We are inside one month until football! I’m excited. We haven’t done a podcast in a blue moon, I’m less excited about that. But, podcast is returning soon, even if I have to do them by myself–also not something I’m super stoked about. Anyway, the topic this week is the zone read and its importance to the modern game.
We will start basic, get more complex, and I will try not to screw anything up. No promises.
The zone read is a play in football executed by the offense–I told you, basic. It is related to the standard run option. Despite occasionally incorporating loose ball elements such as pitches and passes, it is at its core a running play.
Let’s start out by talking about responsibilities–no, this isn’t the beginning of that awkward conversation you had with dad in high school. The best place to begin is with the blocking assignments.
The key component of blocking the zone read is zone blocking, hence the term ZONE read. Each member of the blocking corps is assigned an area of the field. Their job is to block anyone in that zone; if no one is there, they will have progressions to go through that often results in them helping a teammate who has two or more defenders in his zone.
Because the zone read is a run play, the lineman are allowed to release downfield and block whoever. This poses a problem when the zone read has a pass element as an option. But, let’s put a pin in that and address it later.
Again, since a zone read is a run play primarily, the receivers have blocking responsibilities–the more advanced the play, the more advanced the receivers’ blocking read. If the receiver reads man to man, he will either block his man or run his man off and away from the direction of the play. For instance, if the receiver lines up on the right and the play goes to the right, he may run a deep post route to both run his guy off and move him to the other side of the field, and less defenders on the play side is a good thing. If the defense is in zone, the receiver is usually tasked with blocking the closest defender that could threaten the play, usually an outside linebacker, via a crack block.
Additionally, receivers could have the responsibility to block and release, especially if the play has a serious pass read. Again, we’ll address this a little later in the article.
Quarterback (and Running Back)
Here is where the ‘read’ part of the zone read comes in. The blocking scheme laid out above has one key wrinkle to it, it deliberately leaves a player unblocked. Different permutations of the play and different window dressing change things slightly, but for simplicity let’s say the play-side defensive end is the player left alone–we’ll call him Red. Every zone read pay involves the quarterback placing the ball in the running back’s belly and making the read.
Now, when Red enters the backfield unabated, the quarterback must make the correct read and corresponding action at a moment’s notice. If Red crashes to take the running back, the quarterback pulls the bank and takes it himself to either run or pass. If the end breaks for the quarterback or stands pat, the quarterback gives the ball and let’s the play go as a run play. Most often this play is run out of a spread shotgun formation to provide the highest amount of spacing possible for the read.
The term progression is used to often describe a quarterback’s read algorithm, meaning that the QB is drilled on where to look first, second, third, and so on. Strict progressions are more common for college offenses and mediocre professional ones. It’s systems like these that have given rise to the fraud of the “system guy.” Just because a quarterback excels in a structured offense that is progression-heavy, he may have no creativity or football IQ beyond that.
Many of today’s best teams work off a spread read-based offense–Ohio State, Oregon, Auburn, Alabama, TCU, Baylor, etc. All these offenses are different, but underneath they have the same infrastructure.
The key permutation that has made the zone read modern has been a pass option, known as a ‘pop pass.’ In this kind of play, the zone read progresses as normal. If the running back is given the ball, nothing changes. However, if the quarterback keeps it, he has the option to throw instead of run–the idea being that the defense by cheating up a defender to take on the running quarterback threat has left a receiver open. Usually, this is a receiver in the flat and not deep. So, a threatened quarterback has a quick, short, and (most importantly) high percentage pass option to gain yards.
We talked about revisiting the linemen and receivers, so here we are. On running plays, linemen are allowed to run all the way to the goal line unrestricted. On pass plays, however, linemen aren’t eligible receivers, so they are allowed a +3 yard bubble by the officials, which means they cannot go more than 3 yards downfield. You can see how this would be a problem on a play that is primarily a run but MAY turn into a pass. Many times, linemen wind up far downfield on these pass options and in the past haven’t drawn a flag; the officials were officiating a run play, and frankly weren’t paying attention to the linemen. This has changed with most major conferences making it a point of emphasis this year. The days of a 300 pound Tackle eating a 190 pound free safety for lunch on a pass play SHOULD be over.
The receiver portion of the pass read is a block and shed play. The mindset of a cornerback getting blocked says to fight off the block and get behind the receiver. This allows for a receiver to settle in near the sideline and await a pass as a safety valve. In this way, the corner becomes the second read. If he fights off the block and comes up to make the play, the quarterback will throw the ball. If he stays with his man, the quarterback will tuck and run.
The zone read is an excellent play that is built on dynamics and structure. The adaptability of the play is crucial to its long term success. The key to stopping it for the defense is to focus on collapsing the first read. The quarterback of a great college team is seldom going to beat you with his legs, or so the convention goes. So, teams will sell out to stop the running back and live with the consequences on the perimeter with the running/passing QB. Still, scheming to stop this kind of offense is incredibly difficult and requires immense discipline from the defense. Even then, that still may not be enough.
The addition of the pass element and the flexibility of the zone blocking have taken a common triple-option style dive option, and made it a comprehensive spread attack. While we will see more flags this year for ineligible receivers downfield, we won’t see a reduction in the effectiveness of this offensive scheme.
Especially for title contenders.