The read-option exposed NFL defenses last year due to a lack of game-planning, limited prep time and the failure to carry out basic option responsibilities.
This offseason, Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller, Grantland’s Chris Brown and Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bedard did an excellent job breaking down some of the techniques that will be used to limit the read-option. Whether that is the “scrape-exchange” technique or the role of the safety entering the run front, defensive coordinators will be more prepared this season versus option quarterbacks in the run game.
However, what about the play-action opportunities created by the read-option scheme that tore up defensive secondaries last season? Is there an answer to defending the middle of the field, and how will teams adjust to the route concepts?
Today, let’s examine why NFL defenses are struggling to defend play action versus option teams, take a look at the All-22 tape and discuss some coverages that can shut down throwing lanes inside of the numbers.
Defensive Eye Placement Versus Play Action
In my tape study, I consistently saw linebackers and safeties looking in the backfield versus the Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks.
Defensive players have never been taught to stare at the quarterback on a run play. And that applies to every level of football. But versus read-option teams, players are ignoring their run-pass keys and sticking their eyes in the backfield while receivers get vertical up the field.
With linebackers attacking the line of scrimmage, plus safeties failing to read their keys (tight end, left tackle), the middle of the field is open 24/7 on the slant, seam, skinny post and dig (15-yard square-in).
That’s trouble when the quarterback has a clear throwing lane inside of the numbers to target receivers on basic route schemes. And it all goes back to poor eye placement.
As one NFL defensive coach told me: “It’s ridiculous the amount of notoriety offenses are getting from the defense’s lack of discipline.”
Breaking Down the Film
Let’s go to the All-22 tape and look at some examples of how the read-option has created play-action opportunities versus Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 4.
Panthers vs. Chiefs
Route: Seam (Semi-Series)
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1 (man-free)
This is a basic concept from the Panthers out of Doubles formation (2x2) with the running back offset to the open (weak) side of the formation. Quarterback Cam Newton is going to ride the back through the mesh point (QB-RB exchange) and target the tight end, Greg Olsen, on the seam route (part of the Semi-Series: Seam-Comeback). But with the Chiefs playing Cover 1 (man-free), the strong safety should be able to read the release of Olsen, carry the seam with an outside shade and use his free safety help in the middle of the field.
With Olsen showing a clear pass read (outside release at the line of scrimmage), the strong safety ignores his key and looks in the backfield. This plays out like two trains passing in the night when Olsen presses his route up the field.
Instead of matching the tight end’s release, carrying the seam and using the deep middle of the field help, the strong safety is now trying to recover from a trail position. This is an easy throw for Newton to target Olsen on the seam route for six points.
Giants vs. Redskins
Route: Skinny Post
Personnel: Posse (3WR-1TE-1RB)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 2
This is solid game-planning from the Redskins versus the Giants' Cover 2 shell. Washington gives the defense some false run keys at the line of scrimmage (wide receivers aligned inside the numbers, tight end shifts to the backfield) and shows the read-option look at the snap. The idea here is simple: force the Mike 'backer (inside vertical seam drop) to attack the line of scrimmage versus play action and target the skinny post in the middle of the field.
The Giants' Mike ‘backer focuses on the quarterback when the offensive line is showing a clear “high-hat” read (offensive line in pass sets). This isn’t a zone-blocking scheme (“low-hat” read), nor is the open-side tackle working up to the second level of the defense. And with the “bubble screen” look from the slot wide receiver to hold the nickel, plus the Mike ‘backer’s poor run-pass read, the middle of the field is open.
If the Mike ‘backer reads his keys at the snap, he can open his hips to the passing strength (two wide receiver side of the formation) and carry/match Pierre Garcon on the post. However, because of his initial step to the line of scrimmage, he now has to recover. This allows Garcon to stem the post back to the middle of the field.
The deep-half safety is going to drive the skinny post on the throw, but this isn’t his play to make. And the Redskins pick up an explosive gain versus Cover 2 because of the play action.
Redskins vs. Cowboys
Personnel: Regular (2WR-1TE-2RB)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 4
Here's more from Griffin, this time against the Cowboys' Cover 4 defense. With the Redskins in a “diamond” alignment (Pistol with three players in the backfield), the quarterback will ride the back through the mesh point and target the deep post against “Quarters." This shouldn’t be an issue for the Cowboys with the cornerback maintaining outside leverage and the strong safety rolling to the inside hip of wide receiver Aldrick Robinson on the post (bracket coverage).
With no tight end (or No. 2 receiver) to the closed side of the formation, the strong safety’s run-pass key is the right tackle. As we can see here, this is a clear “high-hat” read, but look at the safety’s eye placement. He is focused on the mesh point, and that puts his cornerback in a real tough position on the post.
Robinson gains separation on the cornerback when he stems his route back to the post. And with the strong safety late to look outside to No. 1, this turns into a footrace down the field.
It's another big play from the Redskins out of the option look that could have been prevented with the proper eye discipline and the correct run-pass read at the line of scrimmage.
Two coverages I would play versus read-option teams
If I had to put a game plan together to limit play action versus read-option teams, here are two base coverages that would be at the top of my call sheet.
Cover 1 (Man-Free)
Cover 1 is a smart call if your strong safety can consistently read the tight end (or No. 2) for his run-pass keys. Plus, you have two “hole” players in base Cover 1 (free safety in the deep middle-third, linebacker in the middle hook). This allows the strong safety to maintain his outside leverage and play the seam, dig or post with help to the inside. It takes away the quick primary target in the middle of the field.
Cover 6 (Quarter-Quarter-Half)
To the closed (strong) side of the formation (“Quarters” technique), the strong safety is going to read the release of No. 2 and carry any vertical concept past a depth of 12 yards (think seam or post here). But I’m more concerned with the backside dig route from the “X” receiver. In Cover 6, the “cloud” corner (Cover 2 technique) will impact the release of “X” with the free safety driving downhill on the dig. Add in the underneath drop of the Will 'backer, and you can eliminate that route.
Is pressure the answer?
I’ve had multiple coaches and league scouts tell me to look for more pressure schemes this season versus read-option teams.
Defensive coordinators want to speed up the “read” for the quarterback through the mesh point with edge pressure. That impacts the quarterback’s decision-making process in both the run and pass game. Plus, NFL defenses want to put a helmet under the chin of the quarterback if he elects to run the ball or stand in the pocket off play action.
The way I see it, defenses can target Griffin, Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, etc. all they want. But regardless if defensive coordinators show more pressure this season or play the coverages I listed above, it still comes down to eye discipline.
And that won’t change if you want to defend the middle of the field versus play action.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report