Lately, it's getting more difficult to know whether it's Saturday or Sunday when you are watching a football game. The "zone read" is a bigger part of NFL offenses than ever after Vince Young, among others, demonstrated how lethal it can be against very talented college defenses.
Now with the number of ultra-athletic quarterbacks in the NFL growing, offensive coordinators are showing more willingness to import the schemes that made these dual-threat players so dominant in their previous incarnation. Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III will help me illustrate exactly how defenses can be given Hobson's choices when they execution correctly in the read option running game.
Cam Newton shows us what the "read" in the the read option consists of. On this play against Atlanta, Newton begins the read-option the way most plays begin, by putting the ball in the belly of his tailback, in this case DeAngelo Williams.
Newton is watching what Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann "declares" by his action. If he dives down to thwart the running back, as Biermann is on his way to doing here, Newton will keep the ball. Thomas Decoud is blitzing the run from his safety position, but Greg Olsen is also lined up in the backfield and is getting ready to take care of his blocking responsibility:
As Newton is bursting through the hole, Biermann is still chasing Williams and Decoud is getting neutralized by Olsen:
Newton is off to the races:
The play ended up resulting in career-long 72-yard touchdown run that gave the Panthers an insurmountable 23-0 lead in the third quarter.
The quarterback of course has the option to leave the ball in the belly of the running back. Robert Griffin III demonstrates this on the very first play of the Redskins' win over the Ravens. He reads Paul Kruger heading for him and not where Alfred Morris is heading:
Morris is heading towards daylight as Kruger is still attempting to corral Griffin:
The play went for a 29-yard gain and established the momentum that led to a successful day for the Redskins on offense.
The Other Option
Washington head coach Mike Shanahan and his son, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, have added play-action fakes in the read-option that are making defenses look like the dog chasing the ball that never left its master's hand.
Here, all seven Ravens in the box are transfixed by Robert Griffin II and Alfred Morris:
Griffin keeps the ball, steps back and delivers a short, high-percentage wide receiver screen to Pierre Garcon. You can see how the Ravens defenders are struggling to adjust to the play going outside while trying to avoid Redskins blockers:
The Ravens defense turns into Keystone Cops chasing Garcon across the field:
Garcon ended up taking the ball to the 1-yard line and setting up the Redskins' first score of the day.
What's the secret to defending the read-option? I'm not sure there is one. The read-option presents the defensive end with a choice that has no correct answer if the quarterback correctly reads and executes the decision.
The problem for defenses facing Carolina and Washington goes beyond the offensive scheme, and really transcends it. As long as players as talented as Griffin and Newton are piloting the offense and playing up to their potential, any scheme would look brilliant.
Any play call has a better chance of looking like genius. The read-option is just a system to take advantage of their swift minds and feet. Perhaps the better question is "Can defenses stop Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton in any offense when they are on their game?"
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