Durkin’s Playbook: Defending Newton’s Zone-Read Option
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By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) On Sunday September 21st, 2008, the Dolphins unveiled the “Wildcat” offense to the NFL in a 38-13 dismantling of the New England Patriots. This was a historic day in the NFL as it broke unwritten “rules” about how NFL offenses should operate. Being the copycat league it is, versions of the Wildcat started popping up across the league, and it still exists today, albeit in muted form.
The recent influx of quarterbacks with unique skill sets – like Carolina’s Cam Newton and Washington’s Robert Griffin III – has brought another new wrinkle to the NFL, the zone-read option.
The option offense has never existed as a base offense, and most likely never will for a variety of reasons. Namely, quarterbacks are an expensive commodity who shouldn’t be subjected to routine punishment as runners, and defensive players are far too athletic and well-coached for this to work on a down-by-down basis.
Nonetheless, the Bears must be prepared for the Panthers zone-read option attack this weekend, which I break down in this week’s playbook.
The first example comes from the Panthers Week 2 game against the Saints. Newton is in the shotgun, flanked by Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams is the deep back. Newton “meshes” with Tolbert (places the ball in his gut) as he makes his read on the 5-technique backside defensive end to determine if he will either hand the ball off to Tolbert, or keep it himself.
Cameron Jordan (#94) is the defensive end Newton is reading on this play, who squeezes and crashes down the line of scrimmage to chase Tolbert, so Newton keeps the ball. Tight end Greg Olsen (#88) blocks down on Saints linebacker Scott Shanle (#58). With the defensive end out of the play, and the linebacker blocked, that leaves only Malcolm Jenkins (#27) to defend against the pitch.
A combination of Jordan squeezing down on Tolbert and Shanle’s inability to shake a soft block from Olsen gives the Panthers a numbers advantage on the edge, and a quick ball fake from Newton turns this into a 40-yard gain.
The second example comes from the Panthers Week 4 game against the Falcons. The Panthers are in an unbalanced line, with Olsen lining up as the left tackle. Newton is in the shotgun flanked by Jonathan Stewart and wide receiver Brandon LaFell is lined up behind the right guard. Olsen slips defensive end John Abraham (#55) to block linebacker Stephen Nicholas (#54), allowing Newton to mesh with Stewart and read Abraham. Newton “rides” the handoff, and Abraham crashes down on Stewart, so he keeps the ball.
Falcons safety William Moore (#25) flows downhill in pursuit of Stewart, and LaFell (#11) crosses the formation to throw a block on the only remaining backside defender cornerback Dunta Robinson (#23), springing Newton for a 32-yard gain.
This play was made possible by Newton’s excellent ball fake, and Moore losing gap integrity as he committed too soon to Stewart. Newton’s sleight of hand, ability to make a quick decision, and speed on the edge makes this a dangerous and difficult play to defend against.
Here are some examples from the Panthers most recent game against the Cowboys, where Newton didn’t have as much success against the Cowboys in zone-read plays.
Against the Cowboys 3-4 front, the Panthers again line up in an unbalanced line with Olsen at left tackle. Newton is in the shotgun, flanked by Tolbert, and Stewart is the deep back. Cowboys outside linebacker Antony Spencer (#93) is Newton’s read on this play. Olsen helps the left guard out with a combo block on defensive end Jason Hatcher (#97).
Spencer remains disciplined on this play using a “feather” technique on Newton, where he doesn’t commit one way or the other, putting Newton in limbo. Meanwhile, safety Eric Frampton (#27) immediately flows outside the hash to force Stewart back to the middle (outside leverage) of the field if Newton chooses to pitch.
Newton chooses to keep, and by keeping outside contain, Spencer forces Newton back into the heart of the defense, where Sean Lee (#50) stops him for a short gain.
In the next example, the Panthers are in “21” personnel (2TE-2WR-1RB), with Newton in the shotgun flanked by Stewart. Spencer is again the guy being read on this play, and while he does squeeze down on Stewart, he breaks down enough to keep containment.
With nobody to pitch to, Spencer again forces Newton back into the heart of the Cowboys defense for no gain.
The zone-read scheme puts pressure on the defense to remain disciplined and sound in their gap control, but at the same time, forces them cover the entire field. The Panthers have an effective play-action pass package out of the same personnel and blocking scheme to exploit teams who start dropping a safety into the box to help with run support.
Newton has 11 runs this season of 10 or more yards, with a long of 40, so he is a major threat with the ball in his hands. The Bears have the talent to deal with the zone-read option, but as illustrated above, it only takes one missed assignment for a play to turn from a small gain into a big one.
The Panthers didn’t run any zone-option plays last year when they faced the Bears, so it will be interesting to see what Lovie Smith chooses to do with his defensive ends. Given the athleticism they could choose to feather Newton. But they’re also fortunate to have enough team speed to pursue to the ball, so they may crash down on Newton to force a pitch. Either way, with an athlete as gifted as Newton, each individual Bears defender must play with gap discipline and trust their teammates to as well.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.