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Packers 2017 Running Game, Part 2: Adding the zone read

A new quarterback called for a new approach.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

In this three-part series, APC’s Bob Fitch looks back at the film to understand how the Green Bay Packers utilized the running game in 2017 with three different running backs and Aaron Rodgers unavailable. Part two looks at the zone read.

Brett Hundley has always been a decent runner for a quarterback. UCLA took full advantage of that, and the Green Bay Packers eventually did as well in 2017, implementing the zone read into their gameplan.

Zone Read Handoff

The most basic zone read play really simplifies the reads a quarterback has to make: find the end man on the line of scirmmage and read his movement. If he crashes in, keep the ball. If he plays contain, hand it off. That’s pretty much it. The playside tackle can then combo block with the guard and go to the second level, which are the blocks that lead to big gains. Obviously there are wrinkles and variations to the basic zone read, but there’s a reason it’s being taught in high school or even youth leagues.

In this clip, Hundley sticks the ball in Jamaal Williams’ gut and takes off to his left. Kwon Alexander stops his feet in order to contain Hundley on the outside, and it gives enough time for Williams to plant his foot in the ground and burst up field for a moderate gain. Simple, effective.

Running a similar play against the Bears in week 10, the threat of Hundley running to the outside held the outside linebacker so long that by the time he came back to the play, Aaron Jones had picked up four yards already, and could have been more if Corey Linsley didn’t lose focus on his block.

What I like about this one is the combined read action with a bubble screen to the wide side of the field. Including the bubble screen does two big things for the offense; first, Hundley can make a pre-snap read to throw the screen if they have a numbers advantage on that side. If he sticks with the run, by having Cobb flare to the far side, it creates a lot of open field if Hundley then decides to keep the ball himself. The broadcast view gives a better angle:

This is the kind of schematic flexibility that good coaches gameplan. Put your players in a position to succeed by emphasizing their strengths (short passing, running) and minimizing their weaknesses (literally everything else).

Zone Read QB Keep

In order for a defense to give credence to the quarterback as a runner, he needs to occasionally keep the ball himself and pick up yards. Running the zone read with a quarterback that doesn’t ever run is like playing poker with the guy who bluffs on every hand. Once you realize he’s always holding 3-8 off suit, you call him out and it’s game over.

Remember when I showed Jamaal Williams picking up a decent gain on a zone read against the Bucs? Well, the play was used again in a big way in overtime:

Lance Kendricks is free to completely ignore the defensive end and make a downfield block, while Jason Spriggs and Jahri Evans do a nice job combo-blocking the defensive tackle and linebacker. The DE bites on Jamaal Williams - you can actually see him whip his head around as Hundley is running past him - and Hundley takes off. Credit Geronimo Allison here as well, as his block (along with Kendricks) turn this run from a 6 yard gain to an 18 yard gain.

This next clip is another good read by Hundley. He sees that the defensive end has his feet moving in toward the backfield, and pulls the ball himself. One way to stop the zone read is to get to it before it ever develops; if you have an unblocked linebacker sprint directly at the mesh point (area of handoff/keep by QB/RB), the play can be blown up with a decision never being made. If the unblocked defender doesn’t go full speed toward that mesh point, however, there’s still time for the QB to make a decision to run or hand off. This time, the Lions defensive end pops up out of his stance expecting a blocker coming from somewhere and slows down. Even though he’s unblocked and heading for the mesh point, coming from the 9 technique and hesitating means he’s too late, and Hundley easily gets around him.

The Mesh Point

An added benefit to the zone read is the ability to advance the handoff point further upfield without the linebackers attacking as aggressively as they would on a normal handoff. If a linebacker is now worried about covering two gaps - QB to the outside, RB to the inside (or vice versa depending on the play), he can’t step up to fill, meaning the runners get a head start. The next clip illustrates my point clearly. On the first go-around, watch the feet of Hundley and Williams, then watch the feet of Eric Kendricks (54).

Williams is the one attacking the linebackers, not the other way around, and that’s a good way to pickup positive yardage.

In the same game, Green Bay once again ran the zone read and Hundley moved up the mesh point. Since the Vikings had an additional linebacker in the hole this time, Kendricks was free to attack the LOS, while defensive end Danielle Hunter is responsible for contain.

While Hunter is waiting for a decision to be made in the backfield, Hundley and Williams hop forward two yards, giving Williams time to get up to speed. As Hunter is now flat on his feet, his only chance is to lunge at Williams’ legs as they pass him by. This wrinkle isn’t an earth-shattering difference, but the offense needs every advantage it can get.

Stay tuned for part 3 of the film review of the 2017 Green Bay running game!