The read-option offense may be new to the NFL, but its history in football stretches back decades. That doesn't mean NFL defensive coordinators know how to defend it.
Numerous NFL teams—including the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons—have sent their defensive staffs to college coaches seeking the answer to defending the read-option, but why has such a simplistic offense confused the best football minds, and how can defensive coordinators steal back the upper hand?
The read-option creates problems for defenses by outnumbering the defense near the line of scrimmage and by creating confusion on the edge.
The San Francisco 49ers rode the read-option all the way to a Super Bowl berth thanks to the running ability of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the inside running skills of Frank Gore as the dive back and the constant threat of a pass or run on the edge by Kaepernick. The Green Bay Packers surrendered a league-high 181 yards rushing to Kaepernick, ending their playoff hopes.
So, how do Dom Capers and his fellow defensive coordinators stop the unstoppable offense?
1. Take Away the Read
One of the biggest keys to stopping the read-option is to simply take away the read aspect. In the 49ers' offense, and in the example shown above, this means taking away Colin Kaepernick reading the end man on the defensive line. How do you do this?
Coaches talked all offseason about something called the "scrape exchange," and this may be the first key to effectively taking away the read in the read-option.
In a traditional 4-3 or 3-4 defense, the defensive end has quarterback responsibility and the outside linebacker then takes the running back trailing the quarterback—which can be a blocker, a receiver or a pitch-back option as a runner. This is what you teach junior high school kids to do when defending the option.
Now, the scrape exchange flips that on its head without being obvious.
A defense running a scrape exchange switches responsibilities. In this scenario, the defensive end always has running back responsibility, while the outside linebacker always has quarterback duty. This flip-flop will give an unprepared quarterback nightmares as he tries to read a player—the defensive end—who isn't tasked with defending him.
There are holes to this theory, like the offense adjusting on the fly and reading the outside linebacker instead of the end, but schematically this is the best answer to taking away the outside run by the quarterback.
Taking away the read—be it with a scrape exchange or just good assignment-based football—is much easier said than done. While the read-option may be predicated on outnumbering the defense, it thrives on the knowledge that someone on defense will mess up his assignment and execution.
When that happens, the offense has three ways—quarterback run, quarterback give, quarterback pass—to beat you.
2. Run Clean Alleys
Anyone who watched the Green Bay Packers struggle to defend the read-option in the divisional playoffs saw a team running very poor alleys when coming up to attack the football.
Running alleys is football code for your safeties seeing the ball and taking the right angle to get to the runner. You want your safety running the most direct route to where the football will be, not where it is. When I was coaching, this was the most difficult aspect of teaching young safeties. Instead of going where the ball will be, they undershoot the angle and end up chasing a runner from behind.
In the NFL, where everyone has elite speed, safeties must take clear, clean angles to the ball to take away the outside run by a quarterback.
The key to tackling Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick on the edge rests in the hands of the free or strong safety the second he gets past the outside linebacker. You need a Bernard Pollard or Dashon Goldson who is willing to run the alley and put plastic on the ball carrier.
3. Lock Cornerbacks in Zero Coverage
One forgotten aspect of the read-option is the ability of the quarterback to throw the ball for positive yardage. This is, in my opinion, what makes the read-option so dangerous from an offensive standpoint and why it will last longer than the failed Wildcat experiment.
How do you play coverage when eight defenders are committed to stopping the three-headed rushing attack? With tight zero—or man—coverage.
Stopping the run takes up so much of the defense's brainpower, but to effectively shut down the read-option, defensive coordinators must place more trust in their cornerbacks to turn and run with wide receivers down the field.
When an offense runs the read-option, forget about your cornerbacks for the first few seconds of the play. They aren't coming up to make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, or shouldn't be.
Instead, a good cornerback should be riding the hip pocket of his man, taking away the passing threat. Any quarterback worth his salt will be looking from the read player—defensive end—to the route behind him to see if the cornerback is in place. A good quarterback will make that read and throw hot routes all day if the cornerback isn't in position.
Setting the edge is important to stopping the running aspect of the read-option, but tight man coverage is the key to stopping the passing aspect. Of course, this means having talented cornerbacks to take on receivers in man coverage.
Teams like the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys have the cornerback personnel to run zero coverage against a read-option, but few teams have a complete defensive depth chart to stop the offense with safeties, linebackers and coverage on the back end.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Atlanta Falcons missed 10 tackles in the NFC Championship game. Run those numbers throughout the year and you see, quite predictably, that teams facing the read-option missed more tackles than those facing a conventional running system.
Setting the edge with power and being able to tackle in space are the keys to putting the read-option down. The offense is designed to be a mismatch, and no matter who is carrying the ball, your defenders have to be sound tacklers first and foremost.
You can scheme, diagram, twist and stunt all day, but if your outside linebacker isn't willing to come up and make a play on the ball, nothing you do as a defensive coordinator will matter.
Some may feel the read-option is a fad, a gimmick offense that won't last long, but I beg to differ. Unlike the Wildcat, the read-option can beat a defense with a tough ground game both between the tackles and on the edge while keeping a passing game functioning at a high level.
No, the read-option isn't a passing fad, it's an offensive innovation that will continue to keep unprepared defenses up at night.
We've seen over the course of the 2013 offseason that teams are willing to invest in adding defenders specifically tailored to stopping the read option. The Packers drafted Datone Jones (DE-UCLA) in the first round, while the Seattle Seahawks signed free agent pass rushers Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett. Outside linebackers Paul Kruger, Erik Walden and Connor Barwin drew big money on the open market thanks to their ability to set the edge.
Be it schemes or financials, NFL teams are trying to figure out ways to stop the read option.