Football savant Chris Brown had a great piece the other day over on Grantland about the read-option and NFL team's efforts to learn how to stop it. (Mike Tomlin, for example, said his team is looking forward to putting an end to this trend.) NFL staffs have been dispatched to college campuses across America, from Stanford to BYU to Alabama, in attempt to learn how to stop an offense that has been in college football for over a decade. (Hint, it's harder than it looks.)
Read-option plays force defenses to approach reacting to offenses much differently. With traditional approaches, the quarterback knows before the play whether he will either hand the ball off or keep it. In the read-option, the quarterback, typically aligned in the shotgun, will "read" the movements of a particular defensive player, one the offense has specifically chosen not to block. It's based on this player's actions that the quarterback makes his decision — hence the (redundant) term "read-option." "Whenever the guy who takes the snap is a threat to run, it changes all the math of defenses," Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano said in 2012. "It changes the numbers — minus one." Last season, many NFL defenses repeatedly failed this basic calculus and tried to defend run games with six to eight offensive threats — blockers or potential runners — while undermanned by one, two, or even three defenders.
When the read-option first became prevalent in college football, defenses tried to defend it the same way they defended traditional run plays. "The defense fit defenders into every gap to the run side of the zone play," zone-read inventor Rich Rodriguez explained at a recent coaches clinic. "The backside defenders ran as fast as they could to the ball and watched for the cutback." In other words, the defense cared only about the running back and essentially ignored the quarterback. The only job of the defensive players away from the run's initial path was to stop the back from escaping out the back side. "That has all changed," Rodriguez said. "Defenses fit the front side of the defense one way and fit the back side another way because the quarterback is a threat to run the ball."
Now, defenses must use a variety of tactics against read-option plays. The most popular changeup is the "scrape " or "gap exchange," in which the backside defensive end and linebacker swap responsibilities — the end crashes for the running back while the linebacker "scrapes" for the quarterback. When the quarterback sees the end crash, his read is to pull the ball and keep it, a choice that will result in him running directly into a waiting linebacker.
With Chip Kelly going to Philadelphia, it will be interesting to see what other college-level offensive innovations start leaking into the NFL. It will also be interesting to see if NFL defenses will back the tough talk of their coaches up this coming season.