What is the Inverted Veer / Dash Read?

In fall 2009, a reader emailed me about a spread run scheme TCU used to close out a tight victory against Clemson. The scheme featured a runningback and the quarterback running to the same side — as opposed to the traditional zone read, where the two ran in opposite directions, along with playside blocking from the line. I’d seen something similar before, possibly from Urban Meyer’s team at Florida, but apparently Clemson’s excellent defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele had not seen it, or at least not from TCU. Indeed, since he hadn’t yet seen the tape Steele wasn’t even certain of how to label the concept, but he noted that it had been a significant factor in TCU’s victory:

Inverted veer works better when this is your QB

TCU quarterback Andy Dalton found almost all of his success on the ground on Saturday by employing a new play that the Clemson coaching staff had not seen on film, and Dalton seemed to run almost at will through the line of scrimmage and beyond. . . . Steele said that the play with Dalton carrying was really the only play the Tigers had not seen on film as they studied the Horned Frogs last week.“They ran just one play that we hadn’t seen on film – but it was a good one,” he said. . . .

“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.

I couldn’t tell you if TCU got the play from somewhere else or dreamed it up themselves, but in our increasingly interconnected world, that play — which I dubbed the “inverted veer” because it had the same read as the traditional veer but “inverted” the option with the quarterback now the inside man and the runner the outside man — has spread across all levels of football. By the end of the 2009 season, several teams had begun using it, but it’s real significance would come last season: The play was everywhere. Big 10 teams like Ohio State and Purdue (to use two on the opposite end of the spectrum) used it; it spread across conferences like the WAC and Conference USA; in the first part of the season, Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez racked up tons of yards with this play, most notably going for 240 yards against Kansas State on primetime; and, finally, Cam Newton rode the play to over 1,400 yards rushing, a Heisman trophy, and a national championship. And it goes without saying that, given the play’s popularity at the college level, countless high schools across the country installed it in the spring and fall.

But with the play’s popularity has come complexity and variation; we’ve evolved past the days of Kevin Steele diagramming the play and the defensive response on a greaseboard on the sideline. Let’s walk through the elements of the play, some of the choices available for blocking, and some of the defensive responses.

The concept. The basic concept is old school option: Leave a playside defender unblocked and send two runners (the quarterback and a runningback) to the playside. By leaving certain defenders unblocked, the offense should gain an advantage in numbers on the other guys: by optioning off one of the most dangerous defenders, the remaining blockers are free to engage in double teams or to directly block the linebackers or force players (like a safety filling the alley). This is one reason why the play is so desirable as compared with the traditional zone read, which has the quarterback reading a backside player — the zone read is a good play, but all it is simply a traditional zone play to one side with an improved bootleg (because it’s a read rather than a call in the huddle) on the backside.


So that’s the advantage the linemen gain; it’s the same one as can be found on a traditional veer play. The other benefit here — and the reason spread teams like it so much — is that it meshes with their personnel. When the veer was originally drawn up, the “dive back” was usually the kind of guy you expected for that role: a surprisingly fast but still hulking fullback or inside runner. Many if not most “spread” runningbacks, by contrast, are smaller, speedier guys, whereas quarterbacks, while they still come in all shapes in sizes, have been getting bigger — just think of Tim Tebow and Cam Newton. Given Percy Harvin and Tim Tebow in the backfield, I’d rather have Harvin run to the outside while the quarterback runs to the inside: hence the name, the “inverted veer.” (The play is often called “Dash” for obvious reasons.) But that’s all theory; now let’s look at how to block the play.

Blocking schemes. The first few times I saw this play run I saw it used with a modified form of the kind of blocking that would be used for “power,” which is how TCU ran it and how it is drawn in the diagram above. Undoubtedly, this is a major reason why teams like Ohio State under Jim Tressel liked the play: Power-O (or “Dave” in Ohio State’s lexion) was their favorite run play, and a spread offense, quarterback centric scheme that used the “Power” blocking scheme equals about ten minutes of practice installation and instant success.

In the traditional two-back “power” scheme, shown in the NFL playbook diagram below, the frontside of the line “down” blocks while the backside guard pulls and leads into the alley. The playside defensive end is kicked out by the fullback, thus opening the path for the runner and lead blocker.


When the inverted veer is run with power blocking, everything stays the same, except that the playside defensive end is “blocked” with the read, as shown in the diagram below (h/t Offensive Breakdown blog):

This was Gus Malzahn’s preferred way to run the scheme last year, and it makes sense. The offense has to be careful with its formations in the event of an “overhang” player (imagine if there was a linebacker aligned outside of the defensive end to be read), but overall the numbers work out well: The playside linemen should be able to create a seal of the backside, the pulling guard will take the playside linebacker, and the defensive end will never be right. Moreover, as teams got better at this they learned that a key coaching point for the quarterback was to slide to the playside as he “meshed” with the runner. This means that, once the quarterback makes his decision, the defensive end should have committed. If the handoff takes place too far inside, a slow playing defensive end might be able to get back outside for the runner. All in all it’s a good way to run the play.

Increasingly, however, I’ve been thinking that it’s simpler to just run this play with normal zone blocking, and potentially even outside zone blocking. A major reason is that fronts have become increasingly unpredictable, and one of the big benefits of zone schemes is that the blocking rules should allow every blocker to “find work.” Moreover, the way most outside zone is taught, the runningback “reads” the defensive end: If he gets reached or slants inside, the runner looks to stretch the play to the outside; if he doesn’t get reached and works outside, it is a cutback. (Though as Alex Gibbs likes to point out, a cutback on outside zone is often a run straight upfield from a point outside where the tight-end originally lined up.) On the inverted veer, the read is literally a read, and the handoff to the runner can be treated like a bounce on the stretch while the quarterback’s keep can be treated like a cut up or cut back (hat tip).

The major concern with using a zone scheme seems to be that if the linebackers fast flow to the sweep, the zone blockers — i.e. the tackle — might not be able to make that block, whereas a pulling guard is often in better position. I’m not sure I agree. One, it should set up a cutback for the quarterback and second, it should take them out of position for other plays. There is some concern about gap exchanges (more on this in a bit), but given that this is a frontside play too many gap exchanges should open opportunities for the offense. As I said, I’m intrigued about this play with outside zone blocking given that it should be better equipped to deal with some of the linebacker issues and if they overrotate or fast flow to that side, the quarterback should be able to cut up or cut back (though there is not a control for the backside defensive end on this play, but you can’t deal with everything).

Ultimately, the best blocking scheme for the play is whichever one your team is already good at, whether it is power or a zone scheme. Many of the college teams now use both on the theory that both are better versus different defensive reactions, which makes perfect sense to me if the team already runs both blocking schemes; this should be a simple inverted veer call on top of the base blocking scheme for the line.

Defensive responses. While much of the original defensive response to the inverted veer was “Oh crap,” things don’t usually remain so good for very long. Quickly, a variety of defensive responses began cropping up. The most notable was the playside “gap exchange” or “scrape exchange“. This tactic arose to defeat the zone read. On the typical zone read, the quarterback read the defensive end: if he came upfield or stayed where he was, the quarterback handed the ball off; if he crashed for the runningback, the quarterback kept the ball and ran to the backside, often to wide open space. The scrape exchange was a defensive game, used to confuse the quarterback’s read. The defensive end would crash but, instead of wide open space, the quarterback saw a linebacker (or sometimes a defensive back who had rotated down) playing him:


Since that simple invention — still nascent back in 2005 when the zone read was all the rage but increasingly prevalent since — the zone read has stopped being world-beating by itself, and offenses and defenses have had to play a cute cat and mosue game, with offenses trying things like blocking the defensive end and letting the linebacker take himself out the play, or by using frontside plays like the inverted veer. It was only a matter of time then before teams began using the scrape exchange scheme to attack the inverted veer — this time as a frontside defensive concept. Video courtesy of Along the Olentangy:

That simple video looks like the death knell for the inverted veer, no? (It certainly was for an ailing Purdue last season: Purdue had rushed for over 200 yards in five straight games prior to facing Ohio State last season, for over 5.5 yards per carry. Against OSU, Purdue had 30 yards on 27 carries.) It’s definitely a weapon, but not one I think is the end of the play, or at least of its usefulness. If the linebackers want to flow that fast to the playside, then the simple answer is to not call the inverted veer but instead simply a zone play: the runner should be able to attack that playside and cut it upfield past linebackers who have taken themselves out of the play. (Again, this defensive concept only works because the defensive end crashes while the linebackers “scrape”; if the defensive end and the linebackers widened, the quarterback would simply keep the ball for a big play.) Indeed, even on the clip above, Purdue’s tight-end should have kept on his original path and blocked at least one of the linebackers. Instead he tried to turn around and block the crashing defensive end, despite the quarterback having already given the ball.

And in any event, it’s one thing if the defense wants to play scrape-exchange games on the backside, but playing them on the frontside against good teams is dangerous business, opening up all manner of base run plays. It’s definitely a legitimate defensive response, but it’s a more dangerous one than the scrape exchange on the backside of a zone read.

Expect to see the inverted veer all over college and high school football this season (I won’t be so bold as to predict its use in the pros). It’s a great scheme, for many of the same reasons that the speed option is a great scheme: it’s simple, wonderful, and, maybe most of all, it’s inexpensive as it can be added to a variety of existing blocking schemes. Like all option schemes, its ongoing success will be based on the guys running it. Any team with a speedy back and a quarterback who can get five yards would be well served by using the inverted veer.