The emergence of the read option at the NFL level was one of the biggest stories of the 2012 season. A concept appropriated from college playbooks became an important weapon on offense for teams like the Niners, Seahawks, Panthers and Redskins. It was was hyped because it was interesting and wildly successful. Most of all, it was fun to watch.
Veteran NFL defensive coordinators appeared to have no answers for it. The NFC Divisional Round game between San Francisco and Green Bay saw 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick rush for an NFL-record 181 yards. Dom Capers and the Packers didn't sufficiently prepare to defend the San Francisco read option after the Niners had used it sparingly during the late part of the year, and that neglect ended Green Bay's playoff run.
This was a theme for the late part of the season. Defensive coaches tried to play catch-up on the different ways to stop the read option. Offensive play-callers who had dual-threat quarterbacks at their disposal took advantage and used it with impunity (that's the media hype train taking over).
Even during the absurd read option heyday in the second half of 2012 and during the playoffs, there were many that saw the read option in the same light as the briefly successful wildcat craze: a fad, a short-term deal that coaches just had to study to figure out or, as Mike Tomlin put it, "eliminate."
Teams went back to school during the offseason, consulting with college programs that had been facing the same schemes for years. They came back better prepared and ready to throw down thine enemy and smite his ruin upon the mountainside, stamping the read option out of existence at the NFL level, just like they'd done with the wildcat.
Except, something weird happened: more teams started using it. Teams like the Eagles, Chiefs, Raiders, Bills and Jets joined the usual suspects. At the midway point of the 2013 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the rate of read option handoffs had nearly tripled over that of 2012.
At the NFL level, the read option is, and always will be, just a changeup. A knuckleball, screwball, slider, or a cut fastball, if you will. Just pick a lesser-used pitch for this metaphor. That's the read option. It is not one of your top two pitches.
Every team that uses the read option has a base identity to its offense that is not related to the read option -- the Niners and Panthers are power run teams. The Seahawks are oriented around a zone blocking scheme and a play-action passing game, and you could probably lump the rest of the read option teams in some traditional fuddy duddy category.
The read option isn't taking over the NFL -- remember how I told you that its occurrence had tripled? It went from 1.3 percent of all offensive plays from scrimmage to roughly 3.7 percent, per ESPN Stats & Info. Some teams use it more frequently. Philly led the NFL at the midway point, using it on around 30 percent of offensive snaps. Seattle, Washington, Carolina and San Francisco use it anywhere from 7-13 percent of the time. So no, it's not taking the NFL by storm. It's just another cool wrinkle that a select group of teams are using, and they're still using it effectively.
While the newness factor contributed to the "boom" of the read option's 6.2 yards per carry last year, even after spending an entire offseason preparing for it, defenses are still only limiting handoffs in that scheme to 4.7 yards per carry in 2013. I like to think offensive coordinators can work with that.
So, let's get down to the meat and potatoes, and look at how use of the read option, as well as defending it, has changed this season.
"When you put a (typical slow, passing) quarterback under center, you lose a blocker, you lose a gap, offensively. You basically play with 10 men on offense. But when the quarterback is one of the runners, whether it's single-wing or veer or wishbone (or the read option), the defense runs out of people to defend you."
Coaches really know what they're talking about. Let's see what another coach has to say. Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio on the read option:
"It just becomes a numbers game. Your typical run, the quarterback hands off and it's now their 10 against your 11. Now when he's a potential runner, it's their 11 against your 11, and they're not even blocking one of the guys at the point of attack, so it actually becomes 11 against 10 if they do it right. So, the numbers are flipped."
You're not even blocking one of the guys at the point of attack? If you're not super familiar with the read option you may be wondering what is Fangio talking about. Here's context:
When Fangio talks about the offense now having 11 guys to the defense's 10 -- it's because in some zone-read schemes, the offense leaves the backside defensive end unblocked. The fake, and the threat of a quarterback run, is the de facto "block," because it freezes that defender. Watch:
As for the defensive end, and the defense just in general? Tentative, unsure, thinking = slow. This was the principal issue at play: defenses were inexperienced and unprepared to defend the read option and its variations. So, coaches re-educated themselves during offseason to brush up on tactics to stop it.
So what did these coaches learn in summer school? That is an article within itself, and I will not be able to list all the nuances, but here are the basics:
One common method is called the scrape exchange, which sees the defense crash its defensive end hard on the running back with no care for the quarterback keeper option. This, in theory, forces the quarterback to hold the ball and not hand off, as per his "read option rules". Once the defense has manipulated the quarterback into not handing off, it "scrapes" a middle linebacker over the edge and around the corner to where the defensive end started, and in theory, tackles the ball carrier. This is somewhat effective, but has limitations, which I'll explain below.
The other main strategy that was bandied about all offseason was an inverse of the scrape exchange. Instead of crashing hard on the running back (regardless of handoff or not), teams had talked about the idea of viciously attacking the quarterback at the read option mesh point with your defensive end. This strategy is loosely protected by NFL rules, because as of right now, you can hit a quarterback if he's in "run posture", or in other words, if he's faking a handoff and/or faking a quarterback run.
In theory, teams thought that if you could get in a few assaults on the quarterback at the mesh point, it would influence offensive coordinators to just stop calling the play for fear of hurting their star player. Russell Wilson experienced this firsthand in Week 2.
This is what that strategy looks like:
The key for Ahmad Brooks to hit Wilson was that Wilson was still in a "run posture," which makes that play legal. If Wilson had been standing up like he'd just handed off or thrown, the quarterback protection rules would have applied. Wilson ended up being fine after the hit, and it's also worth noting that Marshawn Lynch picked up about 20 yards on this play.
And, overall, while this threat of getting your quarterback "blown up" at the mesh point was talked about a lot during the offseason, that Brooks hit was the only time I've seen it happen to the Seahawks, and I haven't really heard much about it thus far. More commonly, defensive ends have been tentative at the mesh point, option handoffs have been quicker, and quarterbacks have juked at the last second to avoid giving defensive ends a clean shot. Notice Wilson's movement as compared to above:
The other argument-slash-warning for read option practitioners was that running the ball with your quarterback would open him up to injuries. Some teams indirectly threatened to go after the quarterback on any play when he might have the football in the (implied) hopes of knocking him out. The results haven't exactly worked out that way. Of those five most frequent zone-read teams from the past two years, only the Jets have lost their starting quarterback, and they didn't lose Mark Sanchez because of the read option. Cam Newton did miss a few snaps after getting hit on a read option handoff recently, but that's about it.
I never bought the "mesh-point-blowup" as a viable solution because there was never going to be one, singular thing that could stop such a varied group of plays and schemes. If your one plan to stop the read option is to hit the quarterback, there are myriad things an offensive coordinator can do to exploit that.
Instead, defenses have taken a more general approach. As Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason told teams over the offseason when they sought his advice:
"The quarterback wants a fast read all the time. If you don't give him a fast read, then things start to break down and he starts to panic because everything is predicated on him being able to make a fast read.
There's no magic elixir playing against those schemes.
No magic elixir? Here's the bottom line:
It's being fundamentally sound in terms of your keys. That's it. If you don't understand your fits, or where your eyes go and where your help is, you're at risk. You're just out there playing ball, and they're always going to be one step ahead of you."
Why is discipline and understanding of your responsibilities so important? Because when we're talking about the "read option", we're not talking about one play that a team needs to figure out how to stop. The "read option" is really a varied series of plays and schemes. The idea that teams can just "stop the read option" is silly because there are many ways to run it. You figure out a way to stop what the offense is doing? They'll counter with a tweak that screws up your "solution".
Here's a look at some of the basic option concepts and the adjustments to them we're seeing this season.
The inside zone read is characterized by "downhill" running. The running back on inside zone handoffs is typically going north-south with an aggressive nature, and the offensive line fires out into their blocks with that in mind.
Here's the first thing that makes it tough to defend: the quarterback can "read" a number of different players and make his handoff/keeper decision based on several criteria. You can't just follow one set of principles based on the quarterback reading the defensive end, because then he'll do an inside zone read on the defensive tackle instead.
Below, San Francisco "reads" the DT after leaving him unblocked.
Seattle did the same in Week 1 late in the fourth quarter as it tried to run the clock out. This first down allowed them to do so, and they got it by running a DT-read option play. Just when you think you've figured out how to stop the DE-read option, the offense can switch it up.
Which is why defending the read option becomes a matter of discipline and understanding. Offensive playcalling vs. defensive strategies becomes a game of cat and mouse. If an OC notices that the defense is being overly aggressive in attacking the running back, (or "cheating"), then do this:
This highlights the ability to punish a defense when it gets too aggressive or becomes undisciplined in its gaps.
Here's what noted zone-read enthusiast Chip Kelly has said about varying styles within the read zone system:
"We want to get off the ball and be a physical downhill running football team. The [inside zone] is not a finesse play. This is physical football. The offensive linemen play with confidence because they know they have help from their teammates in their blocking scheme. This is the offense we run and everyone knows that
"The outside zone play is a complement to the inside zone play. The inside zone is a hole to cutback play. The outside zone is more of a hole to bounce play. The reason we run the outside play is to circle the defense. When you get good at running the inside zone the defenders begin to tighten their techniques and concentrate on squeezing the inside gaps."
"If we feel that is happening or we start to get many twists and blitzes inside we run the outside zone play. It gives you speed in space and the offensive line can play with confidence when you have something to change the focus of the defense."
The outside zone read is characterized by lateral movement at the snap by both the offensive line and running back. The quarterback has the option to keep the ball if the defense flows too quickly to cut off the lateral run, which keeps opposing teams honest.
Exhibits A & B:
In addition varying inside vs. outside zone to confuse defenses and defeat defensive tendencies or momentum, there are other wrinkles that teams use. Probably none are cooler than the triple-option stuff that Carolina does with Cam Newton and Co.
This is exactly as it sounds. Cam has three options: first, to hand off to the diving running back; second, to run upfield after his blockers; or third, pitch to another running back on the outside.
This next one below, from last year -- note the arc block by TE Greg Olsen (No. 88) -- he moves to the second level to block for Cam on the incoming safety, Kam Chancellor. This leaves OLB K.J. Wright (No. 50) with the impossible decision to try to tackle Newton or the pitch man. God, I love this stuff.
As I've pointed out, when defensive coordinators "figure out how to stop the read option," offensive coordinators can make little adjustments to their schemes to counter the things defensive coaches have learned and taught. If a defense is starting to have success defending your inside zone, go to your outside zone. When they've found good ways to stop both of those, tweak your blocking schemes, and repeat.
Examples of these little tweaks include downfield arc blocking with your tight end, which is illustrated above in that second read option play, and the slice block, the swing pass and the use of play action.
You'll see a few of those examples below, but the other obvious work-around to defensive coordinators' so-called "answers'" on how to defend the read option is to simply not do any reading. Observe:
If there's no "read" going on, this isn't a read option, but the idea is that the opposing team thinks it's a read option, and plays it accordingly. That's where you can break out some of your new toys, like the slice block with your tight end or fullback.
Below, read option rules would dictate that Wilson keep the ball instead of handing off to Marshawn Lynch because the defensive end is crashing hard on the running back. However, in this case, Seattle has a called handoff all the way, and takes care of the defensive end with what's called a slice block. Taking the defensive end's place on the outside is No. 52, Chad Greenway, and by scraping over to take on Wilson on what is supposed to be a QB keeper, he's now way out of position to make the stop on Lynch.
The defense, by trying to manipulate the mesh-point handoff, finds itself out of position.
This is the same concept that Seattle used in the playoffs last season. Note the scraping linebacker, who expects Wilson to be holding the football, get blown up on the slice block by Zach Miller. Lynch does his thing and scores. Incidentally, this is one of my favorite plays ever:
Okay, I'm talking about the Seahawks too much. The Niners do it too.
Here, an inverse set of ideas. In this case, the slice block takes out the defender at the point of attack for Colin Kaepernick, who by "read option rules," should have handed off.
Running play action out of read option looks is one of the deadliest wrinkles you can use.
"The zone read is something I learned, throughout going through the year, that I think really helped us. It [worked to create] the least [amount of] pass rush I've ever seen as a coordinator. Guys just sitting there scared to death just watching everybody, not moving. I really enjoyed, actually, sometimes being able to drop back and not have four guys just teeing off from the quarterback, all trying to hit him in the pocket."
Watch how tentative the pass rush from Denver is on this play -- instead choosing to wait and watch, expecting a run play. This gives Alex Smith a ton of time to hit Sean McGrath up the seam.
Similar to the non-read read option, you can just run your regular plays out of your standard read option-looking formations.
Below, you see Cam Newton and company start what looks to be their standard triple option to the right. A good amount of Niners defenders bite on that action, and Newton uses his inside hand to hand off to DeAngelo Williams. Brilliant play call, excellent deception and a great run by Williams.
I guess, you can actually go that way ... then keep going and going. The Niners and Panthers are two teams that both run Power-O with their quarterback as the ball carrier. This goes back to the discussion about the wildcat, and the math that goes into it. With Kaepernick as a bona fide running threat, it evens up the numbers for offense vs. defense.
It's not easy to stop. It's a numbers game that you can't get away with.
Everyone assumes that the wildcat is dead. It isn't. Not the idea of direct snapping it to the running back in some sort of variation of the wildcat, anyway.
Just in the past few weeks, I've seen the Cardinals, Jets and Raiders use forms of the direct snap with varying success.
Here's the thing: If you do what the Raiders did above and score a touchdown out of this play, then that's just gravy. I am more convinced that teams roll out a series in the wildcat maybe once a week just so other teams have to waste their time preparing for it. The more time you spend worrying about stopping the wildcat, the less time you have to prepare for what we actually do 95 percent of the time and are way better at doing.
Trolling. If you see anyone running the wildcat, they're just trolling the teams on their upcoming schedule.
In fact, you could make the argument that this is the biggest benefit of having the read option in your repertoire: simply making opposing teams prepare for something you only use a small fraction of the time.
The read option is marginally less "effective" in 2013 than it was in 2012, but there are myriad variables at play. The yards per attempt is down some, which is exactly what pretty much everyone expected to happen -- even the most hardened read option defenders.
Teams are going to focus on it, it's going to be a priority and therefore it's going to be a little tougher to do, for the most part. That said, even if teams "know" how to stop the read option, there's still the little detail of actually executing that plan.
"I've heard Mike [Tomlin] and others talk about defending it. Whoever is going to do it, you better have the answers. All we've heard all spring is every defensive coach in the NFL is saying ‘I'm going to go to Texas A&M, I'm going to go to Oregon with their new coach, and try to figure this thing out."
"Hey, it's football. It's no different than getting in the I[-formation] and running the lead play. It's a different way of doing it."
Even if you know it's coming, you've still got to stop it. You still have to account for it.
As I have illustrated (and keep in mind, most of these GIF'd plays are from the past couple of weeks), there are ways to defend the read option, and there are ways to beat those defensive adjustments. In general, running 3-4 looks with multiple linemen two-gapping is a way to mitigate the numbers advantage the use of read option creates. If you're in a 4-3 defense, bring eight defenders into the box. Again, generally, having elite athletes on the edges is nice, and in the secondary, it helps to call zone coverage with players looking in toward the line of scrimmage so they can see the action in front of them. Simply, you must play disciplined, smart football, minding your gaps and staying on script while knowing which player you're responsible for.
No defensive coordinator found a magic elixir for stopping the read option between this season and last. Teams will continue to use it as a complementary weapon in their offense. For the Seahawks, the "no-read read option" has been a pretty popular deterrent to the common read option defenses. For the Panthers and Niners, their wide variance in read option looks and formations is what makes their versions hard to defend. The Chiefs have done a good job in using pistol read option looks to create play-action passing opportunities. The Eagles, who run the read option more than any other team in the NFL by a long shot, use all of the above to make it effective.
The differences in the read option from 2012 to 2013 run parallel to the changes in strategy in defending it. As defensive coordinators figure out better ways to stifle it, their counterparts break out new tweaks in response. The game of chess continues.