2013 Tennessee Titans Offense - The Zone Read

Andy Lyons

With training camp under way, the thing that has me the most intrigued will be the new looks that this offense shows, and whether they maximize the talents of our young QB with the installation of the zone read.

This upcoming season is a pivotal year for this franchise. For better or worse, the results of this season will most likely be a turning point. Of all the changes we will see in 2013, perhaps the most intriguing to me is the new offensive system we'll see installed. Without seeing the new system fully installed, I can't know conclusively the type of offense that the Titans intend to run next year. Based on Loggains coaching tree, my gut tells me that it's going to be firmly rooted in the Shanahan system. The good news (from my perspective) is that there are varying degrees of conservatism within this tree.

On the most conservative (read: 90's purist) side of the spectrum are the Texans. By conservative, I really mean a commitment to the original system. From time to time, you'll see Power looks out of the Texans (I noticed this a handful of times on the goal line), but for the most part there's a commitment to zone runs from under center. For me, an installation of this type of offense would be a worst case scenario.

The Redskins are the most progressive team within this coaching tree, which is interesting since the head coach is Mike Shanahan himself. His son, Kyle Shanahan is running the offensive show, and has shown to be on the cutting edge of innovation from a zone read and pistol standpoint - at least from an NFL perspective.

Interestingly, the Redskins actually ran the ball more than their conservative/traditional counterpart in the Texans - 51% vs. 45%. To me, the more telling stat comes in their rushing splits. Alfred Morris took 175 of his 335 rushing touches out of the shotgun. Foster? Of his 351 touches, 20 were out of the shotgun. Even though over half his runs came out of the gun, the fact that the Redskins were working outside of the frameworks of what's considered "normal" doesn't necessarily mean that they got away from the basics of being a successful rushing attack. In fact, it was just the opposite. The Redskins led the NFL in rushing yards.

To further the point, only 4 teams ran for 2400 yards last year. One of them had a bionic man carrying the ball in Adrian Peterson. The other 3 - Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks - implemented the zone read as a staple. The backs on these teams all were in the top 10 in rushing yards per attempt (min 100 attempts). Oh, and, by the way, RGIII led the league in that statistic. Adjusting the stat to a threshold of 50 attempts, Kaepernick sits at #2 (and Wilson at 10).

Now, in no way is this some magic bullet, but there's also something to it as well:

Team 2011 Rushing Yards 2012 Rushing Yards 2011 Record 2012 Record
Washington Redskins 1614 (25th) - 4.0 Y/A 2709 (#1) - 5.2 Y/A 5-11 - No Playoffs 10-6 - Playoffs
Seattle Seahawks 1756 (21st) - 4.0 Y/A 2579 (#3) - 4.8 Y/A 7-9 - No Playoffs 11-5 - Playoffs
San Francisco 49ers 2044 (8th) - 4.1 Y/A 2491 (#4) - 5.1 Y/A 13-3 - Playoffs 11-4-1 Playoffs

These statistics speak for themselves. Each team was working with 1st or 2nd year quarterback in 2012, and all of them had athletic/mobile qualities. Sound familiar? And, their talents shouldn't be dismissed either. They each played very well, but the system has done them huge favors - creating tactical advantages that other teams don't benefit from. Chris Brown writes:

Requiring safeties and other typically pass-first defenders to spend so much time focused on the running game is dangerous in the pass-heavy NFL. Last season did prove, though, that keeping safeties deep and being repeatedly gashed by the run is not much of an answer, either. "The zone read is something I learned throughout the year that I think really helped us. It's the least pass rush I've ever seen as a coordinator. Guys just sitting there just scared to death just watching everyone else not moving," Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan recently. "I go crazy thinking about blitzes every week, how we're going to pick all this stuff up. About halfway through the year I'm starting to realize that we're not getting any of these blitzes that I used to see."

Like any system though, it will have it's detractors. The most obvious and recurring criticism is that it puts your quarterback at risk. In a way, this is true, but consider that the quarterback position is a risky position in general. And, I guess the question you'd have to get comfort with is - Am I putting my quarterback in a measurably higher risk environment by asking him to read a defender, and sometimes keep the ball? I'd say no, but it's certainly up for debate. The problem is, also, that this premise assumes a zero sum game. That is, you're either running the ball with your QB or you're not. Yet, it's not nearly this cut and dry.

Russell Wilson ran the ball 5.9 times per game.

Jake Locker attempted 7 rushes per game.

And, then you throw in the fact that the zone read forces the backside end to stay disciplined. One of the tenets of the zone system has been that you've got to keep that backside end honest. It was this was with the Broncos in the 90's as well. For the longest time, the natural way to combat this was the naked bootleg. Watch the typical zone play. In virtually every instance after the hand off, you'll see the QB fake the bootleg to the backside. If the end shows a tendency to always crash to the back and not recognize the QB, then you call the naked bootleg to the backside of the play. In some cases this is a QB run. In some cases this is a run pass option.

The problem I have with this as compared to the zone read is three fold:

1. You're turning your back on the defense (see below). To get good action, you've got to turn your back to the end and fake the ball to the back. This hard action gets the LBs moving and really sells the defense. The problem comes when you've got a blitz coming to the backside, or a force defender plays contain.

Bootlegfail_medium

2. The play is decided in the huddle. In all cases of playcalling, more information from the opponent is better. And, every call from the huddle can be beat (including the zone read), but plays like the zone read allow you to be reactive post snap to the EMLOS (end man on the LOS). The boot leg from under center doesn't allow for this.

3. It's all about constraint. The zone read is a run call. The bootleg is a run/pass call. Yet, their intent and implementation help to achieve the same thing - keeping the DE in check. All things being equal, isn't it always better to give our young QB a view of the defense at all times?

With a pocket (read: non mobile) QB like Peyton Manning, there is no decision to be had here. If you can't threaten on the ground with this play, it doesn't work. However, there's no question that the Tennessee Titans intend to have Jake run the ball. We've heard that message since he was drafted. If we weren't going to run him at all, that would be one thing. With that decided, why not do so with one of the most powerful concepts in the game? I cannot think of a reason why the Titans wouldn't install this as a staple in the offense for 2013, and I'd even go as far as to say that Dowell would be a fool to not have this play installed and called 5-10 times every game.

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