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Zone Read 201: Attacking a 4-2-5 Defense

If you thought Oregon State embarrassed our 4-2-5, wait until you see what Oregon is planning...

NCAA Football: Virginia at Oregon Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

loWhen we left off at the end of our Intro to Zone Read, we were in a dark place. After becoming experts on the zone read, we were pondering the horrors of how Oregon can dissect our 4-2-5 defense by reading the linebacker and using a decoy to pull the other linebacker away from the ball. Unless the defensive line wins the battle at the line of scrimmage and stops the ball carrier at the point of attack, this will leave our DBs (most likely a safety) to stop the ball carrier. If we’re playing our safeties 15–20 yards off the line of scrimmage, Oregon will get some big gains until we commit them closer to the LOS. Of course, there’s no reason to believe we can’t make that adjustment. Right...?

Oregon lines up with two receivers on the field side, one receiver on the boundary side, and an H-back behind the tackle on the boundary side. The QB-RB alignment suggests either an inside zone read or outside zone read is a possible run here. Cal responds with its 4-2-5 nickel, with one LB covering the H-back and the other watching the QB and RB.

Zone read: utilizing the H-back

The QB and RB mesh as the QB reads a linebacker.

Zone read: reading time!

The QB reads the linebacker on the hash mark. If he follows the RB, the QB will keep the ball; if the LB heads towards the QB, the RB will get the ball and run off tackle to the field side. Sounds like a typical zone read, right?

Zone read: looks like a normal OZR, right?

Oregon has an interesting twist on this zone read. As the QB and RB mesh, the H-back runs a flat route towards the sideline. Notice how he pulls a Cal LB towards the sideline. Meanwhile one safety drops about 20-yards deep while the other heads towards the RB.

Zone read: the LB being read is the only one who can make the tackle here. DOOOOOOOOM

The LB takes a few steps towards the RB, so the QB keeps the ball. With one LB heading towards the RB and another covering the H-back, there appears to be no one to cover the QB. The goal of the zone read is to ensure that the player being read always makes the wrong decision. When that player is the only one who can make a tackle, the results can prove disastrous. Once the QB gets past the line, he’ll have at least 10 yards of open acreage before the deep safety can tackle him.

Zone read: LB appears to follow RB, so QB keeps

Here’s the play in motion:

Surprise! The LB quickly recovers and is able to tackle the QB. Disaster averted. With the safety and LB keying in on the RB, this could have been a big play if the blocking hadn’t forced the QB further inside than he would have liked (and right into the LB’s arms). In this instance, the left tackle and DE get locked in place during their battle. Had the LT been able to drive the DE three yards closer to the bottom of the screen, the QB would have had a much better chance of slipping past the LB he read moments earlier.

Let’s look at one more example. Oregon lines up with receivers in trips on the boundary side and a lone receiver on the field side. Cal, of course, lines up in its 4-2-5 nickel with the safety about 12 yards off the line of scrimmage.

Zone read: pre-snap

Oregon opens a big hole in the middle of the field as the QB and RB mesh. Once again the safety backtracks while a LB flies towards the hole created by the O-line.

Zone read: leyendo

You should know the drill by now. If the LB being read goes after the QB, the RB will get the ball. If he follows the RB the QB will keep the ball. Unless it’s not really a zone read...

Zone read: looks like a basic OZR, right?

The LB goes after the QB and the QB...keeps the ball! Not only does he keep the ball, he winds up to pass.

Zone read: why did he decide to keep but not run...? Oh.

One of the WRs runs a slant route into the gap that opened up when the LB crashed the line of scrimmage. The other linebacker is getting manhandled by the Oregon offensive line, leaving no linebackers to cover the WR. Great. If Luke Rubenzer doesn’t make the tackle, this may turn into a 55-yard touchdown reception.

Zone read: no one to defend the middle of the field

Fortunately for all of us, Luke holds onto the WR long enough for Damariay Drew to help complete the tackle.

Although the strategy of reading the linebacker can open up the field and force a safety to make a play on the ball, it’s not without risk. In the traditional zone read (where a D-lineman gets read), the player being read is usually around the line of scrimmage and will typically be unable to attack the ball carrier. By the time he sees who ends up keeping the ball, he cannot recover until the ball carrier gets behind him. When a linebacker is read, he is usually deeper in the field (often a few yards behind the LOS), which means the ball carrier may not get past him before the LB starts going after the ball carrier (as we saw in the first play). This can put Oregon at a disadvantage when they’re facing fast, athletic linebackers. If our LBs read the play fast enough and take the proper angles, they should be able to limit the damage from zone reads focusing on the LB. This gets more difficult if Oregon uses decoys or tries to pass, but it’s still feasible for LBs to shut this down and force Oregon back into its traditional zone read. If our LBs struggle to recover or get pulled out of position, we’ll give up large chunks of yardage. Worse yet, these types of plays often a lone defender to make a tackle in open space. That has been a persistent issue for the Cal defense and Oregon will surely try to exploit these one-on-one matchups.

On a final note, Oregon has struggled this season, but Mark Helfrich and the Oregon offense know how to attack our defense effectively. The Ducks still average 37 points and nearly 500 yards per game this season and they are not to be taken lightly. Unless Cal can consistently win the battle at the line of scrimmage, make solo tackles, and avoid being fooled by decoys and misdirection, we are probably due for another shootout. Make sure to pick up your blood pressure medication on the way home on Friday.