In February of 2011, Barcelona’s midfield maestro and self professed “football romantic” Xavi spoke in a sit-down with The Guardian about the keys to winning soccer games. With a dab of eloquence and expletive, he remarked that it’s vital to react rapidly and find vacant grass when in possession. He elaborated, saying “it’s like being on the PlayStation. I think shit, the defender’s here, play it there…” Wait, what? PlayStation? It’s almost ludicrous to compare reality and virtual reality, but when you think about it, it makes a bit of sense.
Whether it’s football or futbol, the goal of the offense is to find spaces to run or throw into. Plays are designed to clear out one area of the field to allow a pass catcher to come run without disruption and receive the ball, or for a runner to run through. Take for example the case of Washington Redskins rookie phenomenon Robert Griffin III, known by the popular moniker “RG3″. He’s endlessly found space when running the recently indoctrinated zone-read concept, regardless of whether he’s faking the hand-off to execute an exotic play action, or cutting blades of grass past would-be tacklers on a carry.
In it’s simplest form, the zone-read requires the quarterback to read an uncovered back-side defender of the formation at the “mesh” point and then determine if he will hand the ball off or tuck it away and run.
The defender, an end or outside linebacker (in some cases, a tackle) depending on the defense’s front of choice, is unblocked and will have to make a decision as to who he will go after: the quarterback or the running back. What’s the correct choice? Neither, because it doesn’t matter, and they’re both wrong. One player can’t defend two offensive players, and as a result, the defense has to compensate by bringing over another defender, thus leaving less in coverage.
But what if you don’t have enough defenders?
That’s the issue defenses have had with RG3 and the Redskins’ newly installed “Bone” formation, which has come along with the “Pistol” formation. Neither of these sets are new to the NFL, with the former being used by the Packers a couple of years ago and the latter used by Chan Gailey for many years, including during his stay in Kansas City when Tyler Thigpen was the signal caller. But what the Redskins have done is taken both, amalgamated them into one dynamic formation, and then they installed the zone-read from that base. Sounds complicated, aye?
Going back to the Pistol set, the Redskins really gave the Giants trouble with it in Week 7, using it to the tune of 248 yards rushing. What’s really fascinating about the running game is the dimension of mobility that RG3 brings because in schematic terms, he’s an extra player to account for, and a defense simply doesn’t have the man to match up with the extra man Griffin creates. Allow me to explain.
Regardless of what coverage or front a defense plays, they have to play sound positional defense, and that starts with stopping the running game. To stop the running game, a defense must account for each and every gap that is presented to them. To identify gaps, it’s relatively simple: you count the gaps in between blockers and (one) outside of them. An instance of this came when the Redskins were at their own 10-yard line and aligned in a Pistol set. With the tailback seven yards back of RG3 and an additional blocker (a tight end) who was aligned as an up-back, the Redskins have eight gaps — five OL = six gaps, TE = one gap, mobile QB = one gap — presented to the Giants defense, which only has seven defenders to cover them.
Because of the lack of necessary defenders, the Giants find themselves in trouble once RG3 snaps the ball. Upon receiving the ball, the tight end in the backfield pulls across the formation to pick up the scraping (a method used to stop the zone-read) linebacker (No. 55) and RG3 puts the ball in the belly of running back Alfred Morris while reading the unblocked Justin Tuck. But then Griffin pulls the ball out of Morris’ belly once Tuck has crashed inside, and he follows the lead block of the tight end…
And right into the open space…
Then 28 yards later, the Redskins have a first down and Alfred Morris is set to run for an additional 30 yards on the following carry, finding the open space on the cutback on another zone-read, except this time out of the Bone formation. The Giants defense was once again a man short.
What has made this such an interesting offense is that it doesn’t have great variety, and it’s not mind-bending in terms of design. But it’s effective because it uses numbers, as with a mobile quarterback, the offense will always have one more gap than the defense can cover.
The Redskins’ offense is playing to the strengths of its players and playing sound, fundamental football. For once, they’re doing things right on the offensive side of the ball — it helps to have Rex Grossman near a cooler rather than a football, admittedly — and they’re going to be winning a lot of games in the next few years with Griffin likely to be putting up PlayStation numbers as he finds the open spaces in defenses via the run and pass.