Why the Read Option Is so Difficult for NFL Teams to Defend
Ryan Pickett was disgusted. Tramon Williams was dejected.
The veterans walked to the sideline after yet another big run by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick—this time a 56-yard touchdown. It was the theme of the night, as the young signal-caller and his teammates constantly shredded the Green Bay defense on the ground en route to 323 yards rushing.
Players were left unblocked, yet they failed to make plays against the 49ers' read-option package.
The Packers weren't the first team to get picked apart by the read-option package, and they won't be the last. Defenses have had a tough time figuring out how to stop the recently introduced package.
They've committed extra defenders to the box with little to no success. They've tried to let the play develop in front of their eyes and then attack it without success. Try to attack it and bring a scraping linebacker over? You guessed it. No success.
All of the remedies that the Packers thought they could use resulted in them looking at the back of a ball-carrier's jersey. After the game, B.J. Raji was clear about the threat of a mobile quarterback, what kind of effect it has on offensive play-calling and how important it is to stop the run when he spoke to packers.com staff writer Mike Spofford. Raji said:
When the quarterback can run like that, that opens up the arsenal of play-calling. Obviously if you can’t stop the run, that’s football 101.
Raji was right, but what makes the read option so difficult to stop is that the 49ers have made adjustments to the league's adjustments.
Against the Packers, Kaepernick and his offense were able to knock out the scraping defender on the read option.
He was in "Pistol" formation before the snap, aligned five yards deep into the backfield. Running back Frank Gore was directly behind him, only seven yards deep. To Kaepernick's left was tight end Delanie Walker, who lined up four-and-a-half yards deep after motioning inside from a "Trips Bunch" formation.
On the other side of the ball, the Packers had a dime package consisting of two defensive linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs. The two key players were weak-side linebacker Erik Walden, who was lined up outside the right tackle, and safety Morgan Burnett, who was across the inside shoulder of the tackle.
Once the ball was snapped, the 49ers' offensive linemen all blocked down to the left, leaving Walden and Burnett unblocked.
After catching the football, Kaepernick turned to his right and held the ball at the belly of Gore. He read the movement of Walden, who had to commit in one direction or another. He eventually did, as he made a move inside and looked to crash down the line of scrimmage to attack Gore.
Because Walden went after Gore, Burnett had to scrape over and to the outside to account for the quarterback. The problem is that he never scraped all the way to the outside and if he did, he still wouldn't get to Kaepernick.
One wrinkle that the 49ers (and Seattle Seahawks) have added is a lead block from the tight end, who comes across the formation from the backside.
On this play, Kaepernick was led by Delanie Walker, who came across the formation as the quarterback was deciding on whether he would hand the ball off or keep it to himself. When Kaepernick kept it to himself and ran outside, Walker led the way and gave a slight block to Burnett to create an alley for his quarterback to run through.
It turned out to be a simple 13-yard gain midway through the first quarter, but it would be the beginning of 181 rush yards by the 49ers' young quarterback. This adjustment will probably also be the beginning of something that won't be a "gimmick" that won't come and go in the NFL.
It is a concept that's been widely successful and developed in the college ranks, where, arguably, the greatest football minds work. There have been a plethora of other adjustments made in college that have yet to be used with consistency in the pros. These adjustments include leaving other defenders, such as nose tackles and linebackers, unblocked and reading them.
All of the above adjustments are going to be difficult for defenses to stop once they get to the NFL and leave their defenders saying something similar to what Raji said after the game. He said:
We just didn’t have an answer. We couldn’t find a way to get off the field on third down. We couldn’t find a way to get off the field ever, really.
Will defenses catch up to the read option?
However, one thing that is certain is that no concept is indefensible. There has to be a weakness to it somewhere, and there are two ways to attack the read option: win in the trenches and blitz it.
Winning in the trenches seems like the most likely option, but it's a tough task for defenses. Not every team has players like the 49ers or Giants do. Both teams have players along the defensive line that can win one-on-one battles in the trenches because of their great power, quickness and strength. They also have players that can play multiple alignments and hold up at them, which is key.
Furthermore, defenses also have the ability to run blitzes at the read option. This can be a bit difficult because there are fewer tendencies with offenses utilizing the "Pistol" formation, leading to less likelihood of guessing which direction the run will go in. But defenses can make automatic checks and send overloads to the play side to slow down the running game.
One thing's certain: Defenses will have to evolve with offenses or they risk falling way behind.
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