Lightning in a bottle: the read option

Grant Halverson

A treatise on the Carolina Panthers' experience with the read option.

The Carolina Panthers entered the 2012 season with a host of high expectations, many of which were backed by the stellar offensive outburst of 2011. So when the Offense struggled mightily, a raw emotional outburst was triggered by the fanbase, who wished to know why, or rather, whom was responsible for such a regression in production.

During this early part of the season the Panthers were routinely running zone read option plays. The read option type plays are very mercurial; if one player makes a mistake, or if a runner makes a poor decision, the play will likely be blown up. More often than not, this resulted in gains of 0-2 yards, while, unbeknownst to most fans, picking up huge gains, and momentum changing plays. That train of production is completely normal for an option attack; in the NCAA, Oregon goes through the exact same thing, as do Washington, and San Francisco of the NFL.

The fans, frustrated with the process, and the perceived lack of success, lashed out at 'the read option', largely furnishing the blame for the Offense's deterioration on Rob Chudzinski and the zone read option, despite the numerous other failings occurring at key positions on the field.

The reality is, 'the read option' wasn't to blame for the Offense's drop in production, in fact, it was the catalyst for many scoring drives, momentum shifts, and big plays in the passing game.

The Plays:

The term 'read option' is obscure and recurrent. There is no 'read option' play in the playbook. There are many different variations of different option plays that NFL teams utilize today.

The basic tenet of a read option type play involves having the playside (the side of field where the running play is designed to go) linemen seal their blocks, and create a sizable hole for the runner (usually the RB), meanwhile leaving a backside defender unblocked.

Here's Oregon Coach Chip Kelly's take on it:

(T)he quarterback is responsible for the sixth man in the box. He reads the defender and controls him. The quarterback is blocking that defender. He cannot physically block him because that is a mismatch. What he does is run the ball if the defender attacks the running back. He makes the defender respect him as a runner and keeps him out of the play.

At the snap of the ball, the QB & RB meet for a hand off, which is called 'the mesh'. At the mesh point the QB typically looks to the backside, for the player being read; the QB then reads the defender. Depending on whether or not the defender crashes the play, the QB has to make a decision on whether or not to hand the ball off, or keep it himself; all taking place in under one second.

It is usually the running back's responsibility to handle the mesh, while the QB reads the defender. If the RB is scanning the LB's, there will likely be a fumble. The RB must trust that the offensive line has fulfilled it's responsibility.

Key:

Red triangles are located overtop the heads of the players being read.

Yellow arrows indicate the intended direction of an offensive player.

Red arrows connote the location or direction of a defensive player.

Black arrows represent the intended direction of offensive linemen.

-The Inside Zone Read

When running the inside zone read, the Panthers are typically in either 11 (1 RB & 1 TE) or 12 (1 RB & 2 TE) personnel; always in a shotgun formation. Oftentimes Greg Olsen will motion into the backfield and act as the kick-out block, sealing the edge against an additional defender, or moving into the second level to take on a linebacker. WR Brandon Lafell also played this role.

The blocking scheme of the inside zone read reflects that of a simple zone blocking play. In the zone blocking scheme, offensive linemen take one step to either their right or left (indicating the playside), and block whoever is in their zone. The backside offensive tackle will abandon the weakside DE/OLB move inside. The defender he leaves is the player being read by the quarterback.

Depending on the play, the running back could be aiming for a hole in an A gap (between the center and two guards) or a B gap (an area between a guard and tackle). If the 'read player' crashes the mesh, or even creeps closer to the mesh point, the quarterback keeps the ball, running to the outside zone previously occupied by the read defender.

Chip Kelly spoke on the Inside Zone Read during a coaching clinic a few years ago:

Why do we run the inside zone? The inside zone play is the great equalizer. We are double-teaming a defensive lineman with a mathematical idea behind it. We have four legs and he has two legs, so we win. The zone play can be run against multiple looks by the defense. You can draw this play up and run it against five defenses. [...] We want to get off the ball and be a physical, downhill-running football team. This is not a finesse play.

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In this Week 4 example versus Atlanta, Greg Olsen is the inline TE, his responsibility is blocking Stephen Nicholas (54). Obscured by the red triangle, Brandon Lafell has motioned into the backfield, and is moving downfield to make a block on the second level.

The player being read in this instance is John Abraham (55). Even while Abraham has not crashed the play, his creeping presence allows Cam Newton to keep the ball.

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Cam keeps the ball and makes a break outside. Lafell's block on a crashing safety affords Newton a clean break outside. The play results in a 32 yard gain, pushing Carolina well into scoring range.

Here is another example of the Inside Zone Read with some slight changes.

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In this example, Week 9 against Washington, the Panthers have lined up in an unbalanced line. RT Byron Bell, and LT Jordan Gross are the far right lineman, with Gross actually operating as a TE (in name only), while TE Ben Hartsock fills his spot at LT. The blockers execute perfectly, opening up a great running lane for DeAngelo Williams. Meanwhile the 'read player' correctly stays home. Cam therefore gives Williams the ball.

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Williams hits the hole, bounces outside, and with a burst of speed, takes the ball to the house, scoring a 30 yard TD. The play was well designed, but Williams' great running and vision takes this play from a 10 yard gain to a touchdown.

-The Inverted T/Buckeye Pistol Triple Option

The triple option is one of the oldest plays in football, and when operated correctly is very hard stop, especially when you have three-four explosive runners.

Typically, the Panthers will line up in 31 (3 RB's & 1 TE) personnel, or 21 (2 RB's & 1 TE) personnel, from the Inverted T formation, or the Buckeye Pistol alignment. This formation allows Carolina to put Cam Newton, Mike Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart, and DeAngelo Williams on the field at the same time.

The linemen will once again utilize a simple zone blocking play, stepping to the playside and opening a hole for the diveman (the RB standing next to Cam, who will take the inside run). It is the linemen's objective to open a hole for the diveman, usually hitting the playside B-gap.

Depending on the play, the 'read player' might be on the backside, or even the playside. If he collapses the mesh, or encroaches on the running lane, the QB will keep the ball and proceed outside. Once outside, the QB will run until a defender picks him up; if applicable, the QB will then pitch the ball to the pitchman.

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Week 2 against New Orleans, the Panthers absolutely shredded the Saints with read option type plays. In this instance, the Panthers are in 21 personnel, the Buckeye Pistol. The O-Line opens a nice sized hole, while Newton reads the backside DE, the 'read player'. The 'read player' moves slightly inside, telling Cam to keep the ball, and fake the handout to Tolbert. Cam then moves outside.

Olsen sets a solid block on the safety, while the nickel CB is put between a rock and a hard place. If he takes an angle for Cam, Newton will pitch the ball to Williams, who will have a clear lane, with no defenders in sight. Paralysis by analysis; the CB stays outside, and Newton keeps it for a 40 yard gain.

Here is another example, versus Oakland.

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The Panthers are aligned in 31 personnel, lined up in the inverted T formation. At the snap the O-Line moves to the right, opening up the B-gap for Mike Tolbert. Backside RB Richie Brockel immediately seals the edge against Lamarr Houtson (99) enabling a clean mesh. The 'read player', Tommy Kelly stays inside, however Cam feels confident enough in his athleticism to beat Kelly to the hashmark.

Newton keeps the ball, and then is presented with his next decision.

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Kelly recovers to the point where he is in position to make a tackle on Newton. Olsen provides a nice block on the DB, allowing Cam to pitch the ball to DeAngelo Williams before contact.

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Williams catches the ball cleanly, and is able to make a defender miss before being tackled, resulting in a 16 yard gain for the Panthers.

-The Shotgun Sweep Outside Zone Read

The Panthers have taken one of the other basic read option plays, the Outside Zone Read, and put their own spin on it.

This call is rarely seen, as it can go especially awry, however when used properly it is almost a guaranteed first down.

Typically in 11 or 12 personnel, the Panthers line up in a shotgun formation with a TE, usually Greg Olsen, inline, in a three-point stance next to an Offensive Tackle, on the playside.

This process is sort of confusing to describe in words, hopefully the picture below provides some clarification.

At the snap the entire offensive line, save the backside OG, and the TE, will pull to the playside. So for example, if the Panthers were running this play to the left, the Center, the RT, the LG, and the LT all pull to the left. In total the Offense should have four linemen pulling in space, fending off the defensive line, and providing a shield for the running back/mesh point. The inline TE will clamp inside, sealing the playside DE/OLB from breaking through the sweep, while the backside OG, will block towards the A-gap, keeping the NT/DT from penetrating into the backfield.

The risk at hand though, is that the defense sees through the ruse, and doesn't completely follow the tide of the OL, instead penetrating into the backfield and blowing up the mesh.

At the mesh, the QB reads the backside DE/OLB, who, if he remembers his film study, will stay at home, instead of following the blockers. If the 'read player' crashes, or follows the OL, the QB will keep it. If instead he stays at home, the QB lets the RB keep the ball, and follow his blockers, just like a normal shotgun sweep. If all goes well, the runner should have multiple OL blocking into the second level, opening up a big run.

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The Panthers ran the shotgun sweep outside zone read multiple times against Washington, having smashing success against the Redskins 2-gapping front seven.

The Redskins run a 2-gap 3-4 Defense, meaning the defensive linemen, the two DE's and the NT, are each responsible for filling two gaps, freeing the LB's to make plays. As such, the defensive linemen need to engage the O-Line and eat up blockers. Therefore, when the Panthers run a shotgun sweep outside zone read, the DL is more apt to following the flow of the linemen. At least for a few attempts.

Here the OL executes the protracted pull perfectly, while the Redskins LB's follow in pursuit, having already been beaten by DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart outside. Consequently, the 'read player' crashes inside, leaving a large gap for QB Cam Newton to run.

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Newton keeps the ball, and picks up a first down before going down, a 10 yard gain, putting the Panthers in field goal position. (Note: the Panthers run the same Inside Zone Read play diagnosed above, on the very next play, scoring a TD, and taking the momentum away from Washington).

-The Inverted Veer

Along with the Inside Zone Read, this is the Panthers' most frequently utilized read option type play.

Popularized by Gus Malzahn at Auburn, the Inverted Veer was one of Auburn's top running plays with Cam Newton at the helm.

Chris Brown, of Grantland, and SmartFootball, does a fantabulous job of explaining the play/blocking concepts:

The basic concept is old school option: Leave a playside defender unblocked and send two runners (the quarterback and a runningback) to the playside. By leaving certain defenders unblocked, the offense should gain an advantage in numbers on the other guys: by optioning off one of the most dangerous defenders, the remaining blockers are free to engage in double teams or to directly block the linebackers [...]

The playside linemen should be able to create a seal of the backside, the pulling guard will take the playside linebacker, and the defensive end will never be right. Moreover, as teams got better at this they learned that a key coaching point for the quarterback was to slide to the playside as he "meshed" with the runner. This means that, once the quarterback makes his decision, the defensive end should have committed.

Here's the link to the article outlining the Inverted Veer.

The play is really just old-school 1970's Power-O blocking, infused with the zone read option. The linemen typically engage in more traditional angle blocking ('a hat on a hat' --the O-Line knows pre-snap who will be blocking who), while the backside OG pulls and acts as a lead blocker for the inside runner, in this case the QB.

The Inverted Veer can also be run from a normal zone blocking play, which, as Chris Brown hypothesizes, is able to account for more unusual defensive fronts (the Panthers use both).

The inside run will usually be headed for the playside B-gap.

More often than not the Panthers run the inverted veer from 11 or 12 personnel.

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In this example the Panthers use a zone blocking play, as the offensive line seals off the backside, while Greg Olsen is left to seal the edge for the outside run. LG Amini Silatolu, who most usually pulls, is leading the charge for the inside run. The 'read player', OLB Justin Houston, stays home, engendering Newton to keep the ball.

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Following Amini's block, before cutting back, Cam is able to use his elusiveness in order to score a 28 yard gain. As with the DeAngelo Williams' TD run above, Newton's running ability turns this play from a 8-10 yard gain into a big play.

-The play-action passing game:

Maybe the biggest plus for the zone read option type plays is the mental pressure it puts on a defense. The danger presented by the read option forces opposing defenses to spend practice time preparing for it. And after seeing it applied in the game, defenses naturally react to what they've seen.

This is something that makes Carolina an unusual team to prepare for (though with the influx of the zone read option, not for much longer).

As such, when the defense is afraid of the zone read option, they compensate for it, either consciously, or subconsciously, which opens up prime opportunities for play action passing; something Coach Chudzinski did not ignore.

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In the week 8 matchup with Chicago, the Panthers hardly ran any zone read option plays. However, Chicago dutifully prepared for them. Here the Panthers run a play-action inside zone read play, even taking the time to open up the hole in the B-gap. Cam Newton fakes the mesh, which causes the venerable Brian Urlacher to hesitate briefly.

Simultaneously, Brandon Lafell is running a post route that will take him across the field; towards the region of field that Urlacher is responsible for. Urlacher's hesitation opens up the entire middle of the field for the post, and completely compromises the integrity of Chicago's coverage.

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Lafell gets behind the LB's, and Cam threads the needle. Lafell takes the ball deep into Bears territory on a 62 yard gain; the drive ends in a Panthers score.

Here is another example, Week 12 versus Philadelphia.

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Again, we did not see very much of the option against Philadelphia, however, its reach was felt.

Here the Panthers fake another inside zone read play. In this scenario, the mesh between Newton and Williams pauses the strong safety briefly, as he is caught flat-footed. This enables Louis Murphy (bottom of the picture) to get behind the defense.

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With Olsen staying inside to block, Cam has time to get a throw off to Murphy. The throw is a bit off, however Murphy adjusts and makes the tough catch for a gain of 54 yards. This drive also ended in a Panthers score.

Here is a look at one final example, this time against Kansas City, Week 13.

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Unlike in our other examples, Kansas City saw an ample dose of zone read option plays.

This play takes course on the first drive of the game. Here the Panthers run a play-action fake off of the Inverted Veer.

Pre-snap, the strong safety crept up closer to the box, I would speculate his assignment was run support if the Panthers showed run, if not, provide coverage overtop Greg Olsen.

At the snap, Silatolu pulls, and Cam meshes with DeAngelo Williams. The strong safety, Abram Elam (27) completely bites, his focus concentrated on the mesh.

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Elam gets twisted around, and is in no position to make a play on Olsen. Newton, with a blitzer in his face, gets a nice throw off, which Olsen catches in stride and scores a touchdown.

Without the success of the zone read option plays, it's doubtful that this play, or any of the aforementioned play action plays, are successful. If Urlacher doesn't pause, he drops into his zone, taking away the throw to Lafell; if the Eagles' Safety doesn't hesitate, then he likely gets overtop Murphy, and takes away that throw; the same goes for the play above.

-The Stats:

Note that this is my personal count; I cannot guarantee that this is exactly correct, as I had to make a few judgement calls. Over the past week or so, I've been reviewing all possible zone read calls. The Panthers ran many shotgun runs that look very similar to zone read plays (by design of course). However, the final verdict does not change, even with a few alterations.

114 attempts for 814 yards (7.14 yards per carry)

There was a definite shift in the amount of zone read calls between the first 6 games and the last 10 games. In the first 6 games, the Panthers ran 67 zone read option plays; only 47 zone read plays in the final 10 games of the year.

That averages out for 11.17 zone read plays per game in the first stretch, and 4.7 called zone read plays for the final 10 games.

From a mathematical sense, just to be sure, I ran a two-sample T-test to confirm the difference. Using an alpha value of. 01, I was able to confirm that the Panthers utilized more zone read option plays in the beginning of the year, compared to the end of the year. Just for fun, I ran another two-sample T-test, comparing the percentage of zone read plays in wins (against total called run plays), to the percentage of zone read plays in losses (against total called run plays), trying to see if calling lesser zone read plays lead to winning. It didn't. Using the same .01 alpha value, I could not confirm that fewer zone read option plays lead to winning. Even if the data did support that claim, there are way too many confounding variables to state it as fact, i.e injuries, play calling, opponent, etc...

Conclusion:

The zone read option plays were some of the most effective offensive plays of the Panthers in 2012. They were not responsible for the deterioration we saw on Offense. As I stated above, most option attacks see a bounty of 0-2 yard gains; it goes with the territory.

Contrary to popular belief, zone read option type plays are not all that complicated to learn, nor do they require extremely skilled run blockers. Pointing back to the Oregon example, almost all of their linemen come from the deep depths of the scouting pool, and very few, if any have reached the NFL at all. Most of the zone read plays involve multiple double teams, giving help to some of the weaker links on the Panthers Offensive Line, which is what helped the zone read option attack persist through the injuries sustained up front.

Unlike more traditional attacks, the zone read option plays do not require multiple plays to get into a rhythm: you don't need to spend 10 plays running into a brick wall, risking three-and-outs, before you get somewhere. Case and point, the Week 14 tilt with Atlanta. The Panthers barely sprinkled in any zone read option plays before the third quarter. Then, on the first drive of the half, Coach Chudzinski called an inside zone read play; Kroy Biermann bites, and Cam keeps it, scoring a 72 yard TD that helped break the will of the Falcons.

And like a powerful running game should, it opens numerous opportunities for play-action passing. The hypersensitivity defenses pay to the zone read option forces defenders to think instead of reacting, which leads to a lot of mistakes and opportunities for the offense. As Gus Malzahn says, "If you're thinking, you're not playing."

When it is all said and done, I can't say whether or not the zone read option, and all of it's offspring will survive the NFL game, or like the wildcat, fade away. However, I think it has a fighting chance, especially given the supposed evolution at the QB position.

As far as the Panthers are concerned, I don't think that Rob Chudzinski and Coach Rivera wanted to run the zone read option type plays as often as they did.

It is my belief that they saw the impotence of our offensive line early on, and chose to operate with the zone read option, rather than drudging out the traditional, under center, running game, which as we saw as the season progressed, was highly ineffective. I cannot prove that. I didn't attend the coaches meetings, it's just my best guess based on what occurred this past fall.

Though, I don't think we'll see as many zone read option type plays next season, or perhaps ever again from Cam Newton and the Offense. An improved and healthy offensive line will hopefully open up the ground game, which will allow the Panthers to return to their 2011 level of production, despite the exit of Chudzinski.

There is a semi-legitimate gripe that the zone read option exposed Cam to extra hits, however, it doesn't take into account that Newton didn't even keep the ball on over half of the zone read plays, and on those plays he did keep the ball, Cam would often just fall to the ground, or run out of bounds, avoiding hits. He did not take 114 extra hits. Plus, Cam is much more capable at protecting himself in the open field, than he is sitting in the pocket.

The zone read plays were not even a base offense for the Panthers. On only three occasions (Week 2 versus New Orleans, Week 4 versus Atlanta, and Week 6 versus Dallas) did they exceed 50% of the Panthers called running plays.

So to wrap it all up, the zone read option plays were quite successful, and in no way contributed, or led to a Panthers loss this season.

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