Last year in the divisional round, Colin Kaepernick set an NFL record with 181 rushing yards (along with 263 more passing) out of the Read-Option (or Pistol) formation. The Niners beat down Green Bay and sent the Packers packing and out of the playoffs.
After the game Aaron Rodgers sounded like an awfully poor sport, publicly stating that the Read-Option was a fad and would soon be gone, just like the Wildcat. He said, “At some point, on some level, they are going to figure out a way to consistently stop that.”
I’ll admit that I personally thought that Rodgers was dead wrong, and that it would certainly take more than just one off-season for Defensive Coordinators to figure it out and come up with a comprehensive solution.
Seven weeks into the season it’s plain to see that the Read-Option has disappeared just as quickly as Miley Cyrus’s innocence.
Perhaps this is why Aaron Rodgers is a Super Bowl MVP and I watch football on the television, shirtless, with salsa on my chin.
OK, so perhaps my pathetically uncreative Miley Cyrus analogy is a bit of an exaggeration, but the four teams that immortalized the Read-Option last season (Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, Carolina) have all but abandoned the formation in terms of it being a major cog in their game plans.
In Washington, many point to RGIII’s knee injury as the primary motivation behind the change of heart, but Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan disagrees with this assertion and offers up this explanation:
“The thing about last year: A lot of people weren’t ready for it at all. 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.”
Shanahan went on to say that the ball has merely shifted court at this point, and it is up to Offensive Coordinators to present the Read-Option in a new way to counter against the defensive schemes that are currently working to stop Read-Option plays.
In San Francisco, the Read-Option was so ineffective during the first four games (1.1 yards per play versus 4.5 yards last season) that Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman has shifted the focus elsewhere: “We really haven’t placed a big emphasis on the Read-Option to this point in the season.”
Pete Carroll of the Seahawks takes a similar stance, saying that they plan on using the Read-Option only when it fits.
Jim Harbaugh, complained to the league, stating that the new rules implemented for when a defense can hit a QB operating out of the Read-Option are “flawed and biased.” The league’s response to the 49ers coach was pretty much: quit whining.
NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino clarified the new ruling, which states that Read-Option quarterbacks can be treated as a runner until he is clearly out of the play.
This means that he can still be hit even after he has made the pitch, as long as the referee feels that he was still “part of the play.”
In my opinion, I tend to agree with the rule. If you want the special benefits afforded to quarterbacks, then stay in the pocket and pass. But if you want to make the defense believe that you are a running back, take your licks like a running back.
But it’s not just fear of hits that are helping defenses stop the Read-Option. There are two major strategies drawn up by Defensive Coordinators that are yielding results:
1. Corner Blitz – sending a corner blitz is proving to be a very effective strategy to employ against the Read-Option. On Read-Option plays it is the responsibility of the receiver to block the corner, but if the CB is sent on a blitz the receiver generally doesn’t have time to react and re-direct their block.
The danger with this scheme, as with all blitzes, is that the Defensive Coordinator must guess on which plays the Read-Option will be employed. If the QB drops into the pocket to pass, the blitz will have left a receiver wide open on the edge.
2. “Slow read” – a more effective way to stop the Read-Option is to “slow read” the quarterback. In essence, the reason that the Read-Option works so well is that defensive players are so used to needing to make “fast reads” with regards to the offense’s play calling, that the last second pitch can catch defensive players out of position. Similarly, once a defense is looking for the pitch, they can be caught out of position by anticipating the pitch and having the QB keep the ball.
So how the “slow read” works is that when the defense sees the QB take off with the ball in the Read-Option formation, instead of quickly trying to determine whether or not he’ll pitch or keep, you simply lay in waiting.
It may seem counter-intuitive to slow down on defense, but the tactic is working. Without the “fast read” the QB doesn’t have the chance to misdirect the defense and catch them out of position. While a “slow read” will not lead to many tackles for loss, the strategy essentially doesn’t allow the offense’s play to develop and the runs are generally stopped for 1 or 2 yards.
Of course the “slow read” only works when defensive players are able to first make a “fast read” that a Read-Option run is on. If the QB drops back to pass, but the defense gets into “slow read” position to defend the Read-Option, they may not be able to get pressure to the passer.
So, it seems as though the Read-Option is here to stay, but not nearly in the same capacity that we saw it in 2012.
Soon Read-Option runs may be seen as seldom as other gimmick plays like the Flea-Flicker, Statue of Liberty, and the Reverse.