The read option, whether it's run out of a traditional shotgun set or the pistol formation, is the new kid in town these days. It's hard to defend against, and with an athletic quarterback running this sort of approach, it can be unstoppable when executed properly.
The San Francisco 49ers might have the best quarterback in the league to run this offense in Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick's familiarity with the pistol offense (his college coach at the University of Nevada, Chris Ault, is widely credited with being the progenitor of the pistol formation) and his speed and arm strength make him the ideal player to run the read option out of it.
The pistol is basically a shortened shotgun formation that brings the quarterback closer to the line of scrimmage than a traditional shotgun set and still keeps the running back behind him, in order to give the back more room to generate forward momentum and to maintain a traditional power-running attack. In effect, it's a formation that allows teams to utilize the spread formations gaining traction in the NFL without having to abandon the power-running game that will never fall out of style in professional football.
In this formation, teams can utilize a variety of personnel groupings—three, four or five receiver sets, two-tight end packages, one, two or even three players accompanying the quarterback in the backfield or any combination thereof. It also allows the team to keep its best personnel groupings on the field for spread- or power-oriented offensive plays, rather than substitute different players in and out based on different formations, thereby tipping the offense's hand before they even break the huddle. Naturally, this also makes running an uptempo, no-huddle offense much easier as well. This link provides an excellent primer on the basics of the pistol offense for those who are confused up to this point.
However, there is a player up in Seattle in Russell Wilson who is proving to be even more adept at running the zone read than Colin Kaepernick, and although the Seahawks haven't utilized the pistol formation to the extent that teams like San Francisco or, even more so, the Washington Redskins, they most certainly will look to add variations of it in the offseason.
Back to the zone read option. This play, whether it's an "inside" or "outside" read option play, can be run just as effectively out of a traditional shotgun formation as it can out of the pistol. Russell Wilson has taken off to a new level as a rookie quarterback with this play, as has his even more talented peer, Robert Griffin, III. Wilson operates mostly out of the shotgun while RG3 does so in the pistol.
With two extremely dangerous players running this play in their own conference, including one within their own division, and the promise of more to enter the league in the following years, it would behoove the 49ers to begin drafting defensive players accordingly. They will be facing this offense more and more, and if they want to continue racking up division titles, they will need to have the personnel to combat it.
In the simplest terms possible, the zone read asks a quarterback to identify and "read" a backside defensive end, a defensive tackle or a mike linebacker. My esteemed colleague, Alen Dumonjic, has written an excellent article going over the basics of this play. Essentially, the quarterback delays handing the ball off to the running back long enough for the targeted defender to "declare" and then either hands it off, pulls it back and runs or throws it based on what that declaration is.
The most common approach is to target the backside defensive end or the defensive tackle. If either follows the play in the direction the running back is headed, the quarterback pulls the ball back and takes it himself, given that the defender will have pursued right out of the play. If the defender stays put and reads the quarterback, the quarterback simply hands it off knowing that there is now one less defender pursuing the run.
The easiest way to blow this up is to have freakishly athletic defensive ends who can chase down a fast quarterback or shed a block from a tight end, fullback or pulling guard in the open field and still have the length and speed to get back into the play if the ball goes to the running back. If the 49ers want to prepare for this offensive philosophy, they will need to start drafting and developing big, fast outside linebackers and defensive ends who may be a bit undersized when facing a traditional power-running attack but have the speed and athleticism to chase down fleet-footed quarterbacks running at them and running backs headed away from them.
Another approach, diagrammed above, is the "scrape exchange", in which the defensive end or tackle simply crashes down or inside regardless. This leaves the middle linebacker to then pursue the quarterback should he keep it up. In this case, the linebacker must have exceptional speed and be a very proficient open-field tackler. The 49ers are already more than capable in this area.
In this respect, there are several prospects in the upcoming draft who I really like and whom the 49ers should be targeting. DE Margus Hunt out of SMU has shown such athletic ability, albeit against mid-level collegiate competition in Conference USA. Regardless, his upside is huge and he might represent the best value in the draft for this specific need, given that he could last as late as the third round.
Alex Okafor, a very good DE out of Texas who could make the transition to a 3-4 OLB, showed the ability to defend this style of attack against Geno Smith and the West Virginia Mountaineers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Dion Jordan out of Oregon is another DE who has shown the ability to work in space requisite of a 3-4 OLB, whose job would be to "spy" the quarterback on zone read plays. With Parys Haralson not guaranteed to return to previous form after missing a year due to injury and with Aldon Smith looking more and more dependent on Justin Smith for success, it would behoove the 49ers to look to increase the depth at this position.
As far as down linemen go, I really like the potential that Sharrif Floyd out of Florida has exhibited. At 301 lbs, he is a bit undersized to play in the middle of the line of scrimmage, but he has the speed and strength to play the end position and could be a very nice asset to have when facing teams that run the zone read with a powerful back like Marshawn Lynch or Alfred Morris.
Damion Square out of Alabama is a later round pick (4th or 5th round, most likely) who has the speed to play the 3-4 defensive end position but lacks the prototypical size to line up further inside. If he can add weight, he would be big enough to keep from getting manhandled on the interior and still retain enough speed to make up for overcommitting one way or the other on zone read plays. He would add valuable depth as a backup and could develop into a starter down the line.
As the NFL's offensive philosophies evolve, so must the NFL's defenses. By focusing on players best suited to counter some of the budding new weapons within both their conference and their division, the 49ers can help level the tilted playing field that the zone read option out of the pistol formation looks to be creating.