The zone-read, gun triple-option . . . and the quadruple-option?

White_readerIt 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

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.

  • David

    Nice new digs, Chris!

    Do I understand your quad option?
    1. Give to back on zone play.
    2. QB keep based on OLB read.
    3. Throw to inside receiver on bubble screen
    4. Throw to outside receiver on a quick fade past the CB.

    So the outside receiver always releases for the Hi/Lo option? And you basically have twin running and twin throwing options?

  • David,

    That’s exactly right. He would read the fade/out or fade/bubble high to low, but pretty much the fade is only getting thrown if the receiver is wide open. The idea is to take advantage if the defense collapses; keep in mind that the point of the zone-read is still for a frontside running play.

  • steve sharik

    If the OL is blocking zone read and, therefore, combo blocking to the 2nd level, the 4th option of the quick fade is illegal, as there will be many ineligible receivers downfield. If the OL are kept at the LOS to avoid this, the zone read play isn’t worth spit.

  • Sean Coultis

    If you do throw to the 4th option, you call a play action pass in the huddle so line doesn’t go downfield (you sell zone). The inside (slot) wr bubbles like always and the split end fakes a block (on cb if cover 2 or safety in cover 3/4). He has to read force man on the move (like he would in normal triple option) and fake a block and go deep.

  • Sean Coultis

    You are obviously calling the 4th option b/c both cb and safety are flying up and not respecting a possible fake stalk/crack block and go route. Somebody upstairs in the booth makes the call when they see this.

  • well, with regards to the “4th option”, if you have linemen getting to the 2nd level in 3 seconds, you probably aren’t running inside zone worth a spit because you don’t have any double-team combos established. With inside zone, the linemen are shoving the 2 interior DL into the laps of the ILBs….IMDF isn’t something you have to worry about nor does it need to be tagged in the huddle. Blake Anderson of ULL, MTU, and now So. Miss runs this same style of bubble w/ zone read.

  • Coach Mason

    For NFHS, as long as the linemen haven’t progressed past the expanded neutral zone (2 yards into the defensive backfield), they are not illegally downfield on a forward pass. Therefore, it seems the fade option needs to be 2 or 3 in the option tree for a true quad-option to be viable.

  • This play (or quad concept) sort of reminds me of the scissor play action that Coach Rod loves so much (at WVU with Pat White running it to the left side [lefty thrower] and now at Michigan, Tate Forcier will run it to the right side [righty thrower]). I agree a little with some of the comments that the initial zone play loses its gusto of a true option progression as a result of the linemen not being able to advance to the next level, but remember in zone blocking just the action of the linemen moving laterally hard for their landmarks will cause the second level defenders to respect zone and hesitate (and ‘respecting’ a play is half the battle on offense).

  • coop

    Baylor ran something similar to this last year specifically in the UConn game. Not only do you have to worry about the OL it takes a good athlete at QB to not go past the LOS if the late throw comes open. Baylor, ofc has such an athlete currently.

  • James

    It’s an interesting concept, but I don’t particularly like it that much. To me, you are asking your quarterback to do too much reading on the run for one individual play. You are really going to have to commit a large portion of practice time to the play against multiple defensive coverages. I suppose that if you are going to run this then you are already practicing the bubble read, but this is a bit tougher of a read with the high/low judgment.

    Depending on how hard the weakside end bites on the read, the quarterback will also have him on his heels in a short amount of time. This may not be an issue with a Pat White, but with a Dave Johnson then it is a challenge.

  • It really just becomes a numbers issue. You are either going to play a 1-high defense or a 2-high defense against this type of offense. These offenses are generally geared to rack up serious rushing yards, so you would naturally throw up the 8 man box (1-high). The bubble is the controlling element to backside run support (“biggest plays in football break behind the backside linebacker”). This is not much different than the throwing uncovered concept to stretching a defense horizontally. Even if you don’t throw the bubble, as long as the force player in an 8-man front removes himself from the box to respect it – you have gained a numbers advantage in QB keep and/or bending/”zack” the runner on IZ cutback. This isn’t necessarily about creating homerun plays as much it is CREATING seams / voids in defensive run fits

  • stan

    I’ve always liked using the bubble screen to set up a counter speed option. I first suggested this 25 years ago in a letter to my favorite college coach.

    Trips left, TE right in nasty split. Rt-handed QB makes full arm fake throw toward screen on left and follows through with back (rt) foot stepping toward throw like a baseball pitcher. He then continues to pivot around and runs counter speed option to right with RB. The footwork is very similar to that used by wishbone QBs to run counter option in the 70s.

    Like the counter option did, the fake screen sets up wonderful blocking angles as LBs and secondary race to the screen.

  • Great responses. I agree that you can overthink the linemen downfield issue, but if it scares you so much then you can just call it as a play-action — or not even truly as a play-action, but eliminate the zone part of the read so the linemen don’t have to get downfield. That way, the QB can still option on the backside and can take off and run. I was surprised to learn later how often Tom Osborne’s Nebraska teams didn’t actually read the dive in their triple-option attack. Sometimes you just want to get it out on the perimeter and keep it simple for your QB, and in this case for your OL too. This isn’t a bad wrinkle even if you just limit it to being a wrinkle. (And if you do that you can go ahead and base block the backside DE to protect your QB a bit.)

    But overall I think the play will happen so fast that it won’t be the end of the world. I have seen cutups of this and will try to track them down.

    Brophy makes great points on why the bubble works so well. The link on his site shows how the bubble can really open up when that backside run support player loses the slot receiver and attacks the quarterback. He might see a pitch back coming at him, but not the bubble receiver.

  • I could be wrong, but if i remember correctly, this originally (Clemson/WVU days) was PLAYSIDE bubble with stretch read. It would be interesting to review the evolution of this play and when the “light came” on to completely screw backside give and pitch keys.

  • Zach

    Mind = exploded. Like the new site, glad the old stuff won’t be lost, even if it couldn’t be ported over.

  • I can’t embed this video and will mention it later, but check out this video from Canada.

    Specifically, check out the 2:50 mark; they run the read-plus-fade/out combo I described (though I think they do it with the veer). The QB throws the fade. A linemen began to get downfield but recovered.

  • Jon

    We have a 5 version or quintuple.

    Out of a 2×2 formation (gun) both slots will bubble and we will run zone/read…

    1. Tight alley defender to the left…QB catches and throws bubble to the left
    2. Tight alley defender to the right…QB catches and throws bubble to the right
    3. Both alleys are wide on slots so QB runs zone read with back…End comes up the field so RB gets handoff
    4. Both alleys are wide on slots so QB runs zone read with back…End crashes so QB keeps and runs
    5. Both alleys are wide on slots so QB runs zone read with back…End crashes so QB keeps…alley commits to QB on run and QB throws bubble late to slot (slot already ran immediate bubble, he doesn’t get the ball so he slows his tempo and stays behind the L.O.S. or the QB for the late bubble)

    It’s been good/fun to coach.

  • Mason

    also think about playing the zone as a counter to get an additional edge on devensive “pre-snap playside” adjustments.

  • Mr.Murder

    We’ve had so much trouble getting any kind of guard play that getting from under center is rough. We’ve been doing gun snaps and running a trips side one way with the back coming across for screens and draws as a solution. A lot of stuff looks to be ready in the series from the initial practice, the toughest item might be running protections from trips side. We end up with an air rusher getting the passer’s face for one of the hot reads, I’m trying to get a shovel constraint built in to become automatic if the back cannot reach the end from the other side. We have two man numbers opposite trips to keep our route combos intact and to lead the QB out all the way otherwise if the backside gives us any numbers since the TE always reaches his man.

    The biggest issue is that a shovel needs depth to develop and we can’t have the passer get too far back in his set with a short edge to one side for all of the other looks.

    He’s decent runner as well and has a good sense of when to create and when to look for someone working to him on checkdowns. If we can limit that initial screamer I’m confident in his ability to handle heavy pressure.

    He tends to lock onto the hot when he could bring the play outside, we run verts at the most likely player to wall people along with the safety, just to keep them pinned inside and work one player outside of it. We rotate who gets the short or outside route and everyone else switches out clear duty. The go always screams it deep and the slant inside of that pins the wall man, he settles in space or continues on the MOFO track if the inside clears the safety on the go.

  • Mr.Murder

    To topic, we worked the bubble in quite well early using the outside on a very hard slant/sit. Some other form changes may have to occur to use it in games with a weight rule changing a runner position….

  • Hector S

    Tulsa just threw what it looked like a Quad Option pass in the fourth quarter vs. Tulane. QB did a Zone Read, kept the ball and ran which would’ve been a first down but threw the ball right at the LOS since the defender left the receiver to get the QB. It was originally ruled an illegal foward pass by the refs since the pass was thrown THAT close to the line. But after a replay, it was overturned and the TD put Tulsa up 37-13 with 1:40 left in the fourth.

    I’m sure this will be Youtubed by the end of the night from somewhere.

  • Dallas

    Chris, did you happen to get a chance to look at the Auburn-Louisiana Tech game last night? If not, one of the plays we ran looked like another variant of this concept, even though I’m almost positive it was predetermined (I was at the other end of the stadium when it happened). Todd faked inside zone to Tate, then pitched to Burns, who threw a pass to Trott. It was overthrown because, after all, it was Kodi Burns, but still, it was a neat concept. I was wondering what you thought of that sort of quadruple option; that is, having the QB zone read with a pitch phase, then allowing the pitch man to read the widest pass defender and either running or throwing it to the wide receiver on a streak, fade, or what have you. Sounds like something that could even work, in theory, for a more conventional option attack.

  • David

    The trick here is that Illegal Man Downfield is never called in the CFL so many teams will run their entire pass package out of a zone-read type of action (see: Montreal). You can essentially run any concept from this including bunched and clustered releases (where you zone to the weak-side and pull to the field) and you have a built-in run option in case the defence drops into a cover 4 look or wants to take a linebacker out of the box. This “quadruple option” is very effective (and common!) in the CFL.

  • Paul Markowski

    Great Play! Well devised and it definately can work. I devised a “true” Quad Option run play from my Pistol Flex offense. If any of you would like to see the play, go to the above mentioned website where I have posted it.

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  • JOEB

    I completely agree about the Illegal Man Down Field. We use this concept a ton and if you zone block the right way, you never get flags. The O-Line should NOT be flying out and chasing down LB’s. They need to drive the DL “into the LB’s lap” which means they wont begin working down field for atleast 2 or 3 seconds. They shouldn’t come off of their combos until the LB has shown and is approx. one arm’s length away. Also, the action of the RB should bring the LB’s to the OL, thus allowing the OL to stay close to the LOS. If he just HANGS at 5 yards, he is dumb and we will take the 5+ yards every single time.


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  • Ben Schwartzkopf

    We run the quad option out of the outside zone read call. This allows our linemen to do everything they would normally do on a run play and not have to worry at all about linemen downfield. Simply because they are looking to go horizontal not vertical. Plus it allows our play action to be much more effective when we are calling a play action pass. High school kids have a lot to be concerned with and with our kids going both ways and playing special teams this is one less “thing” for them to worry about. Keep it simple.

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  • daniels74

    in france we use this technical and is true is best for win meters

  • daniels74

    hi im french and we use this technical a we win a lot of meters but now all the country know this thecnical. If you want se other technic on the Zone Option it’s here

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