Anyone who has had the pleasure to watch the Oregon Ducks football team play in the past two years has become familiar with the play that makes defenses cringe: the zone read. The bread-and-butter of the Oregon offense has made even the best defenses look confused. The play focuses on reading the defensive end and finding favorable blocking angles.
They have led the conference in points per game, rushing yards, and total yards each of the last two seasons including a 65 point, 385 yard rushing, and 694 total yards outburst against the Oregon State Beavers last November. This led one of the Oregon State defensive coaches to yell the following phrase at his players midway through the third quarter: “It’s the same flippin’ play!”
The zone read has two important characteristics that make it so effective. The quarterback eliminates the defensive end or outside linebacker by watching whether he crashes down the line or “stays home.”
As you can see in this video, the end comes up field towards Jeremiah Masoli forcing him to give the ball to Jeremiah Johnson. The Ducks have numbers to the right, and you can see the right tackle kick out his man. Both linebackers were blitzing from the left center of the formation creating a gaping hole in the right side of the line.
Now in this video, you can see that as the ball is snapped, the end rushes down the line hard, prompting Masoli to keep the ball. When Masoli pulls the ball from Johnson, the end has already committed to far and cannot stop his momentum to turn around and tackle Masoli. Like any football play, the ball carrier has to make some opponents miss, which we have found Masoli does pretty well.
The second aspect of the zone read is a well-known trait to all sports. This is taking advantage of what the defense gives you.
As you may have recognized, most zone read option teams run a no-huddle offense. This forces the defense to show their alignment and which side they choose to lean towards in the box. If there are more defenders to the left of the center, the play will be zone right.
In this video, Masoli reads three defenders on the left side of the formation. Along with seeing the end crash, he recognized that the defense was strong on the right side, therefore the Ducks have the advantage.
Sometimes teams will line up “straight” on defense instead of leaning to one side or the other. If this is the case, most quarterbacks are taught to read the defensive front four and setup the read for the hole between the center and guard to allow good blocking angles for the linemen.
As you see in this video from the 2007 season, the quarterback puts the slot in motion into the backfield. This gives the quarterback another option if he chooses to keep the ball. After the snap, the left tackle gets inside position on the linebacker and kicks him out, giving the quarterback a wide-open center of the field.
There is no doubt that it takes a physically as well as mentally gifted quarterback to make the right reads in a split second. Masoli struggled for the first three-quarters of 2008 to learn Chip Kelly’s complex offense, but when the Ducks put up abhorrent offensive numbers against Arizona in November, things seemed to click for Masoli.
Each team has their own wrinkle on how to run the spread but Oregon is one of the few that focuses on the run game first. Duck fans can expect to see a ton of yards and touchdowns again this season. It will be just another ho-hum year down in Eugene.
Check back next week for a strategy session on Oregon’s first month of the 2009 season.