Twenty years ago, the NFL was in the midst of a passing revolution. The 1993 season included Joe Montana (in Kansas City), Steve Young, John Elway, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, a young Drew Bledsoe, Troy Aikman, Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason.
To counter the passing attacks of the day, NFL general managers started looking for safeties who could cover wide receivers and play in a zone to force turnovers against the pass. Gone were the Steve Atwater-types who loved to hit and essentially played linebacker at 220 pounds.
Instead, safety prospects entering the league became smaller—many around 200 pounds—and quicker in order to play the field in coverage. The days of the in-the-box safety were dying. We just didn't know it yet.
Today, we're seeing another evolution of NFL defenses. League rules have systematically made the passing game the go-to way to move the ball for most teams. To beat back against the speed on offense, teams went smaller on defense.
Linebackers weighing 230 pounds and safeties running a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash sacrificed size and strength, but they impressed in foot races. The trend has moved to "smaller, but faster." And that's why the read-option is so dangerous as an offensive weapon in 2013.
The read-option has been well-discussed this summer. Our own Matt Bowen has covered it as well as anyone. Chris Brown at Smart Football and Chris Burke and Greg Bedard at Sports Illustrated added in their own wrinkles. You should know how the read-option works on offense. So why can't defenses stop it?
Defending against the read-option is as much about philosophy as it is personnel, but when talking about how to stop the play, no one talks about the need for specific players.
The Green Bay Packers assumed they could learn to stop the read-option by spending summer camp at Texas A&M, but without the right athletes, no amount of execution will work. Yes, you read that right. The read-option cannot be stopped with execution minus athleticism. It won't happen.
Every read-option play in the NFL playbook right now works because the offense freezes the defense—and often the defense's best player—not by blocking him, but by not blocking him.
The quarterback then reads this player. If the defender comes at the quarterback, the ball goes to a running back. If the defender attacks the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball. Simple, right? What about when the quarterback pulls the ball and throws it downfield?
Our Matt Bowen talked about how to defend the read-option with strategy (and you really should read this), but expanding on what the seven-year NFL veteran laid out, it's shocking to see how few NFL teams have the personnel to stop a three-headed, read-option attack.
If you've been told that "hitting the quarterback" is all it takes to stop the read-option, how do you hit the quarterback when he's just thrown the ball over your head?
Imagine you are an NFL safety.
Before the snap, you read your keys—tight end and left tackle—and start to track toward where your reads tell you to go. One thing you're taught as a safety is to never (ever) look into the backfield at the quarterback on a run play, but you can't help it.
Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore are meshing, waiting for the defense to expose its weakness. You start to close on the ball, but where do you go? Who has the ball? It's a guessing game, and few NFL safeties are athletic enough to guess wrong and correct their path to get in position to stop the play.
So who do you attack? That's why this offense works—because so many offenses are capitalizing on defenders guessing wrong and then being too slow to correct their mistakes.
As a former coach who saw plenty of read-option attacks, the most important player for the defense isn't the defensive end—as he'll likely be the read player. Outside linebackers are valuable if they're in position, but a great safety is much more important to shutting down the run and pass options in a Chip Kelly-style read-option play.
Kelly's offense works by paralyzing the defense, and he does this by making defenders think. To excel at the safety position as the game evolves, the safety must be a fluid, smart athlete.
When scouting safeties for the NFL draft, it's becoming less common to divide them into categories of "strong" and "free" safeties. More NFL teams are running "Quarters" coverage, which asks both safeties to play in coverage.
This means fewer strong safeties playing as an extra linebacker and more dual-threat players who can stop the run and cover. The trouble is, there are few players talented enough to truly do this.
The prototypical safety for stopping Chip Kelly's read-option does exist, though, and he plays in Seattle.
Earl Thomas, at 5'10", 208 pounds and with his 4.37 40-yard-dash, is the epitome of how today's safety should play. Thomas is big enough to make open-field tackles, has the speed to run in coverage and has the quickness to adjust if he reads the play wrong. But that's another thing with Thomas; in 2012, he was rarely out of place against read-option teams.
Since there are few Thomas-type players in the NFL right now, you can see why defenses have and will continue to struggle with option-based plays. Whether that's a quarterback run, a running back run or a play-action pass, this is an increasingly tough offense to scheme for.
Stopping the read-option depends on athletes making plays on the field. You can't teach a defender where to go when the play's end result hasn't been designed.
Will defenses eventually catch up? Maybe. But if so, it will be because of a shift in how teams evaluate the safety position. It's easy to ask for more Earl Thomas-level players, but few of them exist.
What we can expect in this evolutionary phase of the league is for more athletic defenders—guys like Dion Jordan and Ezekiel Ansah—to be favored early in the NFL draft. Defensive weapons who can run with speedy quarterbacks, cover tight ends and set the edge against the run will be more important than ever.
Few NFL teams today are prepared to stop Chip Kelly or Jim Harbaugh if they commit to running the read-option and utilizing it as a running and passing weapon.
Week 1 against Washington, watch as Michael Vick carves up the Redskins safeties. In San Francisco, watch as Colin Kaepernick works play-action passing over the top of the Green Bay Packers defensive backs. By Tuesday morning, the NFL will see that on defense, they're ill-prepared to stop the read-option.
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