You Got Served: The Zone Read

Happy Victory Tuesday, friends.  I hope you’re ready for a Serving, because I’ve got one for you.  I’m in last place in the picks competition, and a primary reason why is that I’m now 2-6 in picking Broncos games.  (I had them losing to Green Bay, and beating Miami.)  You can’t win them all, I guess, and I just don't seem to have a great feel for when the Broncos are going to play well.  Maybe if I read the DP rather than Doug's parsing of their work, I might know if they "had a good week of practice."

Anyway, today we’re going to explore in detail why the Broncos beat the Raiders on Sunday.  It was a total team win, as has been said, but more than that, I would say that it was the first time this season that the offense pulled its weight.  Aside from a couple of missed throws by Tim Tebow and some penalties (I’m looking at you, Ryan Clady) it was a consistent and productive effort.  Since offense is kind of my thing, I’m excited to spend some time talking about it.  Ready… BEGIN!!

1.  So, there’s this play called the Zone-Read that’s been getting some mention lately.  Sometimes it’s not zone, and sometimes there’s no read, but in the spirit of keeping things simple, we’ll go with that name.  This is what the basic play looks like:

I took that diagram from a Serving I did  four weeks ago.  There were two other plays off that action present in the article, and the Broncos have run variations of those as well.  It’s a smart thing to do, to make plays look the same wherever possible, and it’s been done for about 100 years. 

Since the Broncos have now widely adopted the shotgun run action (true Zone Read and otherwise), they’re doing it from a lot of different formational looks and personnel groupings.  On one play, the slot WR will block down (as in my diagram), and on another, the DE will be left unblocked by design.  One time, the line will be unbalanced, and the next time, it will be balanced.

Here’s an important thing to understand – this play works very frequently, and that’s why it’s so ubiquitous at the college level.  You don’t see it as much in the NFL for only one reason, and that’s because teams are reluctant to get their QBs hit.  The Titans consistently made this play work with Vince Young and Chris Johnson, and so too can the Broncos with Tim Tebow and Willis McGahee.  In college, usually the preference is to get the QB in space, because there are a lot of running QBs, and in the NFL, the preference is to get the RB in space.  In either case, you’re happy to take the other option if it’s there, and you like the spacing that the play construction dictates.

Example 1

I decided to focus heavily on this play and show you why it works.  Yes, a team can sell out to defend it, but when that happens, they’re leaving something else open.  Take a look at this screenshot, which comes from the Broncos’ first possession of the third quarter.

The Broncos have an unbalanced line with an extra OT (Chris Clark) on the right side, and trips to the right outside of him.  Ryan Clady is the eligible TE to the left.  The Raiders have eight men in the tackle box, including SS Tyvon Branch, who has backside contain responsibility on Tebow.

I digress for a moment to share with you a couple of quotes from our friends in Oakland.  First, some eloquent thoughts from Tommy Kelly:

“They have been running the same thing since they put (Tebow) in there,” Kelly said. “They’re running that college (stuff), that zone (stuff). Read it, quarterback going to hold it. Man, we practiced that (stuff) all week. It’s not like they came out there with some new package or scheme. We ain’t seen nothing we ain’t been seeing. First half, we got off the field. Second half, we spit the bit out.”

And then more from Hue “Living In The Now And Proud Of It” Jackson:

“When we start the week we talk about potentially what can happen, what type of play it is, and that was the No. 1 football play for them with him,” Raiders coach Hue Jackson said. “We worked it. I watched us work it in practice; I watched us defend it in practice. Obviously it’s different in practice than it is in a game. Trust me, we had somebody for the quarterback, somebody for the (running) back. It didn’t happen right.”

That Jackson quote is why the Zone Read works.  If you look at the screenshot, there are the eight guys in the box, and one CB at the line engaged with Matt Willis.  This is from Nickel personnel because of the three WRs that the Broncos have on the field.  The Broncos have six offensive linemen to block four defensive linemen and two linebackers, so already, you love that math.  If a guy is specifically assigned to watch a player who didn’t get the ball, the offense has an advantage because that’s a wasted defender.

Then, the play starts.  The Broncos get some initial push, and Tebow sees Branch (circled in Red) taking a wide approach, and staying home.  He also sees that Clark has sealed the right edge, and that two Raider LBs and one DB (circled in Purple) acting like the Three Stooges sitting between the hashmarks, which is no-man’s-land against this play.  Tebow hands to McGahee, and he gains five yards on the play.

Example 2

Here’s another screenshot, with a slightly different look:

The Broncos are in Big 11 personnel again, with Chris Clark as the nominal TE, and they’re 2 by 2 with the formation.  Eric Decker (circled in Red) blocks down on the Right DE, and there are probably a couple of yards there, but since Decker is blocking down, Tebow's read is the eighth guy in the box. Michael Huff, who’s circled in Purple, is free, and he’s outside the hashmark.  Handing the ball to McGahee is going to make that a one-on-one situation, and really a one-on-two, with another free LB behind Huff, circled in Green.

On the backside, Tebow sees the Left DE crashing, so he’s keeping the ball, and he’s going to get 12 yards on the play around the right edge.  He knows he can beat that backside LB to the sideline, despite Peter King’s idiotic thought that he lacks quickness, so this is easy pickings.

Example 3

This is going to be the last play of the third quarter, just following the Chris Harris interception.  Those two plays turned this football game, so I want to really focus on this play, and show how it came open. 

In the initial alignment, we see that the Raiders aren’t even respecting the three WRs aligned in trips left, and they’re playing Base 4-3.  All 11 defenders are in the picture, and Kamerion Wimbley (circled in Red) is the backside guy watching Tebow.

Here’s a view an instant after the snap:

The O-Line gets a huge hole opened play-side (in Purple), with Ryan Clady and Orlando Franklin (I’m pretty sure) crushing their men, and the free LB Aaron Curry (in Red) starting to overrun the play to the edge.

Here you see Franklin (in Red) disengaging from the defensive lineman he and Zane Beadles initially double-teamed, and hooking Curry, plus J.D. Walton (in Purple) sealing the backside Mike LB.  That is a massive hole.  What’s even more interesting is that there’s a mile of space to the right edge too, as shown with the Orange rectangle.  Tebow might have had his own 60-yard TD on this play. Here’s how big the hole got in the end:

When a game changes in one play, that’s what it looks like.  The Raiders defense was stressed to two areas, and in trying to defend both, defended neither.  You can’t really call it a mistake by them, either, because the Broncos got the play blocked, and all 11 guys executed the play. 

Example 4

The Broncos got the ball back with 3:55 to go and a seven-point lead.  When analysts talk about four-minute offense, this is the classic example of what they’re talking about.  Being able to run the ball a little bit is cool, but can you do it when the defense knows you’re going to do it?  Can you get three or four 1st downs without throwing the ball?

This is first down of the series, and the Broncos go unbalanced Left with the same trips look.  This is the same look they’ve been killing the Raiders on.  Oakland has the box stacked, as they have throughout the game.  The zone blocking of the Broncos is strong, and it’s six hats on six defenders moving left.  Walton, especially, is burying his guy.

Tebow is reading the backside edge guy Kamerion Wimbley (in Red), as usual.  Wimbley is too aggressive in crashing down.  Secondarily, Curry (in Purple) is starting to pursue to the opposite side of the field because he seems to think that McGahee is getting the ball.

Tebow keeps the ball, and he sees a completely flat-footed Wimbley.  Walton continues to bury his guy, and Kuper is at the second level, about to smash Curry.  This is how big plays in the running game develop.

Here is where Tebow, who is actually very quick-footed for his size, easily outruns Wimbley to the edge, and takes off into green pasture.  Notice how Kuper not only crushes his guy, but knocks him into Matt Giordano, who overran a lot of plays in this game, turning a 10-yard run into a 28-yard run. 

By the way, I saw where some people were comparing Tebow to Bradlee Van Pelt in some comment sections.  That’s beyond absurd.  Tebow is a vastly better runner and thrower than Van Pelt was.  He’s one of the best pure talents in the NFL at running with the ball, and if he can’t make it as a full-time QB, at a minimum, he can make a lot of big plays in the NFL getting the ball from a different position.

Example 5

Here we see 2nd and 2 from the Raiders 24-yard line, during the same four-minute offense situation.  The Broncos are at a minimum working to make the Raiders use both of their timeouts and then run the clock down to a minute or so, while setting Matt Prater up for a clinching field goal.  That would be a highly successful four-minute offense, right?

Well, that’s not what happened.  Here, McGahee’s design is to run to the unbalanced right side along with the zone blocking action.  The unblocked guy on the offense’s left is Aaron Curry, and he’s being careful, and getting deep into the backfield on Tebow.  On the offense’s right, Wimbley is playing the edge, and Tyvon Branch has him backed up.  Neither way initially seems to look great, so Tebow does the right thing and hands the ball off to McGahee.  Get something, run the clock, and avoid the hit on the QB.

McGahee sees that Curry’s focused on Tebow personally, and not on simply containing the left edge.  Remember Hue Jackson’s comment?  We had a guy for Tebow and a guy for McGahee?  The guy for Tebow is with Tebow, who doesn’t have the ball.  McGahee cuts it back to the left side, where the DE is sealed by Ryan Clady, and he runs right underneath Curry.  The guy for McGahee is out of the play, so how did that one work out Hue?  Captain Obvious doesn't know this, but even when the defense plays with discipline and gets the edge set decently, there's still plays to be made inside in this run concept.  The problem with it is that it's so spread out that there's going to be a hole somewhere.  

What we're talking about here is the potential for something like Denver Broncos zone blocking football in 1998, but with an extra running option off of it.  You get the defenders moving laterally, you read them, and you play off of what they do. 

This play worked out as an easy 24-yard McGahee TD to ice the game.  Curry has no chance, Giordano (poor guy) is running into the Umpire, and Demaryius Thomas is going to do a good enough job screening off the CB to get McGahee into the end zone untouched.

The Zone Read running concept can absolutely work on an ongoing basis in the NFL.  There’s an answer to everything that a defense can do to stop it, and that’s why it’s so popular in college.  Most colleges don’t have $100 million invested in their QBs, so they’re willing to let their guy get hit.  I’m fine with Tebow taking a few hits in the running game, because he’s the strongest human being to ever play the position, and when he’s running with the football, he can protect himself better than he can standing stationary in the pocket.  I don’t want him running the Wishbone option much, but this play is just fine, because Tebow is only keeping the ball when he’s got a lot of room.

I expect the Broncos to continue to wear this play out, and to begin showing a lot more variations off of this action.  You want to sell out to set both edges?  Fine, McGahee’s running right up the middle.  You want to put nine in the tackle box and ignore the trips outside?  Fine, have fun with that three-on-one bubble screen against a single CB.  Trust me, there’s answer after answer.

2.  As for Tebow’s throwing, it improved for the second straight week.  There were some misses, but there were some really strong throws, and his decision-making was faster this week.  I loved the recognition on the 29-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas and also on the TD pass to Royal.  Tebow’s eyes were downfield on both plays, and he saw something open up that wasn’t initially there.  That’s a step toward pro quarterbacking.

It’s also very notable to me that Tebow isn’t throwing the ball to the other team.  Do you realize that his interception percentage is 1.03% this season?  That’s one pick in 97 attempts, which is starting to get out of small sample territory.  That’s a really excellent number, especially for such a young and inexperienced player.  It’s second in the NFL just behind Alex Smith (two interceptions in 206 attempts, for a rate of 0.97%), and ahead of Aaron Rodgers (three interceptions in 265 attempts, for a rate of 1.13%). 

I know, the kid misses some throws sometimes, but when’s the last time he threw one to the other team, whether it was caught or not?  There was the one terrible throw in the Detroit game, but there’s been no decision-driven interceptions and few near-interceptions.

In other words, there’s really no significant luck to Tebow’s good number in this area, so it’s not like you can definitely say that he’ll regress to a mean.  He’s legitimately doing a good job of protecting the football, and with only 15 picks in 995 college attempts, (a 1.5% interception rate), there’s evidence to suggest that ball security is an area of strength.  Contrast Tebow’s 2011 results with those of Carson Palmer, who has thrown six interceptions in six quarters, and also threw four more passes that the Broncos had their hands on Sunday.  He’s at a 10.7% interception rate, and he’s lucky that it’s not higher.

Rick Reilly just came on ESPN at 1:05 AM ET, and it forced me to turn off the TV.  That guy is the human personification of awful.

Tebow’s pocket awareness was much improved from the Detroit game too, but it also helped that the offensive line did a much better job.  I would say that this was their best all-around job of the season as a unit in protection. 

This was still a mixed bag for Tebow, but rather than being 50% good and 50% bad, or 60%-40%, it was more like 80% good and 20% bad.  There’s lots of room to grow, but we saw the beginnings of the best blueprint for having a strong offense with Tebow on Sunday.  As the players all get better at running these plays, it’s going to be more and more effective.

3.  Briefly, to something that was in Doug’s Lard this morning, Doug Farrar’s contention that use of the Zone Read hurts Tebow’s growth as a QB is patently absurd.  It’s simply a running play that he’s good at executing, and that gives him an option to run the ball himself rather than handing off.  The Broncos could run the ball that way, or some other way, but they're still going to run the ball sometimes.  It has nothing to do with what the Broncos are trying to do in the passing game, aside from how the play action game sometimes looks.  That doesn’t matter – at the root of everything, he’s faking a handoff, standing up, and looking for a receiver to throw the ball to.  It’s unimportant if the RB came from behind Tebow or next to him.  (Actually, a lot of play action Sunday came with Tebow under center, and a single I-back behind him.)

Farrar is a halfway-decent football writer, but this point he’s making is silly.  It’s not affecting Tebow’s mechanics or thought process in a negative way.  All it’s doing is leading to measurable success in the Broncos running game, which is in turn going to put Tebow in more manageable passing situations, and lead to more points scored, and a better chance at winning some games in the near-term.  That will in turn buy Tebow more time to improve through playing in games, which is what he needs.  I don’t know if Farrar is suggesting that the kid needs to have as many opportunities to drop back on 3rd and 14 as possible, or if he’s simply humping the mythical “everybody does it like this” NFL way, but whatever the case, he’s wrong.

4.  Don’t look now, but the Broncos defense continues to be more good than bad, despite being undermanned in a few places.  They made a lot of timely plays on Sunday, and on two of Carson Palmer’s three TD passes, he had to beat textbook-perfect coverage from Andre’ Goodman and D.J. Williams.

Williams, specifically, looks like he’s finally gotten serious about being a good player.  I’ve been very critical of him over the years, and so have others here, but D.J.’s effort looks to be a lot more consistent, and he just looks more like he cares. 

Like Gunny Highway said in the underrated Heartbreak Ridge, once you start looking like Marines, you’ll start feeling like Marines, and pretty soon you’ll start acting like Marines.  When you get some players who start feeling enthusiasm for their defense, it’s amazing what starts happening.  If the Broncos offense is able to keep improving, that can only help the defense play with the 60-minute tenacity that they need.  They got a little demoralized against Detroit and didn’t come as hard later in the game, but against San Diego, Miami, and Oakland, they kept fighting and making the little plays, and they positioned the team to win in all three cases.

The personnel isn’t all there yet, but regardless of the direction the Broncos go with the QB next season, the defense is clearly on the right track, and another player acquisition cycle is going to help that process.  With some solid QB play from somebody, this defense is quickly going to be good enough to compete for an AFC West championship.  I’m glad that John Elway is calling this a three-year rebuilding job, but I don’t actually think it will take that long.

5.  Finally, I had occasion to watch a lot of Matt Barkley last Thursday night, and I came away very impressed.  I saw him in person at Notre Dame in 2009, and I remember thinking that his arm looked a little stronger to me then than it does now, but it’s still plenty good enough now, and he’s grown into a much better all-around QB since his freshman year.

Barkley reminds me a bit of Aaron Rodgers, because while he isn’t a Tebow or Newton as an athlete, he’s sneaky athletic, and he’s able to maintain his balance and throwing readiness very well when he runs.  Also like Rodgers, Barkley has outstanding anticipation and accuracy with the ball.  He throws to spots and puts the ball right on the spot where it needs to be.  You can tell that he’s tremendously well-coached, and I see him as being just behind Andrew Luck, with the difference between the two being really minimal.  It’s not like Luck is Matthew Stafford and Barkley is Mark Sanchez; it’s more like the difference between Eli Manning and Philip Rivers.  Each is really good, and you can’t go wrong with either guy.

I’ll keep looking at QBs as the season goes on, to keep the bases covered.  I’d really like to see Ryan Tannehill, but I can’t seem to get a Texas A&M game here in Cleveland.  Stay tuned for future Servings as time goes on.  That’s all I have for today, friends.  Have a great rest of the week, and I’ll see you Friday for some Chiefs Digestion.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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Ted's AnalysisYou Got Served