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NFL Playoffs, Seahawks vs. Redskins: Defending the zone read option

Both Washington & Seattle run it. But how will they stop it?


Know about the read-option? You do. You're a Redskin or Seahawk fan, and I don't need to introduce you. If I did need to introduce you, I wouldn't be able to as well as others have, so in case of emergency, start at the horse's mouth here. Also, Hogs Haven helps distinguish Washington and Seattle's utilization (Washington primarily relies on Inside Zone Read (IZR) while Seattle has mostly used Outside Zone Read (OZR). And don't forget to stop in with Chris Brown, who's marvelous at tracking the history of football innovation, to illustrate how college football has moved beyond these basic read-options to counter the basic approaches to defending it, no less than four football seasons ago.

Which really makes the NFL kinda like...

Still, Washington and Seattle have made quite a splash this year, making a college tactic work in the NFL when so many doubted its viability. Now that its proven viable, we wonder about its longevity. We know how it works, but how do teams stop it? That might give us an idea of how long it figures to stick around.

A new 12th man

Coaches say the read option is like having a 12th man on the field. We like to bestow that honor on ourselves; so does this mean we have 13, now? A QB running threat has always "changed the math," as coaches like Greg Shiano are fond of saying. It's definitely true if you defend it like it's just a type of counter run.

Week 13, NYG @ WAS

2-2-NYG 28 (4:27) (Shotgun) 10-R.Griffin left end to NYG 16 for 12 yards (27-S.Brown).

This play results in a crazy fumbletouchdown, but that's irrelevant to us here. Washington is in diamond formation; 4 players in the backfield. It's also 2nd & 2, so it's expected that New York will have a lot of bodies up close. But New York took the approach you'll see here on many running downs against Washington's read-option offense. New York showed us how not to defend the read-option.

Osi Umenyiora lines up wide to seal the edge on any backside Shanahanigans. Shenanigans ensue. Josh Morgan motions into the diamond formation, leading Prince Amukamara to drop back, and the linebackers to shift over to the strong side. This indicates Michael Boley's responsibility is not to cover D gap in the event Umenyiora needs to cut upfield to seal the edge. Boley appears to have had a key responsibility on fullback Darrel Young, and reacts to Young's lead path.

Umenyiora cuts in, appears to still be reading the play, and squares up to take on Young's block who has drawn a bead on him. Boley reads and reacts to Young. Nothing particularly wrong with the execution; it's the assignment given that is problematic. This play is already over and New York lost.

Had Morris been given the ball up the middle, New York executed good run defense against that possibility. But the numbers would have been on Washington's side: Washington had 7 blockers for 6 defenders, with both Boley and Umenyiora would have been out of the play. This is what coaches mean when they say the read of the read-option "blocks a guy out." Here the Giants defended it like a weakside counter, so the read would have blocked two. Note that this was the second time the Giants had played Washington this year.

Also note that this play is actually the triple-option, where, upon reading the inside zone and electing to keep it, Griffin rolled out, able to continue keeping it or pitch it out to Morgan. Brandon Browner blew up a naked pitch option against Carolina, a similar play. New York pulled Amukamara back after motion, but Seattle kept Browner up.


Whether Griffin kept or pitched, New York wouldn't have been able to defend either. Young convincingly blocked the two crucial playside defenders because the defensive play-call was a mismatch for the offensive call.

The Redskins ran the same play & formation, Morgan in motion, flipped, midway through the 3rd quarter, and the Giants defended it the same way, no adjustments. Corey Webster pulled back, Justin Tuck lined up wide, LBs reading keys. All options, and play action, were open.

Washington went with play action this time. The shot-play to burner Aldrick Robinson was not a go, so Griffin checked down to Morgan from out of the backfield. The shot play was a go a few weeks earlier, in their first matchup with Dallas.

Week 12, WAS @ DAL

1-15-WAS 32 (13:57) (Shotgun) 10-R.Griffin pass deep left to 11-A.Robinson for 68 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Very similar play, with the same basic concepts as above. But behold the effect of the read-option on play action: no less than four Cowboys with coverage assignments get frozen by the read option and wind up out of position.

Lambast the Cowboys for that, if you will, but they're not the only ones.

So it goes. It needn't be said that four defenders standing still is not the way to defend the read option. In all three cases, eight defenders are effectively in the box. So that's not the answer. It's not that kind of numbers game. One of the most fundamental factors in running the ball is the ratio of blockers to defenders on either side of the center. But RO plays don't even bother to block one, and often even two defenders. If the read itself "blocks" one guy out, and occasionally two as seen above, and the QB is a threat to run (negating the typical "11-on-10" pro style personnel advantage vs. pocket QBs) then the read-option flips the bit. It's essentially 12-on-11, advantage offense.

But there are ways, and pro teams have even been using them.

The Scrape Exchange

The classic way to defend the zone read option has been the scrape exchange. The defensive end *always* crashes down the line on the run. Inside zone, outside zone, doesn't matter. That typically forces the QB to keep the ball and take the counter. So the backside linebacker "scrapes over" to cover the ground the end vacates, to stop the QB.



Defenses have been countering with this for a while, which has led to offensive response, so this diagram is a little outdated. More often, that backside end is left unblocked, as mentioned before. The tackle slips out to down block the scraping linebacker. But the scrape remains effective; the LB should still be able to scrape over if assigned.

There's an additional dynamic to why this works. In college or the NFL, the best runners are usually the running backs. There are plenty of dangerous running QBs, particularly in college. But if they're a good passer, the coach is inclined to shield them from too much danger. A common maxim versus option offenses is to make the lesser runner take the ball.

The Square In

Nobody seems to have a name for this, much less a diagram, and I've run out of time watching Skins-Cowboys/ Giants/ Steelers/ Panthers and Seahawks-Vikings/ Bears/ Cardinals, so let me just slap a name on it and describe it. The read end (unblocked) just steps in and squares up, neither crashing in nor staying in his lane to defend the QB counter. He tries to stay in play for either option, but more importantly, he just delays the QB's decision. It's effective, about as much as the scrape. It's very subtle: almost exactly halfway between the scrape and the "square in" is what Umenyiora did above. Only, Osi's positioning didn't impede Griffin's decision, and he was out of position to impede Griffin's run. It was the worst of both worlds.

You'll see an example of each in the first two of three consecutive plays. First the scrape, then the "square in." Carolina's come to know a bit about how the zone read option works, since drafting Cam Newton. When they faced Washington, they kept it thoroughly in check. On the ground. These three plays illustrate how effective they work against the read option, but how potent the effect on play action remains.

Week 12, CAR @ WAS

1-10-WAS 23 (10:26) (Shotgun) 46-A.Morris up the middle to WAS 25 for 2 yards (76-G.Hardy, 92-D.Edwards).

Diamond formation outside zone read with two arc lead blockers. Greg Hardy's lined up wide, just like Umenyiora.

Dwan Edwards slips Kory Lichtensteiger's block with ease. Hardy crashes fast to defeat Griffin's read, at an angle to be in position to beat Morris' run (these screenshots don't illustrate the crash with full justice, sorry). Thomas Davis moves into scraping position, pre-snap, but as the run goes up inside it's unnecessary to scrape over. On the front side of the outside zone, James Anderson, blocked by a TE, drives into his lane to set the frontside edge.

2-8-WAS 25 (9:50) (Shotgun) 46-A.Morris left guard to WAS 27 for 2 yards (59-L.Kuechly).

Pistol offset I formation, same defensive formation as before: wide-aligned end, reading OLB. It'll be inside zone read. The read the end is on the front side this time.

Though two TEs are tight on his strong side, Charles Johnson is unblocked, as the read defender.

He gets into the lane and squares up, forcing the handoff. Had Griffin kept it, he'd have been in great position to blow up the run, if not by making the tackle himself, by blowing up Niles Paul's lead block.

3-6-WAS 27 (9:07) (Shotgun) 10-R.Griffin pass deep middle to 15-J.Morgan to WAS 43 for 16 yards (43-H.Nakamura).

RO-PA pulls all the linebackers up very effectively. This is the real value of the read-option. Look how shocked those four Panthers are.


"I'll just read it."

As defenses response to offenses' response, offense responds again. In week 9, NFL Films caught a delightful exchange between Pete Carroll and Marshawn Lynch.

"If we run Stag again, I'm trying to get the tackle to bump out on the end; the linebacker's scraping for the quarterback, the hole's going to be freaking enormous, OK?"

I'll just read it.

1-10-SEA 15 (1:41) (Shotgun) 24-M.Lynch left guard to SEA 24 for 9 yards (52-C.Greenway; 54-J.Brinkley).

"OK, it's not going to be over there, it's going to be *shshsht* right up underneath that."


So it works, but can be defended. Even Carolina and Washington, who knew how to stop it and frequently did, let a couple get away from them. And of course the pronounced effect on play action, perhaps the most valuable facet of the play, is tremendously viable right now. Several people cited Pittsburgh as a team that stopped Washington's read-option, but truthfully, Washington rarely ran it against the Steelers. The few plays they did run were clumsily executed. Pittsburgh didn't do anything special to defend it. Their front stayed in their lanes and read the play. They mostly were in position to put a stop to it, but not because they were defending it particularly well. I came away from studying that game thinking either Washington or Seattle could make plenty of hay on Pittsburgh now using it.

The most-cited reason the zone read option may not persist in the NFL is health. The defenders are bigger and faster, which doesn't mean they'll stop it, but shortened careers for rare, expensive and explosive players are a high price to pay for just another way to move the chains.

Most teams have dozens of options on receiving routes. QBs have audibles. There are other, non-option read plays that teams roll out. The original inside/outside zone running plays don't attack a specific gap, but take the cutback lane that opens up. Defenders' responsibilities are sometimes contingent on a read, such as a key. It seems football is gradually becoming a more dynamic game, where failures are less likely to come from a good play well executed, but simply called in a bad situation.

I think the change brought about by the read option will permanently change the NFL. What it does for play action is too powerful to go away any time soon. Chris Brown has discussed the evolution of triple and quadruple options. I do think the threat of injury will harness the usage quite a bit. RG3 has already missed time. A full-fledged option offense in the NFL could still limit QB carries to under 10. The league's regulation of health, safety and collisions figure to keep ZRO in play for longer than doubters think.

Evolved play design can protect the players' health more, as well. The variety of read options that Carolina, Washington and Seattle have already advanced since they first began to run it is pretty substantial, and who knows how much left there is to tap.