The NFL, the Spread & the Play De Jour

By Ross Fulton on January 3, 2013 at 2:00p

I wanted to take a momentary break from my breakdown of Ohio State's 2012 season to focus upon a pertinent topic relevant to the 'spread to run' offense.

After fits and starts, 2012 is undoubtedly the year that spread read principles took over the NFL. Without sufficient fanfare, three of the four top rushing offenses in the NFL are all driven by the use of shotgun read plays.

Indeed, Urban Meyer announced on The Dan Patrick Show this morning that he and his offensive staff spent the last month breaking down the NFL's new spread to run offenses. 

Chris Brown has provided an invaluable analysis of the form that these principles are infiltrating the NFL, but I want to build on that and dig down even further to illustrate what is quickly becoming many NFL teams' favorite run play—inside zone read from the diamond formation.

San Francisco has spearheaded this play and, as Meyer discussed, they have even added a wrinkle that Meyer had not seen and wants to implement with Ohio State. This analysis is thus not only pertinent to the evolution of spread to run football, but could be of particular interest to Ohio State fans going forward.

The Rules are the Rules and Arithmetic is Still Arithmetic

The reason that read plays are succeeding in the NFL is the same reason that such plays have become so ubiquitous in college football—arithmetic. As Greg Schiano stated last year: 

As I’ve tried to explain to people, whenever the guy who takes the snap is a threat to run, it changes all the math of defenses.  That’s really what defense is, it’s getting your troops to where the ball is going to be. And when that guy holding it is a threat to run, it changes the numbers – minus-one.

NFL teams are thus discovering what Meyer found a decade ago—that the QB run threat constrains a defense from your base downhill run plays. In the NFL, just as in college football, the defense is always going to have two unblocked defenders—the counterparts to the ball carrier and the quarterback.

If the quarterback turns and hands off the football those two defenders will remain unblocked. But, if an offense uses its quarterback to essentially 'block' one unblocked defender by reading him, the offense has taken strides to even out that equation. The real advantage of read plays, then, is not simply to run your quarterback, but to make it easier to run the base zone plays that every NFL offense runs. This is why you see those teams leading the NFL in rushing yards.    

The Diamond, the Pistol, and the Zone Read

Yet the embrace of read principles by NFL offenses has taken a particular form—inside zone read from the pistol diamond formation.

In this formation, the offense runs inside zone read with the quarterback and tailback turning away from the play-side, just as Chris Ault has done for years from the pistol. In this way, the play shares many characteristics with Meyer's base inside zone read play. Both are looking to overcome the lateral aspect of having a halfback next to a shotgun quarterback by instead getting the tailback quickly going north and south. With Meyer's inside zone, the running back's aiming point is the backside 'a' gap bubble where cutback lanes naturally develop with inside zone.

From the pistol, the tailback has the same aiming point, attacking the backside A gap and then 'bending' back to the frontside zone blocking.

As evident, the diamond formation has two H-backs or fullbacks. With the inside zone read from this look, both fullbacks are going to 'arc' block away from the play. The first fullback will take the first alley defender that shows. This allows for the offense to deal with a 'scrape exchange,' a common technique versus the zone read. With a scrape exchange, the backside linebacker and defensive end exchange responsibilities. The defensive end will crash while the linebacker will scrape around to play contain, in an attempt to confuse the QB's reads. But the h-back's arc block can account for this scraping linebacker in the alley. 

The second fullback's arc block is more interesting. Just like the quarterback, he too will read the backside defensive end. If the end sits he will assume the quarterback will give to the tailback. He will thus block the defensive end just as he would on a traditional inside zone arc block, creating that backside A gap cutback.

On the other hand, if the backside end crashes the second fullback will 'log' block him (seal him inside) to ensure that he is no longer a threat to the expected quarterback keep. Once this is accomplished he too will release to the alley for the first opposing jersey he sees. As such, though the defensive end is being read, offenses are able to use the diamond formation to assign a blocker to him. Though Meyer did not specify, this 'read block' is likely the wrinkle he was referring to, and one that OSU may implement next fall.

Note that such a block is not limited to the diamond formation, but could be executed by any backside H-back. 

Those Good Ol' One-on-One Matchups

But this particular look has quickly become popular because NFL teams can employ the zone read from the diamond formation as much to set up play-action passing as to run the football. NFL offenses are using the diamond formation for the same reasons Air raid teams do—force a defense to declare its safety box support and allow an offense to easily count numbers.

If a defense brings safeties to match the offense's arithmetic, suddenly the middle of the field is opened for play-action post-dig routes against corners maintaining outside leverage. This is aided by the play-action fake, which is particularly effective since the mesh point on run plays is a read. As such, this look picks up on two insights by Homer Smith: one, that spreading the field is not always a panacea; and two, that the most effective thing an offense can do is faking, and there is no better faking than option because to give or keep is not pre-determined.

The result is that these plays are giving young quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick relatively simple middle of the field 2 on 1 reads behind vacating linebackers (:48 second mark).

The upshot is that NFL offenses embracing this spread read play are able to take advantage of long-proven offensive principles that apply at any level of football—constraint, faking, and arithmetic. It will be interesting to see how NFL teams using read plays adapt once defenses begin using basic responses to the zone read and whether the NFL will expand their read concepts to embrace plays such as inverted veer, aka jet read or power read (early evidence suggests it is likely).

But given the adaptive staying power of these spread principles in college football against defenses focused upon stopping it, it is likely that read plays will continue to alter NFL offenses going forward. And, as evident by Meyer's comments, the symbiotic relationship between NFL and college teams running these same concepts will likely only further the development of the spread to run.   


Comments Show All Comments

gumtape's picture

If this starts a trend in the NFL where the teams start to do different things then I am all for it. I have a hard time watching the NFL when every team runs a variation of the pro-set. And the only difference is if you use 2 or three receivers.
As an aside, If the Browns hire Chip Kelly, who is the athletic and accurate quarterback to run his offense? Geno Smith? Tim Tebow?
PS, thanks for the upvotes, I just got my voting priviliges again.

High and tight boo boo

AltaBuck's picture

As more and more NFL offenses adapt to this style of offense, it will be interesting to compare QB injuries in these types of offenses versus the traditional proset offense. During a 16 game season, plus playoff games, I dont think it is sustainable. One other thing, any DC worth his pay would tell his players to take advantage of every opportunity when the QB fakes to knock him on his ass. If a QB carries out a run fake then he is free game.

I am Groot - Groot

Doc's picture

It might come down to having 2 QB's with the same skillset on the roster.  Make them interchangeable and then injuries aren't as big of a worry.

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Ross Fulton's picture

My personal opinion on this is that you are far more susceptible to injury being sedentary in the pocket than you are on the move. I think a separate issue is that as QBs age they lose their speed before their other attributes. But that is not necessarily a problem for the spread per se.


I think in the NFL you absolutely need to be able to throw. For instance, it wouldn't cut it with someone like Braxton this year, where you are making things happen with his legs in spite of his inconsistency passing. But if you are an efficient passer you can use the play action and movement passing to your advantage, just as Shanahan has done for years under center.

AltaBuck's picture

I certainly agree with your point about being a efficient passer to make this type of offense effective.
Don't know if I agree with your first point which is why it will be interesting to track QB injuries.  With the new rules protecting QBs in the pocket (no hits to the head and below the waist) and physics (2 objects moving at each other from different directions versus one stationary player), I just don't know if the RG3s of the world in this type of base offense will last as long compared to the traditional QBs of today - Mannings, Brady, Rivers, Roethlisberger, etc.
I guess if these QBs slide or go OoB every chance the get as a ball carrier they'll extend their careers in the league.
Again, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

I am Groot - Groot

slippy's picture

Someone at mgoblog did an analysis of this a few years ago (although in college).  They rated QBs from 1-5 from pocket passer to pure runner.  The guys at each end of the spectrum got injured at about the same rate.  If I remember is was the guys just slightly more athletic than the pure pocket passers that got hurt the most.

Earle's picture

I agree with the need to move the QB around in the passing game rather than giving the defense a fixed point to aim for and a stationary target.  The issue I see with the spread in the NFL is that the QB has to be a threat in the running game as well, and that puts him at risk of injury even when he is not attempting to pass. 
The NFL, for better or worse, has gone to great lengths to promote the passing game and protect QB's.  I think if the spread-to-run takes hold in the NFL on a large scale, it will be part of a larger shift that de-emphasizes the passing game and puts QB's more on par with other players (i.e., expendable).  For now, the starting QB is too important to put in harm's way any more than is necessary for most NFL teams.

Snarkies gonna snark. 

AndyVance's picture

Bingo on the age/speed/mobility conundrum. Case in point (though admittedly not a true spread-style QB, so don't beat me too badly for the analogy), Steelers' signal caller Big Ben. I don't know how many times in the past two seasons I've heard by wife scream "Just run the damn ball, Ben!" or lament that "Once upon a time, he would have run that" instead of taking a sack. Coincidence that he's been banged up more and more in recent years as he's been less mobile? Hard to say which is cause and which is effect, I suppose, but I think it illustrates your point.

yrro's picture

I think it's a different kind of injury.
You're as likely to get your ankles/knees messed up, ribs cracked, or given a concussion in the pocket. But I would say you're much less likely to take damage to your throwing hand/arm/shoulder. A running back can tape it up and keep playing. A quarterback suddenly starts sailing balls into the opponents hands. Throwing the ball requires everything to be working much more precisely to be effective.

cinserious's picture

Teddy bridgewater can do it for sure. Braxton will get his passing game up to par by the 2nd or third game. Mariotta might get it together.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

gumtape's picture

There is a difference between guys like Steve young and Michael Vick, who run into contact and try to get every last yard in a running play, and Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers, guys who use mobility to extend plays and confuse defenses. The latter tend to avoid injury better. RG3 could learn to pull up a little on his runs, Vick never has and he cannot be counted on for more than 12 games a year.
After seeing Wilson tear it up for the past 4 weeks, I am happy that we were able to beat him with our handicapped offense last year. That dude can ball.

High and tight boo boo

d5k's picture

One of the primary differences with Vick is he hasn't had a coherent running system built around his running threat.  He has been in west coast systems where they say "hey scramble for your life if no one is open".  That is a bit different than a read option play/system.  He takes big hits holding the ball in the pocket waiting for receivers to get open.  In the Redskins system a lot of the plays are "play action fake works, creates a high/low read and then you get rid of the ball or pull down and run if something changes".

cinserious's picture

imagine russel wilson on the niners.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

Nick's picture

Meyer said to expect to see these formations next year on that Dan Patrick interview

Doc's picture

If running the spread in the NFL becomes vogue, it will give guys like Braxton and even Detard better shots making teams.  It will also make NFL games more interesting to watch. IMHO.

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The Official DDS of 11W

bassplayer7770's picture

I might agree about Braxton, but Detard will likely never have the arm...

southernstatesbuckeye's picture

The NFL spread evolution will also help on the recruiting trail for Urbz, since young talent will not only see an advantage playing for a great coach on a great team, but will also realize the increased potential of moving on to the pros with one of the new spread-look teams. Good news all around!

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Estrada's picture

So Ross if Urbz will be implementing the diamond formation next year, do you think he'll use our TEs as H-backs (i.e. Vannett and Heuerman)?  Or will he throw Rod Smith in as one of them?  Or use both Rod and Carlos as the H-backs and someone else as the tailback.  Obviously there are a lot of different combinations that will likely be trotted out (and even more that could), I was just curious if you'd lean in a particular direction for personnel.

RBuck's picture

Thanks for this Ross. Now I can actually see what Urban meant when he said that Tebow could play and excel in this type of offense.

Long live the southend.

shade98's picture

That is just one play out of this formation. With the amount of backs that are on this roster there are so many different things that you can do with this formation that will stress a defense. Inside Zone, Outside Zone and when you add Zone Option to this it can get crazy. Urbs offense gives teams fits already it will be cool to watch him throw another wrinkle in the mix.  

yrro's picture

And this is part of why I love having a big, bruising running back. If he can block like a fullback out of this kind of formation, you've got yet another dimension.

harleymanjax's picture

The major difference between college and NFL defenders is the speed and football smarts of the veteran NFL defenders. That's why I think this offense will not work in the NFL

"Because I couldn't go for 3"

yrro's picture

It probably makes the basic read play harder to execute, but that doesn't remove its effectiveness as a counter.

d5k's picture

Since 3 of the 12 playoff teams have run this stuff extensively to great effect I will have to respectfully disagree.  "Football smarts" only helps if the defensive coordinators actually know how to defend the spread, or more accurately how to employ tactics that force the offense to change what they are doing.  The NFL D-coordinators are behind the college D-coordinators in this regard to some extent.  And it has nothing to do with the NFL players being smarter, anyway.  You aren't faking them out because they aren't smart enough, you are faking them out because you make your decision based on where their hips are pointing etc. 

Kurt's picture

I adamantly believe a power spread offense will work in the NFL.  It will certainly morph somewhat, however the principles will work.  And I really think that the critical thing about it in the NFL is that the cost and rarity of NFL QB's like Brady, Manning etc to operate the pro-style offenses.  The power spread offense is simply much easier to find QB's to operate it...people love super star players, but none of Oregon's QB's have ever been super stars, they leave and then Kelly plugs in another and it immediately works.  This is why injuries to the QB won't matter as much with this offense in the NFL.  In essense coaches will have back up QBs (like any other position) with similar skill sets and they should be nearly interchangeable.  

yrro's picture

One thing I feel like I've noticed... good schemes will get you ungodly amounts of points against weak defenses. Against good defenses you're going to need those top notch players, too.

Kurt's picture

Yea, talent never hurts, especially against another highly talented opponent.  But I think that the advantages of power spread - the arithmetic that Ross talks about plus the fact that getting guys on your roster like Mariota (3 star recruit) who can run these offenses is much easier than getting guys like Manning that run the conventional pro-style - will mean that it will be successful sometime in the future.

d5k's picture

Your solid points led me to a new thought.  Washington was criticized heavily for drafting 2 QBs in the same draft, 1 of which they used several draft picks to trade up for.  I wonder if Shanahan basically said if we are going to adopt this new system, let's teach it to 2 fresh minds so that we have that built in redundancy if RG3 does get hurt.  Basically Kirk Cousins is a cheaper, better backup QB for the system they want to run since other NFL QB's would be starting over to some extent trying to run that system.

Kurt's picture

Yea, I haven't seen Cousins play, but I've been a little curious about whether the offense changes drastically when he comes in...?  If it does then its a Shanahan fail.  If he's doing the same things with Cousins as RG3 then wow.

vcmoose's picture

I'm a lifelong Redskins fan (I've hated Dallas much longer than UM).  Cousins was drafted because Shannahan had no QB's on the roster that could play.  Last season Rex Grossman and Jeff Beck played with an extra amount of suck. Grossman is the 3rd QB.  Cousins started at Cleveland and played rather well after a shakey start. Shanahan dusted off his old Denver Broncos playbook for Cousins.  Instead of the read option, it was lots of bootlegs and moving the pocket.  It was still power run and playaction, but more typical of what you would see in the NFL. Many want Bruce Allen (Redskins GM) to trade Cousins to try to gain some more low round draft picks.

Kurt's picture

Thanks.  That's what I'd assumed.  It'd have been much more impressive if Shanahan had drafted another QB more akin to RG3 and been able to maintain some offensive continuity if/when he went out. 

thatdude13's picture

As a jaguar fan I have seen how hard it can be to find a franchise qb in this league. All of them basically have to look and feel like manning or brady. If you don't have that guy you are basically doomed to at best mediocrity until you can find him. I think the use of spread offenses and more mobile qb will allow a greater pool of qb's to choose from and giving teams a better chance to find there franchise qb. Some will be more stationary passers while others will be more mobile guys who also have the ability to pass.


If the frequency of freakishly athletic QBs continues to increase I would imagine the spread, at least a form of it, will be a permanent fixture among NFL offensive coordinators and may even become a more effective third-down option than the pass will. The spread best utilizes those types of players and maximizes their efficiency. Not everyone is going to have an RGIII but most teams may one day have someone very similar to that under center.
The spread does offer one BIG advantage that has nothing to do with yardage: it makes it much easier for NFL GMs to piece together an effective offense if that particular team doesnt have many stars and is in rebuilding mode (or is in salary cap paring mode). You don't need 11 stars. You just need 11 good players on the same page with the right blocking scheme. Hell, just look at Kaepernick. Where the hell did this guy come from???? The prospects for a  team's quick turnaround increase dramatically and considering how short the average NFL head coaching tenure is now that has GOT to be appealing to owners and GMs. Go 2-14 one season? Fine, hire a spread coach and draft a spread QB in the 6th round and voila, 10-6 and in the playoffs the following year.
Then again, there are some freakishly talented defensive players coming up through the ranks now, too. Clowney is a freaking monster. NFL defenses are going to change, too. I really think this will start an NFL renaissance of some kind. Even if the spread doesn't become an all-encompassing offense it's going to force teams to change for the better on both sides of the ball. I agree, it has become very cookie cutter.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

d5k's picture

Kaepernick was a high 2nd round pick.  Russell Wilson was a 3rd rounder, and RG3 was an early first rounder.  While I agree the learning curve becomes lower running these systems (at least for now before NFL defenses become like Saban's Alabama on crack), these are still solid athletic QB's who can throw very well and demanded a high draft pick.  And that's nothing new.  Look at the Holmgren and Andy Reid draft strategy of grabbing backup QBs later in the draft and developing them to run the west coast system and then flipping them.

AltaBuck's picture

Kaepernick is the only division I FBS QB to have passed for over 10k yds and rushed for over 4k yds in a career.  The guy can play. He went to Nevada so his biggest exposure media wise was beating an undefeated Boise St team.

I am Groot - Groot

Ashtabula's picture

It is so hard to find the franchise QB and there are probably only a handful of guys in the NFL that can truly make others around them super bowl contenders.  You can get some of these spread QB's in the third and fourth rounds.  Of course, if Kelly goes the NFL route with this offense and has success, next year people will knocking down Urban's door. 

Kurt's picture

And let's hope he just invites them to Cbus to share a few morels of info here and there.

nickma71's picture

There is no numbers advantage in any formation. It is a fallacy. The zone read will go the way of the wishbone, which is the exact same concept. Trying to have more players in one space than the defense. Defensive end, destroy the quarterback, no matter what he does with the ball. That puts an end to the wishbone in a hurry, and the same will happen as the ILB position changes to match the zone read.

Brutus Greyshield's picture

If the DE is exclusively occupied with stopping the QB then the design has worked. You've used your QB (a player that is otherwise usually just a bystander on an NFL running play) to 'block' him.

thatdude13's picture

The numbers advantage doesn't come from the formation it comes from the QB being a threat to run. I kind of disagree that the zone read is the EXACT same concept as the wishbone. As chris brown from has said. The zone read is more of an enhanced version of regular zone runs. If you run a normal zone run you would bootleg the qb out the backside to hold a defender you can't block ala Denver Broncos with Shanahan and Alex Gibbs(everywhere he was at). The problem is qb back is turn and you have predetermine when he keeps the ball or hands off.  The zone read just keeps the qb face toward the defense and can now accurately tell each time when to keep the ball or hand off. 

BeijingBucks's picture

I like the idea of a mixed up NFL offensive package.  The whole reason I prefer watching college is the crazy stuff they pull against mismatches.
At the pro level... well they're all pros so less mismatches.
But the effort they are putting into protecting teh statuesque overpaid QB is getting annoying.  turning into Canadian Football League!!
I can't wait til some smart guy gets a cheap stable of spread QBs and wreaks havoc on defenses that have prepared for pro sets for the rest of the season.  I for one think it is a good thing to get defenses out of their comfort zone... force them to react rather than sack the stuffing out of your stationary QB ending your season prematurely.

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