All-22 Lab: Zone-Read Struggles

We use All-22 coaches tape to analyze the inability of the Chicago Bears defense to stop the Buffalo Bills’ read-option rushing attack in the regular-season opener.

The Buffalo Bills on Sunday rushed for 193 yards against the Chicago Bears defense. It was a performance that harkened back to last season, when the team finished dead last in the NFL against the run.

There were three Bills rushing plays that had a huge impact on the contest: a 3-yard touchdown run by E.J. Manuel, a 47-yard run by Anthony Dixon before halftime and 38-yard run by Fred Jackson in overtime that sealed the game.

For all three of those plays, the Bills used a zone-read option with Manuel and the running backs. The Bears, obviously, had no answer for it.

Going forward, the Bears are going to see plenty more zone-read, particularly this week against the San Francisco 49ers.

Let’s go the film room and analyze the All-22 coaches tape to figure out what went wrong and how Chicago’s defense can correct those problems.

PLAY I: Manuel TD

The Bills line up at the 3-yard line in shotgun formation. RB Fred Jackson is to Manuel’s left and will cross the face of the quarterback at the snap. TE Scott Chandler will release into the left flat, taking S Ryan Mundy with him. The keys on this play are DE Jared Allen and LB Lance Briggs.

At the mesh point of the quarterback and running back, both Allen and Briggs crash inside. Allen does not keep contain on the edge and Briggs does not scrape wide, leaving half a field of real estate for Manuel.

Manuel tucks the ball away and begins to break outside. Notice both Allen and Briggs completely out of position.

Manuel walks into the end zone.


Here’s what Allen had to say last week about his preparation for Buffalo’s zone-read attack:

“The zone-read stuff, I’m usually the read guy. Me or Lamarr [Houston], the D-ends are the read guys,” Allen said. “So we have a large responsibility. If we take care of them, be fundamentally sound, we’ll be all right. That’s typically how these things go. Especially with a team like the Bills, if you’re out of your gap, that’s what they look for. It’s just got to be disciplined football.”

Allen and Briggs were anything but disciplined on this play. Both were keyed solely on Jackson and Manuel took advantage. This was a clear mental mistake by both players and a case of the Bills exploiting an overaggressive defense.

PLAY II: Dixon for 47

The Bills again line up in shotgun formation with RB Anthony Dixon to Manuel’s right. Dixon will cross the face of the quarterback to receive the handoff. The keys on this play are Briggs and outside linebacker Jon Bostic.

Notice the double teams at the point of attack on defensive tackles Stephen Paea and Jeremiah Ratliff. Both players are blown off the ball at the snap. Briggs is eyeing Manuel the entire play and begins shading toward the outside. He’s not even paying attention to Dixon. Bostic also begins shading outside.

Neither one of the defensive tackles can get off their blocks. Briggs has taken himself completely out of the play chasing after Manuel. It appears Bostic is expecting the play to go outside, so he also vacates the middle of the field. Notice the truck-wide lane in front of Dixon as he hits the line of scrimmage.

Chris Conte (yellow) misses an open-field tackle and Dixon is off to the races for 47 yards. Bostic, despite not being touched on the play, still isn’t close to the ball carrier.


It’s tough to fault the defensive tackles on this play, as both were double-teamed. That said, neither held his ground and Paea was pushed so far backward, he ended up getting in Bostic’s way.

Yet the blame here falls on the linebackers, mainly Bostic. It appears Briggs was tasked with shadowing Manuel, yet committing so early to the quarterback, without noticing the ball in Dixon’s hands, gave Briggs no time to recover.

The play was run right at Bostic, yet he put himself immediately out of position and made no effort to recover. He literally watched as Dixon flew by him. It was 2013 Bostic all over again.

PLAY III: Jackson for the win

The Bills line up in shotgun with Jackson to Manuel’s right. Notice Chandler, lined up at H-back. At the snap, he will swing behind the line of scrimmage and kick out on Houston, the weak-side defensive end. The All-22 Lab highlighted this blocking scheme last week.

The keys on this play are Briggs, Bostic and safety Ryan Mundy.

At the mesh point, we see Chandler moving behind the line of scrimmage, with Mundy following him. This takes Mundy out of the play. Bostic is keying on Manuel, so he’s shaded to the outside ready to break on a quarterback keeper. Briggs sees the handoff and immediately explodes into the A gap.

After the handoff to Jackson, Mundy and Bostic are toast. They are out of position and have no chance at recovering. Briggs gets clipped by Bills C Eric Wood and is knocked on his butt, leaving no one to fill the off-tackle hole.

Paea, Allen and Charles Tillman cannot get off their blocks and Jackson heads into the second level untouched. He takes the ball to the 1-yard line and two plays later, the game was over.


This was a case of nearly defender failing on the same play. Briggs read the play but was far too aggressive and was out of control as he hit the inside gap. Mundy and Bostic were too focused on their individual assignments instead of watching the ball, while Paea, Ratliff, Tillman and Allen could not shed a bock.

When an entire defensive unit has a bad play collectively, at a crucial moment in overtime, it’s nearly impossible to recover.


As far as what the Bears need to do differently going forward, Houston summed it up best after the game:

“We need to play disciplined football to win games,” Houston said. “We need to play disciplined football, know our job and do our job. We didn’t play disciplined football. When you play good run teams, you’ve got to play disciplined football.”

Notice how many times he said “disciplined football.”

Schematically, the Bills didn’t do anything to “trick” Chicago’s defense. The read-option Buffalo ran is the same zone-read that’s run league-wide. The key to their success was the Bears being painfully unprepared. No one was on the same page, with guys continuously misreading plays and jumping all over play fakes.

Somehow, some way, coordinator Mel Tucker needs to get all 11 players working on the same page on every play. He couldn’t do it last year and he didn’t do it on Sunday. With so many new faces on defense, the common denominator here is Tucker. He’s supposed to “coordinate” his players on game day, and Chicago’s defense was anything but coordinated against the Bills.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.

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