Chalk Dust Xs and Os: The Zone Read

The zone read play has taken over college football and even several NFL teams have started utilizing it. So let’s dig a little deeper…

The Background
Rich Rodriguez is widely credited with creating the Zone Read at Glenville State in 1991 after his quarterback botched a snap but picked up the defensive end chasing the running back and simply ran to the vacated area for a five yard gain. Rodriguez still had some roots in the run-and-shoot passing game but began to marry it to the new Zone Read plays to immediate success at Glenville State. He proceeded to bring Shaun King to success at Tulane in 1997 and 1998 then developed Woody Dantzler at Clemson from 1999-2000.

Rodriguez would then be named head coach at West Virginia and take his spread offense centered around the Zone Read and develop a devastating offense around the concept with talent such as Pat White, Steve Slaton, and Noel Devine. After a brief run at Michigan, Rodriguez is currently coaching at Arizona.

Bill Snyder, a long time head coach at Kansas State, is credited as well although his offense was more reminiscent of the old single wing. A lot of his offensive style was schemed more around quarterback draws and speed options towards the outside along with more of a Veer option inside running game.

The other big influences on the Zone Read were: Urban Meyer at Utah (with Alex Smith) then Florida (with Tim Tebow) and currently coaching at The Ohio State and Chip Kelly at New Hampshire (with Ricky Santos) then Oregon (with Dennis Dixon and Marcus Mariota). Urban’s offense more closely resembled Bill Snyder, whom Meyer has credited with influencing him whereas Chip Kelly was closer to Rich Rodriguez’s style out of the shotgun.

As the Zone Read has become a staple in football, coaches have continued to tweak it further incorporating a third option (for triple option plays) as well as screen passes and even down field throws.

The Plays and Concept
The basic concept of the Zone Read is the reading of the defender married to a zone blocking scheme. Most of the plays involve leaving the end man on the line of scrimmage (can be the DE or OLB) unblocked and ‘block’ him by forcing him to make a decision. If the end man follows the running back, the quarterback pulls the ball and runs for the vacated area. If the defender stays or moves to contain, the quarterback hands off.

Chip Kelly does a great job explaining his Zone Read concept here, Chip explains ZR. Note that he mentions they only have 4 run plays and that he, “… wants the ball in the running back’s hands. We do not want the quarterback carrying the ball… We want the quarterback to give the ball unless he cannot.” This was perfectly exemplified by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. Running backs LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown combined for 389 carries whereas Nick Foles ran 57 times and Mike Vick ran 36 times. The quarterbacks combined for just 6 carries a game (a lot by NFL standards) but the running backs averaged 25 carries a game when including Chris Polk and Brad Smith. That is 4 times more than the quarterbacks.

The reading of the defensive end or outside linebacker has its roots in the Veer Option play. The quarterback would take the snap and read the interior defender (the defensive tackle or nose tackle) to decide whether to hand off to the running back or keep the ball and use his teammate as a lead blocker instead. With the threat of a screen pass or play action, defenses can’t afford to bring 7 or 8 men into the box to stop the run and the Zone Read usually forces a favorable numbers game for the offensive line.

On the Inside Zone, the interior LG/C and RG/RT double team the defensive tackles. The C or RG then peels off and gets up field to the second level (the linebackers or in the box safety) and blocks them allowing open space for the running back if he gets the handoff. In the picture below you can see the double teams in the Zone Blocking as well as the quarterback completely reading the defensive end coming in off the edge (making this a rather easy read).

The outside zone read often involves a center or guard pulling to help the H-Back or tackle seal the opposite side should the quarterback decide to keep the ball, which happens more rarely than on inside zone read plays. In the video below at the 1:34 mark is an example of the quarterback keeping and following the hole opened up by his blockers. The H-Back picks up the outside linebacker and the center pulls to get to the second level, taking out the middle linebacker. The right defensive end is left unblocked and squats to contain the running back. The right guard also pulls behind the center allowing another blocker at the second level.

The final key plays are offshoots with the bubble screen primarily being the key passing concept from the zone read scheme. The bubble is targeted towards either the outside or inside receiver, allowing the other to block their defensive back at the point of the catch. The quarterback reads the alignment of the defensive back and if they are playing far off the receiver, he is allowed to throw a quick bubble screen that essentially acts as an outside running play in place of the outside zone read. Foles extends the play fake and ties up the defensive back, allowing even more room when he does throw parallel to his receiver in the second clip.

A final intriguing addition is the triple option. The Zone Read is executed as it normally is but an H-Back is utilized to block the defensive back while the split out running back comes back into the formation to be the give man. Since the quarterback is lined up with two running backs behind him, the other running back heads to the outside as if the play was a normal speed option run to the outside giving the quarterback two traditional running plays packaged into one.

Final Analysis
In a lot of ways, the zone read offense has become the modern day triple option. The emphasis is primarily on a ground zone running game utilizing multiple running backs and the quarterback as a dual threat. The ability to throw in wrinkles such as a bubble screen or play action down field passes allows for a more vertical, open passing game that can rival the aggressive concepts of the Flexbone or other option heavy schemes.

As more teams are running the plays, it will be interesting to see the future wrinkles added into it. I can eventually see the triple option building into play action passes off of them or incorporating a more down field attack as a variation on the bubble screen (such as the quick hook route associated with the Air Raid Stick concept).

Credit to the amazing Chris Brown of the Smart Football Blog for the feature image


Written by David Hunter

David Hunter enjoys writing about wrestling, sports, music, and horror!

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