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The Zone Read and the Maryland Terrapins

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RANDY EDSALL FOOTBALL.  More exciting than Jim Grobe football?  YOU DECIDE.  OR DON'T.
RANDY EDSALL FOOTBALL. More exciting than Jim Grobe football? YOU DECIDE. OR DON'T.

 

The zone read is one of the most prevalent plays in college football right now.  With the popularity of the spread, there aren't many schools that don't at least have the play in their playbook.  Notre Dame has run the zone read exactly once all season, but there's a good chance it will become a big part of the offense next season.  So even though I've written about it already, I thought I'd cover it again in a little more detail.

Maryland runs a pretty basic spread offense.  It's not that much different from what ND ran last year with Dayne Crist.  The Terrapins rotate two quarterbacks in and out.  Danny O'Brien, last year's starter, is a lot like Crist - big, tall, and fairly athletic.  He's not a great spread quarterback, but the coaches try to get his legs involved in the offense.  C.J. Brown comes in on occasion as a change-of-pace quarterback (sound familiar?).  He's much faster but doesn't throw the ball as well as O'Brien.  Maryland still runs the zone read with both players.

The classic zone read play should be familiar to most college football fans. 

Zoneread_medium

The offense runs a typical zone run (it can be either inside or outside zone) while leaving the backside defensive end unblocked.  The quarterback reads that end.  If he crashes on the tailback, he'll pull the ball and run around the end.  If the end stays home on the quarterback, he'll hand it off.

The first play I'll breakdown will highlight not only the zone read, but also one of the most common techniques for defending it, the scrape exchange.

 

Scrapeexchange_medium

In the scrape exchange, the defensive end crashes as hard as possible on the running back to force the quarterback to pull the ball.  If he doesn't crash hard enough and the running back gets the ball, there's always the possibility he'll gain good yards on the zone run.  This isn't too different from Notre Dame's issues defending the triple option last year against Navy when the defensive ends were too passive when crashing on the fullback.  The scrape exchange doesn't work if the quarterback doesn't keep the ball.

While this is going on, a linebacker comes down to contain the quarterback, "exchanging" places with the defensive end.  If everything works correctly, the quarterback should run right into the scraping linebacker after he pulls the ball.

Let's see all of this in action.

Scrape5_medium

The Terrapins have C.J. Brown in the shotgun.  He's going to run a zone read to the field side, meaning he reads the boundary side end.  The outside linebacker to that side will scrape.

Scrape6_medium

The end isn't really crashing that hard, but he's come inside enough to make Brown pull the ball.  The play call is for an inside zone with the read, so the running back's aiming point is more towards the center of the line, not outside.  When Brown pulls the ball, he actually redirects himself and throws a block on the end.  Meanwhile, the h-back ignores the scraping linebacker for some reason, who has an open lane on Brown.

Scrape7_medium

The only problem is, the linebacker takes a horrible angle and Brown gets around him.

Scrape8_medium

Brown turns the corner and has a lot of room.

This play reinforces the point I tried to make in my Wake Forest review.  The coaches' job is to put the players in the best position to be successful, but it also falls on the players themselves to execute.  The defensive call on this play was perfect, the linebacker just whiffed on the tackle.

So the scrape exchange is a good counter to the zone read.  Then why do teams still run it if there's such a good answer to it?

One way is to just not run the zone read very often.  If a team only runs it a few times a game, the other team probably won't dedicate practice time to the scrape exchange.  Chances are, they'll just roll the dice and hope they don't get burned on a zone read.  Think about Notre Dame with Dayne Crist last year.  Would you, as an opposing defensive coordinator, stay up at night worrying about the zone read from Crist?  I didn't think so.

But if you're a team that runs a spread option offense, like Oregon or Michigan a Rich Rodriguez team, you need counters.  Mgoblog did a nice series on the counters RichRod employed to the scrape exchange a few years ago.  They can be found here, here, and here.

One way Maryland countered the scrape exchange was to run the veer out of the shotgun.

Notre Dame fans should be familiar with the veer.

Insideveer_medium

Maryland simply ran this play out of the shotgun without a pitch man.  The quarterback reads the playside defensive end this time.  If he stays on the QB, he hands the ball off and the running back runs inside of the end.  If he crashes, the quarterback pulls and runs outside of him.  If the linebacker, seeing an unblocked defensive end, tries to scrape, he becomes an easy target for the playside tackle.

Veer4_medium
Maryland lines up with two tight ends, a somewhat unusual formation for a spread team.  Danny O'Brien is the quarterback.

The playside TE will peel off into the flat, taking the corner with him.  The defensive end will be read and the playside tackle will take out the scraping linebacker, leaving an open lane for either the running back or quarterback.

Veer5_medium

It's hard to tell, but the end is shuffling laterally towards the running back, so O'Brien pulls the ball.  The tackle tees up on the linebacker...

Veer6_medium

...and he completely misses the block.  O'Brien had room to run but is dropped for no gain.

Once again, the play call was great, but execution was lacking.

Besides just countering the scrape exchange, there are also ways to build off of the zone read.  Once the defense is looking for the it, the offense can take advantage.

Fake4_medium

This is the play immediately after the first play in this post, so the Virginia defense was just burned on the zone read, even while scraping.  This time, they're content to let the quarterback hand the ball off and attack the line with their linebackers.  The Terps respond by having the tight end fake a block on a linebacker and release downfield.

Fake5_medium

The defensive end has stayed back, giving the QB the "give" read.  The outside linebacker, though not scraping, is watching intently.  Meanwhile, the tight end blows right past him.

Fake6_medium

The tight end finds a hole in the defense and Brown hits him for an easy touchdown.  The defense was so intent on stopping the run that they completely ignored the tight end. 

So that's the zone read and the many ways it can be used to confound a defense.  It's a very powerful tool when used correctly in the spread offense and one I would love to see more of from Notre Dame (not from Rees, of course).  There's a chance Goldrix will be our QB next season, and I would expect the zone read to be a common occurrence.  I like the way Brian Kelly calls plays and makes adjustments, so I'm very interested to see what he can do with the zone read and a mobile quarterback.  (DISCLAIMER:  No, I'm not saying Rees should be benched.  He's our QB for the rest of the year.  But I'm sure Goldrix will be given a long, hard look next spring.)