The Zone Read / Read Option Chess Match: How Belichick and the Versatile Pats D handled Russell Wilson & Marshawn Lynch

The Zone Read (or Read Option) played an integral part of Super Bowl 49. It is undoubtedly a staple in the Seahawk offense, and as I wrote in my SB XLIX preview, how the Patriots defended the Zone Read from an X’s and O’s standpoint would be crucial to the outcome of the game. The Patriots used their strength (the secondary) and almost exclusively played Cover 1. This allowed the Front 7 to play uncommon fronts and do a variety of things including feather, crash, loop, and squeeze the Read. By my count, not including the last Seattle drive, the Seahawks ran 12 Zone Read type plays out of 46 offensive plays, over a quarter of all their plays. Let’s take a further look at each Zone Read:

1st Quarter, 10:52, 0-0, 2nd and 7: Ball to Seattle 24 for Gain of 5

The Pre-Snap look with blocking assignments:

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Seattle is running Trips Left Zone Read, and Marshawn Lynch has just switched from the left side of Russell Wilson to the right side of Russell Wilson. This is a huge adjustment because it leaves a large natural gap between the 1-tech Wilfork and Rob Ninkovich (#50) who is playing in a 9-technique. As you can see in both the picture above and the video below, Linebacker (#54) Dont’a Hightower frantically attempts to move Vince Wilfork from his 1-tech alignment over and gets himself out of position as well. But Seattle is able to snap the ball before Wilfork can adjust, which should mean a huge hole and gain for Seattle. Luckily for the Patriots, Wilson isn’t entirely ready for the snap and it affects the play. Ninkovich (#50) is the unblocked defender and the read man; he plays a “feather” technique, or slow plays the Zone Read in order to force Wilson to give the ball to Lynch. From there, Ninkovich does a good job of squeezing down and tackling the ball carrier, who would have a gaping hole if it weren’t for Hightower getting off the block of Right Tackle Justin Britt (#68):

Overall, the Patriots are lucky it’s only a gain of 5.

1st Quarter, 10:14, 0-0, 3rd and 2: Ball to Seattle 24 for No Gain

Seattle decides to do the same exact thing on the very next play, the first offensive 3rd down of the game. This time, however, New England is lined up how it wants to be with the defensive tackles in 3-techniques (maybe even a 4i) responsible for the B-Gaps and linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins responsible for the A-Gaps. Once again, Ninkovich plays the feather technique as the Read man/unblocked defender. New England also sends a double A-Gap Blitz here:

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This double 3/4i, double 9-technique look is how New England plays the Zone Read for most of the game. The scheme depends on a multitude of things: first and foremost, the ability to play Cover 1 at all times against any offensive formation, the intelligence of Hightower, and the versatility and athleticism of Wilfork (#75) and Collins (#91). Watch below, as Ninkovich feathers and forces a give from Wilson, only to have Wilfork blow back Seahawk Tackle Justin Britt to force Marshawn Lynch left enough for both blitzing linebackers to clean up the play for no gain:

Credit the 3-technique on the other side of the formation, Sealver Siliga (#96) for holding his ground against Seahawk Guard James Carpenter (#77).

 2nd Quarter, 9:06, 7-0 Patriots, 2nd and 13: Ball to Seattle 22 for 5 Yards

The Seahawks have seen the Patriots alignment twice, and now decide to add a Tight End to the mix. The only difference in the Patriots Front 7 look is that Read Man Rob Ninkovich (#50) is now in an 8-technique, or head up against the Tight End. The Tight End, Luke Willson (#82) Arc Releases to block his man to man pass defender. There once again appears to be a fairly large crease for Lynch to run through, but watch how Jamie Collins diagnoses the play and goes from his A-Gap Assignment (In Red) to where he makes the play (In Yellow):

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Some analysts thought Russell Wilson should have kept the ball and run here, as there were no defenders left with lots of space if Wilson made Ninkovich miss.

2nd Quarter, 6:51, 7-0 Patriots, 1st and 10: Ball to Seattle 35 for 5 Yards

The Patriots had feathered the Read Man every time thus far, and the Seahawks were ready to counter with Split Zone. Vince Wilfork (#75) is now playing in a full 4i Technique on the inside shade of the tackle, with Hightower basically stacked over him. There is a huge natural gap between the Defensive Tackles (Wilfork and #97 Alan Branch), but it still appears as if both Hightower and Collins are responsible for A-Gaps while the Defensive Tackles are responsible for B-Gaps. Willson comes across the formation and hits Ninkovich, but doesn’t blow him back. Meanwhile, Wilfork gets off a double team disrupts the backfield, potentially affecting Lynch’s vision to an A-Gap crease:

2nd Quarter, 6:31, 7-0 Patriots, 1st and 10: Ball to Seattle 39 for 4 Yards

Seattle runs Zone Read again, this time with a more traditional 4-3 (With DT in 1 and 3 techniques) Front-7 defensive alignment from New England with a Ninkovich feather, but with a very similar result:

At this point, Seattle is gaining decent yardage, but has yet to gain over 5 yards, is down by a touchdown, have not had a snap in New England territory, and Russell Wilson has not carried the ball.

2nd Quarter, 3:39, 7-0 Patriots, 1st and 10: Ball to New England 6 for Gain of 5

After a big pass play to Chris Matthews, Seattle goes back to the Zone Read, this time with Tight End Luke Willson in an H-back 2-point stance off the line of scrimmage. The Defensive Tackles are lined up a little closer to each other now because its closer to the Goal Line, although still relatively far at a 2-technique (Siliga #96) and a 3-technique (Branch #97). Ninkovich plays the feather technique to force a give again, there is a large crease again, and again Jamie Collins scrapes hard, beats Seahawks Center Max Unger and makes the play at 5 yards instead of a likely Touchdown:

 2nd Quarter, 2:22, 7-0 Patriots, 2nd & Goal at New England 3: Touchdown Seattle

Seattle finally gets on the board using a zone read in short yardage. However, New England’s Chandler Jones (#95) had the perfect opportunity to stop this play. Seattle is running Zone Read against a double overhang look, meaning there are two players outside of the Tackle. When the Tackle Russell Okung (#76) leaves Jones to block down on the Defensive Tackle, Jones should crash down hard on Marshawn Lynch because Patrick Chung (#23) is there to handle any QB run. Instead, Jones hesitates and feathers for a split second, then crashes too late. Here is the pre-snap look followed by the play:

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This double overhang look would come in key later in the game.

2nd Quarter, :24, 14-7 Patriots, 1st and 10: Ball to New England 44 for Gain of 17

Seattle finally breaks out with a long gain on Zone Read in a key situation, setting up the tying Touchdown before halftime. Seattle lines up in Trips Right and is running Zone Read right, but the Patriots decide not to feather the read. Instead, with Cover 1, double 3-techniques, double 9-techniques and stacked Linebackers, Chandler Jones crashes down on Running Back Robert Turbin and forces Russell Wilson to keep the ball for the first time. The Patriots attempt to trap Russell Wilson by looping around Jamie Collins to account for the QB run:

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Notice that the front side A-Gap is unaccounted for; essentially, Chandler Jones is responsible for the front side A-Gap with his crash:

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Wilson does exactly what New England wants, but simply beats Collins in a 1 on 1 matchup and scampers for a huge 17 yards:

The question for Seattle fans is, if Wilson can juke out the ultra-athletic and quick Collins, couldn’t he do the same to Ninkovich’s feather technique? Should Wilson have kept the ball more and challenged the Patriots in the open field more often?

3rd Quarter, 14:22, 14-14, 2nd and 7: Ball to Seattle 38 for Gain of 15 

The Seahawks start the 3rd Quarter with more Zone Read. The Seahawks run it with a Tight End against the same look they saw in the 1st half; an 8-Technique against the Tight End with a feather technique, double 3-tech/4i’s, and Cover 1 behind it. Watch Jamie Collins overplay the run to his left. In prior situations, the crease was to his left and therefore his scrape saved huge gains. This time, Collins should have taken on the oncoming Lineman square. Instead, he tries to slip under the block, goes too far, and creates the big hole for Lynch:

3rd Quarter, 11:51, 14-14, 3rd and 1: Ball to New England 8 for No Gain

This was arguably the most important Zone Read of the game, as it kept Seattle to a field goal attempt. Seattle decided to stick with the Zone Read, when QB Russell Wilson really should have checked out of the play. It also may have psyched out Coach Pete Carroll later in the game in the more famous short yardage situation.

Seattle got the following pre-snap look for the first time:

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This Defensive Alignment sells out to be the perfect defense against the Zone Read. Every Gap is accounted for, Dont’a Hightower (#54) is there to feather and handle any QB run, Ninkovich (#50) has crash RB responsibility, and Safety Devin McCourty (#32) is in the box for run support to make it 7 defenders against 7 Seattle Lineman + Runners. Russell Wilson gets a mixed read because he sees Hightower waiting for him but Ninkovich crashing down for Lynch. Wilson had an array of options; First, he could have called an audible to another play: he could have called stretch going toward McCourty and Chandler Jones, or switched back Marshawn Lynch to the other side and run Zone Read to an extremely open 1-tech/9-tech front. (New England would almost have certainly called a Timeout or given up a Touchdown). In fact, Lynch did start directly behind Wilson, and it was Wilson who directed Lynch to his right. Next, if he ran the called play, he should have kept the ball and tested Hightower in space:

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He had beaten the more athletic Jamie Collins before, and Hightower was playing the game with a torn labrum. Unsurprisingly, the play was stopped for no gain:

This doesn’t even account for the passing options Wilson had. The Patriots were no longer in Cover 1. The way McCourty comes down immediately, it appears as if New England is in true Cover 0. This may have been the perfect time to check to a Zone-Read with a Pass Option, (Since we definitely know it was in the Seattle Playbook). Regardless, look at the space the Spread Stack formation had for a passing audible:

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As a coach, this is the one play I’m kicking myself over if I’m Seattle. More than the Malcolm Butler interception. Russell Wilson needed to get his team into a better play, and failed to do so when it counted most when they could have gone for the kill.

4th Quarter, 11:51, 24-14 Seattle, 1st and 10: Ball to Seattle 38 for Gain of 2

At this point in the game New England is playing the Zone Read ultra aggressively. Ninkovich feathers again, but Collins and Hightower have a Double A-Gap Cross Blitz that stop the play for a very short gain:

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4th Quarter, 7:48, 24-21 Seattle, 2nd and 10: Ball to Seattle 25 for Gain of 5

The last Zone Read of the game:

The Zone Read played an essential role in Super Bowl 49. Although Seattle was able to gain solid yardage and score a Touchdown with it (12 Carries, 66 Yards), one can’t help but feel they left a lot of productivity on the table. I agree with the assessment that Russell Wilson should have kept the ball more and challenged the Patriots to play him in space. Seattle was stuffed multiple times for no gain on 3rd downs with arguably the best RB and most mobile QB in the NFL. They only had two gains over 5 yards the whole game on Zone Read, and couldn’t seal the game with it when they were up 24-14.

Also give credit to Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia, and the New England Defense. They had a solid game plan and relied on their elite secondary to play man-to-man against any formation. As for the Front 7: play an unconventional front with the wide double 3-tech/4i consistently, feather and force Wilson to give the ball, and sprinkle in crash looks occasionally while still accounting for Wilson. When it mattered most, the Patriots sold out to stop the Zone Read and Wilson gambled incorrectly that Lynch could break Ninkovich’s crashing play.


 

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