The Golden Age of NFL offenses: Adding to the zone read

"Russell Wilson"

Joe Nicholson – USA Today Sports

Recent articles from Greg Bedard of and Chris Brown of Smart Football/Grantland have highlighted the offseason for defensive coordinators, specifically their read-option missionary trips to college football campuses.

The NFL has been historically slow to catch up to what guys in the lower divisions have been drawing up in the dirt. Brown’s piece touches on Rich Rodriguez and his Glenville State staff drawing up the zone read because they were “just trying to get a first down.” Much of the innovation at any level starts with disproportionate talent level trying to catch up – hence formations and concepts such as the pistol and zone-read being born.

“It’s easier to read someone, than it is to block them.”

In most pro-style offenses – the offense gives the defense the number advantage of at least one (the quarterback). It becomes an 11-10 advantage for the defense. The option offense gave the numbers back to the offense by leaving a defender unblocked and incorporating the quarterback as a potential running threat – flipping the number advantage to 11-10 for the offense.

The option was incorporated into the NFL in the ‘70s but went away as fast as it came. The wildcat was a fad of the mid-2000s. It worked for a season or two until defensive coordinators caught up to it. What we are seeing is far from a fad and growing into a staple for offensive football at all levels.

As it is currently constituted – zone read-option has to be focused on the read part. Keying and reading a defender is the future of football as teams continue to spread it out and run at a faster pace. We not only see it in the run game but also in the pass game. This isn’t option football – as it was once known – it’s ‘read’ football and the offense again has the upper hand.


The advent of ‘true’ dual-threat quarterbacks is why I can’t buy into being able to stop the zone-read with scheme alone. Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick (the list goes on) proved that walking a safety down in the box was going to be detrimental for a defense. Their ability to throw over the top of the defense put all the pressure on the corners and putting a pass defender as a key run stopper isn’t the best of answers.

"Colin Kaepernick"

Delanie Walker is going to motion and arc release. He would block the alley player but no one is there because the safety occupies the same gap as the read defender.

"Colin Kaepernick"

This is as bad as it gets. The read defender collapses with the safety following him into the D gap. Being gap sound is an important part of a successful defense and an absolute necessity if you’re going to defend the zone read. Both Green Bay defenders serve as read defenders – giving the offense the numbers advantage to tune of 11-9.

"Colin Kaepernick"

It’s off to the races for Kaepernick with Delanie Walker and Frank Gore serving as lead blockers in front of him. This may be the grossest example of poor defensive play against the zone read but it serves caution to those who believe bringing a safety down in the box is the answer.

"Colin Kaepernick"

In this screenshot Kaepernick motions Bruce Miller from the wing position out of a deuces formation (2 tight ends into the boundary, 2 receivers to the field) into a two-back pistol look. This one is straight from Chris Ault’s playbook. Miller is going to arc release to the first alley player that shows. This is defensive manipulation 101. Green Bay was lined up in a 3-4 under look. The free safety rotates to cover No. 2 to the field and San Francisco gets exactly what they want to run the zone read weak.

"Colin Kaepernick"

The ILB has to respect the give and collapses inside, leaving the outside to the safety. There’s little chance that a safety or corner are bringing down Kaepernick in the open field with this much field to work with. Just not happening. This one goes the distance and Kaepernick isn’t touched on his way.

The most common way to stop the zone-read was to scrape-exchange. The scrape-exchange forces the end to crash down hard with the linebacker scraping over the top. The idea behind it is that QB will read the crashing end (keep read) and the linebacker will be there to take away the quarterback. The problem is Chris Ault already developed an answer to that – arc block, in which he uses a FB/TE/H-back to arc block the alley player bypassing the unblocked player.

"Robert Griffin"

The OLB is going to scrape over the top of the read defender. The arc blocker is going to wall off the scrape player and leave a lane for Griffin to go to work on the safety.

The Falcons attempted to force the ‘give’ against the 49ers in the Divisional Championship game. It may be the best answer as you take the ball out of Colin Kaepernick’s hands but led to two touchdowns and almost 100 yards for Frank Gore.

"Colin Kaepernick"

Kaepernick flips this play. Originally it was going to the weakside but the numbers advantage was to the strength. It’s going to be a double arc release with the TE working to the safety and FB working to the ILB and paving the path for Gore to the endzone. Atlanta’s gameplan was clear – keep the ball out of Kaepernick’s hands but it doesn’t matter if you can win the numbers game.

Thus far we have talked about one aspect of the zone-read – the inside zone play. San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington all incorporated the outside zone read last year and it’s something we are sure to see more of this season.

In the outside zone-read the quarterback and running back essentially flip-flop roles from the IZR. The running back will typically line up beside the quarterback as opposed to behind him. The quarterback’s read remains the backside end but he becomes the dive, while the running back attacks the edge.

The inverted veer is similar to the outside zone with two major adjustments. Instead of optioning off the backside defender, the veer reads off the playside defender – sending the back and quarterback to the playside. The other major difference is the line will block the veer the same as power – as opposed to zone blocking. It gives the offense a significant advantage by eliminating one of the defenses most dangerous players – the playside end.

San Francisco made hay against the Falcons in the Divisional round with the veer as Atlanta came in not wanting Kaepernick to run up and down the field as he did the previous week against Green Bay. Here’s a look at a well documented play which resulted in 6 points for the 49ers.

"Colin Kaepernick"

The ‘Niners line up in “11” personnel with the strength to the field. The read player is the playside end and Kaepernick is given an easy give read as the end squeezes hard. If the end came up the field at all, Kaepernick would keep and follow the pulling guard through the hole. As you can imagine it gets a little dicey running your quarterback into the heart of the defense but this is an intriguing twist that teams with larger, mobile quarterbacks could incorporate.

"Colin Kaepernick"

The end crashes, Tony Gonzalez arcs to the safety and LaMichael James takes care of the rest for a big 6 points for San Francisco.


The Washington Redskins and Robert Griffin III’s success in year one could be largely attributed to Mike and Kyle Shanahan digging into this Baylor playbook and the success of up-tempo offenses in college football. The common denominator was reading one defender and finding ways to make that player wrong no matter his course.

Washington began incorporating “packaged plays” consistently into their gameplan. NFL teams toyed with this previous to Washington and Griffin but not near the level Shanahan would incorporate into the Redskins attack.

The reason we incorporate this with zone-read is it falls into a similar category of reading a defender and picking on him – to make him wrong every time. Here’s a look at a ‘packaged play’ that became a staple of the Redskins offense.

"Robert Griffin"

Griffin’s pre-snap read is the outside linebacker. It’s fairly simple; if the OLB is out of the box – they run the ball, if he remains in the box – the flip the screen out to Garcon in the slot. College teams have already begun to ramp up the concepts involved in ‘packaging plays’, so expect the NFL to catch up in the near future. The possibilities are limitless – as OC’s continue to find ways to make a single defender wrong, even when he’s right.


In the college game, offenses have begun reading interior defensive lineman as opposed to the traditional read end. Chip Kelly started incorporating reads on the interior of the defensive line in 2011 and it’s sure to hit the NFL – as soon as this year.

"Oregon Ducks"

It’s a small wrinkle but one that adds another dimension to the zone-read package. Defensive tackles are accustomed to chase the tailback in the run game. Leaving a 3T (Oregon ran it to the 1T as well) unblocked serves as a massive state of confusion for a player that is hardwired to make plays in the backfield on the RB.

The goals of reading players as opposed to blocking them is a multi-faceted approach to the future of offensive football. First and foremost, since the beginning of football time – offensive line coaches have banged their head on a wall trying to block the best down defender. Now we’ve got real scientific about our approach – don’t block him, read him. Secondly, we put the pressure on the defense to think instead of reacting. In today’s up-tempo offense the more a defender has to think, the more it will force him to slow his pace – leading to confusion and less reactive defenders. With the athletes that are on the defensive side of the ball these days, slowing them down in any way is a good thing. Lastly, we can make the defense wrong in any situation, usually as we create a large gap to run through. As a former play caller, the most frustrating part is signaling in a play – seeing the change in the defense – but not having time to change the play. Packaged plays are an answer to this frustration.

Is the zone-read the end all, be all. No. But it adds a dimension to the base offense that keeps the defense guessing and on their toes. It’s clear that not all variations are created equal and we may have just scratched the surface in the NFL.

The horizon of collegiate quarterbacks appears to signal no end to the limits on NFL offenses to use the quarterback to even up the playing field and read defenders to turn the odds in their favor.

For as long as football exists, so will exist the constant leverage battle between OC’s and DC’s to turn the odds into their favor. We just happen to think the OC’s are winning at this point.

Author: Brad

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  • Bex_R1986

    Awesome stuff, lots of little details and concepts I didn’t fully appreciate here, so thanks! Lead goes to the offense just now, looking forward to seeing the counteractions from the D’s this year. Perhaps there will be a blog this time next year showing some cleverly designed defensive strategy that successfully limited (unlikely to be nullified) the zone read!