The zone-read play has come a long ways since it was originally developed as a way to run the ball from the shotgun spread and gave that formation legitimacy in the college game. Once teams realized they could run the option from the shotgun spread and use the spacing of the receivers to create space in the alley, then teams begin to build run-centric systems from the zone-read play.
Like with other major tactics within the spread offense, the zone-read inevitably had the effect of pushing the game out to the perimeter and the passing game. The passing game is how you score points and win games, the run game is most effective as a tool for manipulating the defense into giving you chances to pass efficiently. The best spread teams throw to set up the run, forcing teams to concede space and angles underneath that will allow the offense to bully them and control the ball not as a primary strategy but as an accepted concession from the defense.
It’s been over a decade now since the zone-read was mainlined as an offensive tactic across the game and even in the NFL it’s been adopted and made a major component for multiple teams. There are preferred ways for defenses to counter it and the normal adjustments, which have led to the development of pass-first, triple-option styles to teams that run the zone-read today.
The preferred way to stop the zone-read
For a variety of reasons, most teams like to contain the ball on zone-read and turn it into a normal inside zone play. Offenses can attach lots of threats on the backside and start to outnumber a defense if they encourage the QB to pull the ball, which then forces the defense to get aggressive and then ultimately you’re conceding space and matchups outside to a spread offense in an effort to handle their run game concepts, which is playing into their hands. Another problem is that teaching ILBs to play the QB can hurt them if the offense mixes in variety, such motion and RPOs that can confuse the assignments.
But also, if the team has an athletic contain player on the edge that's being left unblocked on the option they can often create a 2-for-1. Such teams will prefer to play the scheme like this:
There are a few key and common features to this style of zone-read defense. The first step is to set the 3-technique to the same side as the RB. When the 3-technique is in that B-gap, the cutback lane is diminished for the RB and he has to cut back to the C if he wants to hit a crease that way. Additionally, with the B-gap protected then the DE/OLB to the RB’s side next to him can focus on containing the QB and not stepping down to fill the B-gap after the run. He’ll stay square so he can first contain the QB and prevent him from keeping the ball around a soft edge, then he’ll step inside and ensure that there’s no room for a cutback if the offense double teams the 3-technique off the line.
The upside from being able to defend the play in this manner is to help to cover the bubble screens that teams will attach to the zone-read so that offenses can’t get free yards playing pitch and catch on the perimeter. The middle linebacker here can defend the bubble screen, he’s not needed in the run fit because all of the backside options that make this play deadly are outnumbered and out-leveraged with this approach.
From here it’s a matter of figuring how to stop frontside runs by the RB. Usually that’s handled either by involving the CB or S in the run fit or two-gapping the B/C gaps with the DE or the A/B gaps with the NT. The two-gapping effect is achieved with a “heavy” technique where the DL will shove an OL into the next one so that he’s in one gap and the other is closed by the OL’s own bodies. Theoretically, even if the RB manages to find some running room through that mess the defense still has a CB and S sitting on top who now have time to close on the ball and limit the damage. The goal isn’t necessarily to totally shut down the zone-read but to limit it and prevent teams from using it to create the space they want on the perimeter to really burn the defense.
If the free safety can play the quick RPO shot to the X receiver and still arrive to fill a gap, or a DL can two-gap, then the defense gets a 2-for-1. Then they get another one on the other side by having the DE contain the QB and still play the cutback by the RB.
Not just every defense can execute these tactics effectively, but at least they are out there as established best practices and good defenses can practice and master them. Teams used to like the scrape exchange, having the DE chase the RB and the OLB scrape wide to tackle the QB when he pulled the ball but offenses added lead blockers for the QB or bubble screens to attack the LB, and blew that up. Defenses also liked, and still like, to overload the play with a fire zone blitz and have the DE crash inside to the B-gap, a LB blitz the edge and chase the RB, and then a DB (perhaps the nickel) come wide to tackle the QB when he pulled the ball. But you don’t want to have to call that blitz as your base zone-read stopper because you can’t call the blitz every snap. Go watch any spread offenses’ highlights and you’ll find them torching the zone blitz regularly.
Some teams still try to outnumber the play by dropping someone down but that’s an increasingly iffy tactic these days unless the DBs left behind are exceptional.
The pass first, triple option zone-read
The next wave of zone-read counters is to give the QB a pass option, often one that sets up the rest of the play. Many defenses think, “if we can work out how to play the run soundly from a two-high coverage, then we’re golden!” But this is not the case. For instance, here’s Nebraska struggling with Minnesota running an RPO against a two-deep coverage off zone-read:
The problem defenses will always encounter is that once a spread offense knows what they’re getting, they’re going to draw up players to attack it with their best player in space, often via the passing game. The Cornhuskers are executing their own version of a “let’s force a zone run and defend it with five in the box” strategy like I explained above from the tite front. Their middle LB is the QB contain player, but the problem is that he’s also the underneath bracket player on the slot, Tyler Johnson, who’s aligned out on the hash.
Johnson is able to cut underneath the safety and the MLB just isn’t in position to affect the throw. The Huskers try to scrape the other LB over to help on the QB but now they’re stuck in this situation where a traditionally run first player (the MLB) has to ignore every instinct he’s ever had and get depth and eyes on the WR to stop the pass while he also needs to be mindful of the QB running an option play behind a Nebraska OL firing downhill. Even if a player’s mind tells him that the pass is the greater threat, his body will always tell him that those big bodies coming at him are the more serious priority.
Minnesota is an aggressive a team as there is today with the RPO plays, they should probably be more often than they are for having OL downfield run blocking when the QB is throwing the ball, but these plays can be run within the rules.
Another version of this is the play that Iowa State’s QB, Brock Purdy, seems to have invented himself ala Brett Favre with the alleged first RPO in history.
Here's Favre telling Gruden how he came up with RPOs in GB because he was bored in practice and how he ran them in a game before telling Mike Sherman because he wanted to prove that they would work before being told not to. pic.twitter.com/QehChLkWrO— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) June 10, 2018
Like the Gophers, the Cyclones ran a lot of vertical RPOs in their offense and even did so from some double TE sets (which will likely be their main gambit in 2019) that made it easier to isolate their outside WRs on CBs in off coverage when the TEs would force safeties’ attention to the box. Here’s a play where they ran what probably wasn’t intended to be a zone-read play but instead a split zone run with a quick out option:
Purdy was good at getting the ball out in such instances and in the face of pressure, but he had another trick that he’s becoming pretty famous for when teams would rush him rather than play contain on the edge. Many teams will do that, either to force an offense to come to grips with their QB taking hits or as an intimidation tactic to disrupt the QB’s reads and rhythm. But against “pump fake Purdy...”
Technically speaking, this is triple option football. The reads are inconsistent though, whereas the original triple option went “dive, keep, pitch” there are pre and post snap reads and influences here. In the first example the decision to throw was probably made before the snap, but with his famous pump fake, Purdy was able to create a late keep option for himself when the contain player rushed him rather than trying to sit in the cutback lane.
In the second example the Mountaineers blitzed the edge and Purdy used the pump fake to the bubble screen to create a lane to keep the ball and hit the alley.
It’s always been hard to stop options teams with QBs that have great short area quickness, can execute ball fakes, and make smart reads and decisions when facing live bullets. But when you add vertical passing to the mix it becomes unfair, because the pass has to be taken away or else the ball is going out to a skill player in space, and then you’re giving that QB space unless you have some clever schemes to try and address the problem.
There are other versions of the play that also involve the QB getting a pass option amidst the flow of the play, Joe Moorhead runs a few schemes like that at Mississippi State and will likely show some new ones this coming year with Tommy Stevens.
RPOs really came into the public consciousness when Auburn caught Alabama with that famous play back in the 2013 Iron Bowl. Since then, RPOs have been more about having a QB execute a pass standing in the pocket as an option, but skilled and athletic QBs like pump fake Purdy and more aggressive RPO schemes are leading to further advances. The hard thing for defenses these days isn’t so much the evolution in tactics, but the increase of skill in modern players that make these kinds of counters possible.