In the months after the read-option took the NFL by storm, defensive coaches around the league became hell-bent on eradicating it, hoping to make the read-option go the way of the Wildcat and other near-extinct schemes.
The Ravens weren't as open about their defensive priorities, but it was a problem they, too, set out to solve.
"The read-option was a major priority," coach John Harbaugh said. "It was something we just felt we had to get a handle on. Actually, we felt like we defended it well last year. I thought [Dean] Pees and the defensive coaches had a good handle on it. But we studied it in the offseason, we visited colleges, and we're looking forward to testing out some of our theories this Sunday."
The Ravens will get their first chance to show what they have learned Sunday, when they play the Buffalo Bills and mobile rookie quarterback EJ Manuel. They had mixed results against the league's latest craze last season, but on football's biggest stage, the Ravens slowed down San Francisco and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in a Super Bowl XLVII victory. Now that they have done their homework, they feel they are even more prepared this season.
After seeing the success San Francisco, Seattle and Washington — all playoff teams last season — had with the read-option, some teams, like Buffalo, adopted those schemes for their own offenses. More teams studied how to stop them.
The Ravens were among a number of teams that sent defensive coaches back to school to learn more about the schemes, which are more prevalent at the college level. At the head of the class was senior defensive assistant Steve Spagnuolo.
After the New Orleans Saints fired him as defensive coordinator in January, Spagnuolo spent time with Alabama head coach Nick Saban and Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer. He also visited programs such as Connecticut, Boston College and Texas A&M, whose read-option offense helped propel quarterback Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy. Spagnuolo chatted not only with defensive coaches who faced the read-option but also the offensive coaches who ran it.
The Ravens hired Spagnuolo, a longtime friend of Harbaugh's, in May and soon started quizzing him on what he had learned.
"The [college] game on Saturday is filtering into the game on Sunday right now," Spagnuolo said in June. "Those coaches at that level right now have a handle on some of this. … When they know you aren't playing against them, they tend to share some ideas."
The read-option didn't consume Ravens defensive coaches as they prepared for this season. After all, none of the teams on their schedule had run the scheme last season. But they figured they would see it at some point, so the coaching staff sometimes would queue up the film from the Ravens' games against the Redskins and 49ers in their meeting room.
And every three days during training camp, the Ravens devoted a practice period to working on read-option plays — not just to keep defensive players sharp, but also to benefit backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who could be called upon to run the read-option in a game.
This week, Taylor impersonated Manuel while running the scout team in practice.
"You definitely have to devote some time to it. You can't ignore it," Pees said.
The Ravens are confident their preparation will pay off Sunday in Buffalo.
The Bills have started to use the read-option to try to take advantage of Manuel's athleticism and the skills of running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Florida State dabbled in the read-option with Manuel, the 16th overall pick in April's draft, but new Bills head coach Doug Marrone said Manuel still is getting comfortable in their scheme.
The Bills presented read-option looks 16 times in a 27-20 loss to the New York Jets last week. Manuel had opportunities to run when an edge defender would crash down on his running back, but Manuel kept the ball just twice. After handoffs, his running backs usually had little running room against a Jets defense focused on stopping the backs.
The NFL is a copycat league, so the Ravens could follow suit Sunday. Or they could take an opposite approach. Against the Redskins last season and the 49ers in the Super Bowl, they attacked the opposing quarterback and landed legal hits whenever they got a chance.
The plan backfired against the Redskins and quarterback Robert Griffin III, but the Ravens corralled 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had just 3 yards on one read-option run in the Super Bowl. The strategy worked until defensive tackle Haloti Ngata left in the third quarter with a knee injury and the 49ers running backs started to hit big holes off tackle.
"They did a great job in the Super Bowl last year, so we kind of have a blueprint of what to do. I think it's just guys being smart, playing their position and being in the right spot," said defensive end Marcus Spears, who was with the Dallas Cowboys last season. "They affected the quarterback a lot. They didn't give him time at the mesh point."
The mesh point is where the deception happens in the read-option. The quarterback catches a shotgun snap and sticks the ball into the belly of his running back, who is crisscrossing with the quarterback in the backfield. At this point — the mesh point — the quarterback reads the defense and decides on a handoff or keeper.
The offense often chooses to not block one defender, using the extra blocker to outnumber the opposition elsewhere. If the unblocked edge defender, usually a defensive end or an outside linebacker, goes wide to contain the quarterback, the quarterback should hand the ball off. If the defender crashes inside toward the running back, an outside running lane could open up for the quarterback.
Pees tells his defenders to keep their eyes on their assigned man and focus on their individual responsibilities. Big plays can happen when one freelances and tries to do too much.
"Things are happening fast back there," Taylor said. "But for the most part, if he's coming toward me, then he has no chance of making the play on the running back. And that's what you want."
While he isn't sure whether NFL teams can run the scheme on every snap, Taylor believes the read-option has staying power. He points out that it is unlike the Wildcat offense the Miami Dolphins popularized in 2008 because the read-option presents a legitimate passing threat, unlike the Wildcat, which has a running back take the snap in the backfield.
But some of Taylor's defensive teammates aren't so sure. Rush linebacker Terrell Suggs concedes that it is "a tough scheme to defend," but he also noted that the Wildcat briefly gave defenses headaches, too, before they figured it out. Spears was more dismissive of the read-option, saying "it will fizzle away, and there will be something new that we have to defend against."
Whether it fizzles away after this season or it continues to thrive, the Ravens know they will see the read-option again this season — especially if they can't stop it Sunday.
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