In today’s installment of the “NFL 101” series at Bleacher Report, former NFL defensive back Matt Bowen breaks down the basics of the read-option to give you a better understanding of scheme and execution at the pro level.
Click here for a breakdown of the Zone-Running Game
Click here for a breakdown of the Power-Running Game
In last week’s “NFL 101” breakdown, we looked at the core concepts in the zone-running game to highlight the blocking techniques along the offensive line (“zone step”) that counter multiple defensive fronts in both the inside and outside zone schemes.
Today, let’s focus on the read-option, which uses those same zone-blocking techniques on the offensive line with the quarterback “reading” the unblocked edge defender through the “mesh point” (quarterback-running back exchange) out of a variety of personnel groupings and alignments.
A scheme that produced consistently during the 2012 season, the read-option was limited to a degree this past year due to the prep work (game-planning, film study) and the overall execution/technique (“scrape exchange”) of opposing defenses.
However, as a complement to the core zone-running schemes in the playbook, the read-option can still produce based on game situation when you have the talent at the quarterback position to ride the running back through the mesh point, pull the ball and press the edge of the defense.
Using the All-22 coaches tape, let’s run through some examples of the read-option out of the shotgun, pistol, diamond, etc., while also looking at the triple-option, inverted power veer and the read-scheme off the buck sweep action.
Read-Option (Shotgun) vs. Edge Crash
The most common option scheme in the NFL is run out of a one-back look from the shotgun or pistol alignment with the running back on the inside zone and the quarterback “reading” the initial path of the edge defender (defensive end, outside linebacker) through the mesh point.
With zone blocking up front, the quarterback can give the ball to the running back (dive) or keep (pull) based on his “read” of the unblocked edge defender.
If the edge defender crashes on the dive, the quarterback will pull the ball and press to the outside. If the edge defender stays up the field or “slow plays” the mesh point (lateral shuffle to play both dive and keep), the quarterback can hand the ball to the back.
Here’s an example of the read-option out of the shotgun from the Saints-Seahawks matchup with Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) on the field for Seattle.
With the Saints in their nickel front playing Cover 1 (safety rolled down over the tight end), quarterback Russell Wilson will ride running back Marshawn Lynch through the mesh point and “read” (or “option”) the edge defender (defensive end).
As you can see here, the defensive end crashes inside on Lynch with the linebacker flowing to the dive instead of scraping over the top (“scrape exchange” technique).
This allows Wilson to read the inside path of the defensive end (through the mesh point), pull the ball and attack the edge of the defense with the edge defender now removed versus the dive action.
With a soft edge to work against (and the linebacker in a trail position attempting to redirect to the ball), Wilson can get to the outside and pick up a first down.
Read-Option (Shotgun) vs. "Slow Play"
What happens when the unblocked edge defender “slow plays” the mesh point (lateral stance, shuffle, react to keep/slide inside versus dive) in an attempt to play both the quarterback and the running back?
Here’s an example from the Eagles-Packers matchup this past season, with the same option scheme we just looked at from the Seahawks tape.
The Eagles use zone blocking (“zone step” to the right) with the outside linebacker left unblocked to the open side of the formation.
This allows quarterback Nick Foles to ride running back LeSean McCoy through the mesh point and read the path of the linebacker. Does he crash (dive), stay up the field (quarterback) or attempt to “slow play” the read?
With the linebacker using a “slow play” technique (and reacting late), the Eagles quarterback gives to McCoy on the inside dive and forces the edge defender to fold back to the ball on a positive gain.
"Scrape Exchange" Technique
To limit the read-option from the shotgun or the one-back pistol, defenses will use the “scrape exchange” technique to account for both the running back and the quarterback with the edge defender and the play-side linebacker.
Here’s an example of the Colts using the “scrape exchange” technique versus the Seahawks.
With Wilson using the same “read” through the mesh point, the Colts edge defender crashes on the dive. This allows the linebacker to “scrape” over the top to play the quarterback as Wilson pulls the ball.
And the result is a negative play for the Seahawks after the linebacker works to the edge of the defense and makes a tackle versus Wilson behind the line of scrimmage.
To counter the “scrape exchange” technique, NFL offenses will run the read-option out of the two-back Pistol with the offset fullback (or H-Back) utilizing an “arc” block to account for the linebacker scraping over the top to the quarterback.
Using an example from the Bears-Redskins matchup, let’s take a look at how Washington produced an explosive gain out of Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB) with the “arc” block clearing a path for quarterback Robert Griffin III.
With the Bears in their 4-3 “Under” front, Griffin will read the path of the (strong) closed-side defensive end to give the ball to running back Alfred Morris (zone blocking) or pull to test the edge of the formation.
However, check out the fullback offset to the open (weak) side. At the snap, the fullback will take a strong-side path (behind the line of scrimmage) and track the Mike ‘backer scraping to the outside.
At the mesh point, Griffin reads the inside path of the defensive end (crashes versus the dive) and pulls the ball with the fullback now fitting up on the Mike ‘backer.
This allows Griffin to attack the edge of the defense with the tight end working to the Sam ‘backer to create a wide running lane for the quarterback.
And with the Redskins sealing the defensive pursuit to the inside on the zone-blocking technique, Griffin makes a cut off the fullback to produce an explosive gain on the option scheme.
NFL teams will use multiple alignments and personnel to utilize the arc block on the read-option scheme.
Here’s an example from the 49ers-Panthers matchup in the divisional playoffs with San Francisco using wide receiver “jet” motion (motion into the core of the formation) to create an “arc” block with Posse/11 personnel on the field.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will read the initial path of defensive end Greg Hardy and give the ball to Frank Gore on the inside dive (zone blocking) or pull to get to the edge of the formation.
This is where the wide receiver comes into play. With the 49ers using that “jet” motion, they can bring the receiver to the edge of the defense (and up to the second level) to block the safety filling the alley versus the option scheme.
And with the Panthers playing Cover 1 (man-free), the cornerback will “travel” (match to coverage) versus the “jet” motion.
At the mesh point, the defensive end crashes inside to play Gore on the dive. This allows Kaepernick to “read” the path of the defensive end, pull the ball and attack outside with the receiver working to the edge of the formation.
With the wide receiver sealing the safety filling downhill in the alley and the cornerback taking a poor angle to the ball, Kaepernick can cut inside, press vertically up the field and take this in for a touchdown versus the Panthers.
An alignment that often shows up in the college game, the “Diamond” allows the offense to attack both sides of the formation and run the read-option.
Let’s take a quick look at the Diamond alignment from the Redskins-Cowboys matchup to see how Washington executes the read-option.
With Griffin reading the path of the defensive end, the Redskins will use the fullback to the closed side of the formation on the “arc” block versus the Sam ‘backer while also bringing the tight end offset to the open side on another “arc” block to track the Mike ‘backer scraping over the top.
If the defensive end crashes inside, Griffin can pull the ball with both the fullback and tight end accounting for the two play-side linebackers using the “arc” block at the point of attack.
And if the defensive end stays up the field, Griffin can hand to Morris on the dive (inside zone scheme).
The triple-option doesn’t show up often at the NFL level, but teams will utilize a “pitch” man to “option” second-level defenders on the edge after reading inside on the dive action.
Here’s an example of the Chiefs creating a triple-option look off wide receiver “ghost” motion/action (motion to core of the formation, work behind the running back at the snap) versus the Cowboys.
With the Chiefs in a pistol alignment, wide receiver Dexter McCluster will use “ghost” motion/action to work behind running back Jamaal Charles at the snap. This gives Kansas City a “pitch” man once quarterback Alex Smith “reads” the path of the defensive end.
If the end crashes to Charles on the dive, Smith can pull the ball and “option” the cornerback on the edge.
Here’s a look at Smith at the mesh point with the defensive end crashing inside and the tight end fitting up on the Mike ‘backer in the zone-blocking scheme.
Smith can now pull the ball and get to the edge of the defense with McCluster working behind Charles to become the “pitch” man to the closed side of the formation.
With the cornerback widening to play McCluster on the pitch, Smith can keep the ball, attack the running lane and cut up the field to produce a positive gain off the triple-option.
Inverted Power Veer
The Power Veer has some similarities to the Power O running scheme with the offense pulling the backside guard and the quarterback riding the running back through the mesh point to the play side of the formation.
This allows the quarterback to “read” the path of the edge defender with the backside guard working up through the hole as a lead blocker if the quarterback pulls the ball and gets up the field.
Let’s check out an example of the Power Veer from the Panthers-Bucs matchup.
As you can see from the tape, quarterback Cam Newton read the defensive end through the mesh point, with the backside guard pulling to the play side to work to the second level of the defense.
This forces the defensive end to play the running back or crash inside versus Newton if he keeps the ball.
At the mesh point, the Bucs defensive end stays outside and plays the running back. This gives Newton the opportunity to pull the ball and follow the guard through the hole as he targets the linebacker scraping to the play side of the formation.
This concept gives the offense a power scheme off the veer action that we usually see in the downhill running game.
Buck Sweep (Read)
In the traditional Buck Sweep, the offense will pull both the backside and play-side guard to give the running back lead blockers on the edge of the formation with the tight end blocking down at the point of attack.
However, NFL teams have added the option scheme off the Buck Sweep action that allows the quarterback to “read” an unblocked backside defender through the mesh point to hand the ball off or keep to get up the field.
Let’s look at an example from the Eagles-Redskins matchup with Michael Vick in the game at quarterback.
In this situation, the Eagles will pull the center and the play-side tackle (based on game plan/defensive front) with the open-side tackle using a hinge block to seal the outside linebacker.
This forces the second-level linebackers to flow play-side versus the center/tackle and allows Vick to ride McCoy through the mesh point while reading the unblocked defensive end/tackle to the open side.
With the second-level linebackers now removed, and the defensive end/tackle crashing inside to McCoy at the mesh point, Vick can pull the ball and attack the running lane to the open side of the formation.
And because of the late run fill from the safety in the alley, Vick can take this ball across the goal line for six points.
Up Next in the “NFL 101” Series: Packaged Plays
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.