Attacking the Zone Read

Beat the offense at it’s own game.

When looking at the Zone Read one has to admire the simplicity of the play and how effective it is. Defenses for decades had the advantage against offenses because it was an 11 on 10 game (the offense minus a QB). The popular West Coast and Power “I” offenses of the ’80s and ’90s took the QB run out of the playbook, and defenses feasted. As the spread began to proliferate through the football ranks the defensive stranglehold started to show some cracks. Coaches like Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez began to tear through defenses in the early 2000s, and Vince Young ran to a Rose Bowl and National Championship behind the play. It is one of the first plays an offense installs when putting together a playbook, and after close to two decades of spread dominance, it’s still a defense killer.

History Repeating

The Zone Read play is a derivative of the triple option. It is essentially the dive play without the option back. The triple option is not a new scheme, but couple it with shotgun and spread receivers across the field and it looks brand new. Spread teams can attack a defense by reading any of the 11 players on the field. Like the term suggests, in a spread offense the players are spread across the field from sideline to sideline. This puts stress on the defense by making coordinators decide how they will cover all the men on the field, and if they will focus on the run or defend the pass. Offenses have coupled the old dive play with zone blocking schemes to gain an extra man on the play side. In the read play, offenses do not block the man they are reading, this allows them to gain an extra man at the point of attack. By running a zone scheme, offenses can also pick up the pace because the offensive does not have to use antiquated verbiage to tell the offensive line to step right or left.

In a shotgun spread offense, the most basic read play attacks the defensive end to the running backs side. At the snap of the ball, the offensive line zone blocks away from the man they are reading. As the quarterback meets the running back (called the mesh point) his eyes are squarely on the defensive end. In most option offenses the quarterback is taught to read the shoulders of the end. If the shoulders turn perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, the end is chasing the back or has dive responsibility. In this case, the QB pulls the ball and heads for the edge. If the end keeps his shoulders parallel and holds his gap, the QB hands the ball off and the RB runs a simple zone play. The read play is simple but plays on the aggressiveness of a defense. In order to combat the read play, defenses must rely on sound gap principles and knowledge of how the option works. Players have to read their keys, understand what gaps are taken, and whether they are responsible for the dive, QB, or pitch.

.03 Combo
ZN Read v. a 4-3 Over set to the field.

Attacking the Read

Before a defense can attack the play a coordinator must decide who should carry the ball. Because the zone read is an option play, the defense can dictate who carries the ball by alignment and assignment. If an offense has a stud RB the defense can force the QB to keep the ball by the way they align to any formation. In the diagram above, the defense dictates the ball carrier by setting the 3 tech. to or away from the back. By using gap exchange, the defense can dictate the ball carrier. When the 3 technique (or T) is set to the RB the End holds his gap because the T is occupying the “B” gap. This guarantees the QB will hand to ball off to the RB because the End does not chase. In the next diagram, the T is set away from the back. The play side End has no one in the “B” gap beside him allowing him to chase the dive. Using gap exchange rules, the defense can create a plus 1 when the QB pulls the ball. The Will attacks the outside shoulder, while the Mike scrapes to the inside shoulder of the QB. Notice in the clip below how Alabama shifts their defensive line to the back. This creates a “hold” by the play side End, and the RB getting the ball.



By setting the 3 tech to the back, Alabama was guaranteeing that the RB was going to get the ball. Notice the boundary safety coming in late to allow the Mike to cover down to the #3 WR, and alleviate his pass/run conflict.

Setting Up the Offense

Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Lining up against an option team the same way every play will get you beat, but you cannot get too complex that the players won’t be aggressive. Every defense needs a base, a simple way to line up and attack an offense’s formation, but that base has to be flexible enough to adapt to what offenses give you. The best defensive coordinators are the ones who could moonlight as offensive coordinators and still be great at their job. In order to attack the spread you have to be simple, yet flexible enough to give the QB a different read on each play. Most offenses will pick the best front seven player and read him in the run. This makes the defenses best player wrong on every play. To counter act this a defense either has to move the player or move the front.

The key to beating any spread team is to move the “B” gap. If a team likes to “jog” the back, or change what side the QB the RB is on before the snap of the ball, have a plan to move the front. The base front diagrammed earlier in the article sets the front to the field to allow to the Sam to cover down and defend the pass. That being said, an offense can set the backfield and determine who gets the ball by how the front aligns. This point alone is why a defensive coordinator needs multiple options for defending the Zone Read. Here is a list of top schemes used:

  1. Gap-Exchange: This was discussed earlier in the article, and uses the Ends to either hold or close down any open gap
  2. Spin the Coverage: Teams that spin to a single-high safety roll their coverage to the read side to allow the LBs to plug their gaps, while the dropping safety takes care of the QB.
  3. Full Line Movement: Knowing that the End to the back is the “read” End, teams use full line movement to force the QB to pull. When the QB pulls he runs into both ILBs who have rocked back to secure him. This creates a wall to the play side and will force the RB, if handed the ball, to cut back to the open LBs. This is particularly good if a defense has athletic defensive linemen.
  4. Edge Blitz: By sending a man of the edge, and right for the running back or QB, a defense can dictate who receives the ball. In this scheme the LB who is not blitzing rocks back, or takes the assignment from the blitzing LB.

When attacking the Zone Read use the offense’s rules against them. Be creative and change the gaps. Create situations where defenders are changing their responsibilities, but keep gap sound against the run. That guarantees a defense always has a plus 1.

**If interested in more info on how to attack the spread, check out this article from on how to defend the spread.**