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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images Terrelle Pryor

Read-Option Progress Report

We check in with the oft-maligned scheme to see where it has been and where it might be going a year after it took the league by storm

Here’s my conundrum. I read all the time that the read-option is dead. That the zone read has been figured out. That it’s an offense with an expiration date. Phil Simms tells me it doesn’t even work in college anymore, let alone at the professional level. The Washington offense is flopping because the league has solved the read-option puzzle. The Eagles can’t score anymore because the league figured out their gimmicks. Just push all the runs into the interior. Stick an extra guy in the box. Man up the receivers. Beat up the quarterback. This stuff is easy!

All that’s great. But then I remember that the Eagles offense looked awfully good until Matt Barkley showed up. I look at the numbers and see Washington is third in rushing DVOA. And I see what Oakland did on its first play from scrimmage Sunday:

Sure could have fooled me, but it looks like the read-option worked pretty well there. I cut out the end of the play for GIF-size sake, but it’s a 93-yard touchdown run. Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor reads linebacker LaMarr Woodley (56), who crashes down the line of scrimmage before Darren McFadden has even reached the mesh point. Woodley’s so confused that he chases McFadden all the way into the pile before he jogs away. Behind him, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (94) would have had a play on Pryor if he hadn’t flowed to where he thought the football was going. Timmons takes himself out of the play; in fact, he even swims past a lineman who is trying to occupy him to run in the opposite direction, away from the football. And then, the cherry on top is safety Ryan Clark (25), who comes barreling into the screen to lay a big hit … on a running back who doesn’t have the ball.

This play works so well — the Steelers were so fooled — that lead blocker Marcel Reece (45) didn’t have anybody to block. And it’s not like it should have come against an unprepared group of rubes, either. The Raiders had, per ESPN Stats & Information, run a minimum of 46 zone-read plays during the 2013 season before this one. But they got three veterans on a defense coordinated by a Hall of Famer to sprint out of the way of the ball carrier like he had a communicable disease. And they all work underneath a coach, Mike Tomlin, who called the read-option “the flavor of the day” in March while adding, “We look forward to stopping it” and “We’ll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit.” When the Steelers get close enough to a read-option quarterback to hit one, I guess we’ll find out.

Of course, that’s one play, and one play doesn’t prove anything in terms of a concept’s viability. But with all the doom and gloom surrounding the read-option at the moment, I thought it might be a good time to take the temperature of 2012’s most notable offensive concept and see how it’s doing in 2013.

To start, read-option usage is up. Per ESPN Stats & Information (which sourced all these numbers), teams have run 585 zone-read plays amid the first 15,660 offensive plays of the 2013 season, meaning that 3.7 percent of all plays from scrimmage through the end of Week 8 were read-option handoffs.1 That’s more than were run during all of last year, when the league’s 32 teams combined for 415 zone-read plays while running 32,882 offensive snaps. That’s a rate of just 1.3 percent; in other words, the league is running the zone read nearly three times more frequently in 2013 than it was in 2012.

Those plays, however, have not been as effective as they were a year ago. In 2012, read-option plays averaged a whopping 6.2 yards per carry, with 47.7 percent producing an improvement in the number of points that teams expected to score on the drive in question (per ESPN’s Estimated Points Added stat). In 2013, those figures are down; even after the Pryor run, read-option plays are averaging 4.7 yards per carry with a success rate of 42.9 percent. Chalk one up for the skeptics.

What’s also interesting is seeing how the teams that ran the read-option most frequently in 2012 have been at the same task in 2013. Each of the five heaviest read-option users from 2012 are among the league’s seven most-frequent zone-read teams in 2013. And four of the five have had less success this season:

The top two teams in read-option usage during the 2013 season didn’t run it a year ago. The second-place Buffalo Bills have employed the scheme all season, substituting in whichever quarterback is healthy as warranted. They’ve run 86 plays (15.2 percent of their snaps) while averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Atop the leaderboard by a wide margin are Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles. A whopping 170 of their plays have been zone-read runs, which is nearly twice as many as any other team and 31.4 percent of their total offensive output. Those runs have averaged an even five yards per pop.

It’s not necessarily a surprise that the numbers for read-option plays would be down. As teams implement the zone read into their playbooks and use it on a more regular basis, it’s natural that defenses would begin to do a better job against it. Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had the right way of explaining things in late September, after his team had returned to the field and struggled to execute. “A lot of people weren’t ready for it at all [last year],” Shanahan said. “It was easy at times. Now, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work. You just aren’t shocking people like you were last year.” Of course, there are still times when you can shock the opposition; just scroll up to that Raiders GIF if you need an example.

As Chris Brown noted during his summer piece about defending against the read-option, the most convenient way to defend against the zone read is with the scrape exchange. In a typical run defense, a defender will often fill the gap or gaps in front of his face. The scrape exchange is designed to prevent edge defenders from being fooled while still defending against both sets of plays. The defensive end (or outside linebacker in a 3-4) nominally being read by the quarterback crashes down the line to attack the running back, leading the quarterback to read the play and determine he should keep the ball, only for a linebacker to swoop around the edge and blow up the exposed quarterback for a loss. The two defenders are “exchanging” gap responsibilities.

Want to see how that plays out in action? Check out this play by Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis’s victory in San Francisco:

At the snap, right outside linebacker Bjoern Werner (92, playing across from the left tackle) sprints inside at the mesh point to take care of any handoff to the deep back. Note that left tackle Joe Staley (74) lets him through. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick rightly sees Werner crashing the party and keeps the football. Meanwhile, the inside linebacker on that side is Freeman (50); he diagnoses the play and sprints around Werner to take down Kaepernick for a loss. Throw the read-option back on the shelf.

Of course, coaches know about the scrape exchange, especially after running this offense for a year. There are counters for it, too. I always hesitate to diagnose blocking schemes, because it’s often impossible to judge intent, but it looks like Staley had an impossible task on this play. After letting Werner through, he chipped the defensive tackle in the B-gap between himself and left guard Mike Iupati before trying to engage Freeman, but Freeman was too fast and beat Staley around the edge. Right guard Alex Boone isn’t able to occupy the other inside linebacker, who flows to the play and cuts off Kaepernick’s cutback lane, leaving Kaepernick dead to rights.

A more typical wrinkle to combat the scrape exchange is the zone bluff, which is designed to put a wrench (or a fullback) in that heroic linebacker’s day. Go watch that first Raiders clip again. Watch Reece, the fullback who had nobody to block. At the snap, Woodley crashes down to try to attack the running back, just like Werner did for the Colts. What does Reece do? He arcs around Woodley to ensure he can get a clean shot at Timmons, the inside linebacker, whom he expects to shoot around to try to clean up on his quarterback. Timmons didn’t get that memo. It’s impossible to say whether Timmons was supposed to be executing a scrape exchange or Woodley wasn’t supposed to, but had they been on the same page, a defender would have occupied Reece and slowed down the play long enough for the rest of the team to react. Instead, Pryor ran 93 yards and could have run a few hundred more before anybody touched him. Teams can counter the zone bluff, of course, and that process will continue on and on for years to come. But “stopping” the read-option isn’t as simple as coming up with one play or forcing a runner into the interior. It’s about identifying tendencies on film, drilling discipline into your defenders, and counting on them to use their instincts, tape study, and athleticism to out-execute the offense. You know, like any other part of football.

The other argument-slash-warning for read-option practitioners was that running the ball with your quarterback would open him up to injuries. Some teams indirectly threatened to go after the quarterback on any play when he might have the football in the (implied) hopes of knocking him out. The results haven’t exactly worked out that way. Of those five most frequent zone-read teams from the past two years, only the Jets have lost their starting quarterback, and they didn’t lose Mark Sanchez because of the read-option. Cam Newton did miss a few snaps after getting hit on a read-option handoff recently, but that’s about it.

The Bills and Eagles — the two top “new” read-option practitioners — have had plenty of quarterback injuries, but they’re not from the read-option. Michael Vick has suffered from groin and hamstring injuries that came as a result of scrambles, but it’s clear that Vick scrambles frequently in any offensive scheme. Nick Foles was concussed on a sack when he scrambled and held on to the ball too long, a play that the zone-read and Kelly’s scheme is specifically designed to avoid. For the Bills, EJ Manuel’s knee injury happened when he scrambled out of pressure without any play-action. Thad Lewis went down with a rib injury on a zone-read play on the opening snap against the Saints last week; he later returned, but the rib injury might keep him out this week. In any case, it’s impossible to truly argue that the read-option has led to noticeably more quarterback injuries in 2013.

And one more thing: There’s something the numbers I quote above (and, indeed, most analyses of the zone-read) don’t take into account. No, it’s not heart or grit or whatever Jonny Gomes was talking about after the World Series; it’s passing plays. The read-option doesn’t inherently have to mean something like the Pryor run from the first GIF. Remember this play from the Philadelphia-Washington game in Week 1?

That’s a read-option play! Of course, as I broke it down in the column after that game, the read and the options are different. There, Vick is reading linebacker London Fletcher (59) to see what to do with the football. Because Fletcher honors the run-action and follows LeSean McCoy across the formation, Brent Celek is left wide open for a simple pop pass up the seam. Do you think that route gets open without the play-action? Of course not. Vick also has a screen available to the right and could even choose to keep the ball himself on the play. None of that is accounted for in the rushing numbers for the read-option.

So, where does the read-option stand? Somewhere between where it was and where its detractors think it will end up. It’s very obviously not dead. It’s also not the mind-blowing force of nature that it was for San Francisco in the playoffs last year, nor could it ever really be that consistently good. It’s an ever-evolving part of about half the offenses around the league, some much more than others, but just like an NFL team would never run play-action or line up in the shotgun on every single snap, it’s also unlikely to use the zone-read as a base offensive concept. It’s not a gimmick and it’s not an offensive panacea. And if you want to have a discussion about it that extends the argument beyond those two poles, you’re going to have to wait a lot longer than eight weeks to truly figure out how it has changed the game. Until then, all we can do is keep taking its temperature and see how the league is adapting on both sides of the ball.

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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