Spread Option Offense

The Spread, the Option, the Zone Read…

and how they all work together

Spread Option offenses are considered to be “equalizers” on the playing field, allowing less athletic teams to compete with larger and faster defenses. They achieve this by using multiple ball carriers to trick the defenders and by setting up the play so that the defense is not in a position to tackle the player with the ball.  If executed property, this offensive scheme allows a team to gain 3-4 yards before the Linebackers and Defensive Backs have even identified who has the football and therefore, who to tackle. This statistically equates to a first down after each Series (4 downs).

The Spread Option utilizes (1) the Spread formation, (2) the Option and (3) the Zone Read.  The Spread simply designates the formation in which the play begins.  The Option refers to the principle of having different choices during a play.  And the Zone Read is how the decision regarding each choice is made.  Because the Option and the Zone Read are interdependent, this offense will be referred to as either the Option or the Zone Read, as both essentially describe what is occurring schematically.

The Spread

The goal of the Spread is to use the entire field and refers to any formation that spreads out the defense and creates more space in between the defensive players before the play begins.  The way the spread is achieved is by placing the offensive linemen farther away from each other.  This forces the defensive linemen and linebackers to mimic their counterparts and spread out as well.  If the defense doesn’t also spread out, the offensivelLinemen can more easily contain defensive players to their inside, thereby providing the ball carrier a lane on the outside edge of the field where no defensive players are present.  In addition, teams vertically spread out the field through the use of the passing game (or at least the threat of it).  By incorporating the spread into a formation, it makes the defense react by spreading out horizontally and vertically, which naturally creates running lanes.

The Option

The term “Option” refers to the fact that there are several options of who will carry the ball on a given play.  The quarterback will decide who should be the ball carrier depending on which option appears the most attractive once the play begins.  It is a run-based scheme, but can be used to open up the passing game. While some teams (such as Georgia Tech and Navy who use the Triple Spread Option) use the Option to run as their first, second and third options, others will use the Option to run first and pass second.  Furthermore, there are teams that will even utilize this scheme to pass first.  According to Spread Option guru Urban Meyer (former head coach, Florida), one of the keys to the Spread Option is adapting to the skills of the players you have.  It relies on timing, quick decision making by the quarterback and deceiving the defense. It can be run out of a variety of formations, but the basic theory is to get the ball handed off, pitched, snapped or thrown to the best offensive player and the one with the most opportunity to make a play.  This relies on mismatches of personnel, which are created and reacted to through use of the Zone Read.

The Zone Read

The Zone Read is how the quarterback determines which option to use.  The offense will create mismatches in the number of offensive versus defensive players in certain areas of the field.  They will then shift the play away from the zone where the defense has the beneficial mismatch (where they outnumber the offense) and move it to the area where the offense outnumbers the defense.  This is done by “reading” where the defensive players are going and what they are doing.

One method of creating a mismatch is to purposely leave a defensive player unblocked.  He will be free to move towards the offensive Backfield and depending on which way he chooses, the Quarterback will “read” this and send the ball in the opposite direction.  This leaves the offensive player who would have been busy blocking that defensive player free to assist with blocking in the area where the ball carrier is and creates a beneficial mismatch where it matters most.   In a basic example, the Quarterback reads the Defensive End on the side in which the play is designed to take the Running Back. If the Defensive End is playing inside the Defensive Tackle after the snap of the ball, the Quarterback hands the ball off to the Running Back who takes it to the outside. If the Defensive End is playing outside of the Defensive Tackle after the snap, the Quarterback keeps the ball and runs in the oppose direction of the blocking scheme.

There are differences in how teams run the Zone Read. For instance, Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez has the Quarterback read the backside Defensive End, while Oregon’s Quarterback reads the Defensive Tackle.

Unpopular in the NFL

In general, the Spread Option is useful for a team that is overmatched in size and strength because it can create mismatches to counter that fact. However, it is a scheme that is predominantly found in the High School and College levels because a) such disparities do not exist in the NFL and b) the speed and athleticism of NFL defensive players negates the Spread Option’s benefits.  Furthermore, it puts the Quarterback at a higher risk for injury because he is running with the ball more often and therefore tackled more often (something NFL teams cannot afford).  The biggest effect this has is on the Quarterbacks playing this offense in College who are trying to transition to the NFL, as teams are hesitant to believe their skills have a place in the professional game.  So keep this in mind when broadcasters get distracted from the game (as they often do) and start talking about next year’s NFL Draft.  This is why Tim Tebow (Florida ’06-‘09) was a highly debated draft pick despite his unprecedented accomplishments at Florida, why Pat White (West Virginia ’05-’08) is currently playing baseball in the Kansas City organization as an Outfielder, and why Dennis Dixon (Oregon ’05-’07) is simply a back-up Quarterback for the Steelers.  These individuals all played Quarterback for Spread Option Offenses in College and were some of the most exciting and dynamic players on the field.  They should all eventually have excellent professional careers as athletes somewhere, in some position, and in some sport.