Attacking the Zone Read

It’s one of the simpelist plays a Spread team can run, but devistating if not held in check.

When looking at the Spread’s most basic run, the Zone Read, one has to admire the simplicity of the play and how effective and efficient 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 a result. As the Spread began to proliferate through the football ranks the defensive stranglehold started to show some cracks. The large “pluggers” that defenses had accumulated were now obsolete when put into space.

Coaches like Urban Meyer and Rich Rodriguez (see video below) began to tear through defenses in the early 2000s, and Vince Young ran to a Rose Bowl and National Championship behind the simplest of plays, the Zone Read. It is one of the first plays a Spread offense installs when putting together a playbook, and after close to two decades of Spread dominance, it’s still a defense killer. As football moves further into the age of the Spread offense, two things are clear; football has become a game about space and hybrid players. The Zone Read highlights this evolution greater than any other play. Ask a traditional Triple Option coach and when they watch a Spread option attack they see the Dive Option, just with the players spread across the field.

History Repeating

The 10 personnel 2×2 Zone Read is a derivative of the Flex Bone’s Triple Option. It is essentially the Dive Option/Veer without the slot back orbiting around as the option back. In a traditional Dive Option, the front side slot will load or arc on an overhang. This traditional Triple Option play can be seen in the 20 pers. Arc Options that have become popular at all levels of football (shown below).


Some teams like Bob Davies’ New Mexico Lobos are literally running a Flex Bone offense from the Pistol while utilizing Spread formations and implementing zone schemes for the offensive line. Watch a Navy game and a coach might be surprised to see Pistol Diamond and other “spread” looking formations. The traditional Flex Bone offense isn’t dead, it just has evolved. As more offenses turn to hybrid players that can carry and catch the ball (and don’t forget the explosion in dual-threat QBs), the Option isn’t likely to die out any time soon. The diagram below demonstrates the evolution.

Veer v ZN Read

The Triple Option is not a new scheme, but couple it with a shotgun/Pistol backfields and spread the receivers across the field, it looks brand new. Spread teams can attack a defense by reading any of the 11 players on the field. This gives a creative offensive coordinator a lot to work with. Watch any elite Spread offense and a coach will see unbalanced formations, arcing H-backs and TEs, and even “Bash” concepts (attacking the defense vertically as well as horizontally). As stated earlier, the Triple Option isn’t dead, in fact, it is having a renaissance.

The “New” Option

Like the namesake 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/Veer play with zone blocking schemes to gain an extra man on the play side. In the Zone Read, 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 have alleviated some of the issues when regarding the defense’s front. The O-line simply has to step right or left and pick up their man or climb to a ‘backer.

In a shotgun Spread offense, the most basic Zone Read attacks the defensive end to the running backs side (“read” 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 (mesh point) his eyes are squarely on the defensive end. The added value that the Bubble screen gives the offense forces the defense to vacate a defender form the box to cover down to the slot receiver. No cover down equals a quick strike to a WR screen and a one-on-one tackle in space for a safety careening downhill. Situations like this are not something a DC wants to live with on every play. Spread Option offenses view a WR screen no different than an outside run and in most Spread offenses the slot WR is one of their best athletes and a man that can catch and carry the ball.

In most option offenses the quarterback is taught to read the shoulders of the DE. If the shoulders turn perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, the DE is chasing the back or has “Dive” responsibility. In the case of a crashing DE, the QB pulls the ball and heads for the edge. If the DE keeps his shoulders parallel and holds his gap (“QB” player), the QB hands the ball off and the RB runs a simple zone play. The Zone Read is simple but it plays on the aggressiveness of a defense, especially one that is undisciplined. In order to combat the Zone Read, defenses must rely on sound gap principles and knowledge of how the option works (just like a defense would if it were playing the Flexbone). Players have to read their keys, understand what gaps are taken, and whether they are responsible for the Dive, QB, or Pitch.

Attacking the Zone Read

Before a defense can “attack” the Zone Read a coordinator must decide who should carry the ball. The Zone Read is fundamentally an option play, the defense can dictate who carries the ball by alignment and assignment (and then muddying the waters by switching responsibilities). 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. Offenses with an immobile QB will still use the Zone Read so the “read” side tackle can climb to the next level. This scheme allows for a blocker to get downfield without wasting him on a defender that won’t make the play.

.03 Combo

In the diagram above, the defense dictates the ball carrier by setting the 3 technique to or away from the back. By using gap exchange, the defense can dictate the ball carrier. When the 3 tech. is set to the RB the DE to that side “holds” his gap because the 3 tech. is occupying the “B” gap. This almost guarantees the QB will hand to ball off to the RB because the DE does not chase because he has the QB in his option rules.

In the next diagram, the 3 tech. is set away from the back. The “read” side DE 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-one when the QB pulls the ball. The Will attacks the outside shoulder, while the Mike scrapes to the inside shoulder of the QB. The use of alignment is demonstrated in the clip below. Alabama shifts their defensive line to the RB (3 tech. to the “read” side). This movement to an Over Front creates a “hold” by the play side DE (QB player) and guarantees the RB getting the ball.


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 a defense beat. Against tempo Spread offenses a defense cannot get too complex or the players won’t be aggressive to the ball because they will be trying to line up or run the called defense. 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 it.

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, a defense must be simple, yet flexible enough to give the QB a different read on each play or change the open gaps post-snap. Most offenses will pick the best front seven player and read him in the run game. This makes the defense’s best player “wrong” on about every play. To counteract 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 RB is on before the snap of the ball, a defense must 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 a full cover down and defend the RPO. That being said, an offense can set the backfield and determine who gets the ball by how the front aligns (and in Pistol 2×2 they can do this without tipping their cap). 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 DEs to either “hold” or close down (“chase”) 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. This puts the defense in one-on-one tackling situations on the edges.
  3. Full Line Movement: Knowing that the DE to the back is the “read” player, teams use full line movement to force the QB to pull because the DE will disappear into the line. When the QB pulls he runs into both an ILB who has 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 off 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 pre- and post-snap. The defense must create situations where defenders are changing their responsibilities, but keep gap sound against the run. That guarantees a defense always has a plus-one versus the run and pass. The key to defending any Spread Option attack is to force the lesser athlete to carry the ball and make sure to punish the QB when he runs the ball. Modern Spread teams are adding blockers into the mix too. The expansion of hybrid players has led to an explosion in creativity for offenses. The “spread-to-run” concept is one that most teams will see on their schedule. Understanding how to defend a foundational play allows the defensive coaches to then expand and cover complex schemes. At the end of the day, a defense must know their responsibilities. It is up to the coaches to change the look and either force the offense into a corner or make the QB read the defense in muddy waters.

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Author: MatchQuarters


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