Re-Opening Old Wounds, Revisiting 2009 Cal @ Oregon Part VI: The Zone Read Play Action

In case you missed the previous posts in this series, you may find them here: Part I: The DL Zone Read.  Part II: A Defensive StopPart III: Baited & BustedPart IV: Passing to DicksonPart V: Passing to Dickson, Again.

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When a pro-style offense, utilizing the I-Formation or a single-back formation, can consistently run the ball against the defense with ease and success, the linebackers (LBs) will begin to start over-playing the run.  In other words, they'll start looking for the run threat on every play, start inching forward towards the line of scrimmage (LOS) before the snap, and lean towards the LOS on their toes to gain momentum. 

The offense will take advantage of these linebackers looking out for the run by executing playaction plays, where the offense will fake the run, to draw the LBs down towards the LOS, to open up a void behind the LBs so that the offense may pass over them.  Cal does exactly this. 

But when watching the 2009 Cal @ Oregon game, I began wondering how a shotgun zone read offense like Oregon runs playaction?  Can they?  Is it even possible? 

The answer: yes.  You can still play action out of the shotgun zone read.  Things are slightly different when a shotgun zone read offense does it compared to an I-Formation or single-back formation offense -- I'll get to that later.  But for now, let's just take a look at what Oregon is doing.

Dickson's 6th Catch:

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Above is the pre-snap formation.  Oregon is facing a 1st and goal from the 10 yard line in the second quarter.

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Oregon has 11 personnel out of the field (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB). 

 

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They motion the TE, #83 Dickson, across the formation away from the twin WRs.

 

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Above is the picture just prior to the snap.  Oregon fakes the zone read.  The QB, and the RB will mesh to give the appearance of a zone read. 

(Note: we know this is a playaction zone read, rather than a zone read / pass option because of the blocking technique of the offensive linemen (OL).  The OL has dropped back into pass protection, rather than bursting off of the LOS into the defense.)

Well, let's take a step back and talk about the zone read, and how to defend the zone read.  Remember in my Defensive Line Zone Read post, I talked about how to defend the zone read?  I mentioned how if the defense is not running a scrape-exchange, that the defender being read needs to to just wait and see what the QB does with the ball then react. 

In a zone read playaction play, the offense is punishing the defender being "read" for doing the right thing!  In other words, the offense is attacking, and punishing the defender for sitting tight, waiting to see what the QB does with the ball, then reacting.  (remember, the defender being read is not actually being read because it's a playaction pass; however the offense wants to give the defender the impression he's getting read)

On this particular play, the defender being read is the LB #9 Young, because he's the backside defender (zone reads "read" the backside defender -- the defender whom the play is being run away from).

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Cal linebacker #2, Young, is the one getting read (but not really -- the defense just wants to make him think like he's getting read).   Young thinks he's the defender getting read and freezes, as he's supposed to do when the offense is running a zone read and reads him, to see what the offense does with the ball. 

In the defender's mind, he's doing everything right!  He thinks the offense is running the zone read.  His job is to not bite on the handoff to the runningback thus allowing the QB to keep the ball and run to the outside on his side of the field.  So he does what he's taught and that's to sit tight, freeze, wait, and see what the QB does with the ball. 

But that's exactly what the offense wants!  And that's the wrong thing to do because this play is NOT a zone read, it's a zone read playaction.  Because the linebacker, #9 Young, freezes to see what happens, he allows the TE to run past him and loses sight of the TE.  If Young bites on the fake handoff to the RB, that's even better for the offense because that makes the void to make a catch even bigger.

 

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As you can see from the picture above Young is looking at the QB/RB mesh exchange (green vision cone) to see what is happening.  He is trying to determine whether the QB will hand off the ball or keep the ball (to either run or pass) because to him this play looks like a zone read.

 

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But as we all know, it's not a zone read.  The Oregon TE, Dickson, runs a flat route past the unsuspecting Cal linebacker Young.  The WR to the offense's left runs what appears to be a deep comeback -- the Oregon QB also has the option of passing to this player should he be open and Dickson is not.

 

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The Oregon QB, Masoli, sees the open TE (green vision cone) and passes the ball (yellow dot). 

Note how the Cal LB's back is turned to the TE.  The play is behind the LB because he was frozen by the playaction.

 

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Dickson catches the ball for an easy gain of 9 yards to the 1 yard line.  Note how far the LB is from Dickson on this play.   He's a good 5 yards away from Dickson, and is still turning his body around after losing sight of the TE in his zone.

 

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To see why an offense play succeeded, we also need to look at the defense and see what they were doing.  What was the defense doing on this play?   Cal comes out in its base 3-4 defense.  I've shown that above.

 

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Cal seconds three pass rushers at the QB. 

 

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Cal drops its four LBs into coverage, and the four defensive backs (DBs) also appear to drop into coverage (they're off the screen so it's hard to tell).  What do we have here?

Looks to me like we have a quarters defense with four underneath zones.  A quarters defense is a defense which has four deep defenders (usually two safeties and two cornerbacks) whom each cover 1/4th of the deep zone.  The underneath coverage is typically zone too, and in this case it is with four underneath zones (all LBs).

Why does this play work against the quarters defense?  Well, one of the traditional weaknesses of the quarters defense is the short areas immediately along the sidelines, just outside of the areas covered by the underneath outside zones.  In other words, in this play, the weakness is the area between Cal linebacker Young and the sidelines -- and that's right where Oregon threw the ball. 

Even if the Oregon play was just a regular passing play rather than the playaction play, they still might have targeted that area of the field.  It's just that the playaction made the play work even better before the reasons that I explained out above but will repeat one more time: 

 

In the defender's mind [the one who thinks he's getting read], he's doing everything right!  He thinks the offense is running the zone read.  His job is to not bite on the handoff to the runningback thus allowing the QB to keep the ball and run to the outside on his side of the field.  So he does what he's taught and that's to sit tight, freeze, wait, and see what the QB does with the ball. 

But that's exactly what the offense wants!  And that's the wrong thing to do because this play is NOT a zone read, it's a zone read playaction.  Because the linebacker, #9 Young, freezes to see what happens, he allows the TE to run past him and loses sight of the TE.

Unfortunately for Cal linebacker #9, Young, he just got played, and played very well.  The defense took advantage of him doing what he's been taught is the proper thing to do.  At the very most, Young might have tried to keep a better awareness of the TE's location.  Young looks really bad on this play because his back is to the TE, and Young gets all turned around.  A person might think Young was better off turning his body towards the sideline once he realized the play was a playaction and he was supposed to drop into coverage.  However turning his body towards the sideline would turn his back to the majority of the field, as well as the QB, where he would have absolutely no awareness of what else was going on around him other than the TE he was looking at along the sideline.  I do not think that is proper technique.  I think the coaches teach all the defenders, when they are playing zone, to turn their backs towards the sideline, rather than turning their backs towards the center of the field.

You may see this play in video form by following this link (clicking on the link will open up a youtube video that I have pre-set to start at the appropriate time):   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voPki5ooako#t=4m19s

 

Dickson's 9th Catch:

I'm just going to ruin the surprise here.  As you've probably noticed from the other parts of my series, Oregon has been running the same play over and over again against Cal.  They ran the Defensive line zone read against Cal two consecutive plays in a row, they ran the "sprint out pass to Dickson in the flat" play at least five times during the game by my count, and they're going to run this zone read play action play some more.

Let's take a look at it.

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Above is the pre-snap picture. 

 

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Oregon has 11 personnel out on the field (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB).  Notice anything about the formation?  Yup, same as above just flipped.

 

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Just like the last play, Oregon motions Dickson across the formation to the "backside" of the formation if this were a real zone running play ("backside" is the side of the formation where the play is being run away from).

 

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Here's the post-snap picture.  Again, Oregon fakes the zone read.  The QB and RB mesh.  The TE, Dickson, runs his flat route right past the Cal linebacker who is being "read" (but not really!).

 

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This zone read look, freezes the Cal linebacker, this time #30 Kendricks, who stops to look (green vision cone) at the QB/RB mesh to see what is happening.

 

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That's all that Oregon needs to open up a small void along the edge of the field in the area between Kendricks and the sidelines.  The QB, Masoli, passes the ball (yellow dot).

 

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Oregon TE #83 Dickson catches the ball (yellow dot) and walks untouched into the endzone.  Note where Cal LB #30 Kendricks is in this picture.  Well away from the play, and still in the box because he was frozen from the fake zone read.

 

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What was the defense doing on this play?  Above is the pre-snap picture again.  Cal is its 3-4 defense.  Please note that a CB is off the screen at the very bottom covering an Oregon WR.

 

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The coverage, is the same defense as last time.  Quarters coverage, with four underneath zones.  As you can see, I've shown where Cal LB #30 Kendricks should be on this play after the snap.  He's hasn't dropped back yet, and achieved the depth he needs to, to defend against the pass.  This is that void where the Oregon TE Dickson will make his uncontested catch. 

You may see this play in video form by following this link (clicking on the link will open up a youtube video that I have pre-set to start at the appropriate time):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voPki5ooako#t=8m34s

and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVnjYGD_ewE#t=1m8s

 

Conclusion:

When an offense utilizing the I-formation and/or single-back formation (like Cal does), and wants to run a playaction pass play, they are usually targeting the middle of the field.  That's the area where the voids will occur when the linebackers bite down because of the deception from the fake hand-off to the runningback. See below:

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I've photoshopped the above picture to show the QB under center, and the RB directly behind the QB in a single-back formation.  When the offense fakes the aggressive north/south handoff (yellow arrow), it will usually bring the linebackers directly down towards the line of scrimmage (blue arrows), leaving a void behind the linebackers (green area) where the offense can complete easy passes.

For a great example of this, see Cal WR Marvin Jones' touchdown catch against Stanfurd in the 2009 Big Game (clicking on the link will open up a youtube video that I have pre-set to start at the appropriate time): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lP1MMgcFBw4#t=2m55s

However, things are slightly different when the offense is running a bit more east/west, rather than north/south.

Because the Oregon offense is a shotgun spread zone read offense, their run plays usually are angled more horizontal -- that is east/west towards the sidelines.  This is due to the fact that the QB is in the shotgun, and the RB is not directly behind the QB thus providing the north/south angle of attack on run plays.

[footnote: teams that do want to provide a more north/south angle of attack on run plays despite putting their QB in the shotgun will then utilize the pistol formation.]

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Because Oregon's shotgun zone read offense is running a little more horizontally (east/west), rather than vertically (north/south), the threatened area of the fields are to the outside rather than the middle of the field.  And thus, not only does a void form behind the linebackers should they come to the line of scrimmage really hard on the fake (big green area), but also to the backside of the run and away from the direction of the run (smaller green area). 

That smaller backside area, away from the direction of the run, is the area that Oregon is attacking with their zone read play action.  In fact, this zone read play action play is fairly similar to a more traditional naked QB bootleg where the offense will fake the run in one direction to get the defense flowing in that direction, then bootleg the QB in the opposite direction and complete a short small pass to a TE or FB who is running in the opposite direction of the flow.

For a great example of this, see this play of Notre Dame against Washington (clicking on the link will open up a youtube video that I have pre-set to start at the appropriate time): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgYBtS0uoEA#t=0m30s

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