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Friday Film Room: Why can't the Giants defend the read option?

This might surprise some members of the Giants' defense, but the quarterback is indeed allowed to run with the ball.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

One of the biggest problems with the New York Giants' defense this year has been their consistent inability to play with discipline.

From the very first game they were more likely to give up a conversion on third and forever than on a third-and-1. It shows up with blown coverages in the passing game and with missed assignments in run defense. Nowhere, though, is the lack of discipline on display more than when an offense uses the read-option against the Giants.

Before we get down to the dirty work of seeing what the Giants did do against the read-option, let's take a quick look at what the read-option is -- after all, with Eli Manning as their quarterback, Giants fans don't get exposed to it all that much.

What Is The Read-Option?

At its core, the read-option offense seeks to use deception and simple math to turn a quarterback from an orchestrator of the offense into an offensive weapon himself.

The basic read-option play is a running play. At the snap, the quarterback moves to hand the ball off to his running back. However, before completing the hand-off, he reads his key. In the illustration above, it is the right defensive end. Every other defender -- apart from the free safety -- is accounted for by blockers.

The design of the offense lets the defensive end run free and forces him to commit to tackling either the running back, or the quarterback. If the edge rusher commits to the outside, the quarterback finishes the hand-off and lets the running back run inside. If the rusher commits to stopping the inside run, the quarterback keeps the ball and scampers to the outside.

By making what is normally the back-side defender accountable for two players, the offense is able to flip the normal numerical advantage enjoyed by defenses. Against a prototypical pocket passer (like, say, Eli Manning), defenses have to worry about his mind and arm, but rarely -- if ever -- his legs. Those quarterbacks are a threat with what they can do to throwing the ball, not running with it by design. That means that defenses traditionally have an 11-on-10 advantage over offenses.

By using the quarterback as a weapon and forcing the backside defender to account for two players, the read-option essentially gives the offense the 11-on-10 advantage.

Defending The Read Option

Defending the read option is all about discipline and taking back the numbers advantage.

First, the "read" defender needs to keep the ball in front of him and prolong the mesh point for as long as possible. If both the quarterback and running back have the football, then neither can do anything with it. That also gives additional help -- usually either a linebacker or safety -- time to rally to the ball and let the defense account for both potential runners.

Next, the defenders need to know, absolutely know, their assignments, and remain faithful to them. If the backside defensive end is responsible for the running back, he can't go after the quarterback. That opens a massive cut-back lane for the running back.

Finally, the object of any and every NFL defense is to hit the quarterback, as often and as hard as possible. The major downfall of the read-option is that it makes the quarterback another runner, and therefore fair game to be hit. The quickest way to stop the read option is to hit the quarterback on every single play. However, with the rules and officiating in the NFL being what they are, teams can seldom get away with teeing off on quarterbacks regardless of whether or not they have the ball.

With that in mind, one of the more popular ways to stop the read-option is to "Gap Exchange". In a gap exchange, the backside defensive end (or linebacker), commits to crashing inside to stop account for the running back. Meanwhile, a linebacker -- or safety -- has scraped outside to account for the quarterback. If all goes well, the quarterback will be baited into keeping the ball, and then running directly into a hit from the scraping defender.

That, of course, relies on three things:

  1. Everybody knowing and executing their assignments correctly.
  2. Defensive tackles who can win against offensive linemen and keep the linebacker clean to fill the vacated outside gap.
  3. A linebacker who can cover the ground quickly enough to make the play.
So, with all that in mind, let's get on with looking at how the Giants defended the read-option. We'll start with Russell Wilson and Seattle.

Play 1

This play was actually a designed quarterback run. You see Wilson with his back to the line of scrimmage, selling the inside run, so there's no way for him to read Mathias Kiwanuka. On this play all three of Kiwanuka, Jacquian Williams, and Marcus Kuhn crash down on the inside run like a bunch of perturbed rhinoceros's

-- fun fact: the proper name for a group of rhinoceros's is "A Crash" --

All three of the defenders taking their eyes off Wilson makes it almost laughably easy for him to break an outside run for a big gain.

The way the defenders played this would have been okay if they were facing Tom Brady. However, the Giants simply had to know that Wilson is an athletic quarterback who routinely uses his legs to burn defenses, and they have to keep an eye on him. Had Kiwanuka or Williams payed attention to what Wilson was doing, this might have been limited to a short gain or even a throwaway.

Play 2

Unlike "Play 1" this play is a classic read-option run.

Robert Ayers is the left defensive end on this play, and is Russell Wilson's read. You can see him immediately go to backside pursuit of Marshawn Lynch. Wilson easily reads this, pulls the ball out of Lynch's hands and picks up 8 yards before sliding.

Here Ayers immediately commits to playing the running back, which against a back like Lynch is not a bad decision. The problem is that the Giants are playing with a light -- only six-man -- box. That gives the Seahawks an automatic 7 on 6 personnel advantage.

The Giants have to defend the receivers at the top and bottom of the formation, however their single-high safety is playing 20 yards off the line of scrimmage. He either doesn't see that Wilson kept the ball until he picks up 4 yards, or is slow to react. By the time he makes it to the play, it's just enough to prevent a bigger gain.

Play 3

Now we spin forward a few weeks to the Jaguars game, and while some things have changed, the effect is the same.

On this play the Giants line up showing heavy pressure. They have six players up on the line of scrimmage and Stevie Brown threatening to rush from a linebacker position. Jason Pierre-Paul comes off the edge unblocked, and he is Blake Bortles' read. Pierre-Paul sees Bortles put the ball in the running back's hands and immediately goes to backside pursuit. However, Bortlels pulls the ball out, and while JPP recognizes it quickly, he is beaten to the outside.

In this case, the Giants had no other help coming to the outside, and JPP had to force the play inside. Instead, he bites on the inside run, letting Bortles escape.

Once again, the Giants are playing a single-high safety, and Antrel Rolle can only get there in time to escort Bortles out of bounds.

Play 4

This is almost the same as "Play 3" by the Jaguars, and JPP reacts almost the same way. This time the Giants are in a standard 4-3 front. Pierre-Paul is at his accustomed position at right defensive end, with Spencer Paysinger lined up behind him at weakside linebacker.

On this play JPP crashes down on the running back immediately, barely looking at Bortles. Meanwhile Paysinger engages the left tackle and is never able to really disengage.

Without knowing the defensive call, it's impossible to know which Giant was responsible for which Jaguar. It's possible -- perhaps even likely, considering how good of a run defender JPP is -- that Pierre-Paul did what he was supposed to by pursuing the running back, and Paysinger either didn't get outside to account for the quarterback, or was never able to get off the block.

That said, JPP does need to delay that mesh point longer and prolong the quarterback's indecision.

However it was supposed to go, that wasn't it and it just wound up looking ugly.

Final Thoughts

One of the hallmarks of the Giants' defense this season has been an inability to consistently play with discipline. Unfortunately, discipline is precisely what a defense needs to defend a read-option run.

Even when the quarterback isn't a threat to run, the Giants defense has been largely unable to maintain outside contain to close cutback lanes, or win their battles along the line of scrimmage to allow linebackers to play freely. The way in which the read-option attacks a defense only exacerbates those shortcomings. By taking away the defenses numbers advantage, the offense forces the defense to play that much more efficiently. And if the edge defenders can't stay disciplined, then quarterbacks can pick up embarrassing amounts of yardage.

While the read-option will likely never be a staple offense like it is in college -- NFL quarterbacks are simply too valuable to take those kinds of hits routinely -- the increasing athleticism of quarterbacks means that it will be a weapon in offenses' arsenals. That means the Giants will have to re-discover how to defend the read option, and quickly.