In a league driven by the performance of the quarterback, the most successful coaches are adaptable and willing to cater their offensive systems to fit the skill set of the signal caller.
In Denver, John Fox and his coaching staff are undergoing a radical offensive makeover to maximize the talents of Tim Tebow. Part of the transformation includes featuring the zone-read option play that Tebow made famous at the University of Florida while winning two national championships and a Heisman Trophy.
Other teams (like the Panthers with Cam Newton and the Bills with Brad Smith) have certainly sprinkled some elements of the formation into their playbooks. However, no team has featured the play as prominently as the Broncos did in their 38-24 win over the Raiders.
To the surprise of traditionalists who have often dismissed the prospects of the zone-read succeeding in the league, the concept not only worked but also generated the kind of production that will lead others to explore the possibility of adding it to their respective playbooks.
The most dangerous element of the zone-read is the quarterback keeper. A quarterback with explosive running skills can wreak havoc on the edges, and the play often puts him in isolated situations with defenders in space. If he is able to elude the first defender, he often has a lot of running room on the outside and it typically leads to huge gains.
Against Oakland, the Broncos were able to establish the threat of Tebow on the corner early in the game. On a play in the first quarter (right), the Broncos aligned in "Trips" -- three receivers on the right and the tight end on the backside of the shotgun formation. Tebow took the snap and read Jarvis Moss' (No. 94) while sticking the ball in McGahee's belly. When Moss took a flat angle to pursue the runner, Tebow pulled the ball out and raced around the corner for a 32-yard gain.
The inside zone is the complementary run to the quarterback keeper. The running back will cross the face of the quarterback while taking a direct path to the inside foot of the opposite offensive guard. His approach to the line of scrimmage is important because it forces linebackers to flow aggressively to the frontside, which creates better blocking angles for the offensive line. The front five is simply asked to latch onto a defender in their assigned area and push down the line of scrimmage. The runner reads the initial flow of the defense and bursts through the first available hole once he hits his landmark. This eliminates the chances of a negative run and also leads to the possibility of a big gain if one or two defenders fail to stay in their assigned gaps.
In looking at McGahee's 60-yard run at the end of the third quarter (right), the lack of gap discipline led to the big play. The Broncos aligned in an unbalanced "Trips" formation. McGahee was set to the right of the shotgun formation beside Tebow. At the snap, McGahee took a path to the inside foot of the left guard with Tebow riding the handoff while reading Kamerion Wimbley (No. 96) on the right. Wimbley stayed home, which prompted the quarteback to hand the ball off before carrying out his fake. The extended action of Tebow caused Darryl Blackstock (No. 56) to hesitate, leaving a huge hole for McGahee to sprint through on the way to a score.
When both elements of the zone-read are working effectively, offensive coordinators will routinely call a designed cut back to take advantage of aggressive linebackers. The play design and execution are the same, but the path of the running back is changed to give him the opportunity to get to the backside quicker. Rather than aim for the inside foot of the opposite guard, he will take a downhill angle in the direction of the center to allow him to cut back immediately at the line of scrimmage.
In looking at McGahee's game-clinching 24-yard touchdown run (right), it was the cutback element that led to the big run. The Broncos aligned in a "Trey" formation with McGahee set to the left. He stepped in the direction of the center while Tebow continued to read Aaron Curry (No. 51) on the left. When Curry flew up the field to chase the quarterback, Tebow slipped the ball to McGahee, who immediately bends it back to the left to take advantage of an overaggressive Blackstock flying to the frontside to stop the inside zone. With the linebacker out of position, McGahee skated into the end zone untouched for his second score of the day.
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