Another read option: Hit the quarterback

Pete Dougherty
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Thanks to NFL rule changes, the quarterback is now classified as a runner on read option plays. That could allow defenses to tee off on quarterbacks even if they hand the ball off.

The read option took a shot to the chops this week.

Nothing changed in the NFL’s rule book. But Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs’ low tackle on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford showed defenses a concrete example of their latitude for hitting the quarterback even after he has handed off the ball on a read-option-looking play.

Suggs was penalized for hitting the quarterback below the knees while in the pocket. But Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, since has said the hit was legal because in the read option Bradford forfeits his protection as a quarterback. He reminded officials of the rule this week.

That has consequences for teams that run the read option. The list includes the Green Bay Packers’ opponent in Saturday night’s preseason game at Lambeau Field, the Eagles, and the team the Packers are trying to dethrone from supremacy in the NFC, the Seattle Seahawks.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly wasn’t happy that the NFL sanctioned the hit, and neither was Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Kelly claims the play wasn’t a read option. That’s probably semantics, because even if it was a straight hand-off, it’s intentionally made to look like read option.

“We’ll be very much part of that discussion (with the NFL) if things continue like it’s going, because it’s not right,” Carroll said this week.

They’re concerned because they surely suspect that defenses, more than they have, will hit their quarterback, even low, regardless of whether he keeps the ball on a read-option play. It’s a tactic with a clear purpose: dissuade offenses from running it in the first place.

“You’re going to see that more,” said Mike Daniels, the Packers’ best defensive lineman. “I’m not an offensive guy, so I don’t know. But you’d think it might discourage teams: ‘Hey, we’re getting our leader hit every play. We need this guy.’”

If you haven’t seen the play, Suggs hit Bradford a little less than a second after he handed off the ball. He hit Bradford low, at the knees. The referee penalized him not for a late hit, but for a low hit on a quarterback.

For clarity, here’s what Blandino told the NFL Network about the read option:

“The defensive end coming off the edge, he doesn't know if the quarterback is going to keep it, he doesn’t know if he’s going to take off and run or drop back, and so we treat the quarterback in that instance as a runner until he clearly re-establishes as a passer or he clearly doesn’t have the football.”

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, left, talks with referee Jerome Boger during a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015, in Philadelphia.

So is this the death knell for the read option? That I don’t know. Probably not. The rule isn’t new. It’s been in place since 2012. I talked to some scouts around the league about that a couple years ago, and they said defenses will keep hitting the quarterback until offenses stop running him. That didn’t happen. I’ve watched for it for the past couple years and rarely have seen a quarterback hit after he handed off on a read option.

But Kelly’s and Carroll’s reactions show how much read-option teams worry about exposing their quarterbacks to running back hits. Defenses have a potentially valuable and underused weapon there.

A play is read option if one defensive end is left unblocked. He’s the read. If he heads up the line playing the handoff, the quarterback keeps. If he goes for the quarterback or waits and watches the ball, it’s a hand-off.

Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, says automatically hitting the quarterback has to be part of the game plan.

“You saw the controversy about that play,” Capers said. “People don’t like to get their quarterbacks hit. In this league if you have a 260-pound guy coming hard, hitting that quarterback, that’s not a good proposition if you’re playing quarterback.”

But sending the unblocked end at the quarterback on every read option carries its own risk for the defense: It opens a potential cutback lane for the running back that has to be covered by another player. That spreads the rest of the defense thinner.

So Capers says defenses need to mix up the calls. Sometimes the end plays only the quarterback, others he plays the hand-off. The best guess is Capers won’t show much Saturday night because it’s preseason, but the test will come Week 2 against the Seahawks. Capers made clear both calls are in his arsenal.

“(The quarterback) is fair game if he’s carrying out a run fake where he can potentially keep the football,” Capers said.

One of the Packers players who occasionally will be that unblocked end, Julius Peppers, expressed reservations about pushing the rule too far. Suggs didn’t just hit Bradford, he hit him at his knees.

“The league ruled it was a clean, a legal hit,” Peppers said. “But do you necessarily want to play the game that way? I don’t know.”

An NFL scout I texted with this week said that even before last week’s hit, the use of the read option appeared to be in decline. That’s probably true.

But it’s a significant component in Seattle’s offense. Russell Wilson led NFL quarterbacks in rushing last season (849 yards). Another quarterback the Packers face this season, Cam Newton, was third (539 yards). Many of those yards no doubt came on scrambles, but plenty were while running read option as well.

No wonder Carroll is concerned.

“The tougher defenses in the NFL, they don’t let those guys off the hook when they run the read option,” Daniels said. “He hands the ball off and they still have somebody coming for him. That’s just how you have to play if you want to set the tone as a tougher defense.”

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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