I Am Zone Read (And So Can You!): Spread Offense For Dummies


Mandatory Credit: Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

After doing as much research on Mike Locksley’s offense as I could, I kept coming back to the zone read. Zone read this, the spread that, read option what? Everyone and their mother seems to have their own verbiage for what the zone read is or the offense that it’s run in, sportscasters have no clue what they’re talking about, and fans all say different things to delineate the same thing they all see.

I just decided to say screw it and learn the basics of the offense myself, rather than trying to guess on film or just completely get it wrong and misunderstand what was occurring. To do that, I actually went to the guy credited with making the zone read offense stuff more accessible: Chip Kelly. Awhile back, Kelly released this zone read option playbook, which literally explains to everyone what the hell he is doing. I read the whole thing, watched an hour or two of video, and now I’ll be explaining it to you. So get on your thinking caps.

What is the zone read option?

So this entire inside zone read play does three key things.

1. You pick up an extra playside blocker.

2. You negate the opponent’s best defensive lineman.

3. You stretch the defense by making them defend the entire field because of the running back threat.

To understand what the zone read option is (which is what it’s called), we basically need to figure out what the standard, go-to play is for the entire offense: the inside zone read. The IZR (as I’m going to call it from here on out), is ran more or less every other play in a Chip Kelly-led Oregon offense. But what is the IZR? To be able to accurately recognize what it is, you first have to look at the running back. If the RB is lined up behind the quarterback and to the left or the right, it’s always going to be an IZR. If the RB is lined up parallel (or slightly in front), it’s an outside zone read (OZR), which I’ll explain upon later. So anytime you see a RB lined up behind the QB and shifted to one side or the other, count on it being an IZR.

When you break IZR’s and watch them on tape, the offense lines up like a dive play, running between the guard and the tackle, with the offensive line blocking straight up. So if you zone read to the right, the playside (the side in which the play is going) would be the right side, and the backside is the left. The quarterback then zone reads the backside defensive end, and that’s where another wrinkle is added.

But wait, what’s zone reading a defender? Formerly called optioning a defender (typically the defensive end or defensive tackle), it’s now a backside (the opposite side of the playside) zone read of whoever occupies that space. Essentially, the quarterback reacts to whatever the player occupying the space does. The primary objective? Keep the ball very far away from the opponent’s strongest defender, be it a lineman or a linebacker, to negate their effects on the offense.

If the defender stays put and doesn’t commit to the play, then the RB has the ball and is running away from the defensive player. If he chases the RB, then the QB pulls the ball away, and heads up the open slot that the now-committed defender once occupied. It doesn’t matter where the defensive end goes, as the ball’s already out of there. Worst case scenario, the defender stays put and the ball ends up in your RBs hands, which is basically what you want.

Here’s an entire sequence of plays down the field in an Oregon-Stanford game, where they run the exact same play over and over and over with some solid success.

What this does, and one important element that made Chip Kelly’s offense so spectacular, was that it gives the offensive line an advantage when you don’t block the backside defensive player. The defender on the backside is zone read and left unblocked, so your offensive line shifts over  from one offensive lineman to another on the playside and you pick up an extra blocker.

If an offensive line seals up everyone on the playside, that’s a giant advantage. It opens up massive holes, and it’ll be a key reason why Maryland will or will not be successful running this offense. Take note that this running style is, by design, a physical style. You hit the lane hard and wind up right into a defender, only further up the field.

It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that on virtually every play, Maryland is going to announce the play beforehand, but that’s the beauty of it. The IZR causes defenses to overreact to stopping it. They over commit to where the play is going, and that opens up huge gaps elsewhere on the line. Since it’s impossible to defend the entire line of scrimmage, the RBs observe the line, look for the soon-to-be opened up hole, and run right through that. Their advantage is that they don’t have to follow a set play.

Now, the beauty of the system is that you don’t even have to run it every single time. It sets up the passing game incredibly well. Bubble passes to the outside will be man-to-man coverage, you can run speed double options to the opposite side of the inside zone read if you can get to the edge, or you can throw in some play action deep strikes using the same formation. It’s great because it forces the defense to cover all these auxiliary plays as well, making them think more and rely on instinct less. And with Diggs and Long on the outside? Yeah, that should make defensive coordinators lose their hair.

Here are some passing plays they ran in that same game, that were set up by the continual running of the inside zone read.

One thing I didn’t know while I was doing this research, and something that’s notable: Oregon constantly leads the NCAA in yards lost per play. They make big plays and they score based off deception, but that also works against them as the defense sees things coming and accurately predicts what they’re doing. They lose yardage on a lot of plays.

What does that mean for Maryland, who probably doesn’t have LaMichael James just chilling on their roster? It means the Terps might end up losing a lot of yardage. But one thing that Chip Kelly stresses is that running this play requires running hard through the hole, not to the hole. He likens it to checking girls out at the bar one last time before you commit to going in on one. Machismo, I know, but it makes complete sense.

This only works if Ross is capable of being patient and allowing the holes that will inevitably open up to develop. It’s also contingent on a lot of hand offs, so hopefully he and Brown have that down to a science, with amazing fakes in all.


After reading this, you should have a pretty great idea of what we’re going to run, and if you didn’t, I got a hat tip from TestudoTimes yesterday documenting how Broman broke everything down. Check that out here. With these two guides, you’re going to watch the game differently, I can promise you that.