In the NFL, things come in waves. Sparano was on the forefront of the Wildcat in the NFL, because he brought in an offensive coach who had run it successfully at Arkansas. Essentially, it provided an extra blocker ... or if you prefer, you can think of it as an extra lane that the defense needs to cover. The read option has the same goal--to require the defense to commit an extra man to stopping it. The read option also has the extra wrinkle of the offense forcing the defense to commit to stopping it before the offense has to commit to anything.
Extra Man Problem
The QB reads the defense's decision to cover the run, then identifies which player the defense intends to stop. If it's the RB, then the QB simply keeps it and runs upfield. If it's the QB, then he simply hands off to the RB. If both are covered, that means there are a lot of defenders committed to the run, and the QB has the option to pull it back and throw the ball, probably to a WR or TE who is single-covered or wide open. It really is a great system for teams that don't have great WR's or teams that don't have wonderfully accurate or great diagnosing QB's as it keeps it fairly simple. Unless the defense's secondary can lock down WR's and TE's early in the route, there should almost always be an open receiver.
Of course, this really puts the defense on it's heels and exposes it's weakness. The tradeoff is that for you to run this system effectively, you will definitely need to let your QB run and get hit a lot. Many teams don't want to do that. But, it appears the advantages are creating a situation where QB's as RB's is going to become more common and the cost of drafted QB's is low enough for 5 years (for 1st rounders) as to make them expendable ... perhaps even disposable, unfortunately. The reality is the system is coming in vogue for at least 2013, probably longer. So, how do we defend it?
I don't have the answer to that multi-million dollar question, but some general principles are definitely going to be in play.
1. You must hit the QB, early, often, and ferociously. Many teams will decide that they can live with the occasional 15 yard penalty and encourage their defenders to punish the QB on those plays.
2. You must have team speed at the outside LB's, at a minimum, to flow the play across and fill the gaps created by the extra man upon which the read option is based.
3. Your secondary must cover for longer because the traditional pocket rush will not get there in 3 seconds. Essentially, when this becomes a pass play, it is like a roll out with all the LB's sucked up but probably not applying pressure and the far side DE/OLB taking a lot longer to get there.
4. Traditional gap schemes must be adjusted as the point of attack has shifted to the side and the offense has 1 extra man with which to exploit defensive positioning.
5. Overload schemes and gambling defensive techniques will backfire more often and can result in easy chunk yardage and TD's for the offense.
6. Defenses must be devised to allow for more flexibility later in the play, because the critical decision points of the offense all happen 3-6 seconds into the play rather than at the snap or through traditional passing progression windows.
7. Situational defenders will be exploited more than usual outside the hash marks along the line of scrimmage and everywhere in the secondary.
8. Linebackers are the key to stopping the read option.
Let's take point 8 first, linebackers are the key to stopping the read option. Schemes that flow defenders to stop the run usually depend upon their linebackers to make those plays to the outside. The read option is no different. Options haven't been successful in the NFL in years past because safeties were used like an extra LB to balance that numbers equation and fill the extra gap/lane and stop it. With the new passing rules, it's darn hard for WR's to get locked down without a pass interference penalty being called against the defense. So if the defense commits that extra safety into the box to effectively stop both the QB and the RB running the ball, then the QB has a great chance to throw the ball downfield and generate chunk yardage. If the safety stays back, then the running play gains pretty good yardage, and if your guy is fast, one missed tackle can be a TD. Scary thought for a defense.
So, the defense really benefits from LB's with range to shut down that running play. Remember, it's essentially nothing more than a run around end with 2 options, and an escape hatch for the QB to turn it into a roll out pass play. If the LB's shut down the run, it becomes a simple roll out pass, which the secondary can usually handle despite the longer time the QB has to find a receiver and make a throw.
Most defensive techniques in this situation teach the LB to take the ball carrier first. That means don't let the QB run, and force him to let the RB run outside. I expect that in the NFL this will evolve into headhunting LB's who blow up the QB regardless of whether he keeps it, hands it off, or drops back to pass. The best way to stop this play is to eliminate the key player, and while defenders have been hesitant to do it thus far, I think that will change as it becomes more and more prominent. Another option might be to always take away the RB and force the QB to run it every time, thus maximizing the punishment the QB takes and hopefully dissuading the offense from running that play very often. Or maybe run a spy who is responsible for the QB on any read option plays so the LB can concentrate on the RB and let the spy blow up the QB. But, its usually simpler than that, so just telling the LB to take the ball carrier might be the defensive coordinator's preference. So, how do we stop the RB?
Well there are many different ways to handle this. I'm sure the brilliant minds on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL will come up with a solid way to do it, whether it's by using a spy, a nickel back, zone blitz with unexpected coverage drops, or odd formations. Not really sure what those creative mad scientists will devise. But, I'm pretty confident that it will be LB driven and require good speed and shedding technique to shut down the run. Once the running option is shut down, the read option becomes just another play.
One possibility will be a different formation. That might be why we completely revamped our LB corps.
Coyle prefers a 43 and we tended to play that more often last year, but we didn't play it exclusively. We had hybrid looks. My guess is that we will have a much heavier dose of hybrid 34 looks and that it is at least in part because Coyle thinks he knows how to defend the read option. Let's face it, the Jets could nott have a worse QB situation, the new GM isn't married to the coach, and there's a great chance a new coach comes in next year or two. If not, they'll definitely need to find a way for Rex Ryan to generate offense with poor offensive personnel while Idzik rights their financial ship. I fully expected the Jets to try some read option. IMHO, there was only 1 good read option QB in the draft, and he was the only one that was drafted in round 1, EJ Manuel. I just didn't expect him to be drafted by Buffalo.
That means we probably have 2 read option teams in our division, and 4 of the 6 divisional games will have at least an element of read option. We must figure out a way to stop it.
I think that's the reason we drafted heavy on defense this year. The Salary Cap savings dictated revamping the LB corps next year anyway, and this simply allowed us to address it this year in anticipation of the read option craze. Guys with speed like Wheeler, Jordan and Jenkins have the range to cover the read option running. Someone like Jordan, in particular, has the length to cover both the QB and RB late into the play. With good man corners and a ferocious safety like Reshad Jones, we can really punish QB's that are fragile, lack accuracy, or are slow decision makers.
My belief is that Coyle will be overhauling this defense to get tighter man covering CB's that generate takeaways, and a more LB-driven scheme that takes advantage of their speed to create pressure on traditional drop back passers as well as the range and instincts to diagnose plays and stifle read option schemes and pistol formation plays. I'm not sure what Coyle has in mind, but we're definitely collecting the horses to run a fast LB-driven defense and generate takeaways. It should be fun to watch.