The Read-Option: Blowing Open the Point of Attack
This has been a week to talk about the read-option. First Greg A Bedard helped kick off MMQB with the story of NFL coaches going back to college to try and get to grips with defending it. Chris Brown then weighed in with this definitive piece on the read-option over at Grantland, including the lead-blocking wrinkles that the 49ers have been bringing to the table. Lastly we got to see Justin Tuck talk us through defending it from his viewpoint as a defensive end – the players usually optioned by the concept.
In the face of such exhaustive analysis there’s not much I can add, and I’m certainly not going to try and one-up any of that with my own version, but what I am going to do is point to something that nobody is really talking about when it comes to one team’s use of the read-option.
While the scheme has been successful for pretty much every NFL team that has tried to run it, one side is best suited to continue to dominate using the read-option despite the frantic offseason cramming session that NFL defensive coaches have had. The reason they are better suited than other teams is because they have something that would enable them to have dominant success using pretty much any conventional running attack – monstrous power up front. I’m talking of course about the San Francisco 49ers.
Other teams may have more athletic quarterbacks, better running backs, potentially even a better combination of the two, but the thing that the 49ers bring to the table that is on another level compared to the rest of the read-option running league is blockers, and offensive linemen in particular.
One aspect of the read-option is that in most cases leaving an ‘optioned’ edge defender unblocked – usually a defensive end or outside linebacker depending on the defensive front – allows you to allocate a double team elsewhere on the line at the point of attack. Often teams won’t do this, but will instead send more blockers through to the second level, but on the occasions they do the impact of that double team can be profound when the blockers are as inherently powerful as the 49ers linemen.
To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, last year all five of the 49ers O-line graded above +9.8 in the run game. All bar Goodwin in the center graded +18.9 or better. Looking purely at run blocking, they had our No. 1- and No. 2-ranked tackles and our No. 2- and No. 3-ranked guards. Any one of those players on his own is a road-grading juggernaut, but put two of them together at the point of attack on a double team and the D-line has some major problems.
All of this might sound obvious, and double teams happen all the time, so what’s the big deal? But the stress that the read-option puts on the optioned defender to defend an incredibly wide area of space already now gets amplified all the way up to eleven.
Take this play against Atlanta in the NFC Championship game. The Falcons ran with a 3-4 front for much of this game to try and give those edge defenders a better chance of reading the play and reacting in time. On this occasion, John Abraham is going to be left alone and the double team of Joe Staley and Mike Iupati is going to focus on the RE of that three-man front, Vance Walker.
Walker is a guy who graded positively this season against the run, but is so completely destroyed by this double team that it actually changes the angle that Abraham has to attack and opens a running lane that shouldn’t be there at all.
Abraham tries to squeeze the C gap against the dive without losing contain on the QB keeper, and actually plays it pretty well, but the double team is able to widen the gap to the inside and almost create an entirely new gap and point of attack, leaving him, a player already stretched between two gaps, chasing a play rather than attacking it.
Instead of being able to come straight down the line and attack the dive from the side, the C-gap being opened to the inside means that he has to change his angle to match the more direct route that Frank Gore has been able to take. He can no longer attack the run from the side but has to try and chase it down from behind just to get in on the play. The best Abraham can do is slow him down as he gains yardage before Akeem Dent can come in and clean it up after a gain of 7 yards.
If that double team had done nothing more than simply occupy the Walker and maybe turn him to the inside, Abraham would have been able to crash down on that dive laterally and stop it for a minimal gain. Because instead that block has gained close to 5 yards in horizontal movement, the entire gap has moved inside leaving Abraham trying to cover 4+ yards of extra space, rendering his angle of attack useless.
As with all runs, it takes more than one block to make the play, and the 49ers got good mileage out of their lead-blocking wrinkle on this play. Bruce Miller adds to the carnage in the middle, folding Sean Weatherspoon into the pileup created by the double team as he comes around the edge.
Had Gore possessed a little more burst and been able to get through Abraham he was one cut at the second level away from taking this run the distance down the sideline, thanks almost entirely to one key double team at the point of attack.
The 49ers have the ability and the power to do that on both sides of the line, and there isn’t a defender in the NFL that can hold up against the combined run-blocking power they can deploy on either side.
Don’t believe me? This is a picture of Vince Wilfork being put on skates and eventually folded to the floor by the right side of the line; Alex Boone and Anthony Davis. As much as I think Wilfork isn’t nearly as good as some people want you to believe, and as good as he is clearly capable of being – I can’t think of anybody else that has been able to do that to him.
As I hinted earlier, what makes the 49ers’ offense so potent is that they could line up in any play and dominate the trenches with raw power, such is the run-blocking prowess in the side, but the read-option allows them to focus that strength on a single point of attack, blowing a hole in the defense that is too big for one defender to close quickly. Even on plays where the defense knows its assignments and plays them well, they just have too much power and drive focused on a single spot for the run to fail to gain 5 or more yards.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam