They took the league by storm this past season. The running quarterbacks that executed the option and zone read to perfection. Carolina’s Cam Newton, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Washington Robert Griffin were all very productive executing their versions of the scheme. Buffalo experienced a great deal of problems trying to defend it in Week 15 last year when Wilson ran wild on them for 92 yards and three touchdowns averaging 10.2 per carry. Bills new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is convinced the scheme is only going to increase in popularity in the NFL.
“One team made it to the Super Bowl doing it,” said Pettine. “You look at the success of R.G. III and the success of the Seahawks. It’s a copycat league so it’s coming and defenses are going to need to have an answer and get caught up.”
Pettine is right. According to ESPN2’s 'The Numbers Never Lie', in 2010 there were a total of 49 option plays run in the NFL. In 2011 there were 277. This past season that number ballooned to 515. Expecting that trend to continue Pettine made sure he had assistants who could help offer solutions when it came time to game plan for such opponents.
Those assistants are linebackers coach Chuck Dreisbach and secondary coach Donnie Henderson.
“The fact that they’ve been coaching at the college level when you see the transition of offenses towards college style offenses, that’s where to me it was a tremendous thing to be able to add Chuck and Donnie,” Pettine said. “They’ve been coaching at the college level and their expertise on defending the spread offenses is extensive. Given that that trend is well on its way, and the fact that I have two guys that have coached and defended that style of offense is a tremendous thing.”
Dreisbach (pronounced Driz-bock) spent the better part of the last 20 years as a defensive coordinator in the college ranks. He’s been exposed to the spread attacks and read option for far longer than Pettine and the other coaches on Buffalo’s defensive staff that have been working in the NFL.
“For the last six or seven years we’ve been dealing with this spread offense,” said Dreisbach. “It is creeping into the NFL. The athletic quarterback, the zone read, the no huddle spread offense. Instead of an offense getting 60 or 65 plays a game, they’re getting 75 to 80 plays a game. The more opportunities they have the more points and more yardage they can roll up so it’s tough.”
The former defensive coordinator at Rice didn’t exactly have the athletes to defend that scheme when facing the likes of Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Fortunately for Dreisbach and Pettine, the caliber of athlete across the NFL has far less of a discrepancy.
Much like Dreisbach, Henderson has spent two of his last three years in coaching in the college ranks at Syracuse under Bills head coach Doug Marrone. The work they’ve put in over the years to stop the spread attacks and option quarterbacks may not have always been perfect, but even that can positively serve the Bills now.
“In football you learn by your mistakes,” said Dreisbach. “Something that maybe we learned five years ago having to go against these offenses like Texas Tech, we can avoid making those mistakes facing those kinds of teams in the NFL.”
Pettine has his own ideas for thwarting the latest successful NFL attack, but he is eager to begin the dialogue with his assistants knowing their depth of knowledge probably goes a bit deeper in defending this particular scheme.
“There’s no substitute for that experience, for actually having defended it,” said Pettine. “I can look at all the tape of it, and study college tape and having guys that have gone through it that have schemed against it, taught it, it was a tremendous get for us to be able to add not just that coaching experience overall, but defending that style of offense.”
Even though the naysayers maintain that the popularity of the zone read attacks will come and go, Pettine believes it will have a longer shelf life than most believe.
“I still think the concept of the quarterback as a running threat and the interior runs and the reads of the ends and the option style that that style of offense brings is growing,” Pettine said. “People have always said that these quarterbacks aren’t going to be able to handle it from a physical standpoint and I think this year those guys out there proved it wrong.”
Again citing ESPN2’s 'The Numbers Never Lie', they examined how often 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick was hit on San Francisco’s option plays since becoming the starting quarterback. According to their figures on 55 option plays Kaepernick was hit a total of six times, or about once per game. On the 41 handoffs within those 55 option plays Kaepernick was not hit once. The Niners averaged 5.8 yards per carry on handoffs on those plays and 11.8 yards per carry on Kaepernick keepers.
Dreisbach agrees with Pettine that quarterbacks with great mobility will continue to be coveted by NFL clubs, especially in the wake of success the handful of signal callers had in 2012. Buffalo’s linebackers coach is just glad he’s one of Pettine’s assistants entrusted with finding defensive solutions for it.
“The athletic quarterback I think is going to be a thing that stays in the NFL,” he said. “Every team might not run it, but they’ll have some form of Wildcat with an athletic quarterback or running back with the skills to do that. Hopefully my experience can help us defend some of those sets.”