It feels like these so-called "college plays" are here to stay in the NFL. Maybe that's wishful thinking on my part, because I find these types of plays much more fun to watch and analyze. But maybe, juuuuuust maybe, the NFL is actually changing [gasp].
I was told back in 2012 that the read option's death was nigh. I'd see. Teams would stop utilizing it out of fear their quarterbacks would get hit and inevitably injured. Defensive coaches would figure out how to completely shut it down and snuff it out of existence -- they just needed a little time to study it. The NFL has too many good athletes; too much speed. It would never last.
Turns out that teams would just teach their quarterbacks to slide. They'd add wrinkles to their read-option plays that would continue to confound defensive coordinators, and that the only real magic formula to "shut down" an offense that runs a diversified read-option package is to have an absurdly fast, disciplined and talented defense. Easy.
Evolution of the Read Option
Last season, the read option, bubble screens, tunnel screens, and concepts like spreading the field and utilizing uptempo and no-huddle became more popular. You heard fewer people saying the read option was dead, that college plays were going back to college. It felt like at some point in there, coaches stopped talking about college plays' imminent demise and started trying to figure out how they could utilize them.
Looking around at offensive schemes and strategies across the NFL during the first week of the season, college plays are commonplace. They're so prevalent that the read option feels normal, and things like the jet sweep and pop pass are now part of the NFL lexicon.
No matter your opinion on the viability of this stuff, a larger percentage of teams are implementing creative new schemes built around reads, misdirection, disguise or packaged options, and they might just be getting started. Let's look at a few highlights.
The pop pass!
In what turned out to be the most prescient article topic (and title) of the entire offseason, Ian Boyd's "The Pop Pass and the Future of Football" gave us all a crash course on a scheme that the Seahawks would use to help bury the Packers in the NFL's opening night game.
The design is really pretty simple, and as it goes with employing the read option with any frequency in your offense, the idea is to use tendencies against your opponent. The Seahawks ran a few vanilla read-option plays earlier in the game to "set this up," and when they got an eight-man box and a single high safety look, they pulled this "gimmick" out of their sleeve.
The cornerback on the bottom of your screen, veteran Sam Shields, reads a read option all the way. This is the shotgun formation the Seahawks like to use for it, they're in a heavy two-tight end set (which gives the impression a run is the plan) and they have a first down. Shields sees Russell Wilson tuck the football into Marshawn Lynch's belly and bites on that. Wilson keeps it, Shields looks to close and receiver Ricardo Lockette leaks out downfield.
Once Wilson delivers it, all Lockette -- an Olympic-caliber sprinter in college -- has to do now is beat that single high safety in the open field. These wide, open field tackles aren't easy.
The Hawks borrowed this play from Gus Malzahn and Auburn, who used it to score a touchdown against Alabama the previous season, and I'd imagine we'll see it a few more times this year from multiple teams before it's all said and done.
Oh, and to be clear, it's not a gimmick, it's a constraint -- for use when defenders start cheating up to take away the run. It's essentially play action, which is a foundational, core football concept.
Below we have
Eric Crouch and the Nebraska Cornhusker offense, Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals' offense running a triple option. Yeah.
Hue Jackson has brought some really, for lack of a better word, fun new wrinkles to the Bengals' offense this year and one feature is the triple option, apparently. It's packaged into a normal read-option run out of a pistol formation. Dalton has the choice to hand off to rookie running back Jeremy Hill, but sees the backside defensive end creeeeeeping in and down the line. Dalton keeps it, then does what he's probably been coached to do: pitch it, no matter what. Mohamed Sanu takes it for a gain of 4 or 5 yards.
So, technically this might just be a double option. But whatever. It works. It's fun. Tom Brady did it too. Four yards is just fine. A lot of runs go for 4 yards.
What? Yeah. Sorry for slipping that in there nonchalantly. Tom Brady and his Rich Eisen-level burst, sort of technically speaking but not really, ran the triple option last week.
I mean, even Tom Brady's option to the right holds that defensive end on the backside enough (top of screen defensive end) to keep him from blowing up the run on the handoff. The Patriots don't have to block him, and that means they can have a numbers advantage in blockers in the direction the play is going. It doesn't really work that well in this case, but still.
I don't know if Ol' Wild Bill Belichick will ever call a keeper with pitch for Brady this season, but he just put the idea of it on tape. That means if you play the Patriots this week, you should probably prepare to defend it, just in case. What a big pain in your ass that must be. What a waste of time. Or is it?
Speaking of the AFC East, the Jets really run the triple option. They did on back-to-back plays last week, with much success and rejoicing.
In the first case, Geno Smith hands off to Chris Ivory, who is the first option. Ivory picks up a solid chunk of yards and this is what you'd consider a positive play.
The very next play, with the Raiders aligned differently, Geno's read is to keep the ball and head to the edge. He should probably pitch a second quicker or hope that Ivory can do better at blocking the oncoming linebacker (because Geno gets blown up!), but Chris Johnson takes the ball on the edge and picks up a first down and some nice yardage.
The Jets rushed for 212 yards. That's decent.
Ah yes, the jet sweep. This was used by a couple of teams last year -- most famously by the Seahawks with Percy Harvin in the Super Bowl -- and in Week 1, it was employed effectively by those who tried it. I saw the Seahawks, Vikings and Patriots run it, and variations were run by a few other teams.
First, a little disambiguation, though I'm not 100 percent sure everyone follows these rules: From what I've heard, the "jet sweep" involves a receiver running full speed across the formation and taking the handoff from a quarterback who was previously under center. The "fly sweep" is the same thing, except the quarterback is in shotgun and he hands off to a receiver who runs underneath him.
Here's the jet sweep below:
The nice part about the jet sweep is that it's super absurdly hard for the defense to see whether the ball was handed off. This is what the Seahawks did in the Super Bowl with Harvin and the Broncos' defense clearly wasn't ready to react quickly enough to the exchange. Above, you'll see that the Rams actually do a decent job at reading the play, but Cordarrelle Patterson's so fast (and has a few nice blocks) he's already like 10 yards downfield before he gets touched.
Oh, that brings me to my main, hard-hitting next-level analysis: It helps a lot to have a fast guy do this.
The Patriots did it with Julian Edelman. Watch how many defenders pursue the running back going right. Haha!
The Seahawks ran the fly sweep a few times in their game on Thursday. I broke down the ways they used Percy Harvin in depth on Saturday, but you can see the slight difference between the two sweep styles below.
Teams will figure out how to stop the sweep, I'm guessing, but there will be one consequence in theory: fewer defenders to the middle of the field, which opens up things for the dive option to the running back. Stretching the defense horizontally creates opportunity vertically.
The read option is still not dead (and annoying defensive coordinators across the nation)
I won't spend a ton of time on the read option proper because it's now an established play that is mostly understood by the masses. I just wanted to take this time to point out that there were a pretty excellent number of touchdowns on simple read-option plays in Week 1.
The Packers fall victim. Watch Clay Matthews first look to read Russell Wilson and his potential to keep the football, and to punish him for even trying to think, the Seahawks run their tight end over the formation and drill him on the inside shoulder.
Lynch cuts back. Touchdown. (Note: this play, while it looks like a read-option, may actually be a straight handoff play coming out of the huddle. One way that teams have continued to get results with the read option is to use constraint plays like this that only look like an actual read is happening. In this case, Seattle attacks the defensive end that is always "staying home" on the edge with a slice block by their tight end. It keeps the defense honest. It also doesn't help here that the Packers only had ten men on the field. )
Take the Niners, another proponent of smart read-option play that hasn't managed to maim their quarterback.
Watch the left tackle and left guard just 1) completely ignore that poor defensive end (Jeremy Mincey) and 2) double-team and destroy that three-technique defensive tackle. This is why the read option is still viable: the threat that Colin Kaepernick can run outside and get into the end zone holds that defensive end like a tractor beam. He can't move. This allows your offensive linemen to double up and dominate on a hapless three-technique just trying to live his life in peace.
By the way, small sample size and all that, but Carlos Hyde looked scary good in his first NFL game, and by the time he has aimed himself right off of his left tackle's ass cheeks and is running downhill with a full head a steam, there's no way in hell Mincey or any closing safety is going to recover quickly enough to make that stop.
Oh, and speaking of having the threat to keep the ball and run outside if you don't respect that ability:
Watch the defensive end on the offense's left side. He cheated. EJ Manuel caught him.
I could have included a whole slew of other examples of read-option plays, bubble screens, end-arounds for this piece. Hell, Cordarrelle Patterson took another one of those jet sweeps for big yardage and Percy Harvin had himself a couple more as well. Darren Sproles' 49-yard touchdown run was on a read-option play.
Regardless, I think this paints a picture of what I found when I went out looking for college-style plays. There are a lot of interesting, exciting lesser-used schemes and plays getting called right now, and as teams begin to accept that they're successful and can be run consistently, they'll expand and grow and evolve.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Right now, let's focus on Week 2, and I'll tell you that right now I'm looking forward to some of the cool things that teams are willing to do with their playmaking weapons on Sunday and Monday.