Fat Off the Bone: Week 10 - The Chiefs and the zone read

A wise man once said, "Certain things have come to light, man."

He could have been talking about defending the zone read.

As I scouted the Kansas City Chiefs this week, I could have focused on the Chiefs' running game or Matt Cassel's limited ability to stretch the field.  Instead, it made more sense to continue to make fun of the Oakland Raiders.  That's because the Raiders' stupidity is as instructive as any scouting report.  This is especially true when considering the zone read.  Let's face it.  The Chiefs are going to see a ton of it tomorrow.

The Broncos--if we believe Jeff Legwold--ran some version of the zone read 17 times against the Raiders.  Football coaches are creatures of habit: they go with what works.  So unless the Broncos suddenly decide they want to unleash Tim Tebow's pocket awareness, it's likely they are going to pull the same stunts they did against the Raiders.

Will it work against the Chiefs?  Well, dude, we just don't know.

Until we find out, though, let's take a quick look at how they might defend it.

That last statement is a bit of misnomer, because if your defense is fast, there's really no need to scheme for the zone read.  My pals Ted Bartlett and Emmett Smith both did excellent jobs of demonstrating this earlier in the week (if you've not read both pieces, you're missing out).  In fact, the best way to play the zone read is simply to have a pair of athletic ends who are quicker than the quarterback.  Urban Meyer said it correctly when he said, "If you have better players than we do, then you’ll be fine."  Fortunately for Meyer, he almost always had better players.

Meyer could have revised his statement for the NFL--being fast is great, but being fast, disciplined, and smart is better.

Two examples of this will suffice.

Our first example comes from Tim Tebow's 32-yard gain in the first quarter against Oakland last week.  Here we see what everyone's been talking about: Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee in the shotgun about to run the zone read:

The key for Tebow, of course, is the defensive end, former Bronco Jarvis Moss (94). We've all seen this dozens of times this week.  If Moss crashes, Tebow keeps the ball.  If he doesn't, Tebow hands the ball off to McGahee.  Fair enough.

I'm more concerned--and amused, quite frankly--by Aaron Curry (51).  Watch in the next frame how undisciplined he is:

Moss crashes, which is almost forgivable.  Curry, though, reads the guard away and immediately loses backside discipline.  There goes the neighborhood (in fairness, I should spend an inordinate amount of time complimenting the Broncos' offensive line for completely selling the Raiders linebackers on a run to the short side of the field).

If Hue Jackson was correct in maintaining the Raiders had worked on the zone read all week long, Moss would have likely crashed, while Curry would have filled the backside D gap.  Instead, Curry lost his head.  Curry and Moss are probably as athletic as Tebow (it's debatable), but, at least on this play, they weren't as disciplined.

Let's contrast this play with a similar one run by the Panthers against the Packers for Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart:

Here I've highlighted the same three keys as I did on the first play--namely, the end, the outside linebacker, and the quarterback-running back exchange.  If Clay Matthews (52) and Erik Walden (93) both crash in the same manner that we saw Curry and Moss, we'd expect to see a similar result.  Here's the play a few moments later:

Although I've highlighted both Walden and Matthews, note that Matthews is no farther than the hash; he's stopped to read the exchange between Netwon and Stewart before making a commitment.  In essence, he's maintaining his gap discipline, no matter what the end does.  The play only goes for a few yards.  It demonstrates also the difference between Aaron Curry and Clay Matthews.  Both are first-round draft picks, but Curry can still improve significantly.  It's this type of inconsistent play that has hurt Curry over his tenure as an NFL linebacker.

Bottom Line

If one wants to "scheme" for the zone read, one simply crashes the end and has the outside linebacker always fill the D gap.  But why do that when you've got some of the best athletes on the planet?  Simply do what the Packers do here and maintain gap integrity.  It's easier said than done, though, when you're dealing with aggressive linebackers.  It will interesting to see if the Chiefs decide to scheme for plays like this or if they try be a disciplined team.  Given that they run a 3-4 defense, the extra linebacker by itself should, in theory, add enough athleticism to give the zone read some trouble.

More interesting, then, will be how the Broncos adjust.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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