Depending on your reading habits this summer, there's a good chance you sat down and saw one—or several—pieces talking about how the read-option offense was here to stay. The revolutionary option offense had finally hit the NFL, and teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles were ready to dominate.
But they haven't.
The three teams have won two out of seven contests and have had little success on the ground. The 49ers were able to beat the Green Bay Packers not because of the read-option, but because of Colin Kaepernick's 400 yards passing. In Washington, Robert Griffin III has struggled to run the scheme after his return from knee surgery. The Eagles had some success their first couple games, but the Kansas City Chiefs seemed to shut down the read-option Thursday night in Philadelphia.
So, how are defenses doing this? It's really quite simple. It's called "slow-playing" the option.
Stanford is the site of the next trend you'll see in the NFL. It's not the read-option, the Wildcat or the up-tempo offense. In fact, it's the opposite: how to stop the read-option offense. Former Stanford coaches Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio laid the groundwork, and current head coach David Shaw and defensive coordinator Derek Mason have led the charge for how to slow down this attack.
I think you'll be surprised by how easy this is...on paper.
Here we see a classic read-option play out of a pistol formation. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick takes the snap, meshes with the running back while reading the outside linebacker, and makes his decision on where to go with the ball. The result of the play—who gets the ball—depends on what the linebacker does. If the defender steps hard to the running back, Kaepernick keeps the ball. If the opposite happens, if he steps hard to Kaepernick, he lets Frank Gore take the ball upfield.
That's the read-option in a quick hit. Stopping it is just as quick to explain.
Option quarterbacks want what's called a "fast read." They want the defense to crash hard into the backfield. The quicker the defender reveals his intentions, the quicker the QB can make his read and get on with the play. A fast read also, generally speaking, means the higher chance for a mistake from the defense. And mistakes are what the read-option feeds off of.
So, instead of a fast read, the edge players facing a read-option offense need to give the quarterback a slow read.
That may sound crazy—telling football players to slow down—but it works. And it's working in the NFL already.
Take the Week 2 matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and the 49ers—a team I consider to be the most dynamic read-option team in the NFL. Seattle's 4-3 defense was without cornerback Brandon Browner and defensive ends Chris Clemons (injury) and Bruce Irvin (suspension).
Three key players missing, and they still shut down San Francisco. Here's how.
The 49ers shift before the snap into a power-I look out of a pistol formation—which tips the Seahawks off to a run play. Note the single high safety lined up deep in the defensive backfield and that the cornerbacks are moved up near the line of scrimmage. That indicates it's press man coverage.
When the ball is snapped, we see a few things worth highlighting:
1. The single high safety is there to spy Kaepernick and flow to the ball (run or pass).
2. We still see press man coverage, which allows the cornerbacks to jam the receivers and keep them from releasing for a play-action pass.
3. The outside linebacker and defensive end flow into the backfield like a wave, one after the other, as soon as they read run. Here's the slow-play principle discussed before. The linebacker doesn't run wild and crazy into the backfield. He's patient, uses his vision and waits to commit to the ball-carrier until the defensive end fleshes out the play.
This works because the Seahawks have the game's best cornerback (Richard Sherman) and the prototypical safety for defending the read-option (Earl Thomas). Not every team will have these luxuries, but this front-seven philosophy will work for any defense.
Again, let's look at Seattle against the 49ers offense. Out of the pistol, Kaepernick meshes with Gore and reads the Mike (middle linebacker). It's an inside read for Gore, who wants to get right off the back of Niner guard Mike Iupati, No. 77, who seals off the defensive tackle.
Kap's read is a keep, and he works outside the tackle to find running room. The problem is, the linebackers never committed to Gore. They slow-played the mesh in the read-option and are free to chase whoever has the ball. That's Kaepernick, and as you can see, three Seattle defenders are closing in on the ball.
The result is just a marginal gain and another frustrating set of downs for the San Francisco offense. Seattle's ability to slow-play the read-option kept Kaepernick from capitalizing on mistakes and allowed the Seahawks to keep the dual-threat quarterback in front of them at all times.
Football is a moving, breathing chess match. Every move that one team makes, the other is reacting, while planning how to beat the opponent's next move. Offenses are already combating the slow-play at the college level, and it won't be long before they are at the NFL level, too.
What's next in the NFL? The triple-option? That might be the perfect play to beat a slow-read, because the quarterback has so many options. Four of them, to be exact.
The wrinkle most likely to be seen on Sundays would see a slot receiver (F) in motion before the snap. Once the ball is snapped—and while the quarterback is reading the end man on the defensive line and meshing with the running back—the slot receiver works back behind the quarterback-running back exchange, just like an end-around.
But here's where it's unique: The quarterback can run the option with the slot receiver as his pitch back if the ball isn't given to the running back.
We have four true options on this play:
1. The quarterback gives to the running back.
2. The quarterback keeps the ball.
3. The quarterback runs an outside option with the slot receiver.
4. The quarterback throws a quick pass to a tight end streaking up the seam—made possible because the motion of the slot receiver will bring the nickelback out of position on this side of the field and cause the safety to track away from the middle of the field.
Four options, one play—all you need is the defense to make a mistake and a quarterback smart enough to see it. This play isn't new by any means, but it would be new to the NFL. Urban Meyer ran this early and often at Utah. Paul Johnson runs a variation of the play out of his double-wing offense at Georgia Tech. Clemson, under offensive coordinator Chad Morris, has run the play with success.
The purpose of many modern offensive schemes is to confuse the defense and get the ball into the hands of playmakers. This triple-option look does just that.