In a league full of copycat coaches and cyclical, bland schemes, the expanded usage of the zone read-option during the 2012 NFL season has been a welcomed addition by schematically-inclined football fans.
The read-option is one of the simplest plays in football and, momentarily, it is also one of the most dangerous. Defenses are struggling to stop the run play that's been built on the roots of late 19th and early 20th century football, and a big reason why is because they are not being blocked.
Let that sink in for a moment.
What this run concept does is leave a backside defender unblocked. Then the ball-carrier must simply read his reaction. It all starts up front, where the offensive linemen battle it out in the trenches with an easy-to-understand scheme of their own. It's called zone blocking, and it requires the blockers to move laterally in synchronization.
This form of blocking has two rules. The first one is that if a defensive lineman is lined up directly across or outside the shoulder of the blocker, the latter must block him. The other rule is a little more difficult, as it requires the unmanned blocker to help out the aforementioned teammate before peeling off and blocking a linebacker at the second level.
Although there are other types of runs that utilize this type of blocking, they don't do what the read-option does: leave the weak-side defensive end (4-3) or linebacker (3-4) unblocked.
From a blocking standpoint, what the above does is create an additional blocker to the side where the running back will be going if he gets the ball. The unblocked defender, not the quarterback, is the one who determines if he will be getting the ball.
If the defender stands still and tries to see who has the ball, the quarterback will simply hand the ball off to the running back. That way, the offense will have a numbers advantage to the play side.
Conversely, if the defender immediately goes after the running back or "crashes" down the line of scrimmage—as many coaches like to say—then the quarterback will keep the ball and run to the outside, where he also has blockers.
One of the most dangerous runners in this situation is Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, who averaged a league-high 8.1 yards per carry on option runs this season, according to Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson. Griffin has had many big gains this season while running the option, and one of them was a 28-yard pickup against the New York Giants in Week 7.
Prior to this gain, Griffin was in the pistol formation with running back Alfred Morris a couple of yards behind him and tight end Niles Paul to his left. Depending on left end Justin Tuck's reaction, the play would either feature Griffin keeping the ball or Morris running at the teeth of the defense.
When Griffin caught the snap, he put the ball down and near the belly of Morris while the tight end worked across the formation and in the direction of Tuck. The Giants defensive end became the unblocked man at the end of the line of scrimmage when the entire Redskins offensive line stepped to their left and performed combination blocks on the other defenders.
Tuck had to make a snap decision when he was left alone: go after Morris, or wait for Griffin?
Tuck chose Morris, and then tight end Niles Paul worked past him and latched on to outside linebacker Keith Rivers to complete an "arc" block. Paul's block on Rivers sealed the inside edge, and a block on cornerback Corey Webster from flexed tight end Logan Paulsen sealed the outside. Griffin was off to the races and ran out of bounds after picking up the first down.
Griffin's speed and decision making proved to be troublesome for defenses this season, but there were other quarterbacks who were very successful when running the option this season as well.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who got his first career start in Week 11, and the Seattle Seahawks' Russell Wilson were also two of the better runners (among quarterbacks) with the ball in their hands.
Kaepernick and the read-option are now headed to the Super Bowl as one of the keys to their offense, but the concept didn't start with him in San Francisco, even though he was drafted for it.
It was last year, in Jim Harbaugh's first season with the 49ers, when the concept was first used in San Francisco. I recall starter Alex Smith, who lost his starting job to Kaepernick after being injured, running this play from traditional shotgun set.
Smith is mobile enough to be a threat while running the option, but he isn't exactly an imposing runner. I vividly remember him smacking into a linebacker like a car hitting a wall in a crash test. It was a short gain but a noteworthy one.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton also ran the play multiple times last year, and he was a far bigger threat than Smith was. Beyond his intimidating size (6'5", 245 pounds), he was elegant with the ball in his hands and could unexpectedly outrun proper angles. However, Newton and his offense struggled to adjust to exotic defenses in key situations this season, despite his high yards-per-carry average.
The aforementioned Redskins and Seahawks introduced the play into their offense this season, along with the insertion of their young quarterbacks. There has also been the introduction of the pistol offense as well.
The pistol formation is very hard to defend because it not only gives the offense a true downhill running game, but there are no presnap tendencies for defenses to work from. Whereas defenses could key the running back for help in diagnosing a play before the snap, the pistol eliminates that factor and forces them to look for another.
This formation could play a key role in the upcoming Super Bowl.
Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said (h/t Pro Football Talk) last week that he had a plan to hold Kaepernick "under 200 yards," citing the old mantra of "assignment football" as being the key. He also mentioned that scout-team quarterback Dennis Dixon would be a significant factor in emulating the 49ers quarterback during practice.
Dixon has good mobility and experience with the read-option from his days at Oregon with Chip Kelly, but it will be a tough task to match the speed of Kaepernick. The key for the 49ers offense will be taking advantage of the Ravens linebackers' lack of speed, which they will be able to do if they can get out on the edge.
In this season's NFC championship, the Falcons defense was able to limit Kaepernick by forcing him to hand the ball off. It's likely that the Ravens will try to do the same, but it still won't be easy.
The 49ers have a dominant offensive line that can create alleys for the running backs. When one excludes Kaepernick's 21 rushing yards last week against the Falcons, the offense still gained 128 yards by way of the running backs.
If the 49ers do win the Super Bowl with the read-option as the focal point of the offense, there will be many who will be taking back their criticisms of it. Many more will be calling Jim Harbaugh for instruction.
Alen Dumonjic is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.