Last month, in lieu of adding a major offensive threat — a la Percy Harvin or Tavon Austin — the 49ers added the defensive-minded Eric Mangini as an offensive consultant. The Mangenius’s role, according to Jim Harbaugh, is to help the 49ers determine just how teams will defend their vaunted zone read offense.
“He’ll look at how defenses prepare for us and where we can attack defenses,” Harbaugh told the media. “That’s what his role will be.”
I would imagine — and this hiring certainly reinforces my speculation — that Harbaugh and company are concerned with that the fate of the zone read could very well be that of the Wildcat offense. Mike Tanier of the New York Times has noted that the direct-snap style of play made popular by the Wildcat was effective only in it’s ability to surprise the defense and catch them off guard. But, ultimately, Tanier writes, “even under optimal conditions they are no more effective than standard offensive strategies on a per-play basis. That is one reason Wildcat-style plays have nearly disappeared from the N.F.L.”
Granted, the differences between the zone read ran by the 49ers and the Wildcat are as vast as the Great Plains are wide. Still, it hasn’t stop doubters from wondering if the two offenses will suffer the same fate.
“But I think as we saw five years ago with the Wildcat stuff, it had its success and less and less people are doing it,” Aaron Rodgers argued last January. “Now it’s more of the zone read stuff, reading the end and keeping it or pulling it with a quarterback who has some athleticism. At some point, on some level, they are going to figure out a way to consistently stop that.”
This very idea — that defensive coordinators will figure out a way to stop the zone read, much like they did the Wildcat — was put to Trent Dilfer on a recent edition of the Rich Eisen Podcast. Though I realize the mention of Dilfer’s name draws wave upon wave of eye-rolls, his break down of the zone read and his reasons for his belief that it’s here to stay are worth noting.
Said Dilfer of whether defensive coordinators will catch up with the zone read:
Defensive centric people give too much credit to game planning, and not enough credit to math. The zone read is math. It’s simple math. It’s addition. You have more players blocking less players because you’re not blocking one. Okay, so you have the addition part of it. So basically, in your guard and your tackle, you’ve got two blocking one. You have 600-plus pounds moving 300 into a linebacker [because] they’re not blocking the end. Then you have geometry because that tackle has angles on that defensive tackle. So, you have addition and geometry. You have all the right angles.
When we build a run game in the NFL, it’s all about numbers and angles. The zone read gives us numbers, and it gives us angles. Then, you take in third reaction football. What I mean by that is the run game is first reaction — defense is in first reaction mode. Play-action pass is second reaction mode. They react to run; their second reaction is to pass. That’s why the play-action is so successful. The zone read play-action is third reaction mode because it’s run by the back — first reaction; second reaction: run by the quarterback; third reaction: play the pass.
The gaping holes in the defense and the ability for the offense to create a “shell” in the secondary that is so simplistic we call it “Training Camp Shell,” meaning it’s like what you see the first day of training camp: one safety, zone coverage, strong safety is there, the backers are stationary. It just becomes a very vanilla, static look because they have to sit there and go, “Okay, first reaction, we’ve got to look at this back; we’ve got to stop the bell cow runner.” Well, now we’ve got to stop, the quarterback — the Kaepernick, the Russell Wilson, the RGIII, whoever it is.
On more element to it, too. If you put all your eggs into stopping zone read, you’re putting all your eggs into stopping something that is four to six plays per game. The difference is that you can turn your run game to make it look like zone read when it’s straight power, when it’s straight zone, when it’s straight counter. The backers’ keys, when they look back in the backfield, it looks like zone read to them. The safety? It looks like zone read to them. It’s basic runs plays they’ve been running since the 50s.
Dilfer’s point, no matter how simplistic, proves true to a surprising one. The 49ers ability to put the defense in conflict with the zone read threat enabled them to succeed beyond precedent. According to Football Outsiders, despite telegraphing their intent to run, “San Francisco saw their one-back DVOA improve by a whopping 51.0%.” In fact, the 49ers single-back rushing attack was the most effective in the NFL last season by a mile.
The number two and three teams both feature zone read offenses, which is significant to Dilfer’s breakdown. But the 49ers utilize the zone read sparingly (just 26% of the time compared to the Seahawks and Redskins), thus furthering the stress put on defenses that must account for all three “reactions” presented by the system. The fact the 49ers were 51% more success running in single-back sets over last year illustrates that stress.
So, how might defenses try and stop the zone read? Well, whatever the game plan, Dilfer is dubious, at best.
The way you stop it — and this is talking to a ton of high school coaches and college coaches — is you have to force them to try to throw the ball deep, so you have to take away all the short stuff. You have to jump the short stuff. And you have to have dominant defensive linemen that can push back, that can change the line of scrimmage. If you can change the line of scrimmage, now the numbers even out a bit. The geometry evens out a bit. But that’s easier said that done.
The ways in which teams will stop the zone read, as Dilfer estimates, are still just the basic tenants of what any defense attempts do. That is, all defenses will attempt to control the line of scrimmage and force offenses to throw deep regardless of their opposition’s offensive scheme. So in order for the defense to adapt, they’ll need to either purchase the services of dominant linemen — which is likely what the Seahawks have been attempting to do — or they’ll need to completely invert the numbers and angles advantage inherent to the zone read offense. Either way, it’s hard to see how either of those options can produce sustained success.
Ultimately, perhaps the greatest equalizer to the zone read will be the offenses greatest weapon: the quarterback. As Aaron Rodgers explains, “enough of these guys who are going to be franchise guys, if they are not already, may take some unnecessary shots or decide that they would rather stay in the pocket and throw rather than rush the ball 15 times a game.” In other words, there are quarterbacks who won’t want to jeopardize the longevity of their career to run the zone read. With the injury already endured by Robert Griffin III, it’s easy to understand why.
The good news, however, is that Colin Kaepernick doesn’t appear to be one of them. If Dilfer’s right and the 49ers success from last year continues, then the team’s success can be sustained for as long as Kaepernick can run.