Atlanta Falcons Defense vs Cincinnati Bengals Zone Read Offense


The Atlanta Falcons play the Cincinnati Bengals and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson’s “Bengal Coast” offense.  Based on the famous West Coast offense, his playbook is a combo platter sampling diverse offenses allowing him to tailor game plans week to week to take advantage of what he sees as weaknesses in opposing defenses.

“You got to do a little bit of whatever it takes to win,” Jackson said. “Whether it is West Coast, East Coast, side coast, north coast, (or) whatever coast. We’ll be whatever coast you need us to be to win games.”

Jackson’s offense uses numerous formations designed to “spread” defenders across the 53 & 1/3-yard field width in order to create space for skill players to maneuver for big plays.  The spread offense predominantly uses the pass-oriented “shotgun” formation with three to four wide receivers, a single running back, and the QB lined up 5 to 7 yards behind the offensive line.

“We’ll be whatever coast you need us to be…”-Hue Jackson, on his Bengal Coast offense

However, Jackson unveiled a twist to his spread playbook in week 1: the “zone read.”  I chose to examine the zone read as this week’s Football 101 topic because it’s not a traditional NFL offense and we’re sure to see it used against the Falcons defense this week.

The zone read option was an accidental discovery during a 1991 practice at NAIA Glenville State College in West Virginia.  Head coach Rich Rodriquez watched his QB bobble the football on a failed hand-off to the running back only to regain his grip just as the RB went by.  Noticing the defensive end continued his pursuit of the running back, the QB decided to run to the space vacated by the DE for a healthy gain.  Rodriguez told his assistants, “We may have something here.”

Rodriguez invented a potent offense based on that revelation: the zone read.  Rodriguez parlayed his invention into consecutive league titles at Glenville St. from 1993-96.  He then spent the next 14 years at NCAA DI schools using his zone read attack to turn average QB talents into college stars and future NFL players: Shaun King – Tulane, Woody Dantzler – Clemson, Pat White – West Virginia, and Denard Robinson – Michigan.  The zone read offense quickly spread across the NCAA landscape, but it took much longer before the NFL embraced the unique system.

Zone Read Shotgun Formation

The zone read was initially a two-option running play executed from the spread shotgun formation with the running back offset to the right or left of the QB.  On the snap, the offensive line moves laterally blocking specific areas or “zones” along the line of scrimmage.

This is the “zone” in the zone read, as linemen block
whichever defenders come into their zone of responsibility instead of having pre-snap assignments to block a specific defender.

Primary ball action begins with the QB and running back crossing paths with the RB either diving straight up-field or flowing with the offensive line while the QB goes in the opposite direction from the O-line.  As their paths intersect at the “mesh point,” the quarterback puts the ball in the running back’s belly in typical hand-off motion while “reading” the defense to determine whether to complete the hand-off or keep the ball to run it himself.

This “read” part of the zone read is the very essence of the system itself.  The QB reads the decision made by the backside defender, usually a defensive end or linebacker, who chooses whether to pursue either the QB or the running back.  He’s the on the “backside” of the play because the offensive line’s flow goes away from him leaving him unblocked.

If he crashes down toward the running back, the QB keeps the ball and takes off toward the space vacated by the crashing defender.  If the defender maintains position by laterally shadowing the quarterback’s movement, the QB completes the handoff effectively “blocking” the defender by delaying his pursuit long enough to eliminate the potential to tackle the ball carrier.

A properly executed zone read play is so effective because it accomplishes three objectives:

  1. The defense has to adjust how it accounts for potential ball carriers because the QB is now a rushing threat while drop-back QBs in traditional NFL offenses typically are not;
  2. Leaving the backside defender unblocked frees up offensive resources to get additional individual blocks or double-teams elsewhere on the field;
  3. The offense effectively gets a “block” on a defense’s best pass rusher from a player with likely the worst blocking technique on the field… the quarterback.

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  • Since the zone read is executed out of the passing-based shotgun formation, it’s no surprise coaches eventually integrated the pass as a third option for the QB.  The play-action pass, in which the QB fakes a hand-off prior to passing, is the obvious choice in the zone read since it starts with a potential hand-off.

    The play-action is even more deadly from the zone read because it gets double “action.”  The first is on the fake hand-off like a normal play-action pass.  The second results from the defense expecting a QB run after the fake hand-off in typical zone read action.

    There are far too many zone read permutations to go beyond the basics I laid out above, but I suggest checking out these links if you want to get some next-level knowledge on the primary zone read components: zone blocking, read options., and zone read pass possibilities.

    During the 2012 season, the zone read finally caught on in the NFL. While not the only team to use the zone read, the 49ers rode QB Colin Kaepernick’s mastery of the package to within one play of winning the Lombardi Trophy.  Even with that success, the zone read was derided as a “flavor of the month” gimmick with a short NFL lifespan.

    Yet the zone read gave NFL defenses fits just last week as the 49ers and Seahawks both used it as their offensive core to secure 1-0 starts; the Eagles got a 49-yard TD from the play in their victory; and Buffalo used it to befuddle the Bears for runs of 47 yards, 38 yards, and a 3-yard TD in a win.

    These results demonstrate how the zone read continues to cause coordinators of NFL defenses sleepless nights two years after its arrival.  However, like most Monday Morning Quarterbacks, I act like I know more than NFL coaches who’ve forgotten more about football than I’ll ever know… so of course you’re going to get my two-cents on stopping the zone read!

    Jul 26, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan shown on the field during training camp at Falcons Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    Ready-Made-Excuse Alert: With only a handful of Bengals zone read plays to review, there isn’t enough for me to go on in regards to how the Falcons should specifically defend Cincy’s version… that’s Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s problem, not mine!

    The reality is there’s no single answer for defending an offensive package with so many variants.  After two years of zone read study under their belts, coordinators on both sides of the ball can now engage in an endless series of PhD-level move-countermove debates on running the offense or defending it.  Therefore defensive coordinators can’t simply use Xs and Os on a white board to strategize their way to beating the zone read.

    It boils down to which side crafts a strategy appropriate for their personnel and how well those players execute the tactics of that strategy.  My analysis focuses on tactics previously used to successfully defend against the zone read in general and, given the Bengals offensive personnel, what Nolan should do with his guys.  Let’s look at the Bengals who will be most involved in their zone read.

    Cincinnati QB Andy Dalton had success running an inverted variation of the zone read in college at TCU, but that wasn’t against NFL-caliber defensive speed.  He ran a 4.82 40 at the NFL combine, so he’s not Tom Brady-slow, but he’s not Kaepernick-quick either (if you click on only one link today, trust me… you want to click that one).  It’s no surprise Dalton netted just 3 yards week 1 on six running plays including four zone reads.  There’s simply no QB home-run rushing threat in Cincy’s zone read.

    Speedy running back Giovani Bernard, who’s comparable to Reggie Bush, will be the primary ball carrier in Cincy’s zone read.  Bernard has the “breakaway ability” and “game-changing elusiveness” that should scare Nolan when they run the zone read.  Rookie second round pick Jeremy Hill is a 233-lb back who will get a handful of carries in the game but is unlikely to be used in the zone read unless it’s a short-yardage down.

    Aug 8, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard (25) is shoved out of bounds by Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford (23) during the second quarter at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    A primary defensive adjustment to the zone read the Falcons could use is the “gap exchange” in which the backside defensive end and the linebacker behind him exchange responsibilities they normally would have playing against a traditional NFL offense. The LB “scrapes” over to attack the QB while the DE only has responsibility for the running back.

    Variations on this have a safety coming down from the secondary to help on either the QB or the RB, depending on which is the more dangerous runner.

    The Falcons should stay clear of the gap exchange for three reasons.  First, NFL players have a big problem with radically different responsibilities because they’ve become so specialized in the nuances of their job that it becomes very difficult to instinctively learn to do something different in just one week.  Secondly, Dalton isn’t enough of a running threat to drastically change the linebacker or defensive end responsibilities.  Finally, it’s madness to bring a safety down to help on Dalton and leave the defensive secondary, the primary pass defenders playing behind the linebackers, susceptible to what Dalton does fairly well, throw the deep ball to All-Pro A.J. Green.

    I would emulate what college football defensive “savant” Gary Patterson does against a zone read, which is to switch from his favored 4-3 defensive alignment to a 3-4 (see last week’s FB101 to brush up defensive alignments).  That sounds perfect to me since this is already the formation preferred by Nolan when they’re not in their base nickel defense.

    The Falcons’ outside linebackers (OLB) would be the backside defenders with QB responsibility in a 3-4 alignment against the zone read.  Every Falcons OLB should easily be able to keep up with Dalton in space.  This allows them the patience to first see what the QB does with the ball and then react accordingly without much downside.

    The Falcons’ outside linebackers’ ability to handle the QB-run option of the zone read allows the secondary to do their job against the potential passing option of the Bengals zone read, especially game-changing threat A.J. Green.  It also allows the defensive line retain responsibility for stuffing the RB-run option of the zone read.

    I would also place paramount importance on emphasizing responsibility discipline this week.  The zone read, and the spread offense in general, is all about confusion among defenders and blown assignments.  Staying disciplined individually and playing as a unit is critical this week.

    So my recipe for Falcons taking on the Bengals’ zone read is a pinch of adjustment to OLB responsibility and a heaping of discipline emphasis.  Beyond that I would make the Bengals first prove they can actually do something with their zone read before asking players you’ve spent millions on for their specialized skill sets to do something completely different.