Zone Read Part 2: Defending the Zone Read

In Part 2 we will learn what could have saved Rob Ryan's job if only he'd been a BTB reader, how to defend the zone read.

In Part 1 we analyzed what the zone read was. The zone read is a play that uses 2 running threats, each going a different way, and then the quarterback either hands the ball off or runs it himself depending on what the unblocked defensive end does.


So in the above example everyone is blocked except the defensive end who will have to choose to go after the RB or the QB. As soon as the DE takes a step to his left or right, the ball will be run by the other player and around the defensive end for a big gain.

So what does a defensive coordinator do against this? Well, at first college defensive coordinators did the same thing that NFL defensive coordiantors did last year - they crapped their pants. Teams like Florida and Oregon put up 50+ points a game. But then a new idea started being developed at the highschool level that made its way to some of the smarter defensive minds in college, a defensive idea called the "scrape exchange"

Just as the zone read is literally named, so is the "scrape exchange" a very literal title. Instead of a defense reading and reacting, the scrape exchange is an aggressive defensive posture. The defensive end "scrapes" down the line, attacking the running back while the linebacker "exchanges" with the DE, taking the outside contain responsibility a DE normally has. An example of the play is below.


As you can see, the defensive end is now not staying in outside contain waiting to be read, he's agressively shooting down the line, "scraping" and trying to penetrate into the backfield. In the zone read he's not supposed to be blocked and might get a free run at the RB in the back-field for a big loss. Most often, though, he draws one or even two blockers who aren't "supposed" to be blocking the defensive end, clogging up the running lanes and freeing up other players to knife into the back-field.

So the quarterback, seeing the DE crashing down on the RB makes his read and keeps the ball. He reads that the defensive end is going right so he's going to run left. However, the linebacker anticipates this by running to the edge in his "exchange". With the defensive end drawing blockers there's no offensive lineman free to block the linebacker. So now an athletic linebacker with a head of steam is there to take down the quarterback on the edge.

Here is an example of the scrape exchange in action against another zone read play, the inverted veer.

This principle can be used with multiple personnel sets. Most often a linebacker is exchanging as you see here, other times teams use a strong safety who rotates down into the "exchange" position. Rarely, teams might even use a particularly athletic defensive tackle who executes what is basically a twist stunt with the defensive end.

This is how the best defenses have shut down the zone read in college. They recruit excellent defensive ends that can aggressively shoot gaps and get into the back-field who must draw blockers. Then they recruit athletic linebackers who are physically the equal of any running QB and tackle flawlessly.

One defensive coordinator who is quite familiar with the scrape exchange is former USC Torjans defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. As he brings this play to Dallas the personnel lines up quite well. Everyone in the league knows that DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer can "scrape", attacking into the backfield. And when you have talents in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter running with a full head of steam as they "exchange" to get free shots on a running QB, well, let's just say I hope Mike Vick is wearing his kevlar vest!

The scrape exchange is a very effective way at stopping zone read plays and you can look forward to seeing this play in action every Sunday in the NFL this season. Now that we've examined what the zone read is and how to defend it, in Part 3 we'll get a preview of what we are in for in the NFC East with Chip Kelly vs. Monte Kiffin as we look at how those two titans made strategic use of these concepts when Oregon and USC faced each-other.

(Fair warning, it may take me a while to write Part 3)

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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