Film Study: The Playside Zone Read

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. Rely on the following analysis at your own risk.

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While watching the Cal vs. Utah game a while back, I noticed Cal doing something new on offense. Cal was executing a zone read, but something seemed very odd about it. It didn't seem right. Upon closer inspection, Cal wasn't really just running a zone read. They were running -- what I will call for lack of a better term -- a "playside zone read."

This is a new play to the Cal playbook. I haven't seen Cal run it in previous years, and I'm pretty sure this is the first game in 2011 which Cal has shown this play. So let's get right to breaking it down!

Playsidezr1a_medium

Cal is facing a 1st and 10 from their own 37 yard line in the 1st quarter against Utah. Cal has 11 personnel in the game (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs). Utah has their nickel defense in the game (4-2 variety: 4 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, 5 defensive backs).

There is actually a Check-With-Me (CWM) on this play, and a pre-snap chess match going on between the Cal offensive coordinator (Kiseau) and the Utah defensive coordinator, but I don't want to focus on that in this analysis. I just want to focus on the playside zone read. So I'm going to skip all that...

Playsidezr1f_medium

So here's the pre-snap look after Cal runs its CWM. Cal is still in shotgun (QB five yards behind the center). The Cal RB has moved to the offense's left and is about four yards behind the line of scrimmage and in the offense's left B-gap (space between the LG and LT). Cal's TE is off the line of scrimmage to the offense's left as an H-back.

Utah is still showing what appears to be a Man Free look on defense -- that's man coverage with only one defender playing as a deep safety.

Playsidezr1g_medium

So let's talk about what a typical zone read is, and how it compares to this playside zone read. On a typical zone read the RB will run across the QB's face. The QB will read the backside zone defender (backside is the side of the offense that the play is going away from). The backside zone defender is usually a defensive end although it can sometimes be a linebacker too. In this case, it's a defensive end. If the defender being read pursues the RB, then the QB keeps the ball and runs in the opposite direction. If the defender being read sits or jumps outside to take away the QB's running lane, then the QB hands off the ball to the RB. Duh, we all know this. This is your typical zone read.

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And as you can see, this is what a typical (outside) zone read might look. The RB runs one way, the QB runs in the totally opposite direction.

Playsidezr1h_medium

But with the playside zone read, instead, the offense will read the playside zone defender. In this case, it's the playside defensive end (playside is the side that the offense is running towards). This is the opposite of the typical zone read which reads the *backside* zone defender.

Playsidezr1n_medium

And more interestingly, here you see the running lanes for both the QB and the RB on a playside zone read. On a playside zone read, the QB runs to the same side as the RB, which is exactly opposite to that of a typical zone read (where the QB runs in the total opposite direction).

Playsidezr1i_medium

So how does Cal like to block these playside zone reads? Let's take a look at that. Let's start on the playside --which is the side that the run is going towards (offense's right; viewer's left). The playside tackle and guard will both block the playside defensive tackle together, but then the T will break off his block and then move to block that backside linebacker.

Playsidezr1j_medium

The Cal center will block down on that Utah backside DT, sealing him off from both the QB and the RB.

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Then on the backside, the Cal left tackle and TE will maintain their backside gaps -- in what basically becomes a quasi pass block -- and just prevent any backside defenders (such as the backside DE and the safety) from penetrating the offensive line.

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Finally, the backside guard (Cal's LG) will pull and block the playside linebacker.

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And remember, the playside DE will go unblocked. He will be read by the QB.

In total, Cal has 8 players dedicated to the run threat (5 OL, 1 QB, 1 RB, 1 TE). It's important to remember that we're counting the QB as a run threat because this is a play where the QB may actually run with the ball.

On the opposite side of the ball, Utah only has seven defenders dedicated to stopping the run (4 DL, 2 LBs, 1 Safety). The safety dedicated to stopping the run is the one on the right (#4). The other safety on the left (#10) is actually a good 15 yards off the line of scrimmage and is defending against the pass.

This is 8 offensive players versus 7 defensive players. The offense wins.

Playsidezr1p_medium

So how does the actual "reading" of the defender work on the playside zone read? It's actually different from that of a zone read.

If the playside defensive end gets upfield or to the outside -- thereby essentially cutting off the RB's running lane -- then the QB will keep the ball and run up the middle.

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On the other hand, if the playside defensive end sits or jumps inside -- thereby essentially cutting off the QB's running lane -- then the QB will hand off the ball to the RB who will run to the outside.

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So how does this play turn out? Above is the post-snap picture. The defensive end has jumped inside thereby cutting off the QB's running lane. The QB reads this. The QB will hand the ball off to the RB.

Playsidezr1s_medium

Above is the play just after the mesh (where the QB and RB meet on a zone read). The playside DE has crashed inside and given up the outside edge to the RB. The QB has just handed off the ball to the RB too. The only defender in immediate position to stop the play is the playside linebacker. This is the guy that the backside guard should block. But unfortunately, the backside guard (Cal's LG) got caught up in the trash (the mess of bodies blocking and being blocked) that he couldn't pull to block that playside linebacker (#52).

Playsidezr1t_medium

So the Cal RB has a defender in hot pursuit. The Cal WRs to the playside are blocking their defenders to help try and get this play to the outside. This play goes for a good gain of 7 to 8 yards.

This play, in its entirety along with the endzone camera view, can be seen in the video link below from 7:05 to 7:45 (video is pre-set to start at the correct time):

http://youtu.be/g5maZWgsJIU?t=7m7s

If you'd like to see this play run again, but this time with the DE jumping outside and thus the QB keeps the ball and running, then watch the video link below at 7 minutes 51 seconds (video is pre-set to start at correct time):

http://youtu.be/g5maZWgsJIU?t=7m51s

Conclusion:

So that's Cal's new "playside zone read." There are a few important take-aways from this play.

First, the playside zone read involves a reverse read by the QB. In other words, the read and reaction by the QB in the playside zone read is opposite to that which he would do in a regular zone read. Below I've shown the reads and reactions that the QB must make in both the zone read and the playside zone read.

ZONE READ: If DE crashes inside .... then .... QB keeps the ball and runs.

PLAYSIDE ZONE READ: If DE crashes inside .... then .... QB hands off the ball to the RB.

ZONE READ: If DE goes outside .... then .... QB hands off the ball to the RB.

PLAYSIDE ZONE READ: If DE goes outside .... then .... QB keeps the ball and runs.

As you can see, the reads of a playside zone read are the opposite of that of a regular zone read! In a regular zone read, if the defender jumps outside, then the QB hands the ball off to the RB. But in a playside zone read, if the defender jumps outside then the QB keeps the ball and runs!

And likewise, in a regular zone read, if the DE crashes inside, then the QB keeps the ball and runs. But in a playside zone read, if the DE crashes inside, then the QB hands off the ball to the RB!

How confusing!

I've actually simplified the reads a little bit in that above quote. I left out what to do if the DE "sits" -- meaning, the DE doesn't really commit to either the inside or outside. I left out that stuff so it would be easier for people to see the oppositeness of the reads. Below is the full reads and reaction by the QB:

ZONE READ: If DE crashes inside .... then .... QB keeps the ball and runs.

PLAYSIDE ZONE READ: If DE sits or crashes inside .... then .... QB hands off the ball to the RB.

ZONE READ: If DE sits or goes outside .... then .... QB hands off the ball to the RB.

PLAYSIDE ZONE READ: If DE goes outside .... then .... QB keeps the ball and runs.

Even more confusing!

The second thing to take away from this "playside zone read" is that it's not even really a "zone" running play!

Zone runs generally require that blockers block whomever comes into their areas. Zone runs really don't specifically assign certain blockers to block certain defenders (actually, contrary to what people say, they do but that's a whole different matter that doesn't need to be discussed right now).

On the other hand, man blocking schemes have strict blocking assignments. Any blocking scheme which involves a pulling offensive linemen is usually a dead giveaway for a man blocking scheme. I believe Cal would categorize this blocking scheme as "man" and not a "zone."

So why'd I call this play a "playside zone read"?

Because it's basically like a zone read -- aside from the fact that the QB is reading the playside defender.

And it's basically like a zone read -- aside from the fact that the blocking scheme is more man based than zone based.

But you can clearly see the resemblance between a regular zone read and this "playside zone read". They're both from the same family of plays -- plays in which the offense leaves one defender unblocked, that defender is read, and the offense always makes him wrong.

So there you have it. Cal's "playsize zone read" ... or whatever you want to call it.

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Special thanks go TouchedTheAxeIn82 and everyone else who helps create and seed torrents. Without your guys' help, I couldn't do analysis posts like these.

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