybe the most creative thing Canada did this season was to find a way to run the Inverted Veer while eliminating the QB as the inside runner, namely by replacing him with a player trailing as the pitch man. It’s obviously a tricky read for the quarterback as it happens so quickly, but Pitt’s QB was an effective decisionmaker. And the play was really one of the catalysts for one of the most remarkable games and wins of the season: Pitt’s remarkable 43-42 upset over Clemson.

The downside of this concept is the offense loses the plus-one advantage that comes from using its QB as a run-threat, but it’s still a tremendous way for offenses that don’t have a running quarterback … or that want to put their QB in harm’s way less often.

The Toss Read

The latest evolution in the Inverted Veer/Power Read is a very 2016 story. The first coach I’d ever heard of running this play I only know of as “coachfloyd” on the CoachHuey football coaching message boards, and the first couple of times I read his text-only descriptions of his team’s new spin on the Inverted Veer I honestly couldn’t visualize what he was describing. (A pitch? What’s the technique? How does the read work?) And yet within a few weeks various high school teams had already installed the play — seemingly on the basis of these message board posts and word of mouth — and within a year a variety of big time college programs were each using it, including both Alabama and Clemson.

The adjustment to the Inverted Veer is simple, but its effects are profound. Quite simply, instead of sweeping in front of the quarterback, the runningback lines up next to him and flares out at the snap looking for a pitch. The quarterback makes the exact same read as he does on the Inverted Veer/Power Read, except if the defensive end squeezes he pitches the ball outside to the runningback instead of handing it to him. The effect of this simple adjustment is to put the defensive end in significantly more stress than the traditional Inverted Veer, as instead of relying on the runner to outrun the defensive end the back is already four or five yards outside of him at the time he catches the ball. The below is an example from Clemson’s dominating win over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl:

clemson toss

And, as with the classic version, when the defense starts flowing outside that opens up the inside run for the quarterback, as shown in the below example with Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts in the Crimson Tide’s Peach Bowl win over Alabama.


The result is something that looks a little bit like a speed option with power blocking, though with some subtle differences. First, the quarterback ultimately has a different running track, with a much more downhill track than on speed option where the QB is attacking the read defender’s outside shoulder. And, second, the decision is made almost immediately after the snap, which ultimately protects him better as he either gets the ball to the runningback quickly or becomes a runner, in both cases before the read defender or any other defender can lay a big hit on him while he’s vulnerable.

In short, the Toss Read is a great wrinkle that I expect more and more teams to use, particularly as I’ve increasingly heard over recent years how many issues teams (particularly high school teams) without star players at quarterback or runningback have had with the Inverted Veer. Essentially without fail, every high school coach I know of that has begun running the Toss Read now swears by it.

Yet as with all great wrinkles it’s not just the base concept, but also the variations off of it. And nowhere was this more evident than the Fiesta Bowl, as Clemson repeatedly gashed Ohio State with a fake Toss Read that turned into a quarterback counter trey run the other way.

Ohio State had clearly spent a lot of time preparing for Clemson’s offense and specifically for the Toss Read, but Clemson was able to use that preparation and over aggressiveness against it to produce some of their biggest runs of the night.

Of course, Alabama’s defense has been historically great this season, so Clemson will have to find creative ways generate yards and points. Fortunately for the Tigers, the Toss Read might provide a clue: one of the rare breakdowns in Alabama’s defense came against an Ole Miss team that also began using the Toss Read this season, and more importantly scored on a devastating 63-yard touchdown pass on a fake Toss Read that turned into a play-action pass.

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But whatever the outcome in the National Championship Game, expect to see a lot of the Inverted Veer and Toss Read — and their many variations and wrinkles — in the years to come.