The read-option has taken the NFL by storm in the last year. After witnessing how it disfigured defenses to their core, many are attempting to figure out how to defend it strategically and, perhaps more importantly, how to find the players to defend it strategically.
Some have gone to the college ranks, such as the Green Bay Packers going to Texas A&M, to learn to defend it. But that's not going to help them as much as they think.
The Packers were shredded by the San Francisco 49ers and dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the playoffs, giving up more than 300 yards rushing. Even though the Packers defenders looked confused on many plays, there were other times when they were flat-out abused in the trenches. And the only way to stop that from happening again is to get better in the trenches.
Winning in the trenches is still the key to winning championships in the pros. Defenses must have a dominant three-technique—defensive tackle lined up across a guard's outside shoulder—to tear through the near gap on a consistent basis.
One of the mistakes general managers have made is getting smaller to defend the passing game. Becoming a smaller team also means becoming a quicker one, but how much can quickness help when there's a mauling guard headed in your direction?
Ideally, the defender, whether it's a lineman or linebacker, is able to evade the guard with his quickness, but that's not reality. The truth is that a simple punch from the guard can jolt the lighter defender off-balance, consequently creating a gaping alley for the ball-carrier.
That's why a dominant three-technique is a must in today's game.
Similar to defending stretch runs in a zone blocking scheme, defenses must be able to penetrate into the backfield on a consistent basis to prevent the ball-carrier from getting to the second level. Penetration from the interior is not only the best way to stop a ball-carrier; it's also the fastest way. Geometrically speaking, the quickest way to a player is in a straight line through the middle.
It's why I firmly believe NFL personnel men are wrong to continue to stock up on edge rushers regardless of their schematic preference. They should draft multiple interior rushers, including three-techniques that cut through gaps and one-techniques (nose tackles) that eat up space.
In this year's draft, there are several options at both positions. Names include Utah's Star Lotulelei (either), Florida's Sharrif Floyd (three-technique), Purdue's Kawann Short (either), Missouri's Sheldon Richardson (three-technique), Alabama's Jesse Williams (one-technique) and Georgia's John Jenkins (one-technique).
Another strategy that seems to be circulating in coaching and scouting circles is press-man cornerbacks. Many are looking to mimic the Seattle Seahawks' blueprint in the secondary.
What the Seahawks have done is taken taller and longer cornerbacks, as opposed to the traditional smaller and quicker blueprint, and matched them up in pure Cover 1 (Man-Free) coverage.
Man-Free coverage is a man-to-man coverage underneath and outside with only one safety playing zone coverage in the middle of the field.
The Seahawks have played this coverage along with the Cover 3 concept, which is also a branch of the one deep safety shell. However, in this case, every defender is playing zone coverage, with the defense playing four underneath and three deep in zone.
General managers and football experts believe this is the best way to go in attacking the read-option (and Pistol sets) because it allows more defenders to play in the box. This is most certainly an option, especially with cornerbacks such as Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks and Florida State's Xavier Rhodes coming into the league in April.
However, I don't believe it's the only option.
One thing that read-option and spread offenses have done is shorten the responsibilities of quarterbacks. Whether a quarterback is reading a backside defensive end with the read-option or making a simple read when throwing a quick slant, for instance, they are making offensive football less risky.
It's less risky because there's less of a chance that the quarterback will make a mistake when taking a quick three-step drop and firing the ball out his hand. If a defense wants to increase the chances of forcing a mistake, then they shouldn't be turning their backs to the quarterback in press-man coverage.
What defenses should also be doing to account for the read-option and spread offenses is playing more zone coverage, such as Cover 2.
Cover 2 is a pure zone coverage, with five underneath defenders and two deep safeties.
Cornerbacks can set a hard edge in Cover 2 by "buzzing" (controlling) the flats while safeties worry about the deep ball. If a quarterback takes off, the cornerback is there to close the gap and fit the run. If a running back takes the ball on a read-option, then the outside is set and the teeth of the defense can concentrate on the ball-carrier.
With the rising number of athletic, dual-threat quarterbacks coming into the league, namely Florida State's E.J. Manuel, defenses can't be turning their backs on the quarterback. One can see what happens when that occurs by watching the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick gave defenses a conundrum because of his ability to throw the deep ball with pinpoint accuracy and scramble for dozens of yards with his feet. They weren't sure if they should play zone coverage, which would give him the chance to pick them apart, or play man and allow him to potentially pick up first downs with his feet.
Some say keep on playing press-man coverage and use a spy. That's not what I would rely on in a playoff game. The best way to slow down the read-option and other offensive evolutions is to play zone coverage, such as Cover 2.
Playing zone coverage puts less stress on defenders' athleticism, allowing them to play fundamentally and without over-thinking. But it asks more from the safeties and middle linebacker, which goes back to the most important factor in winning games: controlling the middle of the field.
A dominant three-technique, an athletic middle linebacker and rangy safeties are the key to slowing down the read-option. The defensive tackle penetrates to stop the running back, the athletic middle linebacker flows and scrapes over to account for the quarterback and the speedy safeties account for the middle of the field.
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