Spread Principles: Part 4: The Zone Read Play

GoBlueWolverine's Josh Turel takes an in-depth look at Rich Rodriguez's system. In part four of the series, Turel takes a look at the zone read play, the various reads, and the theory behind why it works.

For those that missed previous parts of the series, click the following links:
Spread Principles - Part 1: Formations
Spread Principles - Part 2: More Formations
Spread Principles - Part 3: The Zone Play

The Zone Read Play

On the zone read play, the same principles described for the backs in part three apply. The only thing that changes is the quarterback now has an option on the play. This is a very simple but effective play because you can control the backside defensive end without blocking him. This all goes back to the “whatever you do is wrong” principle. If the defensive end crashes down to support the run, the quarterback will keep the ball and take it to the outside. Due to the fact the linebackers will react to the outside zone, there will be a significant crease for the quarterback. If the defensive end comes out to play contain, the quarterback will simply give the ball inside and boot away to hold the end on the fake. Defensive teams have adjusted by changing the C gap player on the backside. The end can now dive inside and try to cut off the zone play while a linebacker will scrape around and wipe out the quarterback. The quarterback’s read tells him to keep the ball but in the end it is not the correct read. Offense’s like Rodriguez’s have countered this by giving the quarterback a split second extra to read the backside and pick up on the changing C gap player. The running back comes seemingly flat to the mesh point with the quarterback and by time the running back gets there, the quarterback knows whether he is going to keep the ball or give it to the back. The spread option is not like the veer option that Navy runs. In the Navy option, the quarterback will “ride and decide” with the fullback on whether to give the ball or run the option with halfback. The veer offense needs to do that because it is such a quick read and the read is developing while the quarterback and fullback are meshing. The shotgun alignment gives the quarterback enough time to read and decide rather than ride and decide with the running back. The beauty of it is the quarterback can still fake the zone run, get the linebackers to flow while already knowing in his mind he is going to keep it.

How does the Rodriguez zone plays differ from past Michigan schemes?

The main differences in the Michigan zone and Rodriguez zone are the formations and cut opportunities. Michigan really didn’t use the zone play out of the shotgun, instead opting to go with the pro formations and NFL type zone game. Each has its own advantages. The spread zone allows fewer defenders to be in the box but you need great blockers on the perimeter. Michigan’s zone allowed for more defenders in the box but got blocking support from the tight end. Michigan’s zone play also allowed for three double teams on the line of scrimmage, whereas the spread zone only allows two double teams and leaves one lineman on his own.

As for individual techniques of the linemen, there are sure to be some minor changes because no two teams block the zone play the same but they are all similar. As far as the running back reads are concerned, in scouting Michigan’s zone play, they didn’t use the “bounce” read that we illustrated in part three. They were big into cramming the B gap and cutting under the defensive tackle in a three technique (outside shade of the guard) that a lot of pro teams do. The backs in both offenses have the same exact keys… the first and second down lineman, but the cut back choices are different. Michigan’s backs were asked to slow play the read somewhat and make a direct up-field cut. Mike Hart would get creative and almost make his own zone counter play when he would cut hard against the grain and no one on the defense was left around. Not only were those plays exciting but guess what it did to the backside defensive lineman the next play? It kept them back home just a little bit more. Overall, there will be some adjusting the zone. For the offensive linemen I think it will be easier on them with fewer defenders in the box. The backfield will probably enjoy the new cut reads but they will take a lot of reps and time to get down. As we discussed in part three the keys are the exact same, so that’s the only thing that won’t change.

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