Oregon’s zone read of the defensive tackle

During last night’s Oregon victory over Oregon State, the announcers mentioned that Chip Kelly’s squad will vary their zone read by reading defenders besides the backside defensive end — namely, the defensive tackle or “three technique” player.

In the “normal” zone read, the line zone blocks one way while the quarterback reads the backside defender:

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There are a variety of counters to this, including the infamous “scrape exchange,” and in response offenses have added third options and bubbles and all manner of other ideas to the outside. But Oregon, along with several other spread teams, have also responded by moving inside, by reading the defensive tackle instead of the defensive end. See the diagram below:

3tech

This does a couple things for you. One, it can confuse the “scrape exchange” response, where the defensive end crashes to force a “pull” read by the quarterback while the linebacker loops outside for him, because the defensive end gets blocked and the QB should have a big gap inside. And, second, it gives you flexibility in who you choose to block versus read. As the old saying goes, if you can’t block them, read them.

For example, when LSU had Glenn Dorsey, Urban Meyer and Florida often used this same tactic to read him instead of trying to block him. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida did this against Alabama’s mountainous defensive tackle, Terrence Cody.)

So what does this look like in practice? Fortunately, Trojan Football Analysis has already broken it down, after the Ducks thrashed Pete Carroll’s USC defense with it. Below is some of the photo evidence, though you should go to TFA to read the whole thing.

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Below is the same play from a sideline angle:

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Defending the zone-read: athleticism and the “scrape-exchange”

Much of what is new in defending the spread involves giving different looks on the backside of all those “zone-read” and other read plays that spread teams are so fond of. For example, on the typical zone-read play, the line is responsible for blocking everyone but the backside defensive end; the quarterback “reads” him. If he crashes to take the runningback (or at least to eliminate the runningback’s cutback lane), the quarterback keeps it; if the defensive end is not in position to tackle the runner (either because he stays put or takes the quarterback, the QB simply hands the ball off to the runner.

zoneread

Defenses began reacting by using a technique called a “scrape exchange” to mess up the read. With this defensive adjustment, the defensive end always crashes for the runningback, while the linebacker “scrapes” over to take the quarterback. If the quarterback doesn’t see this, he will pull the ball, thinking he will have an easy lane on the backside, and instead runs straight into the linebacker.

scrapeexchange

If the offense knows that the defense is shifting to this (a big if), what is the adjustment? Tell the tackle to block the defensive end, and the quarterback to read the linebacker. Often the linebacker will take himself out of the play, and with good blocking, the offense should be able to get a good run play, or a big play if the runner can cut back.

But let’s step back from scheme: what else can a defense do? One answer, is just to get more athletic. As TCU’s excellent coach Garry Patterson recently told the NY Times’s Pete Thamel:

Patterson’s base defense consists of four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. Many teams have gone away from four-man defensive lines and have added a linebacker for a 3-4 alignment, but Patterson chooses to keep the front stout and the back end of the defense flexible.

It is a simple concept for a complicated challenge.

“You’ve got to spread out with them,” he said. “We try to coach defense like coaches coach offense.”

Patterson’s theories on slowing down the spread quickly come back to speed.

“If the defensive end is fast enough to be able to play the running back or the quarterback instead of some other person on your defense, that frees up a guy,” he said. “If nine guys out of your 11 can run somebody down, it always helps.”

This last quote is the most important. Reconsider the diagrams above. Now, let’s say (a) that the defensive end (or linebacker in a “scrape-exchange” scheme) is a real stud, and (b) that the quarterback is nothing special — not a Pat White or Vince Young. In that case, when the defense sees the zone read the defender being “read” can pretty much just wait until he knows whether the QB or RB is keeping it, and then attack accordingly. Unless the quarterback is a real athletic threat (think of Michigan’s motley quarterbacking crew from last season), that defender can play both the zone-read and not fear having the quarterback run by him; if the QB runs, he’ll get ’em.

The obvious answer for the offense is to get more athletic at quarterback (like Michigan is trying to do), but there are other things, like amping up the options on the backside reads for the QB if he doesn’t give it to the back. But, as always, the chess match goes on and on . . . .

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.”

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