It wasn’t long after the zone-read was invented that coaches began dabbling in ways to turn the play into a “triple option” — i.e. with a third possible ballcarrier based on a second quarterback read. Both Rich Rodriguez and Randy Walker started doing it early on, and by the time Urban Meyer was running his spread at Utah, the idea of having a “pitch back” or “pitch phase” for the quarterback if he pulled the ball after reading the defensive end was here to stay.
Now, this enhanced spread run game should not be confused with the true triple-option stuff, as veer offenses, like Paul Johnson’s flexbone, have certain blocking scheme advantages in that the guys being “optioned” are specifically avoided so as to enable double-team blocks on other defenders — an advantage not present with the zone-read. (This is one reason why many spread teams, including Urban Meyers’s and Rich Rodriguez’s, run the veer nowadays.) But there is no question that, as the spread has gotten older and more entrenched, the cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense has also evolved.
The current evolution has us with the zone-read-triple with a pitch back, and its more nascent cousin, the zone-read triple with a bubble screen. But some coaches are working on even more exotic spread permutations, including what can only be described as the “quadruple option.”
Reading to daylight. Adding a pitch or third-option to the zone read was natural, and served two good functions: it drew attention away from the frontside zone run, the primary focus of the play, and it seriously amped up the big-play capability when the quarterback did pull the ball. The first read of a “zone-read,” it will be recalled is by the quarterback: he reads the backside defensive end, who typically goes unblocked in a zone-rushing scheme to free up blockers for double-teams on the frontside. If the defensive end sits where he is or rushes upfield, the quarterback simple hands the ball off to the runner. But if he chases the runningback, the quarterback pulls the ball. On the base zone-read, the quarterback just looks for any crease to the backside.
But if we add a second read to the play, he know seeks out the outside linebacker or backside support player. He will run right at that player’s outside shoulder. If the defender stays outside or refuses to commit, the quarterback will cut it up inside. Depending on how athletic the QB is — think Pat White or Vince Young — this can be a big gainer. If the linebacker attacks the quarterback though, he pitches it to the runningback or receiver swinging around. This player has to get into a “pitch relationship” with the quarterback, usually something like five to seven yards away and one to two yards behind the quarterback. It is his job to maintain this relationship. The quarterback really only wants to pitch it if the defender flatly attacks him; the worst thing is for a defender to be able to bat down the pitch and recover the ball as a fumble.
All this, outlined clearly below in a diagram from Urban Meyer’s Utah playbook (courtesy of Trojan Football Analysis), was very nearly self-evident once the zone-read appeared, since many coaches (Meyer and Randy Walker included) had experience with the triple-option, pitch backs and pitch phases, secondary reads, and the like. Moreover, it also became necessary as teams began to react to the zone-read with more games. For example, often defenses use a “scrape” tactic where the defensive end crashes for the runner while the linebacker “scrapes” to the quarterback. A quarterback who reads the end will find himself face-to-face with a linebacker. The triple aspect to the play doesn’t remedy all of this, but it limits it, and is another stage in the ongoing evolution of the spread and defensive answers to it. Below is a diagram of the zone-read with a triple phase added on, as well as video clips.
Below are clips of Utah running the zone-read veer under Urban Meyer, courtesy of Trojan Football Analysis, as well as some of West Virginia (courtesy of me). Not that not all these might be strictly the zone-read plus a pitch, as it can sometimes be hard to tell since more teams run the veer. But the principle should be evident.
To show that this need not be a purely college thing, below is a clip of Miami running the pitch phase off the zone-read look:
Bubble your pleasure. The pitch phase from spread is often a bit clunky or obvious, however. Most of these teams don’t base with two runningbacks, and as a result they had to motion a guy in to show it, often tipping off the defense. Plus, one of the points driving the spread is the desire to get the ball to the receivers in space; an offense that ends up compressing itself into two-back formations is, in many peope’s eyes, going the wrong direction.
What coaches did then was to look for ways to get this same tactic but with the same looks they were using. And, since almost all of them already used the bubble screen, that became an obvious answer. Indeed, as the diagram and video below shows, it really is no surprise at all that the bubble screen was the perfect complement to the zone-read, even for teams that hadn’t previously been motioning runningbacks in to get the triple look. Since the pass is behind the line of scrimmage, there is no concern with linemen — who are actively trying to get double-teams and then hit linebackers as part of their zone-blocking responsibilities — getting downfield. (In the pros, the ineligible-man downfield rule applies to all forward passes, so that is a limitation.) After making his zone-read, the runningback reads the same defender; if he cannot cover the bubble screen, the quarterback simply tosses it out there. The outside receivers know to always block. See the diagram and video below. And again, with the video, not all might be strictly the zone-read plus the bubble, but it shows how that play works.
And here is footage of West Virginia and Tulsa doing this. (For more on Tulsa’s version of this, check out Brophy’s blog.)
Quadruple it? The preceding is pretty much where modern offenses are at, and this article could well end here. But some teams have been experimenting with those backside receivers, including by putting them on actual routes. Indeed, when the routes are put together the right way the zone-read can transform into a quadruple option play, because the offense can isolate the backside cornerback or safety while the rest of the D is concerned with the run action. See the diagram below.
This kind of action is particularly attractive against a cover two defense, where the cornerback will squat in the flat, often making the outside receiver’s block for the bubble screen quite difficult. Instead, the offense can high/low this guy, in that if he comes up for the bubble or quick out, the quarterback can stick the ball on the fade route at 18-22 yards deep. (This is not a loft throw, it would be more flat.) Similarly, the quarterback can simple look if the safety is in position to handle the fade, or if he has collapsed down to stop the run. It’s not the world’s easiest read, but it doesn’t have to be. The fade will really only be thrown if they blow the coverage; otherwise he still reads that #2 defender (in the diagram “W”), to put him the same bind as with the zone-read triple with the bubble screen diagrammed above.
Update: Now with video; this is from the CFL, running the quadruple play as I diagrammed it. (Note that the guy in the flat was wide open. Note that this looks more like the veer than the zone-read, but again the principle remains.)
Another interesting permutation that has been common in Canada with teams like Montreal, is putting the backside receivers on a slant/shoot combination — i.e. the outside guy runs a short slant and the inside runs a bubble or route to the flat immediately. I don’t know the exact reads for this, but my impression is that the bubble works the same way with the quarterback putting the outside linebacker in a bind, but the slant can kind of hit behind the run defenders and in front of the safeties for a possible big play.
The one fear obviously with this quadruple option is with linemen getting downfield. That’s one reason that this isn’t an every down adjustment, as when you call this the linemen must know to be more cautious about sprinting downfield to hit linebackers and safeties. Yet that fear should not be overblown, since there is usually a little leeway for linemen who get across the line of scrimmage but don’t necessarily get “downfield.” In other words if a linebacker steps up and your guard hits him two yards past the line of scrimmage, that’s not necessarily an automatic “ineligible man downfield” call. But it’s a concern. Yet, as you can see from the video above the linemen never get too far downfield; they do have about a two-yard cushion where they are safe.
Beyond the zone-read. Both the base zone-read triple option, the zone-read with the bubble, and this quadruple option idea are all evolutions in the ongoing competition between offense and defense. Recently, Herb Hand, offensive coordinator for Tulsa — he formerly shared that title with Gus Malzahn, and also coached with Rich Rodriguez at Clemson and West Virginia — touched on this in a Q&A with spreadoffense.com.
I don’t think that [defenses] are necessarily playing catch-up [to the spread offense]. I think that what you are seeing now from a defensive standpoint is schematic answers to the zone read by giving quarterbacks a variety of looks on the backside of the zone. I think the defenses are putting a priority on athletic defensive ends that have the ability to quickly change direction which allows them to square-shoulder read the backside of the zone. I also think there is a big need for ‘space-players’ – guys that can make tackles in the open field. The defenses that have really given us problems in the past have had very solid safety play, as a lot of spread run game concepts are based on getting the runner in a one-on-one situation with safeties in the open field. Of course, there are answers to run-stopping safeties in play action passes, which are becoming increasingly more effective when you factor in the spacing conflicts that spread formations present to defenses.
As you can see, the backside is where the action is. When he talks about schematic answers on the backside he’s also referring to those “scrape exchange” schemes I mentioned earlier (and will fully break out in a later post), but the triple-phase is intended to help attack that stuff. The quadruple idea I mentioned is an extension on attacking that secondary support that Hand also mentioned as being critical to defending the spread. Moreover, teams that don’t commit fully to that will still use play-action off the spread run-game to get a similar effect.
A well orchestrated spread is like any other good offense: it presents one basic idea that the team dares you to stop — like the inside and outside zones — and if you overcommit they are ready with heavily practiced answers. Defenses are still reacting to the looks the spread gives, and as a result offenses keep proposing new ideas. That’s what makes it so fun.