The zone read is, much like the spread that spawned it, is quickly becoming one of the vogue terms folks throw around when talking about football. In the NFL it is becoming an offseason project as coaches look to stop a new crop of quarterbacks that allow for the zone read's use. At the collegiate level, the zone read has saturated the game to the point where it is the norm in many leagues.
So, what is the zone read?
At its core, it is "zone" blocking up front, with the quarterback giving or keeping based upon the "read" he makes.
However, because most folks lack the ability, and are often too lazy to investigate the differences in the plays, "zone read" gets slapped on everything that has a quarterback and running back at a mesh point with a give-keep option. So the inverted veer, the mid-line read and the like are all lumped into the zone-read category.
It's just easier that way.
From a teaching standpoint, starting with the true zone read, it is an easy fit. Zone blocking—for plays like the stretch, inside and wide zone runs—are standard practice all over the nation. Thus, for the zone read, the offense is blocking zone and the quarterback is simply reading the defensive end.
If the end crashes down inside, then you pull it and pick up what you can out in the wide open space between where the end used to be, and the corner or safety. If you're an athletic quarterback, that's a lot of green to swim in and make people miss.
Big point of note here, running quarterbacks are not the only guys who run zone read. You'll see pass-first guys, like Bryn Renner at UNC, keep the ball on a zone read look once or twice every few games. You have to keep it every now and again to keep the defense honest. If all you do is give, then it becomes a wasted look for your team, and loses some of its danger.
With the mid-line read, you still have zone principles for the line up front; the difference here is who the read comes off of. Instead of optioning off the defensive end, the quarterback is reading an interior lineman. The change here comes in the blocking as your guard reaches to seal the linebacker, the tackle takes the end and the defensive tackle has a choice to make.
The defensive end is also thrust in a quick decision . He can do what most defensive linemen are taught, to pursue down the line on the zone play, or, he can capitalize on his shot to hit the quarterback. If he pursues down the line, he is in playing position to sit on, cut back and run down the play from the backside. That means the quarterback pulls and takes off either inside of the vacated hole, or picks his way outside to get yards.
However, if the defensive tackles eyeballs get big and he wants to get after the quarterback, the ball gets handed off and the running back is looking for a hole. The mid-line is effective, not only because of the options available on the play, but also because the give—with the defensive tackle vacating and the guard sealing the linebacker—helps create natural seams for explosive backs to get through in a hurry.
This brings us to one of the increasingly popular plays, the inverted veer.
First thing you notice in this play is that everyone is going in the same direction. Unlike the zone and mid-line reads where the running back goes play-side and quarterback goes backside, the inverted veer has both parties going in one direction.
This is the play where you're seeing the quarterback hop or side-step to the play-side, moving the mesh point to an area from behind the center and closer to the play-side guard and tackle. The big point here is that by moving the mesh point further outside, it forces the defensive end (the read player) to show his hand. He is either going to keep contain or he is going to squeeze on the end of the line.
If the end plays contain, the quarterback pulls the football and gets straight upfield with a guard from the backside pulled to lead the way. If the end plays tight to the line, then quarterback gives the ball and the back hits the edge hard, looking to get upfield and make folks miss.
The inverted veer look is very similar to the Power-O that we see out of teams like Alabama. Except, instead of Eddie Lacy running it, they have guys like Cam Newton, Tim Tebow or Braxton Miller as the ball carrier, with the option to hand the ball off to a back looking to hit the edge.
They are all scary propositions for defenses. You have to scheme to stop two plays in one, and because they can be used at any point during a game, you have to be prepared for them at all times. In the words of the Fresh Prince, Will Smith: "if you stay ready, you ain't gotta get ready."
Makes sense, right?
Except as you spend your entire defensive game plan staying ready to stop these plays, it limits what you are capable of doing to pressure the offense. The need for sound responsibilities on every play limits the amount of stunts and dogs that can be called. Limiting games and blitzes means that your defense is wildly vanilla. Vanilla defense means they know where you are going to be and that makes the rest of their playbook more dangerous.
If you are looking for examples, look no further than Oregon, Ohio State and Texas A&M. Marcus Mariota, Braxton Miller and Johnny Manziel will be on everyone's Heisman lists, and plays like this (that make them decision makers and weapons) are going to be what puts them there.
UCLA and Arizona are also going to be interesting to watch as they get deeper into their playbooks and the players get more comfortable with the schemes. Last year, Clemson, with Tajh Boyd, became a better team because Boyd realized that the zone-read looks did not work unless he was a true run threat. The quarterback became just that, running for over 500 yards in 2012.
Watching the evolution has been intriguing because they are truly putting the pressure on defenses. It is not a fad, it is a way of existing for teams and it is certainly here to stay. Defenses have to be ready, because as quarterbacks of the run-pass ilk hone their skills, stopping them only becomes more difficult.