Jan 202015
 

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.

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.

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).

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 breaks through the line with daylight ahead…

Lynch is able to turn and walk backwards into the end zone.

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.

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 (you can read much more about how this concept fits into a zone read scheme here).  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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Jan 032015
 

The Dallas Cowboys run game has vaulted them into the playoffs, providing a strong offensive identity for a team that has struggled to break into the elite ranks of the NFL. This run game is nothing revolutionary; to the contrary, it is a simple, zone based scheme. NFL fans often view the word “simple” as an insult – with the apparent conventional thinking being that an offense must be complex and a coach must vary his schemes every week in order to confound defenses. While there is truth to the notion that game planning and varied schematics are essential in the NFL, the 2014 Cowboys achieved success by investing in their offensive line and getting great at their base schemes, and using those base schemes over and over again to open large holes for DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing by almost 500 yards.

The first thing to note is that – as mentioned above – the Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line with high draft picks, and it has paid off. Their line as a unit is agile, smart, and does a great job of sustaining blocks. The second thing to note, however, is that they do not – as a general rule – blow the opposition off the ball. Covering up the defense – aka getting bodies on bodies and taking defenders where the defenders want to go – is more important to their success than is drive blocking those defenders down the field. As illustrated below in their week 14 game against the Chicago Bears, in which Murray ran for his season high of 179 yards, the Cowboys’ offensive linemen took great angles, prevented penetration, were patient with their blocks, and therefore opened numerous creases for Murray and the Cowboys to exploit. It wasn’t rocket science; it was great, sustainable execution.

As Murray receives the inside zone hand off, his line covers up the Chicago defensive line

As Murray receives the inside zone handoff, his line covers up the Chicago defensive line

The Bears haven't been blown off the ball, but a wide running lane opens up as Cowboys blockers stay engaged to defenders.  Murray goes for 8 yards on the play.

The Bears haven’t been blown off the ball, but a wide running lane opens as Cowboys blockers stay engaged to defenders. Murray goes for 8 yards on the play.

Joseph Randle takes the outside zone handoff.  The angles are flatter on the outside zone, but the result is the same: Cowboys blockers engaged with Bears defenders.

Joseph Randle takes the outside zone handoff. The angles are flatter on the outside zone, but the result is the same: Cowboys blockers engaged with Bears defenders.

Once again, a crease develops as Cowboys offensive linemen stay engaged on their blocks, and Randle exploits it for a 17 yard touchdown run.

Once again, a crease develops as Cowboys offensive linemen stay engaged on their blocks, and Randle exploits it for a 17 yard touchdown run.

One of the best plays in the Cowboys run game has been their counter, which has become an essential (and prolific) compliment to their zone game.  Their counter resembles a classic pin and pull scheme, with both guards pulling as the remaining blockers pin down the defenders shaded to the right.  Murray and Tony Romo simulate their initial footwork of the Cowboy zone package to set up the counter.

One of the best plays in the Cowboys run game has been their counter, which has become an essential (and prolific) compliment to their zone game. Their counter resembles a classic pin and pull scheme, with both guards pulling to the left as the remaining blockers pin down the defenders to the right. Murray and Tony Romo simulate their initial footwork of the Cowboy zone package to set up the counter.

Pulling guard Ronald Leary's crushing block highlights another Cowboys victory at the point of attack. Solid offensive line execution and linebacker over-pursuit opens a massive cutback lane, which Murray exploits for a 40 yard gain.

Pulling guard Ronald Leary’s crushing block highlights another Cowboys victory at the point of attack. Solid offensive line execution and linebacker over-pursuit opens a massive cutback lane, which Murray exploits for a 40 yard gain.

Another look at the Cowboys inside zone.  A strong run game is often most damaging late in the game, and there is no exception here.  Again, the Cowboys cover up the Bears front as Murray receives the ball.

Another look at the Cowboys inside zone. A strong run game is often most damaging late in the game, and there is no exception on this play. Again, the Cowboys cover up the Bears front as Murray receives the handoff.

Murray prods the hole with patience, and then explodes through another crease forged by his athletic offensive line for a 26 yard gain.

Murray prods the hole with patience, and then explodes through another crease forged by his athletic offensive line for a 26 yard gain.

A great, physical run game does not have to mean blowing the defense off the ball. Intelligence does not have to mean complexity. The Cowboys have based their offensive attack on a few plays that they execute well, once again proving that – even at the highest level of the sport – execution is the most important factor in achieving success. Obviously, they are not as simple as a Pop Warner team. They use a variety of formations and motions and shifts as well as their complimentary passing game to aid in running the ball. But, at their core, they share an important similarity with many lower level powerhouses: they are great at a few things, and everything else builds form there.

Apr 132014
 

Prior to 2013, critics doubted whether Chip Kelly could succeed in the NFL.  Many tagged him with the dreaded “college coach” label.  Kelly – along with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll – are quickly turning that label into a positive.  Harbaugh has done so with his power schemes and manic enthusiasm, Carroll with his passion and smothering defense.  Chip Kelly has done so with an emphasis on simplicity and execution, two qualities that are often overlooked in what has largely become a complex, matchup based league.

Kelly’s devotion to the hurry up no huddle is well known, with the extra repetitions gained in practice and games combining with a comparably simple playbook to improve execution.  His offense is no gimmick – it is based on sound football principles.  At his core, Kelly wants to run the ball.  The basis of this running game are his zone concepts.

Kelly teaches a counting system to his offensive line on zone running plays.  This simplifies their reads, as the line merely needs to count the defense in the box and block it accordingly.  The center identifies 0, the first in-box defender to the playside.  The playside guard blocks number 1 (the next defender to the playside), and the tackle blocks number 2.  The backside guard blocks number 1 backside, and the backside tackle blocks number 2 backside.  A tight end or extra blocker would block number 3.  Kelly’s famous “read option” (as it has become known) assigns the quarterback to “block” any extra backside defender with his eyes, if there is one.  If that player is aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback keeps the ball to the space he vacated.  If that player is not aggressive on the handoff, the quarterback has successfully “blocked” him from tackling the ball carrier.  If no such “extra” defender is in the box, the quarterback hands the ball off every time.  Thus, what has become known as a “read option” is nothing more than a zone run that gives the quarterback the ability to keep the ball if the defense brings more defenders than the offensive line can block.

The simplicity and execution of this counting system can be seen in LeSean McCoy’s 2013 week 1 touchdown against the Washington Redskins.

Before the snap, we see the Eagles in an unbalanced formation, with three offensive linemen to their left.  The play will be run to their right.  As one can see below, their counting system allows them to adjust to the defensive front with ease  – a necessity in the NFL, where defenses are ever changing and complex.  Note that the stacked defensive lineman and linebacker to the playside are both considered player 1 and player 2, necessitating a combo block from the right guard and right tackle (who in this case is a tight end).  This complex blocking takes time and communication to master, another reason why the simplicity of Kelly’s offense is a benefit to their team.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 1

As the play unfolds, we can see the linemen taking great angles to “cover up” their men.  This is a hallmark of zone blocking – it is more important to get a body on a defensive player and wash him towards the direction he wants to go than it is to attempt to blow them up off the ball.  We can also see Michael Vick “blocking” the extra defender in the box (#4). Additionally, McCoy’s momentum begins parallel to the line of scrimmage, towards the sideline, influencing Redskins defenders to fight towards the outside.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 2

McCoy has the ball now, and has made his hard cut down the field.  We can see that some of the Redskins are still moving towards the sideline, as their momentum – and the Eagles blockers – are taking them there.  The hole is large for McCoy, and not because any of his linemen have made a devastating knockout block.  None of the linemen have driven a Redskins player off the ball.  But they have put bodies on bodies, allowing a back with great vision and talent such as McCoy to find and exploit the opening seam of the defense.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 3

This allows McCoy to get into the open field with a head of steam.  He is among the hardest runners in the NFL to tackle when given such space.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 4

Kelly’s offense has always thrived on letting his athletes perform in space.  Here we get an example: McCoy hurdling a defender as he winds back towards the opposite sideline.

 Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 5

And we see the final element of what makes Kelly’s offense tick: downfield blocking by receivers.  As in all “big play” running offenses, Kelly depends on his receivers to help turn long runs into touchdown runs.  Here we get a great example of McCoy reading Riley Cooper’s butt to cut inside, aided by the terrific cut block by Jason Avant to form a clear running lane.

Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 6

McCoy gives Eagles fans an example of what Oregon fans grew to know well – a runner in the clear with enough space to celebrate before reaching the end zone.

Chip Kelly Simplicity and Execution 7

Chip Kelly has done a tremendous job of creating a system that can take advantage of the talent he has on his teams.  The beauty of the system is that it is based on sound football principles.  Though it has been labeled a “space age” offense, perhaps the biggest innovation of the system is the return of simplicity to the NFL.   This simplicity also means that his system is duplicable at all levels of play.  Even if one doesn’t want to run the hurry up or the spread, teaching such a counting system to the offensive line is an easy way to improve their communication.  No matter how complex the defensive front is, it can always be boiled down to a simple count.  Much like Kelly’s offense, the beauty lies in the simplicity.