The option has become very popular among NFL offensive coordinators, who use it to show off their athletic quarterbacks on run plays. Robert Griffin III, Collin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson all ran the plays to perfection last year, destroying defenses time and time again. And Chip Kelly in part owes his job to the success of these plays and players, who proved skeptics wrong about the notion that a rushing attack resembling his own wouldn’t work against NFL defenses (the no-huddle, although an important part of his offense, is irrelevant for the sake of this article, but he uses it well and it should be moderately successful in the NFL).
I remember watching my favorite team, the Green Bay Packers (my mom is from Green Bay), absolutely get embarrassed by San Francisco’s rushing attack in the divisional playoff last season. We used many of the gimmicks that teams traditionally use to try and stop the zone read, but San Francisco had an answer for each one of them, showcasing a new bag of tricks from the pistol formation. I watched the film repeatedly, and tried to figure out what the Packers could have done to stop these plays. And throughout the entire film session, I had only one idea that struck me as an option proof approach.
But first, let’s look at the problems posed by the athletic quarterbacks and option plays, most notably, the read option. The big problem about defending the read option and all option plays is the same problem as defending the Wildcat. For decades, defenses have been designed to stop the run with one concept in mind: you don’t have to put a man on the quarterback. For most of the NFL’s history, quarterbacks haven’t exactly been the most dangerous runners with the ball in their hands on the field. A read option with a quarterback like Peyton Manning is pointless; he’s not exactly a threat to pull the ball and run for a 10 yard gain. But, with many of these mobile quarterbacks (and Wildcat quarterbacks), you actually have to defend them against the run. For example, say the Redskins run the read option, and the defensive end attacks RGIII, so he hands the ball off to Alfred Morris. Do you realize the significance of what RGIII has done? He has essentially blocked the defensive end. He has completely taken him out of the play. And if the defensive end goes after Morris, making RGIII keep the ball, Morris has, in essence, blocked the defensive end. It really is like having an extra player on the field. And Wildcat quarterbacks demand that same level of respect and attention, putting defenses in a position where they actually have to defend the guy taking the snap.
So how did teams defend the Wildcat? Well, I suppose a team wanting to defend the option could do it the same way they defended the Wildcat; put 8 guys in the box on basically every play and assume a run is coming. The Wildcat has mostly been a fad since teams felt comfortable not defending the pass against the Wildcat. A team could use the same approach to stop quarterbacks from rushing the ball effectively, but the downside is that the quarterback will probably have 400 yards passing along the way. That’s why it’s easier for defenses to defend the Wildcat versus Chip Kelly/Rich-Rod style rushing attack; it’s still possible to throw the football with effectiveness using the latter scheme.
So how does a team defend an option rushing attack? When I began to ponder this issue, I originally approached it from a defensive scheme perspective. I thought about certain techniques and switches that defensive players could make that could stop these plays. But, no matter what I thought of, there was always some usually common play the offense could run, some well known technique they could use, that would absolutely gash the defense for every approach I thought of. Either that, or the approach relied on something that no one can execute at a better than 50% rate. And then it hit me: there’s absolutely no switch or technique that can be used that will shut down the rushing attack of a team with an athletic quarterback as effectively as that of a team without an athletic quarterback. For the sake of running the ball, having an athletic quarterback is like having an extra player on the field. If you have a quarterback who can “block” a defender in the way I mentioned earlier, it’s no longer 11 on 11. It’s 12 on 11. The math doesn’t work. No read or switch can make defending 12 guys as easy as defending 11. Defensive coordinators must find a way to make the numbers even again.
The way I see it, there are only two ways a defensive coordinator can get the numbers in their favor again. They can force the offense to go to the old days, 11 on 11, if they were to put a bounty on the opposing quarterback. I would not advocate this idea. I think the more feasible solution is this: every defensive coordinator in the league needs one defensive lineman they feel comfortable giving two gap responsibilities when they face an option team.
First of all, for those who don’t know what a gap is, allow me to elaborate. In just about any defensive play, the area between basically any two offensive players lined up in a 3 point stance, or “gap” is assigned to a particular defender, almost always a defensive lineman or linebacker. For example, the area between the center and the guard is the “A gap,” Â the area between the guard and the tackle is the “B gap,” etc. Obviously, there are two A gaps, one on each side of the center, same goes for B and C. If there is a tight end, then the area between him and the tackles is the C gap, and the area outside the tight end all the way to the sideline is D gap, whereas if there isn’t a tight end, anything outside the tackle is the C gap. If there is only one tight end, there’s a D gap on one side of the formation but not the other. Fullbacks and guard pulls can make gap responsibilities more complicated, but defenses usually account for those scenarios before the snap.
Now, as to what the difference is between a one gap lineman and a two gap lineman, it’s pretty self explanatory. A one gap lineman is assigned to one gap, as opposed to a two gap lineman, who is assigned to two. I know what you are thinking. How can anyone defend two gaps at the same time? It’s one of the hardest jobs in football, but there guys can do it. The first thing to know as a two gap lineman is that you don’t penetrate against the run. Say you are assigned the strongside A gap and the strongside B gap (an uncommon assignment, but the following sentences would be ambiguous if I said both A gaps). If you get into the backfield by running through the A gap, the running back will simply run through the B gap, and vice versa. So you shouldn’t get past the offensive linemen against the run (pushing him backwards if fine, though that’s easier said than done). You must control your offensive lineman and allow the running back to make the decision. If he runs into the A gap, you move to the A gap, and if he runs to the B gap, you run toward the B gap. The most difficult part of the assignment is that if the offensive lineman is able to move you or even angle you toward either gap, you have failed. If the lineman moves you toward the A gap, the running back will run through the B gap, and he will get positive yardage. The best two gap linemen are very strong, but long arms also can be a big bonus for the sake of arm tackles (watch out forDaniel McCullers). But the most amazing thing about two gap linemen is that they are given responsibilities normally given to two players against the run. If you have one guy who is doing the work two players, that’s an incredible advantage.
The 3-4 defense used to consist of exclusively two gap linemen (Bill Parcells was a fan of the scheme), but that style has mostly fallen out of favor being replaced by a one gap 3-4. However, some teams use two gap schemes in their defenses, most notably, the New England Patriots hybrid 4-3 scheme. Vince Wilfork is a two gap nose tackle that can and does control both A gaps (I think Linval Joseph has a lot of potential in this sort of role one day, but that’s for another article). And, frankly, the Patriots run defense did pretty well against the 49ers and Seahawks last season. Against San Francisco and Kaepernick, excluding a 31 yard fake punt and a 19 yard scramble (that’s not a designed run), the Patriots held San Francisco to 130 yards on 37 carries (3.5 yards per carry). And against Seattle, on designed runs, the Seahawks had 75 yards on 24 carries, for a 3.1 yards per carry (they weren’t running as much option at the time, but still).
One other thing I would like to address; the logical assumption that people may make is that if having a two gap guy is like having two guys in one, why wouldn’t all teams want to have a two gap lineman, regardless if they are facing an athletic quarterback? For one, a two gap defensive linemen rarely make tackles behind the line of scrimmage, which makes even the best less valuable than two players. More importantly, given how run focused they are, they can’t be aggressive pass rushers, and teams want as much pressure as possible. This drawback isn’t as significant against athletic quarterbacks, since basically nobody calls a blitz against them, given that outside contain is such a high priority. But perhaps most importantly, if you aren’t outnumbered against the run, asking a guy to do one of the hardest jobs in football as a two gap linemen gives you… the freedom to allow a linebacker to focus on coverage? I guess it’s bonus, but I would only ask a guy to take on a two gap role if I knew he could handle it on an every down basis (again, Wilfork), since the benefit of allowing a linebacker to focus on coverage isn’t a big deal (probably would be useful against play actions, especially near the goal line). The other likely thing you might do with that free linebacker is blitz him into a gap that somebody else has (two blitzers in one gap is difficult for the offense), and I suppose it might be a nice change of pace, but 4-3 linebackers and 3-4 inside linebackers (the outside linebackers are probably blitzing already) aren’t tremendous at blitzing anyway, and I would hate to ask one guy to defend two gaps while there are two guys attacking one.
But going back to defending the option, giving a guy the responsibility of two gaps is very difficult. It’s really hard to find guys with the strength, instincts, and willingness to take on the job. But there is no getting around the fact that a team who has a player that can hold his own given two gap responsibilities can turn 12 on 11 to 12 on 12 when facing an option scheme, and that’s so useful. I said before that the Wildcat lost popularity because no one respected the passing ability of the quarterback, and teams felt comfortable putting 8 guys in the box. Guys like Kaepernick will just throw the ball if they see a defense doing that, and it will work. But a team that has a lineman that can handle two gap responsibilities can get the best of both worlds against the option; essentially 8 in the box and 4 not in the box (could be 7 and 5, depends on how many receivers, you get the point). If you have that kind of player, just scheme against the zone read like it was any other play. The offense no longer has a numbers advantage, and the play is no longer terrifying. It will still work, but it won’t be significantly more effective than other, more traditional run plays.