The read option is here, and it is effective. Four teams have made it a prominent part of their offense, and three of them have made it to the playoffs: the Washington Redskins, the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. The Carolina Panthers didn't get to the playoffs, but it's hard to blame their offense which ranked 10th in the NFL (8th rushing) despite a rough start to the season, per Football Outsiders' numbers. The Philadelphia Eagles have hired Chip Kelly, a coach who has run variations on read schemes for most of his career. The question teams now face is: how do we stop it.
Some may say the read option is just a fad. It was decried for years for being unfit for the NFL. I don't see that, though, because the read option works on a very simple principle: make the defense defend all 11 offensive players on running plays. It changes the arithmetic on offense, because the defense must now account for a running quarterback. That was how the 49ers beat the Falcons defense into submission, as Chris Brown breaks down brilliantly. Whatever a defense does, it won't be able to change those simple numbers. In essence, it creates a problem for defenses: they can no longer defend the run with just a seven-man front, as they've been trying to do for years. This is something Chris Brown emphasizes:
The most encouraging thing I saw from the Ravens was a tacit admission from John Harbaugh, Pees, and the rest of their staff that they understood the fundamental math problem. If the quarterback is a run threat, you have to honor him and play 11-on-11. This means the secondary must be involved in run support. Too many NFL teams this year failed to appreciate this. They thought they could defend these plays either by having a defensive end stay home or scraping a linebacker over the top, and all would be well. These teams typically either gave up huge quarterback runs or were gashed repeatedly by the featured running back.
And this is where the Buccaneers come into the picture. If you're still wondering why the Bucs drafted Mark Barron with the seventh pick of the 2012 NFL draft, the answer is very simple: to insert him in the box. Greg Schiano wants to stop the run, and as the read option becomes a part of the NFL that just becomes more and more difficult. The answer is to use safeties as run defenders, and to get the rest of the secondary involved in the run game as well. You need not just a physical strong safety, but you need your cornerbacks to get involved in the run game, too. They often have to set the edge. Another part of the game plan is all those blitzes you saw. They weren't just there on passing downs, but bringing extra defenders aggressively became a big part of the Bucs' run defense, and that can be an excellent weapon -- provided that your blitzes are sound against the option, by having players assigned to each of the possible ball carriers.
How does this work with a 4-3 defense? I think Shakin the Southland has an excellent explanation here:
In the 4-3, in general (meaning either Under or Over), you put the Ends down off the shoulder of the OT and angle them to the RB so they can make the Block-Down-Step-Down rule work easier. To reiterate from the article we wrote on the Zone Read, the BDSD rule says that when the OL across from you blocks down (towards the center), you must follow him and step down (towards the center) the LOS. Once you think about how the option works, with linemen constantly veering inside to option off the End, you see how this worked against the wishbone teams of the time. This stops the Dive of the option, which is the basis of the system(s) and makes it go. If the Dive went inside or the QB tried to keep, the End would be right in his face.The faster OLBs could just run around the OL who went to the 2nd level.
If this sounds a bit obscure, you should really read the full article there, or the even more detailed explanation here. But the principle is fairly easy to understand: the defensive end doesn't try to take the run outside, but instead crashes inside to force the run to go outside. That, then, is where you have the linebacker waiting to take either the running back or the quarterback. The issue then is that the quarterback can 'read' the linebacker and hand the ball off or keep it depending on what the linebacker does. That's where your eighth defender comes into play, and the linebacker and safety can be assigned to the back and quarterback. I'll go into a bit more detail with some Bucs game film in a later article.
This, then, stops the read option pretty effectively. In the three games against option teams this past season (Panthers, Panthers, and Redskins) the Buccaneers gave up an average of 87 yards rushing. They let the Redskins run on them, but that wasn't the result of failing to stop option plays: it was simply a case of missing tackles. Missing three on the biggest run of the day, a 39-yard touchdown for Alfred Morris, was inexcusable -- and had nothing to do with getting outschemed.
Unfortunately, bringing a safety into the box to stop the run presents another problem: the cornerbacks become vulnerable on the outside, as the team is forced to play with a single deep safety. This, then, explains the other part of the Tampa Bay defense this season: a rather horrid pass defense allowing more passing yards than any other team. It's no coincidence that the Bucs gave up 282 yards passing on average in the three games against read-option teams.
How do you fix that problem? With better personnel in the secondary. This starts with cornerbacks, but it involves a better free safety, too. I love Ronde Barber, and I think he played at a very high level at free safety this season, but he's not rangy enough to be of much help on outside routes against wide receivers when playing in the deep middle of the field. That's no shame as I can think of two players in the game right now who can be effective in that role: Earl Thomas and Ed Reed. Both of them have the pure speed to get outside and impact plays. Barber is not that safety, but I do see one player in the draft who might be, and that is Kenny Vaccaro. For that reason alone I wouldn't be surprised to see him taken with the Bucs' first-round pick, over a cornerback or defensive lineman.
If the read option is here to stay, and I think it is, then the Bucs at least have the experience and know-how to deal with it more effectively than many other coaching staffs. But the fundamentals of the scheme will always give the offense an advantage and leave a defense vulnerable in some area.