The X's and O's: The Zone Read
How LSU can attack A&M’s offensive technique
By Billy GomilaPosted Oct 17, 2012
Anyone that has watched football in the last 10 years has become pretty familiar with the play known as the “zone-read,” or “read-option.” In many ways it has revolutionized offenses that use spread formations by forcing the defense to account for the quarterback on almost any given run play.
It was always a dirty little secret of defensive coordinators that they had an inherit advantage in the run defense, largely due to the fact that the quarterback is handing off the ball and is essentially out of the play, meaning that all 11 defensive players are now pursuing a runner behind nine blockers, a clear mathematical advantage.
The zone-read was used heavily by LSU’s previous opponent, South Carolina, and the Tigers will see a lot of it again this weekend out of Texas A&M’s freshman phenom quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The Zone Read
As you can see in the above diagram, with the defense spread out to cover a four-receiver set, natural gaps are created. The offense will zone-block in a particular direction, while leaving the backside defensive end (here, backside refers to the opposite side of the defense from the plaCy) completely unblocked. The quarterback and runner will “mesh,” which is to say they will cross each other on a handoff attempt, during which the quarterback will place the ball into the running back’s belly as he would in a typical run. This time, however, he will only hold onto the ball while he reads the unblocked defensive end. If the defender moves to tackle the running back, the quarterback can pull the ball out and keep it himself with, ideally, a hole where that defensive end was lined up. If the end rushes wide, the quarterback can let the ball go and the running back should have a blocking advantage.
The principles behind this play go back to the option football that fueled programs like Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Alabama through the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. The idea being, if you can’t block a particular defensive linemen, don’t, but make him stop and think about what he has to do. But whereas those teams did it with a fullback dive out of the Wishbone or I-formations, teams today are doing it out of the spread to take advantage of athletic quarterbacks like Manziel, Robert Griffin III, or Tim Tebow. And of course, if the defense tries to overload to defend the run it creates an advantage for the passing game with four receivers lined up.
For LSU’s defense, the challenge is to spread with the offense in a way that doesn’t create too many gaps for the defense to exploit. The Tigers have been employing a “nickel” defense with five defensive backs, two linebackers, and four linemen, more often this season to help. A common method of dealing with the zone-read is forcing the quarterback’s hand with what is called a “scrape exchange.”
When the defensive end sees that he is unblocked, he will automatically chase the running back and force the quarterback to keep the ball. Meanwhile, a linebacker will “scrape” the end of the formation and fill in the defensive end’s place to pursue the quarterback. This removes choice from the equation, and can help turn the mismatch back in the defense’s favor by dictating exactly who has the ball, instead of allowing the offense to do it. Having defensive ends with the speed of a Barkevious Mingo or Sam Montgomery, and an athletic linebacker like Kevin Minter, make this play that much more effective.