So in the post-game thread yesterday I made a somewhat extended comment arguing that offensive coordinator Mike McCoy deserved a lot of credit for putting together a quality offensive gameplan. My argument was actually two-fold, and I'll summarize for those who didn't see my comment:
1) Tim Tebow's legs allow McGahee to make plays that he normally would not be able to. Without Tebow's legs, McGahee does not break that long run.
2) Mike McCoy's willingness to patiently run the zone read over and over again was fantastic planning, and I felt he deserved a lot of credit for that, especially when he was getting a LOT of flak from Bronco fans here and even on other sites.
Someone replied to my comment asking for an expanded version of my comment in a fanpost, so that's what I'm going to attempt to do now. I'm going to analyze 3 plays and give an explanation of what's going on and why the plays worked. I'll also try to give a basic explanation of what's going on in zone read concepts, and I'll post links to places where these things are covered in greater detail. I am NOT an expert by any means, but I've watched enough spread-to-run college football and read enough SmartFootball to have a decent grasp on these concepts, so I'll attempt to explain them as best as I can. No doubt several of you will know these things better than me, so PLEASE feel free to add insight/corrections in the comments :).
The 3 plays we're going to look at is Tebow's 30 yard run at the end of the 1st, McGahee's 60 yard touchdown, and Tebow's long run late in the 4th that got us going on a game-sealing drive to go up 14. Before I do that, I'll give a VERY simplistic description of the zone read, and we'll get to the good stuff. Here we go.The Zone Read is a play that is generally considered to have been invented by Rich Rodriguez at tiny Glenville State College. So the story goes (as told in John Bacon's recent book Three And Out), in practice one day, the QB was executing a play where he lined up in the shotgun next to a RB, and he was simply supposed to hand to the RB who ran up the middle. The QB botched the handoff though and dropped the ball. The alert QB picked the ball up, and trying to make something out of nothing, he took off running towards the wide open right sidelines. Rodriguez immediately blew the play dead and asked WHY the QB did that. This seems like a silly question, but it was at that time Rodriguez realized this kind of behavior could be exploited. This alert QB simply noticed the right side of the field was wide open due to everyone seeing the RB "handoff," so he ran that way.
This is where you get the concept of the zone read. The basic philosophy is that if you can "read" a defender and "option" him off rather than blocking him, you have just gained a +1 in the running game, as you can ignore one defender. This forces the defense to either 1) play man down in the run game or 2) add another defender, which leaves the passing game a bit more open. Again, I'm being very simplistic here, but that's the basic idea. There have since been many wrinkles added to the zone read, but the base play is still fairly simple. Here's a diagram of it that you may recognize from a recent IAOFM article:
Generally speaking, the RB will actually often aim to run in the B-gap between the guard and the tackle (this diagram implies off-tackle), but there is certainly more than one way of blocking it. Either way, the basic concept is still the same - QB either hands to the RB going one way or he fakes and takes off running the other way. How does the QB decide? He actually is supposed to "read" the defensive end. If the defensive end is crashing into the backfield on the RB, the QB keeps the ball and runs into the vacated area. If the defensive end holds back to "contain," the QB simply hands off and the DE is completely taken out of the play. There are of course variations on this (one we'll touch on shortly), but this is the basic gist.
Making sense yet? Let's make it clearer by looking at the three plays. This'll be more fun anyways.
(note: on all images, click to enlarge. Also I apologize for the quality - I don't have access to high quality video of this or anything - I literally just watched these on NFL.com highlights and took screenshots, so it's a, um, rough process)
2nd and 4 - Denver 41 - 2:37 1Q
This is the decision point for Tebow, and this is a painfully easy decision. The DE has come rushing into the backfield, and if Tebow hands off to McGahee, this play gets blown up for a loss and the gameday thread is screaming for McCoy's head on a stick. Fortunately, Tebow did this all the time in college, so this is EASY for him. He waits til the ABSOLUTE last second to handoff and then pulls it. The entire defense is fooled:
There's no way on earth that DE can change position quick enough to get to Tebow, so this play is gone for a long gain. Video here.
A note on this - the Raiders defended this quite poorly. Generally speaking, the LB closest to the DE should "scrape" towards the edge so that he can ensure the QB doesn't get loose. The idea is for the DE to always crash (forcing the pull on the handoff) and the LB to cut outside to make the stop. So this is certainly defendable, but there are (of course) ways for the offense to deal with this as well.
1st and 10 - Denver 40 - 0:06 3Q
This is the big one. The play is basically the same here, but the alignment is reversed. The Raiders though are stacking the box on this one, and in theory they should be able to stop this. Presnap:
The 4DL are in the yellow box. It's quite possible Tebow is actually reading the linebacker here. Either way, you literally see ALL 11 defenders in this shot - Oakland is loading up to stop the run here and daring Denver to throw. Down the road, this MUST be exploited. For now though, we can happily watch as Oakland FREAKS THE HECK OUT over Tebow's legs. Watch this:
Look at the LB and Safety boxed in red. The safety is #27 Matt Giordano and the LB is #55 Rolando McClain. It's funny especially seeing McClain get burned here, as surely he was coached by Saban in college to defend against this exact play. These two guys though are terrified of Tebow right now. Especially look at the safety (the guy who really blew it IMO) - he's facing towards the sidelines and his feet are set to take off that direction. If Tebow pulls this, he gets gang tackled. However, he hands to McGahee:
The point here is this. This play ONLY happens because Oakland is terrified of Tebow's legs. This doesn't work with any other QB, and THIS is why the zone read is going to be such a powerful tool in this offense. Before I get ahead of myself, I'll do one last example.
1st and 10 - Denver 23 - 3:55 4Q
This play is huge - If Oakland stifles this play, we are in 2nd and long, and there's a much higher chance Oakland gets the ball back and has a chance to tie. Instead, this kicks off a TD drive that seals the game. Presnap:
So what does this mean?
1. Mike McCoy deserves a boatload of credit here for getting this team ready to run this play and run it successfully. The offensive line did a great job blocking here, and the players executed this stuff very well all game long. You might think the Raiders were caught off guard, but Hue Jackson even admitted they prepped for the zone read all week, and we see how much good that did. This will always be a strong play, even when teams do defend it better than Oakland does.
2. McCoy also deserves credit for taking a gamble here and running this. NFL teams have dabbled a tiny bit in option stuff, but it's never really worked at all and it's never been a serious attempt. Tebow though is the perfect guy to run it with, and he ran it perfectly. Not even Vick has ever been used for zone reads, and I don't THINK the Panthers have really run it with Newton yet, which is a surprise to me quite frankly (they ran a bit of option though I think). Kudos to McCoy for doing what analysts have sworn could never work.
3. Now that we are ahead of the curve, we need to STAY that way. We need to introduce more than just the base zone read - add some wrinkles that teams may not be ready for. Give teams more surprises - for example, I'd love to see the inverted veer - which is also an opportunity to maybe get Knowshon involved by getting him out into the flat. For an explanation of the inverted veer, see the links section below
4. I know there are concerns about Tebow's durability, but you also have to recognize that guys his size can take big hits - especially when he's young. If Tebow suited up at RB, he'd be the heaviest RB on our roster. Also keep in mind - you'd rather have Tebow getting hit by a LB, safety, or CB several yards downfield than being hit by a 300+ pound defensive linemen on a sack.
5. What will make the ZR pay off though is if Tebow can do a better job of making teams pay for stacking the box. We saw some of those Raiders alignments - at some point teams will line up like that and show the ability to defend the ZR properly. In those cases, Tebow NEEDS to make teams pay for stacking the box by being more consistent throwing downfield. I do believe this will come with time, but he still needs to show it at some point. The real treat to the ZR here is that once we've proven it's viable (and I think 298 yards rushing has done that pretty well), it will open up passing opportunities. If Tebow can capitalize on those, this offense can become explosive.
6. As I have said a few times, THIS is why Tebow's legs are SO SO SO valuable. They literally affect every facet of the offense. Just the simple success of the ZR opens up passing lanes. Just the threat of him pulling on the ZR lets McGahee run in a setting where the offense is +1 on run blocking (remember - the DE is unblocked and out of the play). Just the threat of him taking off from the pocket will force teams to spy him like we've seen a good bit of. All these things help him, and the one thing that still needs to come is consistency throwing. IF he can get that (that's a big if), well McCoy will have a LOT of options to work with. So be patient, McCoy seems to know what he's doing, let's allow this to play out.
This is a bit long, so I think I'll be done now. If you spy an error I made or would like to make a clarification, please do! I'm by NO means an expert on this stuff (I'm learning right now really), and there's certainly a lot of people around here more knowledgeable than I am. Regardless, I hope this was educational to some of you, so you can understand what happens when Denver inevitably runs some of this stuff in future weeks.
Finally, here's a few links of recommended reading, all by Chris Brown of SmartFootball. This is just if you want to learn more about zone-read-type concepts - here's some good links to help you better understand it, written by a guy who is far more knowledgeable than I am. There's a chance you may see some of this stuff added to the offense in the coming weeks, so it's worth reading about if you want to understand this stuff better.
Inverted Veer - a play we may see at some point that is similar-ish to the zone read
Defending the Zone Read - what defenses will attempt to do against us (also discusses offensive counters to those adjustments)
Oregon's DT Read - A interesting zone read wrinkle that Oregon has used in the past
Search for Perfect Spread QB - Good article that discusses a lot of spread concepts and links to numerous other articles.
Thanks for reading, and go Broncos!!!