There has been a lot of off-season talk about the zone read's impending takeover of the NFL. The zone read was part of how the 49ers ended up in the Superbowl, Robert Griffin III became a national star, and a 3rd round QB took the Seahawks almost all the way. More close to home, the Eagles signed one of the biggest proponents of the spread offense and the zone read to their head coaching position. But what is the zone read and is it an unstoppable force of nature that will result in touchdowns any time a running QB takes a snap?
To talk about the zone read we need to reach back to our football fundamentals. In football the offense can block with every player except the one holding the ball, who needs to advance the football. This means that the defense always has one player unblocked, the counterpart to the ball carrier. In a pro-style offense where the QB doesn't run or block, like you see every Sunday in the NFL, the defense has two men unblcoked - the counterpart to the ball carrier and the counterpart to the quarterback. So no matter how well you draw up a play there's always going to be one, if not two defenders, free to tackle your ball carrier.
A 2 man advantage that's almost unfair isn't it! Well that's what offensive coordinators said when they created the zone read. So what do you do with those two guys, how do you even the playing field? Well, if you make your QB a running threat you can cut that advantage in half by eliminating the QB's defensive counterpart.
As with most football terms the name itself is quite literal. A zone read is a play with a "zone" blocking scheme where the QB "reads" one of the players. Below is a very typical zone-read play.
In a pro-style offense the quarterback would hand off the running back who is running right but the left-side defensive end (circled) would be unblocked, giving him a chance to make the tackle. Now notice that while running back is going to the right the quarterback also has an arrow going left. What this means is that the defensive end can't know who to go after, should he be the counter-part of the RB or the counter-part of the QB?
Here is a slowed-down example of the QB giving the ball to the RB because the left-side defensive end stays home to defend the QB.
The offensive coordinators thought this is good, but it's not quite diabolical enough. You see, even if the offense presents both a running back threat and a running QB threat the defensive end could guess correct by going after the right player. Half the time he might just go after the RB, the other half he might just go after the QB and even though he'd guess wrong sometimes, other times he's guess right and tackle the ball carrier. So how do you solve the problem of the defensive end guessing correctly?
Here's a video of the identical play above but with the unblocked defensive end guessing correctly
Well, that's where the "read" in "zone read" comes from. The QB watches the defensive end, he reads him. If the defensive end goes after the QB then the QB hands the ball off to the RB going the other way. But if the defensive end crashes down on the RB then the QB keeps the ball and runs the opposite direction. This is the genius of the zone read, the defensive end can't guess because he always guesses wrong. If he goes left the ball goes right, if he goes right the ball goes left. No matter who the defensive end goes after the ball will always go the other way.
This is all scheme and it doesn't matter how smart or fast the defensive end is. Not even one of the most intelligent and athletic DEs in the league in Demarcus Ware could overcome the paradox of the zone read alone.
So that's what the zone read is. It's a way of using the QB as a running threat to reduce the defense's arithmetic advantage of 2 unblocked players. It does this by presenting the unblocked defender with a running play that makes him choose to go after one player, reading who that defender chooses, and then sending the ball the other way. In this manner the defensive end is always going the wrong way and the ball carrier is always running free.
The zone read may appear unstoppable now but in part 2 we'll examine what even Rob Ryan didn't know, how to defend the zone read.