Don’t listen to the talking heads who say otherwise. The zone read is not dead.
Common, uninformed, regurgitated, and recycled arguments regarding option football in the NFL are as follows: it is a gimmick that cannot last, the speed of NFL defenses is too much for it, and NFL defensive coordinators are too smart to allow it to succeed.
The continued success of option concepts in the NFL proves such arguments to be ignorant.
The 2014/15 Seattle Seahawks are the latest example. Doubters still existed (or, perhaps more accurately, overlooked Seattle’s reliance on the zone read) even after Russell Wilson ran for 849 yards (16th in the league) on 7.2 yards per carry, Marshawn Lynch ran for 1,306 yards (4th in the league), and the Seahawks led the NFL in rushing by more than 400 yards en route to a 12-4 record and the #1 seed in the NFC.
The zone read is built on solid fundamentals – it is a zone run with a quarterback “read” of a designated defender on the backside, which either “blocks” the option key by forcing him to respect the quarterback run, or opens a running lane for the quarterback if the defender chases the running back. In equation form, zone read = zone run + quarterback option to run. If you believe that the zone run is here to stay (and you should, as it has thrived in the NFL for decades), there is no reason that the zone read should not also function well with appropriate quarterbacks (i.e., those with speed). See here for a more in depth discussion of the simplicity and fundamentals behind the zone read.
The Seahawks’ comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game should leave no doubt that the zone read will continue to be a successful NFL scheme.
Both of the Seahawks’ final regulation touchdowns came on the zone read – the first by Russell Wilson, the next by Marshawn Lynch. They leaned heavily on variations of the play down the stretch, incorporating the complimentary waggle pass (see here for an in depth description of the waggle concept).
If the zone read were a “gimmick” that NFL defenses could easily solve, the Packers were the one team who should have solved the problem by this point. Two seasons ago, the Packers were thrashed by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers’ option attack (see here to differentiate between the “read option” and the veer scheme) in being eliminated from the playoffs. Last season, they fell to those same 49ers at home in the playoffs. Kaepernick ran for a total of 279 yards in those two games (181 and 98, respectively). And here the Packers were again, with years to “solve” the option game, giving up two option touchdowns in under a minute as the Seahawks went to their zone read in the biggest moments and with the clock winding down.
Lynch goes for 14 yards on the first play of the drive. The option key plays it well, square to the line, ready to play Wilson and help with Lynch, but is ultimately “blocked” by the threat of Wilson running.
The Seahawks have bodies on bodies, allowing Lynch to exploit a crease up the middle.
Later in the drive, Wilson makes a questionable (unless it was a designed handoff or he was reading the defensive back) read (the option key’s shoulders are turned perpendicular to the line, meaning that he cannot react to a Wilson keep, and can chase Lynch from behind). Because the zone read is based on solid fundamentals, however, Lynch stills gains four yards. Wilson’s incorrect read became a traditional inside zone play (and any option coach will tell you that they do not expect their quarterbacks to be perfect on their reads; 75% is excellent. The shotgun alignment, which provides the quarterback with more space for his read than a traditional under center veer scheme, should increase the quarterback’s “good read” percentage).
On third and goal, Wilson makes the correct read: two defenders have their shoulders turned perpendicular to the line, so Wilson keeps and glides into the end zone with ease.
Easy path to the end zone.
After a successful onside kick, the Seahawks start where they left off, with the zone read. Here, Julius Peppers – one of the best defensive ends in NFL history – doesn’t play it poorly. He shuffles down the line with his shoulders parallel to the line, giving him the chance to play both options. But his momentum down the line is too much. Wilson keeps, starting the drive with a 15 yard gain. Imagine how many talking heads would scoff at the notion of an NFL team starting a make or break, NFC Championship, two minute drill drive, with only one timeout remaining, with an option run.
Wilson exploits the wide open space.
On the next play, the Seahawks – not surprisingly – went to the zone read again. Here, the Packers play it perfectly – note how every front 7 player has his shoulders square to the line, the option key muddying Wilson’s read while having the ability to react to either option. Lynch still gains 3 on the play.
Two plays later, the Seahawks go to – you guessed it – the zone read. Note all of the Green Bay eyes on Wilson as he carries out his fake. Lynch exploits the ensuing opening for a 24 yard touchdown run.
Lynch breaks through the line with daylight ahead…
Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.
Think about it: a 2 minute drill in the NFC championship game, and the Seahawks needed 4 plays to complete a go ahead touchdown. 3 of those 4 plays were zone reads. The Seahawks acted like a Madden player who found an unstoppable play, going to it repeatedly, even in hurry up situations.
On their opening drive to win overtime, care to guess what concept the Seahawks featured? 4 of the 6 plays were zone read or built off of the zone read, and, arguably, the success of the zone read led to the 0 safety alignment that left the middle of the field open for a perfect Russell Wilson throw to Jermaine Kearse.
On the first play of the drive, the Packers played the zone read well, the option key again eying Wilson with patience (but, again, this is also the purpose of the zone read, as Wilson has essentially “blocked” the defender). The play became a traditional zone run, and Lynch gains 4 yards.
Finally, we see the complimentary zone read pass, the waggle. Notice how Wilson, Lynch, and the line appear the same to the defense as they do on a zone read play. We can see the defense inching up in respect of the run, while Baldwin is hidden behind the line as he crosses towards the right flat.
Wilson lofts the ball to Baldwin as the defense struggles to catch up. Baldwin goes for 10 yards on the play.
On the third play of the drive, the Seahawks again go to the zone read. The Packers play it well, and Lynch gains 4 yards.
Next, the Seahawks go back to the waggle concept. The Packers play good defense again, and Wilson is sacked by Peppers for a 1 yard loss. This was the final appearance of the zone read or a zone read concept in the game (which would be over in two plays), but the effect of the Seahawks running game played a large role in the finish.
On first down after a 35 yard pass to Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks substitute heavy personnel into the game – two tight ends, a fullback (who shifts to a wide receiver position on the left), a running back, and a lone receiver – Kearse. The Packers – expecting a run and responding to the heavy personnel – react by bringing both safeties into the box. They align with 9 defenders within 6 yards of the ball, leaving both cornerbacks with no deep help. The center of the field is vacated, and in that void Wilson sees victory.
No help in the middle, a perfect throw by Wilson, and a great catch by Kearse equals victory over good man coverage.
The Seahawks are going to their second straight Super Bowl on the strength of their zone read game. The Packers are going home for the third straight season at the hands of a zone read centric team.
The zone read is not a magic bullet. It is good, fundamentally sound football.
The zone read is alive and well, and it is here to stay.