Colin Kaepernick became the 49ers' starting quarterback in Week 10 of the 2012 season, forming a read option troika with Redskins rookie Robert Griffin III and NFC West compatriot Russell Wilson. The read option became integral to each team’s run to – and, in San Francisco’s case, run through – the playoffs, and consequently became the hottest topic in the NFL.
So what can defensive coordinators do to counter the read option this season, and which read option offenses are best equipped to counter those counters?
Is the read element creating a numbers problem in the box for your defense? Even the score with an extra defender! Or at least make the score closer!
Consider a read option team deploying 11 personnel -- one back, one tight end and three wide receivers -- with the tight end (or fullback, or Delanie Walker-style hybrid dude) aligned in the formation rather than split out. Six blockers (the five OL plus the tight end) create seven potential gaps along the offensive front that the back could attack.
If the running back becomes a blocker after a read option fake, that's eight potential gaps that the defense needs to account for against a running QB.
A defensive coordinator concerned about the pass would certainly prefer to keep a corner/nickel back aligned over each of the three receivers. He'd also like to keep both safeties in a two-deep shell to prevent the deep pass while keeping as many coverage combinations in both halves of the field as possible to confuse the passer. However, those pesky laws of mathematics dictate that our DC now has a mere six defenders in the box to cover eight gaps.
If his boys are getting punished by the run (a likely outcome in this scenario), bringing another man into the box can help even the score.
The downside is both obvious - the simple math of one less deep defender - and more subtle, as taking away one safety drastically reduces the kinds of coverages a DC can employ. A single-high safety tends to dictate that the defense run either:
- Cover Three with the two outside corners and the free safety each taking a deep third of the field
- Cover One or Man-Free with the corners playing man-to-man, but knowing they'll have inside deep help from the free safety, or
- Pure man-to-man coverage on the "single" wide receiver with more options available on the other side
All are valid choices for particular down, distance and personnel situations. However, the QB's critical passing reads just got a whole lot easier.
Defensive coordinators are frequently pro-active guys by nature, and many certainly prefer to dictate to an offense rather than the other way around. Instead of laying back and dying the death of a thousand cuts, many coordinators will pick their spots to try and force the action against a read option-heavy attack.
Everything from overloads to corner blitzes to Fire Zones to dusting off the Buddy Ryan 46 could be deployed in order to bottle up the backfield while forcing quick (and, hopefully, wrong) decisions from the QB.
Another way to solve the "math problem" that QB-as-potential-ball-carrier creates is to make some of your defenders responsible for multiple gaps. This approach tends to cater more to 3-4 defenses, which often have two (or even three) squatter and more powerful dudes along their front who frequently dig in and tie up blockers rather than hitting a single gap and getting upfield. If they are able to hold their ground, command double teams and prevent OL from climbing to the second level, even "outnumbered" second-level defenders have a good chance of flowing to the ball and making the play.
We're cheating a bit here by making an "everything else" category, but it's impossible to even begin to cover the full range of scheme and alignment adjustments that DC's can make from a wide array of fronts. A couple of quick examples, though, can serve to illustrate how these adjustments can work.
One of the classic assignment switches that DC's have used to attack zone read/read option plays is the "scrape exchange." Basically, the defensive end crashes down into an interior gap, but the linebacker on his side exchanges responsibilities with him and stunts to the outside. Ideally, the QB "reads" the DE crashing, keeps the ball and then gets hit in the teeth by the weakside linebacker. That one's not fooling too many experienced read option QBs anymore, but it's just one example of the ways that coordinators can try to confuse a QB's reads.
Defenses also can use alignment to counter some of the looks that read option offenses throw at them, particularly if they are interested in forcing the QB to hand off. An "overhang" defender on the edge is in good position to either stay wide or fire into the backfield aiming for the QB.
If you put the elements of blitz pressure, two-gapping from the DL and overhang defenders together and said, "Huh - seems like maybe a 3-4 defense is better-suited to countering the read option " then you aren't alone. Many a chalkboard type seems to think this could be true, and looking back at the 2012 season provides a very small sample size but some potentially interesting data.
If you're willing to set aside the exhibition of pants-on-head defense by Green Bay in the Divisional Round, our "Big Three" read option QBs (Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson) played a total of 36 games where each was a healthy, starting QB with the read option as an integral part of their offense. This sets aside Wilson's first eight starts, as well as RGIII's limp-a-thon against Seattle in the Wild Card round. (Cam Newton is held out of this analysis because the Panthers largely abandoned the read option in the season's second half, despite some cogent thinking that suggests they shouldn't have).
Over the course of those 36 games, they played a total of 12 games against teams that ran primarily 3-4 defenses. The aggregate running stats for our Big Three's 36 starts were:
|Vs. 3-4 defenses
|Vs. 4-3 defenses
Kind of a marked difference, eh? But the QB is only part of the read option equation. Let's take a look at the stats from each QB's primary running back -- Alfred Morris, Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch -- across those same contests:
|Vs. 3-4 defenses
|Vs. 4-3 defenses
Caveats about small sample sizes and the variability of defensive fronts abound, but there could be a story in those figures. That story would go something like: The presence of 3-4 OLBs as overhang defenders discourages QB keeps and cuts down on the frequency and potency of QB runs. There's a tradeoff in that the running backs get more carries and have more room to operate, but on the whole it's not a bad trade to make.
Whether that's a legit story or a trick of the noise is impossible to know. But the thought process reinforces the critical point that with 11 men a side, every tactic in football involves tradeoffs, and that every tactic can be countered.
In addition to the Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks, we'll take a look at the read option potential for three other teams this year.
It's a natural fit for the Panthers and Cam Newton, and despite junking it down the stretch they could easily dust it off as a change of pace or significant offensive building block as the season goes on.
The read option played a prominent role in Chip Kelly's Oregon offenses, and it's a safe assumption that this concept will help Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy to make some beautiful music together.
Finally, the Buffalo Bills are likely to run a decent bit of read option to take full advantage of E.J. Manuel's skill set -- a prospect that should make coordinators sit up and take notice, because the running back Manuel could be creating space for is the electric C.J. Spiller.
OK -- on to the Counter-Strikes!
Best for Countering: Outnumber It, Pressure It, Alignment
The fullback dive component of the old Nebraska offenses was rarely a "true" triple option, in the sense that it was typically a pre-determined call rather than a read by the QB. Nevertheless, it functioned as an immediate threat that the defense needed to counter in some fashion. Today's offenses have a new twist on the Triple Option concept – and the third option is far more deadly. Instead of a corn-fed Prop 48 plunging into the A gap, you’ve got players tearing towards the edge on jet sweep action or catching a bubble screen in the flat with numbers.
The initial read for the QB will typically be made pre-snap based on numbers and alignment – if the defense has packed the box and either left a soft edge or failed to keep someone close to twinned receivers, the QB will immediately work to make them pay.
Let's see how well each of our read option contenders is equipped to deploy this particular counter-strike, with a grade of 1 (not well) to 5 (frighteningly well) for each:
49ers – LaMichael James offers an intriguing jet sweep threat, and Vernon Davis can serve as a punishing bubble screen blocker when split out. A quick, scatty receiver would help, but maybe rookie Quinton Patton can fill the bill. (4)
Seahawks – The Seattle offense would have been downright criminal with Percy Harvin doing damage in either of these roles. As it stands, the Seahawks have effective blockers in Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin but are more stocked with long speed than shake 'n bake. (3)
Redskins – Pierre Garcon can block as well as take the short stuff and go the distance, while Aldrick Robinson could be a strong jet sweep threat. Josh Morgan's lunchpail attitude as a blocker likely will spring both of them for big gains at some point. (4)
Panthers – Taking a jet sweep, or faking one and then receiving a swing pass, was a big part of Kenjon Barner's job description at Oregon. Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell also can get after it blocking out wide. (4)
Eagles – DeSean Jackson's jets could make him a factor here, but sweeps and scatty bubble screen action might fall more to Damaris Johnson. Throwing 50 or so good blocks on this kind of stuff will be a great way for Riley Cooper to keep making amends to his teammates. (3)
Bills – Rookie WR and Olympic track athlete Marquise Goodwin broke several long jet sweep runs as a Longhorn. The Bills get docked a point here in anticipation that a rookie QB may not make the right read as consistently as his more experienced peers. (2)
Best for Countering: Outnumber It, Pressure It, Two-Gap It
The surest way to get nosy defenders away from the line of scrimmage has always been to throw it over their heads. Defenses that stack the box and neglect the deep part of the field must be made to pay for the read option to keep humming. The "vertical" element doesn't always have to mean a 50-yard heave, either. Single high safety Cover 3 defenses have long been vulnerable to the spread offense staple of "4 Verticals," which is pretty much what the name implies – four receivers running straight deep routes. It tends to hit whichever seam the safety doesn't cover at around 20 yards or so, and is particularly deadly when the underneath defender who should be jamming/re-routing one of those inside verticals is more worried about whether – and where – the ball is going to be run.
So, who's best equipped to unleash some deep counter-strikes this season?
49ers – Kaepernick has an A-1 arm, but outside of Vernon Davis, the 49ers' stable of receiving threats is somewhat bereft of downfield dominators. (3)
Seahawks – It didn't take long for Russell Wilson to establish his deep ball chops. Sidney Rice and Golden Tate finished 11th and 13th, respectively, in ProFootballFocus.com's Vertical Yards per Attempt stat for wideouts who saw at least 16 attempts deeper than 20 yards. (5)
Redskins – Although he shot deep less often than you probably remember, RGIII did so with great effectiveness. He ranked second to Kaepernick in Vertical Yards per Attempt among all QBs who threw at least 30 deep passes. A full season from Pierre Garcon and the continued emergence of Aldrick Robinson should see those numbers continue to climb. (4)
Panthers – Cam Newton's live arm put him 4th on the same Vertical YPA list, and Ted Ginn's resurgence (or, in his case, it might just be a surgence) should add even more vertical pop to Carolina's attack. (4)
Eagles – The years have done little to diminish Mike Vick's legendary arm strength, even if his accuracy comes and goes. Unfortunately, outside of DeSean Jackson the Eagles are thin on vertical threats. (3)
Bills – Marquise Goodwin's speed works as well vertically as it does horizontally, and second year man T.J. Graham also can stretch defenses. E.J. Manuel has the arm strength to get the ball downfield, but his poise and polish will be put to the test. (2)
Best for Countering: Alignment and Assignment
If the defense got to cheat with an "everything else" category, the offense does, too. But in seriousness, a smart coach with the proper pieces can come up with almost limitless variations on the read option itself, as well as associated compliments and constraint plays in order to punish any consistent overplay from a defense.
Which coaches are best prepared to stay one step ahead?
49ers – Jim Harbaugh was likely the best run-game designer in the NFL before Colin Kaepernick showed up, and it never hurts to have an elite OL helping your schemes along. This grade would be a 5 if not for the loss of super chess piece Delanie Walker to Tennessee. (4)
Seahawks – Once Seattle committed to the read option last season they showed plenty of unique flavor. Expect that to continue, though an average-ish OL and a dearth of blocking TE/H-back types could take some options off the table. (3)
Redskins – Mike Shanahan's face just got more pinched than usual at the suggestion that Jim Harbaugh was a better run game designer. Shanny should have plenty of tricks up his sleeve for 2013. (4)
Panthers – It's not that we're questioning new Panthers OC Mike Shula's ability to innovate. We're just questioning whether, as part of the staff when Carolina bailed on the read option last year, Shula will even make the attempt. (2)
Eagles – Chip Kelly's whiz-kid ways made his name at Oregon. With the return of LT Jason Peters alongside rookie Lane Johnson and criminally underrated guard Evan Mathis, he'll have an athletic front that should let his creativity run wild. (4)
Bills – Marrone ran a highly effective ground attack at Syracuse. And if necessity is the mother of invention, the Bills are in luck, because a lot of invention is going to be necessary. (3)
Our final scores for each team's counter-attack potential are:
Redskins – 12
49ers – 11
Seahawks – 11
Eagles – 10
Panthers – 10
Bills – 7
Washington's willingness to fully re-commit to the read option is something of an X-factor as RGIII returns from knee surgery, but assuming they continue to feature the concept they should be well-suited to adapt to whatever defenses throw at them. The 49ers and Seahawks aren't far behind, the Eagles and Panthers are interesting contenders and the Bills ... well, this is just one of many mountains they'll need to climb this season.
Of course, Buffalo may well shock the world with tactics yet-undreamt of by anyone outside of Bills Park. Little is fully predictable and few things are fully impossible in the unpredictable world of the NFL. But whatever happens, watching the weekly chess match and ongoing evolution of the game has long been one of the most engaging parts of the entire NFL experience.