The St. Louis Rams are ahead of the curve - scheme and personnel - when it comes to slowing down the Read Option.
Gus Bradley, former defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks and current Jacksonville Jaguars head coach, believes the keys to stopping the Read Option, and Zone-Read Option are good corners and defensive players who can run. Bradley undoubtedly gained first-hand knowledge of how to stop these option plays, having to pit his defense against Russell Wilson and them daily in practice. Fortunately for the Rams, their defense is outfitted with players fitting the bill.
Alec Ogletree and TJ McDonald could be the final cogs in the Rams Read Option stopping machine.
The Read Option, Zone-Read Option and Counters
The zone-read option (ZRO) is more thorny than people realize. There are many different variations and wrinkles employed by teams to parry any and all defensive adjustments to the ZRO.
A standard-issue zone-read asks the line to block all of the down linemen except for the backside defensive end who is the quarterbacks "read." If the defensive end crashes down, taking the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball; if the defensive end stays wide and contains the edge, the quarterback gives the ball to the running back.
ZRO offenses also exploit variations of the zone-read: Inside Zone-Read, Outside Zone-Read, Inverted Veer, and more.
The inside-zone read (IZR) is a popular play in college; it was the foundation of the Oregon Ducks offense under Chip Kelly. In the NFL, the inside zone-read was utilized by the 49ers, Seahawks, and Redskins last season.
The pistol is the most common formation (commonly confused for a play) used when teams want to run the IZR. The formation allows for ideal angles and maximum defensive confusion. On an inside zone-read, the running back runs an inside dive with the QB reading the end and taking attacking the edge of the defense. The read on a IZR is usually the play-side defensive end.
The Redskins used the IZR to gash the Cowboys for over 200 yards last season. At the snap, the FB crosses the QB’s face and runs directly at the DE, ideally causing hesitation. He then goes and blocks the OLB to prevent the common scrape-exchange. The QB reads the end and decides to either give to the RB on the dive, or keep and attack the edge.
Defenses commonly counter this by the aforementioned scrape-exchange, forcing the give, or walking a safety into the box. Last season the Rams frequently elected to use the latter two. When the Rams faced the Seahawks ZRO, they routinely walked Quintin Mikell into the box and forced Russell Wilson to give the ball. Marshawn Lynch runs the dive on the give; by forcing the give, the Rams are able to put their defense in a position to succeed. The 2012 Rams were not fast at linebacker - actually quite the opposite could be said - but they were equipped to handle inside runs. Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford and James Laurinaitis are better stack and shed defenders, than read and chase.
While the Rams don't use a traditional scrape-exchange with the outside linebacker scraping over the top of the defensive end, it achieves the same goal.
I imagine TJ McDonald was brought in for a similar role. McDonald is a big safety, standing at 6’3 219lbs. McDonald's combination of size, strength, and speed, will allow him to be a productive in-the-box safety against such offensive concepts.
When running an outsize zone-read (OZR) the running back typically lines up directly beside the QB. *If the QB keeps the ball on an OZR he is on the inside dive, while the RB is on the sweep attacking the edge. The weak-side defensive end is the common read for the OZR.
At the snap of the ball, the the running back crosses the QB’s face for the mesh, as the QB reads the defensive end.
Overcommitment can be the death of a defense against the OZR. Playing discipline assignment football is how you stop the ZRO and that could be why the Rams loved Alec Ogletree. Ogletree was rarely caught out of position or overcommitted while at Georgia and that includes times he faced the ZRO.
In its simplest form, the Veer is ran to the tight end side and has an option component. The playside back would run the dive, while the other back would be the option.
The Guard takes care of the 2tech on his own so that the tackle can seal the ILB. The tight end is getting upfield to make a block.
The following play shows the inside-veer out of the pistol formation. Missouri is playing a nose (directly over the center), and a 5 tech on the left side. The G and C combo the nose to the backside backer while the T releases to the ILB. The end is the read. Rather than having a pitch option, Nevada uses the first back as an edge blocker.
The inverted veer is a specialty of the San Francisco 49ers; it’s a play the Rams will see for years to come. When running the inverted veer you leave the playside defender free and option off of him while sending two runners, the QB and RB, to that same side. Inverted veer blocking is also different. Rather than the zone blocking scheme, the inverted veer is blocked as if it were a power.
The reason the 49ers and others opt for more inverted veer rather than traditional ZRO is because it allows for additional blockers and options off one of the defenses most dangerous players - effectively eliminating him as a threat.
The standard response to the inverted veer, and many ZRO plays is the previously mentioned scrape-exchange.
For a scrape-exchange to be successful, the defensive end being read crashes down while the linebacker scrapes over the top. Ideally, this exchange would create confusion for the quarterback.
A common misconception is that the ZRO and its variations are used extensively by the aforementioned teams when the opposite is true. While studying the Rams defense against the 49ers, Redskins, and Seahawks, I realized that the ZRO accounted for very few of their teams offensive plays. Rather than putting their franchise QB’s in harms way repeatedly, the ZRO was used to slow down the Rams pass rush, keep the Rams on their heels, make the defense predictable and open up passing lanes.
NFL Defenses have already started adapting to the read option. Teams are beginning to prefer explosive unpolished players over fundamentally solid players who lack athleticism when drafting. Technique can be taught.
TCU's coach, Gary Patterson, told the NY Times "If the defensive end is fast enough to be able to play the running back or the quarterback instead of some other person on your defense, that frees up a guy," he said. "If nine guys out of your 11 can run somebody down, it always helps."
As luck would have it, Steve Spagnoulo did Jeff Fisher and the Rams a solid by drafting such a player in Robert Quinn. Adding Alec Ogletree offers the Rams the same type of player - a player who can out maneuver the offense with sheer athleticism.
Athleticism certainly can disrupt the read option, but sound assignment football would be step two of the stopping the read option formula. After the Seahawks defeated the Redskins last season, Redskins players London Fletcher and Reed Doughty pointed to missed assignments as a reason for their demise:
I think we didn’t fit it up as we had practiced throughout the week. We were seeing the zone read since the beginning of OTAs with Robert [Griffin III] and our offense," inside linebacker London Fletcher said. "So we knew how to fit it up; guys just didn’t play it the way we’re supposed to every single time.
You have to be technically sound. You’ve got to rally to the football, but you’ve got to do assignment football. If one guy misses, then the next guy’s got to make it, and the next thing you know, it’s an 8-yard gain.
An overlooked piece to the Rams ZRO stopping puzzle is Tim Walton. Many coaches around the NFL are scrambling to talk to college football coaches about how to stop the ZRO, while the Rams hired one as the defensive coordinator. Walton coached in the college ranks for 14 years and has plenty of experience dealing with option football. He will add his knowledge of the ZRO scheme to the already prodigious collective already assembled in Rams park.
The Rams team appears to be built to stop the ZRO and its cousins. The Rams defense which once lacked speed, can now fly around the field with their ears pinned back thanks to this years and last years additions of Ogletree, McDonald, Dunbar, and Jenkins. The big guys up front have no problem moving people and disrupting the offense. And the Rams corners are good enough to be left on an island.
There is no doubt adjustments will be made and new wrinkles developed by the ZRO teams in the NFL, but the Rams' defense appears ready.