More on the zone read (or midline read) of the defensive tackle

The classic zone read, where the runningback runs the zone play to one side while the quarterback reads the backside defensive end, is a great play. But if you use it enough, two problems emerge.

Practice makes perfect

First, just because you’re reading the defensive end doesn’t mean you’ve made your blocks on everyone else — a stud defensive tackle you can’t block can still blow up the play. Second, the defense can simply play games on the backside; the zone read is no longer new. A common response is the “scrape exchange,” where the defensive end crashes down for the runningback, thus forcing the quarterback to pull the ball, only to run right into a “scraping” linebacker waiting on him.

An increasingly frequent solution to both of these problems is to read defenders other than the defensive end. One, you can read, instead of trying to block, the most dangerous defensive lineman on the other team. Two, this makes the “scrape exchange,” at least where it involves the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker, irrelevant, as you just block both of them.


Oregon and Florida were the first teams I saw use this, but last week’s game between Purdue and Northwestern — Purdue being quite desperate and with a new mobile quarterback — went to this technique to try to manufacture some offense. As reported in the Journal & Courier:

[The Purdue quarterback, Robert Henry,] keyed on Northwestern’s interior linemen on the zone read plays, either keeping the ball or handing off to Dierking or Antavian Edison. Five consecutive running plays produced 34 yards and brought the Boilermakers to Northwestern’s 21-yard line. . . .

“We did some research, calling a bunch of buddies of mine that have made their living doing the different reads of the interior linemen,” Nord said. “I’ve always been involved in the drop back passing game, the misdirection and the play-action. I never did a lot of veer, option stuff.

“We have a guy that can execute it very well. He’s reading down linemen and doing what they’re not doing. If they’re biting on the ball carrier, he’s pulling it. If they’re biting on him, he’s giving it.”

. . . . The Boilermakers faced fourth-and-1 from the Wildcat 7 and called timeout.

“We wanted to make sure we had a chance to either hand it off or have Rob Henry keep it so we called a play where if the hole is there, we hand it off and if it wasn’t, Rob Henry would keep it,” coach Danny Hope said. “It gave us two options to score and win the game.” The hole was definitely there.

“I couldn’t have written up a better script,” said Dierking, who had five carries for 22 yards on the last drive. “I saw the hole open up so I jerked it from him.” . . .

“We knew they were going to run the quarterback; how they were going to run him we had to adjust to,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They changed up their scheme a little bit, and were reading our tackles as opposed to our defensive ends. There were times when we fit it very well, and there were times when we didn’t.”

When I wrote about this play yesterday I had only seen some of the game and spotted the tactic; the above article (courtesy of reader Brad), confirms my analysis. Video of the fourth down play is below:

This tactic has been adopted by other teams as well, including Nebraska. The question is whether it will provide a sustained advantage or if only work to catch defenses off guard for a little while — time will tell. Certainly teams like Oregon have made a living on the play. And the rules for how you might teach the play are quite simple too: On the frontside, your defenders keep their normal zone rules. Your center and backside guard leave unblocked the first man heads up or backside of the center, while the backside guard and tackle block the backside defensive end and weakside linebacker. Thus the zone read where the defensive tackle, instead of the defensive end, is the read.

But wait, say option coaches. Why call this the zone read, instead of what it is: the midline option from gun? They have a point. You end up blocking the same people and using the same read. That said, I think both get you to the same place, however, and the primary difference is whether you began with zone running and the zone read, or you began as a traditional option guy. See how similar the midline from gun is to what I’ve been discussing, as shown in the video below:

This leads me to a few final points about defeating the scrape exchange. Sometimes, the response is to keep it simple, i.e. like running the traditional zone read but using a fullback or H-back to block the scraping linebacker while keeping the read of the backside defensive end, as shown in this play by Michigan (courtesy of mgoblog):

Indeed, at first glance this looks like midline but it is a step removed even from the read of the defensive tackle, because the quarterback is still reading the defensive end in a five technique, and the only alteration is the blocking by the H-back. But it highlights the points above: that spread football and option football, along with new ideas like the zone read and older ones like the veer and midline, are coalescing into one general consciousness of football tactics that all coaches can pull from, composed of an amalgam of zone reads, options, formations, and blocking patterns. The rest is semantics.

  • Chris–I see your point about not calling it a midline option. It’s the same reason you’ve long maintained that zone read is not an option. Because here again even if you hand off you are counting on the zone blocking up front, so you are not truly optioning one defender. This is in contrast to the midline option or veer option, where you are truly optioning one defender. So it may be semantics, but I think it conceptually helps to keep the concepts separate.

  • Brad

    I for one do think we’ll see this sort of think stay, at the very least with the spread QB run game. I think it helps to keep the defensive front on its toes. In a similar way, its perfectly common to see NFL teams run reverses off the stretch and fake reverse passes. Its just one more little variant to keep the defensive from getting comfortable with what the offense is doing to you.

  • Coach Skinner

    I don’t see how you can say zone-read is not an option just because you’re relying on it being blocked on the front-side. Veer requires blocking on the front-side. Midline requires blocking on the front-side. Option football isn’t just 3-on-2 or 2-on-1. The other 8 or 9 guys need to execute their blocks to result in an effective play. An option play only requires that you give a defender two “options”, you read which one he chooses, and you do the opposite.

  • Coach G

    It is semantics (zone read vs option), but I think the differentiation is what the dive back is doing. In a true option play he is running in a crease, and the read man is on the playside. In a zone read play the back does not have to hit that crease, as the playside is zone blocked he can just run his regular zone path and read the playside backs. With this midline stuff it gets cloudier and cloudier the difference because it looks like the dive backs are hitting straight up the A gap more so than trying to run zone and cut back or bounce etc. On Zone read with backside DE it is a true zone play. for years people booted or ran end arounds or other counters to keep that unblocked back side de honest, now its just reading. Its a dressed up boot play. The QB reads it instead of being a called keep. I don’t think anyones saying it isn’t a read, its just trying to differentiate.
    Its like saying Spread Offense. The spread is a lot of things to a lot of people. Spread run, spread pass, spread option etc. Its just a way to differentiate a veer play form a zone play to call them different things.

  • Coach G

    Playside blocks it should say in my post not backs

  • Coach Skinner

    Bah, semantics is right. “True option play”? Is Speed Option not a true option play? Who said that inside veer and outside veer were the only “true option plays”? Is the wing-t Down Option, not a “true option play”? Might as well say that spread offense isn’t “true football”.

    If I asked 1,000 football coaches to boil down a definition of an option play, the overwhelming majority would say something to the effect of: Don’t block a defender, give him two players that could get the ball, read who he decides to take away, and give it to the other guy. I’d say Zone-Read, Inverted Veer, Gun-Midline, etc. fit that definition pretty well. I know that defenses that face these plays spend all week on their “option responsibilities.”

  • Daniel Tyler

    I posted something similar to this in an earlier thread. Would it be effective to have that slot receiver to the right motion backwards and become a pitchman, essentially having the quarterback making one read, and if the back gets it, him making a read to keep or pitch to the slot receiver. Is that practical?

  • Tom

    I would say the zone read and this zone read of the backside tackle are option plays, however I would NOT say that reading the backside tackle is a midline option anymore than I would say reading the backside end is a veer option. What Florida ran with Tebow reading the playside end or tackle from the gun is a true veer or midline where the defense is wrong every time with every player accounted for due to the doubleteams and favorable angles on the playside and reads of the unblocked players. This is just a variation on inside zone

  • We are a flexbone, triple option team, but have been forced (due to issues with our QB/FB mesh) to run our option running game out of shotgun more frequently. This has allowed us to give a different look to complement the zone read.

    The best wrinkle we have added has been to read the nose when we run midline out of gun. This takes an agile center (especially against an odd front), but those big guys are not used to being unblocked. This has been an effective play and we have added wrinkles off of this play as well.

  • Meursault

    Chris, any cutups or opinions on how the Longhorns handled Nebraska and T-Magic?

  • Greg

    Daniel Tyler,

    What you are referring to is just a version of the triple option. Your FB/HB is your dive and your slot replaces as the pitchman.

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    I’m looking forward to see your future posts. Cheers !!

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