Remember when the “zone read” was the most unstoppable run concept football had seen since power and counter?
Football moves so fast now that looking back into the late aughts and early 2010s feels like a trip into the dustiest corners of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Colin Kaepernick coming out party in 2012 may as well be in black and white, with the advent of RPOs and a complete embrace of the spread offense across the league.
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I’m not here to say that the “read option” game was a dying art form in the NFL — anyone can turn on an Arizona Cardinals or Baltimore Ravens game and see obvious evidence to the contrary. It has been dwindling, though. PFF data shows that quarterback reads in the run game have dropped precipitously since 2016, when they peaked at 2,038 snaps.
In the years since: 1,773 in 2017, 1,353 in 2018, 1,147 in 2019 and 1,187 in 2020. The league tried to build everything around the threat of the quarterback's legs and was pretty swiftly reminded that inviting contact to the fulcrum of the passing game may not make the juice worth the squeeze.
In Philadelphia, Lincoln Financial Field is operating as a DeLorean, taking Eagles fans back to a familiar time, but one that had felt far behind us.
The Eagles had one of the least inspiring offenses through the first seven weeks of the 2021 season. In spite of ranking in the top 10 in dropbacks, quarterback Jalen Hurts and his young receiving corps ranked 19th in expected points added (EPA) per dropback and 21st in passing grade.
Over the past four weeks, a large chunk of the passing game has been dropped into a cylinder-shaped folder. Since a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Eagles rank next to last in dropbacks (99), and their EPA per pass ranking has shot up to second. In that time, this offense has led the NFL in rushing attempts, with the runner-up a whopping 30 carries (around a full game’s worth of handoffs) behind.
Eagles Rushing Game | Since Week 8
|Rush Attempts||175 (1st)|
|1st Down/TD Rate||33% (3rd)|
|Explosive Runs (10+ Yards)||29 (1st)|
|Rushing Grade||81.3 (5th)|
The best thing for this offense has been to take the ball out of the air, without actually taking it out of Hurts’ hands.
Philadelphia has been on a 3-1 surge since the philosophical change, topped off with a dominant 40-point outing against the New Orleans Saints and their strong defense.
In those four games, head coach Nick Sirianni has called for more zone-read runs than anyone in the NFL, and it's quickly become the best play on his call sheet.
Eagles Run Concepts | Since Week 8
|Rush Attempts||Rush Yds||1st Down/TD Rate||Explosive Runs|
|Inside Zone (all)||84||398||33%||10|
|Read Option (all)||67||358||30%||10|
|Inside Zone Read||49||267||35%||7|
It makes plenty of logical and schematic sense, given Hurts’ athletic profile. In his college career at Oklahoma and Alabama, he averaged seven yards per carry on read-option plays on nearly 150 attempts.
The threat of Hurts as a runner is just as real in the league, averaging 6.2 yards when he keeps the ball on those reads. Structurally, it’s been opening the door for the rest of the offense to find the air space it was missing in the first two months of the year.
Take these identical pictures from Philly’s past two games against the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints:
Both are textbook examples of how play design and formational alignment can marry up and create serious run-fit issues for a defense.
The Saints and Broncos are both in a single-high safety look, and the Eagles are in what’s called a single-width or “nub” formation — where there’s only a tight end on one side and all the wide receivers are opposite.
Zone Read Runs by Formation | Since Week 8
|Att.||Yds/Carry||% of Yds Before Contact||EPA/Rush|
|Doubles (TE attached)||23||6.3||59%||.212|
|Trips (Away from attached TE)||21||5.3||51%||.272|
Cover 3 defenses aren’t built, structurally, to fit the run and the pass against a nub set. The spacing of the coverage is already warped against a three-receiver set (there are very particular ways teams play Cover 3 to trips to mitigate spatial issues), so teams will often play man-to-man away from the trips side.
In this case, that would mean that the cornerback has to fit a gap in the box and play any potential route from the tight end without much help in coverage. This is too much conflict for a player who is not being supported by another defender in the run fit, so teams will contort the box to keep the cornerback out of any immediate run fit by asking the two linebackers to play the three potential gaps.
A zone-read scheme is trying to eliminate a defender in the box by playing an option game off his intentions. When adding that element to formational issues presented in these clips, it effectively means a team is playing two men short in the box — the defensive end being read, and the cornerback out of the fit. This is why the ball bends back and there’s nobody home to make the tackle.
(In the Denver clip, the end is being blocked, but the effect of the zone read remains because the cornerback would have to be responsible for any quarterback keeps or play-action passes to the tight end.)
In almost any other case, I’d relish an opportunity to slam an offense leaning into a gimmick so heavily. The Eagles are building their entire offense out of a spread running attack you won’t often see at the college level anymore.
What do you say when it works this well, though?
You follow your grandmother’s sage wisdom: say something nice, or say nothing at all.