Assessing the state of the read option

Week 2 is barely here and already a clutch of NFL pundits are claiming that the 2012 seasons most pored-over playstyle as we know it is dead and buried. That’s a little premature, but here are a few thoughts.


After the read option laid waste to defensive teams across the AFC and NFC the column inches devoted to picking apart this seismic shift in the game was matched only by the amount of time front office staff spent poring over tape to try and find a way to counter it.

Change is inevitable, and few have argued that the read/pistol formation would stay the same into 2013. In the NFL, nothing stays the same for long, and Week 1’s matchups between those teams that used the read successfully, notably the Redskins, 49ers and Seahawks gave some strong clues as to how the read would be used in 2013. As early out as Week 1 it seems that the read option is already shifting, here’s  a few observations so far.

The Clay Matthews tackle was inevitable

All through the offseason, while many of the approaches to shutting down the read varied in their complexity, at their heart was the threat of repeated hard sacks on the QB and the potential for injuries. While the NFL is largely above the concept of shutting down an elite player by deliberately attempting to inflict an injury on them it’s hardly unknown and it was only a matter of time before someone attempted to make a point by delivering a particularly hard hit and subsequently overcooked it.

Matthews is one of a number of defensive tackles (I’m also looking at you Ndamakong Suh) in the league who play exceptionally hard, and rightly so. A good defensive tackle shouldn’t pull punches and won’t be winning any popularity contests.  But it’s easy in the heat of the moment to trip over the line and turn a hard tackle into an unpleasant one.

The read-option QBs who will succeed are those who can best adapt to pocket-passing plays

Green Bay allegedly spent most of the summer preparing to defend against the read option, so depending on your view it was either a complete success on the part of Green Bay that the 49ers barely used it in Week 1, or a waste of time given that the 49ers relied almost entirely on the passing game and still beat the Packers. In fact Kaepernick threw more passes than at any other time in his career, 39 times for 412 yards. We’ve already mentioned in previous podcasts that the read is likely to become just part of the QB’s stock of plays and schemes, Payton Manning lined up in the pistol during the offseason and ran some interesting variations on the read, Jake Locker spent a large part of training camp trying it out for the Titans and currently looks more comfortable running than he does in the pocket.

Ultimately the big test this season will be whether those quarterbacks that ran the read effectively, principally Colin Kaepernick (49ers) Russell Wilson (Seahawks) and RGIII (Redskins) will continue to do so. (I’m less concerned with Cam Newton in this regard given that the Panthers dramatically reduced their use of the read mid way through the 2012 season.) Kaepernick’s reliance on passing plays against Green Bay seems a reasonably strong indicator that he’s comfortable enough as a pocket passer, Wilson had only 7 rushing yards but fell back on a successful passing game (completed 25 of his 33 passes for 320 yards and one touchdown) against a tough Carolina defence.

On the flip side as already mentioned, other QBs are getting in on the act. We saw Peyton run the read in the preseason, although that’s perhaps less surprising than it should be given past history.

Terelle Pryor racked up a surprising number of rushing yards against the Colts in Week 1 with 104 rushing yards on 11 carries, suggesting a potential emphasis on a run-heavy option as a solution to the dearth of offensive weapons in Oakland.


The NFL have ruled that the QB can be hit like a running back

After the aforemetioned hit on Kaepernick the NFL clarified the ruling on when a QB can be hit,  ruling that QBs carrying out read option fakes could be hit by defenders. Never one to miss an opportunity to air his feelings, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh declared that the ruling was wrong and contained ‘too many grey areas‘ which could suggest that the 49ers expect the running game to still feature heavily. (It could also be a reaction to seeing his star QB brought low by a clothesline tackle on the sidelines.) Conversely Pete Carroll has said he thinks the ruling is right, and I think this is fair. The appeal of the read option/pistol formation is the flexibility it affords and the ability for multi-tasking QBs to effectively introduce another running back onto the field.

The read’s biggest impact this season may be on the passing game

If the read is evolving, where might we see it going next? Some interesting thoughts emerged from the MMQB on the strength of the week 1 games. As read option offenses switch their targets to inside linebackers and safeties, rather than the outside linebackers defensive ends, the option offence could become a new form of play-action pass, pulling in linebackers expecting a run and opening up space for the QB to exploit with short 7-9 yard passes.

The jury’s out for now, but we’ll be keeping a close eye on the week 2 games, as Seattle and Washington go head to head and the Redskins attempt to pull a similar result on the Packers as the the 49ers last week.