Zone Read with Lead Blockers

For the last decade, the zone read has established itself at every level, even into the NFL. In fact, ESPN the Magazine reported the overall read option runs were called 974 more times in 2013 than in 2011.

With the right athletes, the zone read presents multiple problems for a defense. Of course defenses have responded by coming up with multiple answers for the zone read. The most popular answer is to put the end on a chase call and gap exchange with the linebacker. If the ball goes away, the defensive lineman will chase the ball carrier down the line of scrimmage. Naturally, the quarterback should read this as a keep. The problem is that the linebacker is scraping to the outside to take the quarterback.

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When defenses start to do this, there must be ways to handle it. One way to counter the defense’s tactic is to bring a lead blocker for the quarterback. This is a play that was made popular at Nevada, and now is used frequently in the NFL and collegiate level.

To the defense, the read play with a lead blocker will initially appear to look like “split zone.” The split zone play is designed to kick out the defensive end and get a hat on a hat inside.

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In the play designed to handle the gap exchange on the read, the blocker (whether an H-back, fullback or receiver) will bypass the defensive end looking to block the first defender to show in the alley. If the defense is crashing or chasing the inside run with their defensive end, then the linebacker to that side will probably be the first to show.

If the defense is overloading the strong side or rotating players to the strength, this is a great answer for the weak side gap exchange.
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Of course the game is always left to the coach with the chalk last. The defense can counter a lead blocker by having the safety rotate down to play the quarterback. Depending on personnel and the preferred mode of attack, the offense can get the chalk last by bringing an extra blocker or putting a player on the pitch course.

This play has taken on many forms and fits well into any offense that incorporates at least  an extra blocker in the interior whether that is a fullback, H-back or tight end.

Here is an example of Nevada running the play. They utilize a receiver in motion as well as an H-back aligned at the wing. The formation is unbalanced  to the right causing further stress on the defense. The defensive end, who the quarterback is reading, closes down the line of scrimmage. The wing and the receiver in motion provide two lead blockers for the quarterback around the edge on the keep.

If the preference is to use the extra hat as a pitch man, then this scheme can be used to create a loaded option off of the quarterback keep.

This play can become very multiple in the way it attacks the defense. Teams now integrate this play into packaged plays which have two, three or four options within the play itself. Here is an example which packages the inside zone run to the running back, the keep by the quarterback with the H-back leading, bubble to the slot receiver, or hitch thrown off of a pre-snap read. The play is diagrammed below, and in the video, Ole Miss used  the same play five times in a row, at a very fast pace to drive down the field and score quickly.

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Obviously, there are benefits of having a lead blocker in space for a quarterback who can run well. This tactic has other benefits as well that help the inside zone run for the running back on the give. The primary advantage comes in slowing down the defensive end. In this example, the end hangs on the line of scrimmage, allowing the quarterback to give to the running back. Because the unblocked defensive end stays outside, he cannot be a factor in the play. As a general rule, we tell the quarterbacks if the end cannot tackle the dive, then give it.

Most defensive ends are taught to react to a blocker coming their way by wrong arming and spilling the ball to another defender. The idea is that the play will stretch out and go lateral, thus allowing defenders to rally to the ball to make the tackle. If an end is given the assignment to play the c-gap, he will struggle with making the distinction on whether the blocker running at him is going to kick him out, or by-pass him. This helps open the inside run. Additionally, the action has the effect of holding the backside of the defense. If the linebacker is assigned to play the quarterback, he cannot play heavy inside. He will have to slow play back inside, giving the cutback or the frontside “bang” read  by the running back an opportunity to gain yards.

The play can even take on a sprint out appearance by giving the quarterback a run-pass option on the edge of the defense.  With a blocker taking care of any second level player coming off the edge, the quarterback can now read the corner for a run-pass decision.  This is exactly what Auburn did in their 2013 match-up against Alabama late in the game.  An example of this type of play can be seen below.

The zone read with lead blockers for the keep phase becomes a very tough play for the defense to defend. The defense must not only account for run fits inside, but it must remain sound on the perimeter as well. When executed correctly, this is a concept that has the potential to gain yards on every attempt.