(Alex Brandon/AP)
(Alex Brandon/AP)

The Read-Option As We Know It Is Dead

But the scheme is quickly evolving to redefine play-action and revolutionize the passing game. Long live the read-option

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

How would quarterback Robert Griffin III look in his return from major reconstructive knee surgery? Would Washington put its second-year star at risk by continuing to run its vaunted read-option? These questions were among the most asked by NFL fans entering the new season, but the latter remains unanswered following the Redskins’ 33-27 loss to the Eagles last Monday night. Philadelphia led by 19 at halftime and Washington committed three turnovers (including two picks by a rusty RG3), forcing head coach and offensive coordinator Mike and Kyle Shanahan to abandon the run.

We may not see Washington’s read-option in Week 2 either, not after the Packers took away the 49ers’ read-option last Sunday. Green Bay had its weak outside edge defender ambush quarterback Colin Kaepernick at the snap. If that defender was left unblocked, he had an unimpeded path to deliver a thundering hit. Consequently, the Niners used a true read-option on just a handful of plays. Kaepernick was drilled for a loss of seven yards and two yards on the two times he kept the ball; another time, running back Kendall Hunter was tackled for a loss of seven by an unblocked Clay Matthews, who was on his way to Kaepernick.

In time we’ll look back and view this as the beginning of the end for the read-option as we know it. The quarterback no longer has enough time to ride the mesh point because the unblocked defender is no longer reacting to the action, he’s now dictating it. This doesn’t mean read-option concepts will disappear. In fact, the scheme might still be in its infantile stages. Even if mobile quarterbacks like Griffin are no longer be asked to read unblocked edge defenders, they can still influence defenses by executing read-option motions (i.e. riding the mesh point on handoffs or QB keepers) on traditional run plays out of the Pistol formation. Such a wrinkle still presents the defense with added dimensions to think about.

Washington actually used these dummy looks on a regular basis last year. Often, plays that appeared to be read-options were straight huddle calls, with Griffin only pretending to read the unblocked defender. They worked just as effectively, if not better, than actual read-options. Here are but a few examples:

Week-2-Washington-A

Week-2-Washington-B

Week-2-Washington-C

Week-2-Washington-D

Week-2-Washington-E

Last season, the unblocked edge defender was a read-option offense’s target for manipulation. Now that offenses will have to start blocking those edge defenders, inside linebackers and safeties will become the new targets. What this could mean is the read-option, which was originally thought to revolutionize the running game, will have its greatest impact on the passing game. Essentially, it could become a new form of play-action.

We’ve already seen the early stages of this. Last season, Washington’s offense used play-action on 42% of its snaps, the highest total the NFL has seen since Football Outsiders started tracking the stat in 1991. Washington averaged 10.1 yards on these plays. However, most of those play-action passes resulted from Griffin doing a traditional fake handoff in the pistol formation. Linebackers would instinctively bite, and RG3 would fire a seven-to-nine-yard quick slant in their vacated areas.

In the next phase, we could see play-action take the form of the elongated read-option looks. (The Packers saw hints of this last Sunday, as Kaepernick completed 8 of 10 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns on play-action passes, many of which came from the Pistol and exploited man coverage on deeper downfield levels.) Though Kaepernick didn’t prolong his ball fakes against Green Bay, the idea would be to ride the mesh point long enough to get linebackers to bite and the safeties to freeze. The timing of the play—especially for linemen trying to sell a run block—would be very similar to a traditional seven-step play-action, except the quarterback wouldn’t have to turn his back to the defense. The timing of current play-action passes out of the Pistol are closer to traditional three- and five-step drops, which means shorter routes.

Washington may not have to get über-creative to create vertical opportunities this Sunday. The Packers defense gave up a league-high three completions on passes where the ball traveled at least 20 yards downfield last week. If Griffin can rediscover enough of his confidence and rhythm to start planting and stepping into his throws, downfield shots should be available. Manufacturing those shots off of a true read-option look would be an innovative next step for the Shanahans to take.

SUNDAY SLATE: GAME BY GAME ANALYSIS

Rams @ Falcons

One concern with Atlanta’s defense coming into this season was its linebackers in coverage. They were torn apart by tight ends in the playoffs. In the season opener against New Orleans, with Stephen Nicholas sidelined with a thigh injury, defensive lineman Kroy Biermann played strong outside backer in the base D, while run-oriented middle linebacker Akeem Dent got snaps in nickel. Neither is a particularly comfortable pass defender, but with help from safeties in the box and, when possible, jams off the line, Atlanta held Jimmy Graham to 45 yards on four receptions (one went for a touchdown). This week, the Falcons are facing a similar versatile weapon in St. Louis’s Jared Cook. The $35 million free agent erupted for 141 yards and two touchdowns in his Rams debut. As with Graham, the Falcons can expect to see Cook line up all over the formation this week.

Panthers @ Bills

People are quickly falling out of love with Cam Newton. Just two years ago, the mobile 6-5, 245-pound quarterback took the NFL by storm. Now there’s a new 6-5, 240-pound run-pass threat for people to fall for (or at least flirt with) in EJ Manuel. The Bills’ first-round rookie is unrefined in a lot of his mechanics, but unlike Newton, he hasn’t had two full NFL seasons to improve (or in Newton’s case, not improve). Also unlike Newton, Manuel isn’t coming off a disappointing Week 1 performance in which he left too many open receivers on the field. (Then again, Buffalo’s wideouts didn’t exactly get open against the Patriots.)

Vikings @ Bears

For Bears fans, the fact that their team did not give up a single sack was almost as exciting as Chicago’s come-from-behind victory over a good Bengals squad in Week 1. The last time that happened in a Bears’ season opener was 1998. All the more impressive, the Bears started a pair of rookie linemen on the right side: first-rounder Kyle Long at guard and fifth-rounder Jordan Mills at tackle. And they were facing a blitz-happy Bengals defense that is loaded across the front four and coming off a 51-sack season (one behind Denver and St. Louis for the NFL lead). Aside from a few protection cracks on the right side in the first half, quarterback Jay Cutler operated in an uninvaded pocket. The Bears will need another encouraging pass-blocking performance this week against a Vikings’ front four that boasts quality rushers off both edges in Jared Allen and Brian Robison.

Dolphins @ Colts

When these teams met in Week 9 last year, quarterback Andrew Luck threw for a rookie record 433 yards, including a staggering six conversions on third-and-10-or-longer. Luck dominated with his most underrated attribute: the ability to buy time, maneuvering in the pocket or escaping it in order to make downfield throws late in the play. Of course, Luck was playing in Bruce Arians’s aggressive, multipronged offense last season. This year, he’s working in Pep Hamilton’s more conventional run-oriented West Coast-style system. (Against the Raiders last week, Luck dropped back 31 times, just five more times than he handed off.) He’s also facing a Dolphins defense that has a stouter pass-rush (third overall pick Dion Jordan had a sack in his NFL debut) and a revamped secondary that stifled the Browns’ (albeit iffy) receiving corps last week.

Cowboys @ Chiefs

It’s a homecoming for Brandon Carr, one of the most underappreciated press-corners in football who played his first four seasons in Kansas City before joining Dallas in 2012. Carr had a laudable performance in Monte Kiffin’s new scheme against the Giants on Sunday night. Though Kiffin is a zone-based coach, he is mainly using the Seahawks’ hybrid 4-3 man-zone scheme, with his corners playing outside technique but in a man-press type position. With a single-high safety, the only help the corners have comes from underneath second-level zone defenders. This seems risky, but is a sound approach with the right personnel. But as the Giants showed throughout the second half, it can leave the defense vulnerable against 12- to 16-yard slants. That’s a route Dwayne Bowe has always run well. It will be interesting to see if Kiffin has Carr—who is clearly Dallas’s best corner, especially with Morris Claiborne battling a bum shoulder and playing on a sore knee—shadow Bowe or whether he keeps his defenders on set sides of the field.

Chargers @ Eagles

As teams become more familiar with Chip Kelly’s offense, defensive coordinators will choose to be proactive against Philadelphia’s rapid-pace. The Redskins only came close to disrupting the Eagles’ hurry-up rhythm on Monday night when they dialed up blitzes on the right side, attacking the athletic but inexperienced rookie Lane Johnson at tackle. Keep in mind, Philly’s offensive linemen don’t have time to identify pressure looks when the ball is snapped quickly; that’s partly why Eagles go with zone blocking instead of man. And quarterback Michael Vick has never been great at identifying blitzes with his presnap reads. The question is whether the Chargers, on a short week, can install pressure concepts into the default base schemes that Philadelphia’s tempo will force them to use.

Browns @ Ravens

If Week 1 is any indication, this may look more like a Pee Wee game, as neither team has wide receivers who can consistently get open or catch the football. This has long been a problem for both clubs. The Ravens got away with it last year because their most reliable receiver, Anquan Boldin (now with the 49ers), is one of the rare players who is so strong he doesn’t need to be “open” in order to make catches. You can’t say the same about Torrey Smith, who has top-end speed but lacks the initial quickness to create separation at the intermediate levels. Browns wideouts Greg Little and Josh Gordon (who is serving the last part of his two-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy this week) have the speed as well as the size to make contested catches, but unlike Boldin, they haven’t grasped the nuances of their position to yet do so. Both of these defenses used a lot of man-to-man coverage in Week 1. They have every reason to do so again in Week 2.

Titans @ Texans

Something to keep an eye on: Houston’s new use of 3 x 1 closed formations. That is, three receivers lined up to one side of the field, opposite a tight end aligned in his standard spot next to a tackle on the other side of the field. It looks like a passing formation, but in Week 1, the Texans mostly ran from it.

Saints @ Bucs

When rookie coach Greg Schiano faced the Saints for the first time last year in Week 7, the Bucs played a lot of seven- and eight-man zone coverages. Schiano learned that’s not a great approach against this offense because it allows Drew Brees more than enough time to work through his progressions (which is exactly what the seven-time Pro Bowler does best). When the teams met again in Week 15, the Bucs changed up their defensive looks, switching between man-free and Cover 2. But injuries had depleted their secondary and pass rush, leaving them unequipped to match up against New Orleans’s aerial weapons. With both teams at full strength this weekend, Tampa Bay’s approach could say a lot about what kind of defense Schiano plans on employing in 2013.

Lions @ Cardinals

Maybe Reggie Bush won’t rush for 90 yards and catch more than 100 every week, but his debut with Detroit was no mirage against the Vikings. Bush is one of the few players in the league with a skill-set similar to that of Jahvid Best, and this offense has been waiting almost two years for someone to fill that role. When the Lions were first piecing together their Scott Linehan-led offense, the crucial supporting element around the Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson tandem was Best—a shifty, space-oriented scatback who was equally adept carrying the ball out of the backfield and catching passes on receiver-type routes. When Stafford finally got healthy in 2011, the Lions opened the season 5-0. Those happened to be the only five games that Best was healthy that year. He averaged 19 touches and 112 yards from scrimmage in those contests until concussion problems derailed his career.

Jaguars @ Raiders

One of the many profound points John Madden used to make during his broadcasting career was that mobility is a key asset for a young quarterback, because it serves as a crutch for when he drops back and has no idea how to read the defense. Good quarterbacks eventually learn to recognize what they’re seeing, but until they’ve mastered the skill, the mobile ones at least have the ability to turn bad plays into positive gains. This game will provide a great snapshot of how significant this can be. Both of these offenses have questionable lines and sub-par receiving corps. And both have undeveloped young quarterbacks. Oakland’s Terrelle Pryor is mobile and rushed for 112 yards in Week 1. Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert was sacked six times.

Broncos @ Giants

With Von Miller serving his six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, and with Elvis Dumervil now in Baltimore, people were skeptical about how the Broncos would generate a pass-rush early in the season. In Week 1, they didn’t—at least not using four basic rushers when the game was still close. But as the score became lopsided and the Ravens had to throw, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio started uncorking the multipronged, multilevel sub-package blitzes that helped the Broncos record a league-leading 52 sacks last year. Even without cornerback Champ Bailey, who hopes to return this week from a foot injury, Del Rio was able to play this way because his secondary had no trouble stifling the Ravens in man coverage.

Contrast that with the Giants, a team known for usually having a potent four-man rush that hides its ho-hum secondary. They generated almost no pressure against a shaky Cowboys O-line on Sunday night. It’s not a new thing, either. Their inconsistency in generating pressure was disconcerting last season as well. Given the way Peyton Manning moves in the pocket and anticipates throwing lanes early in his progressions, he shouldn’t expect to see much pressure Sunday afternoon.

49ers @ Seahawks

Colin Kaepernick had a career-high 412 passing yards against a Packers secondary last Sunday that was missing ace slot corner Casey Hayward (hamstring) and top safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring). Head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman correctly anticipated that Green Bay would show a lot of man coverage, and they had the perfect route combinations to attack it.

The Niners shouldn’t have trouble predicting what the Seahawks will do in coverage this week: press-man on the outside, a single-high safety in the middle with the second safety roving underneath around zone linebackers. Exploiting this predictable coverage will be a lot more difficult, as quality press-man can compromise the timing of routes. This is why Niners coaches are known to become vexed when the topic of Richard Sherman’s and Brandon Browner’s physicality comes up. This game could be decided by how much contact the Seahawks get away with.

27 comments
beekay31
beekay31

That wasn't an analysis of the actual Green Bay/ Washington game.

mike202
mike202

 This is why Niners coaches are known to become vexed when the topic of Richard Sherman’s and Brandon Browner’s physicality comes up.

Vexed?  Harbaugh lays down on the turf, kicks his feet in the air, pounds his little fists on the ground and whines like an ambulance siren.

cbradleyfrank
cbradleyfrank

You obviously don't understand the concept of the read option based on all the things you say here. It is called a read option because the defensive end or outside linebacker (depending on the defensive scheme) is the option read. He is unblocked and the qb is reading him. If he commits to the RB the qb pulls the ball and keeps it. If he stays outside the ball goes to the back up the middle. He is unblocked on every true read option.

randomdeletion
randomdeletion

The Colts owner's statements about protecting Luck is the most obvious evidence the read option is a fad that is going to quickly go away.  The owners will not have their coach running their franchise qb risking injury.   It just is not going to happen.  The owners are the reason for all the rules that protect qb's there is no way they are going to tolerate the coaches taking risks with their investment.  

olansuddeth
olansuddeth

Typical MMQB nonsense.  The Niners showed just enough read option to keep the Packers sweating in memory of Kap's insane playoff game, then racked up their first 400 yard passing game in almost a decade.  After one wildly successful game, the author declares the offense to be dead?  

Like most real life Monday morning quarterbacks, the writer of this article is clueless regarding the subject at hand.  Anyone who truly believes that Kapernick, Newton, Griffin, Wilson, etc won't continue to use the offense to humble opposing defenses is deluded or woefully ignorant.

Also... seriously, a dig on Newton after an efficient game running the most vanilla offense since Ray Perkins at Alabama?  The guy only set the rookie passing yardage record (granted, Luck broke it, but with many more attempts), then followed that up by setting the record for most yards in his first two years.  Set the touchdown record for quarterbacks.  Makes jaw dropping plays every single week.

Does the guy have room to improve?  Sure.  But I guarantee you that about 25 franchises would gladly do a straight up swap of starting QBs for him if they could. 

Too bad one there is apparently no requirement for having any idea what you are writing about before one is allowed to write.

Skins'Fan
Skins'Fan

Silly to be declaring it "dead." The whole idea is to get the other team entranced with playing against one thing - traditional offense or read-option - then begin running the other. Just because the Skins' played it then stopped (after being down a ton!) doesn't mean it wasn't effective since it worked to open up the passing game. Same goes for Kaepernick. Just the threat of the read-option can slow a defender 1/2 a second - enough to create separation and go off for 400 yards. It's something that'll stay because it can be played off of or audible out of and go under center for a traditional 2 or 3 hole run/PA fake. Not like Wildcat where it's a run 90% of the time unless you're Ronnie Brown. It's an effective way to utilize the advantages of the Wildcat but keep a full repertoire open. Football is like chess with play calling. If you know that someone is going to move their queen (i.e. run like with the Wildcat) then it becomes pretty easy to gameplan. If someone will move and attack with any chess piece you have a much better shot. Just another pawn in the chess set for coaches with quality-run QBs.

EagleGreen
EagleGreen

Love the pic. Mychal Kendricks layed Bob out.

zkinter36
zkinter36

When you speak of those Redskins Diagrams, you fail to realize that the "slice" blocker might be making the same read as the Qb on the Defensive End.  If the DE plays wide, the slice blocker will lead up on the LB to the inside for the RB to follow.  If the DE squeezes inside, the slice blocker will loop around him to the LB for the Qb to follow.  Either way, the Slice blocker is going to the same LB.  In all of those images the Redskins are in 3 wide looks, but the defenses keep base 7 man fronts in the box.  The only way to effectively run against those looks is to have the "slice" blocker make the same read on the Defensive End.

I seriously doubt that the ZONE READ is dead, although I agree that teams are beginning to greatly expand the capabilities off of it's playaction.  What was most interesting were John Gruden's "spider" concepts out of the backside of it.  I hadn't seen that until the Niners started killing the Pack with it.

I think that when you use these playactions along with traditional inside zone slice blocking on the DE, it will open up the ZONE READ quite a bit.  The way to stop that DE from attacking your QB, is to ear hole him a few times with traditional slice blocks.  The key is to not over use the ZONE READ. 

LilPicture
LilPicture

Week 1 is a little early for a 'verdict' one way or the other isn't it?  

The Read Option isn't a single play any more than 'Run' or 'Pass' are.  There are lots of ways to run options, lots of defensive players to use as keys in order to get a double team where you want it (not just EMOL) and when a lead blocker levels the edge defender 'forcing' the give decision coaches will realize that you can't solve the concept with one counter-move . . . and that's the point:  everything you do to prepare for the variations of it is time not spent preparing for a whole pro-playbook of offense they also have.

Mike26
Mike26

Seattle-SF should be a good game this time - as long as no more PED suspensions are announced prior to game time.

NicholasLitwinetz
NicholasLitwinetz

The read option appeared to be alive and well in the Raiders and Eagles games. I think the read option has a future for teams without a franchise QB. Teams like the Raiders, Jaguars and Titans should employ it to maximize their run games and minimize their limited quarterbacks. I would much rather watch Denard Robinson run the read option than Gabbert attempt to be a pocket passer. It doesn't make as much sense for teams like the Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks who can easily win games with their QBs throwing the ball.

GK
GK

A good try but it's obvious Andy doesn't know the workings of Washington's offense. A lot of those "no reads" are actually package plays, where the mesh point and read occurs (and could be a handoff or keeper) but also Rob could pull the ball and throw the bubble screen or the pop to the TE. Would like to see a smarter piece from MMQB.

beekay31
beekay31

@olansuddeth Newton already stopped wowing last year.  Wilson only threw for 3K.  Humbling?  Hardly.  RGIII and his coaches have had the fear of god thrust into his knee.  It's only a matter of time the same happens to Kaeperinck.

Magic_Octopus
Magic_Octopus

@olansuddeth You might be deluded or woefully ignorant. He didn't say that read option would never be used again. He described how it has, and will, evolve.

beekay31
beekay31

@Skins'Fan Week 1 results:

Wilson: 5 rushes for 7 yards, 0 TDs

Newton: 5 for 38, 0 TDs

Kaepernick: 7 for 22, 0 TDs

Griffin: 5 for 24, 0 TDs


Summary: 22 rushes for 91 yards, 0 TDs.  Not exactly lighting the world on fire.  And most of those were scrambles.  Face it, just like any offensive system, defenses will adjust.

ratay1
ratay1

@zkinter36 andy takes a very simplistic approach to determining whether the WAS plays above were read options v. straight inside zone/QB keeper plays.


WAS's basic bread & butter inside zone read includes a TE slice blocking off a read of the DE.  if he crashes or hesitates the TE moves to the FS or scraping OL at the 2nd level...which is exactly what i see in the images andy's used above.

based on extensive viewing of WAS's 2012 tactics and a pretty deep level of film analyses from the Skins' blogosphere, i think it's safe to say andy's conclusions on WAS's intentions are flawed.

that said, i have no doubt that what the world witnessed from Chip Kelly's PHI team on mon night is going to be quickly digested and added to the repertoire of SF, SEA, WAS & CAR...4-5 options per play based on a Mike read?  def not rocket science, but just another way to single out a given defender and make the entire DEF pay for his decisiveness...

mike202
mike202

@Mike26  I was thinking that as long as no more 49ers decide to shoot up their neighborhoods.

RayIsBipolar
RayIsBipolar

@Mike26 I like the line at the end of the Sea/SF write up stating how this game could hinge on the amount of contact the Sea DBs will be allowed to get away with. It reminds me of when NE and Indy would play and you would hear about the type of coverage the Pats were allowed to get away with. All you can ask is thAt the refs call the same contact for both teams and let each team adjust to the physicality or lack of it as the game progresses.

  The NFC's best have definitely been on display the 1st two weeks as the SF/GB, NO/Atl, Chi/Cin, and SF/Sea games showcase what the conference has to offer. Yes I know that Cincinnati is in the AFC, I was simply including the Bears in the NFC's best and the game against the Bengals was a test against a quality opponent.  It also isn't a coincidence that I left of the NFC least because it is filled with .500 teams and not much more.

ratay1
ratay1

@GK well said...couldn't agree more

zkinter36
zkinter36

@GK LOL...  I was thinking the same thing.  People without a coaching background shouldn't try to act like that know the details of what's going on.

ss492
ss492

@GK That last comment is very wishful thinking. SI (and Peter King in particular) is probably the most devoid of intelligence and any semblance of forward thinking.  I haven't followed Andy much yet, but this article is not a good start. 

The problem is in its thesis. The concept that the read-option is a static offense is indefensible at best, terribly lazy writing at worst. It basically means the OC for Washington/SF and the others built an offense and now will not evolve at all. I could draw up 15 different variances to the read-option that Kaep ran or the one that RGIII ran in an hour. Lord only knows what SFs OC with Harbaugh already has cooked up (for reference, see the game plan against the Packers, they basically did not follow anything from the previous playoff game where they destroyed them on the ground. This wasnt by mistake or dictated by the Packers. That was designed, planned and employed on purpose by SF, and honestly it was not rocket science).

Head over to Grantland.com for much better analysis.

beekay31
beekay31

@ss492 @GK GB was missing 2 of their starting secondary and has a much stouter D-line this year.  Obviously it's not rocket science.

GK
GK

@ss492 Yeah, after re-reading this again at home, it gets even more idiotic. It is obvious Andy does not understand the very concept behind the RO (you don't block the DE, he is "blocked" by being read). The play above with Paulsen/Paul is DESIGNED for the TE/FB to ignore/bluff block the DE and get to the linebacker. Its an arc block, and Chris Brown does a really good job of breaking it down at Grantland here. 


http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9508313/after-offseason-searching-nfl-coaches-know-how-defend-read-option
I would also recommend everyone read Chris Brown aka @smartfootball 's book to get a better grasp for the gameplanning behind many popular offenses. This post needs to be taken down.

beekay31
beekay31

@ss492 @GK Unfortunately it wasn't the result of the read option offense, either.

HelmetHead
HelmetHead

What you just said about not blocking the DE is right there in this article and the image.

Not sure I see the idiocy.

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