When discussing the zone read and how you defend it, it comes down to how are you playing your front.
The first thing I will mention involves a four-down front.
With the four-down front you have a “50” side and an “Eagle” side.
The 50 side is the side with the shade/2i and the 5-technique.
The Eagle side is the side the 3-technique and 5-technique.
The quarterback player differs based on which side of the front is to the running back.
If the 50 side is to the running back, you are gap exchanging with the defensive end and the backside linebacker. The defensive end will take the dive of the running back and the backside linebacker will play the quarterback.
If the Eagle side is to the running back, the defensive end is the quarterback player.
First, I’ll go through the 50 side and how you fit the zone read.
If the 50 side is to the running back, you are going to get an “Eat” call from the backside linebacker. This tells the defensive end that there will be a gap exchange.
Here are the rules for the 50 side for zone read:
The defensive end will step down the midline of the tackle and will punch his thigh board with his near hand.
Do not put both hands on the tackle because it will cause you to turn your shoulders, and you won’t be able to play the inside half of the quarterback if he keeps it. You want to punch the thigh board with the near hand and get your body down into the tackle.
With the gap exchange, the defensive end is going to squeeze the tackle all the way down. He has to keep his linebacker clean on the scrape. You want to put your body on the tackle to keep him from climbing.
As the defensive end squeezes down, he is reading the hands of the quarterback. Once the quarterback pulls, you’ll see if he has the ball or not. If he has the ball, play the inside half of the quarterback. If he doesn’t have the ball, tackle the dive.
It’s important that the defensive end keeps his shoulders square and squeezes the tackle down. He is not going to avoid the tackle, turn his shoulders and go tackle the dive. If he does this, the quarterback has an easy read and will pull the ball allowing the tackle to climb up on the scraping linebacker, which creates a crease in the defense.
The backside linebacker in the gap exchange is going to give the defensive end an “Eat” call pre-snap to alert him for the gap exchange if the tackle is down.
The backside linebacker will execute a rocker step to assist the defensive end in keeping the tackle down. The backside linebacker will take two steps frontside before replacing the defensive end’s initial feet. If you were to scrape immediately, the tackle could either wheel back into the defensive end and you’d have no B-gap player, or the tackle will climb onto the scraping linebacker and create a crease in between the dive player and quarterback player.
The backside linebacker is the quarterback player in the “Eat” call.
Defensive Tackle (Shade/2i);
The defensive tackle to the running back in this scheme will execute a power step to the running back, so he will step to the guard.
He is doing this so he won’t get washed down and create a bigger B-gap.
This helps the defensive end as he is squeezing down the tackle trying to make the B-gap smaller as well.
How you fit the zone read to the Eagle side is dependent on how your 3-technique plays the double team.
The technique we will first discuss has the defensive tackle to the Eagle side gap charging.
This is the fill and fold run fit technique.
Technique for the Eagle side with the defensive tackle gap charging:
Defensive Tackle to Running Back
The defensive tackle will be aligned in a 3-technique. He is going to power step to the tackle.
We are doing this so we don’t get washed down. We are going to power step to the tackle and play the block like a 4i. This makes the B-gap smaller as we are not getting washed down.
The backside linebacker is going to read the triangle: guard-center-running back.
If the backside linebacker gets zone to him, he is going to attack the blocker. You are a run-through player (i.e., the “fill” player). The defensive tackle to your side is playing into the tackle so that A-gap window is going to be wide open.
The technique we want to use with the run through is a cuff and choke technique. We want the inside hand down the middle of the upper chest with the outside hand on the outside arm of the guard.
A run through will force the guard to come off his double team on the 3-technique.
Defensive End to the Running Back
The defensive end will punch the thigh board of the tackle when he is down on the double team.
You are the quarterback player to the Eagle side of the defense.
The defensive end will have his eyes on the hands of the quarterback. He will not look at the running back. He is the quarterback player first.
When the quarterback pulls out from the mesh, you will read his hands. If he has the ball, you got him. If he doesn’t have the ball, fall inside and play the dive.
Defensive Tackle away from the Running Back
The defensive tackle away from the running back is also aligned in a 3-technique, and he is going to power step and play the base block from the guard with the cuff and choke technique. He is going to strike the guard down the middle of the upper chest with his inside hand and put his outside hand on the outside arm of the guard.
He is the B-gap player.
The play-side linebacker is going to be the “fold” player in this fit.
The play-side linebacker is going to take what is called a rocker step, which is two steps frontside, to pull the guard or center off the double team.
While doing this he is going to read the running back’s shoulders. If the running back’s shoulders are flat to the sideline, the offense is running stretch and the play-side linebacker can’t “fold” anymore and must stay frontside.
If the running back’s shoulders are downhill, the play-side linebacker is going to take his rocker steps and fold back to play the cutback of the running back.
To properly fit the zone run scheme, you have to know how the offense is going to read it.
Often, the running back’s first read is going to be the first down lineman past the center. This would be the defensive tackle playing a 3-technique frontside. When the 3-technque is in the B-gap and the running back feels the backside linebacker on the A-gap run through, he is going to wind the ball back.
If you are playing a shade/2i frontside and the play-side linebacker is using a rocker step, this still give the running back a bend read do to the shade/2i expanding when the guard comes off to block the linebacker with the rocker step.
That is where the “fold” player comes into play.
With athletic quarterbacks, it is too hard to ask your defensive end to defend the quarterback while playing the cutback of the running back. You need a quarterback player and a cutback player.
That is what the fill and fold fit gives you.
As you see in the video, fill and fold cuts the ball off forcing the player to cutback into an unblocked player.
Another method for playing the Eagle side of the defense involves the defensive tackle to the running back squeezing the down block of the guard on the double team.
When the defensive tackle squeezes down on the guard, the backside linebacker will no longer have an open A-gap window. The backside linebacker will now use the rocker step method.
He will take two steps frontside while reading the shoulders of the running back.
If the running back is on the stretch course, he will fit in the A-gap. If the running back’s shoulders are downhill on the inside zone course, the linebacker will fall back into the cutback lane of the running back.
With the shade/2i nose tackle using the power step footwork still, the frontside linebacker uses his rocker step footwork. He will take two steps frontside while reading the running back’s shoulders.
If the running back’s shoulders are flat on a stretch course, the frontside linebacker will fit in the frontside B-gap.
If the running back’s shoulders are downhill on an inside zone course, the frontside linebacker will fall back into the backside A-gap.
The next thing I will discuss involves coverage.
The main coverage played behind this technique is man coverage. The “fill” player will take the running back man-to-man while the “fold” player becomes the hole player.
The clip below is from New England in Super Bowl 49 against the Seattle Seahawks.
This clip is a phenomenal illustration of the fill and fold technique by the linebackers.
The backside linebacker (#54) fills the backside A-gap, which forces the cutback.
The frontside linebacker (#91) takes two steps frontside while reading the running back’s shoulders. Once he diagnoses the running back is downhill, he is folding backside to play the cutback of the running back.
Check the center in this clip. He takes his zone steps frontside and begins his climb to the frontside linebacker.
When the frontside linebacker (#91) folds backside, watch the center. He ends up blocking no one. You are stealing gaps here. You’re essentially running a run stunt but with the linebackers. You don’t need the frontside linebacker to play that frontside A-gap with the backside linebacker on the run through. The ball is going to get cut off.
The clip below is another great illustration of the fill and fold technique by the linebackers.
What I really like about this clip is the footwork and technique of the 3-technique to the running back. Watch the power step to the tackle.
This keeps the 3-technique from getting washed, which results in that cutback lane being smaller.
The center once again ends up chasing the frontside linebacker and blocks no one.
Patricia is a Belichick disciple, and you can see the Lions using the fill and fold fit last year against Miami.
The backside linebacker runs through the backside A-gap and cuts the ball off.
The frontside linebacker folds back, right into the cutback of the running back while the center blocks no one again.
I first learned of this fill and fold technique from Dave Aranda.
I went back and studied some of his film from 2014 and came away with some nice clips of him utilizing fill and fold against Minnesota.
One thing I liked was how Aranda used both defensive tackles in 2-techniques.
You get a good look at the power step that I was talking about. The defensive tackle to the running back power steps into the tackle’s block while the defensive tackle away from the running back power steps into the center, turning into a shade.
While staying in double 2-techniques, Aranda changed up how they were playing the zone read throughout the game.
Below is a great clip of Wisconsin utilizing the “Eat” call. This is the gap exchange on the backside of the zone read. The defensive end will play the dive while the backside linebacker will rocker step before scraping to play the quarterback.
In this clip you get a good look at the backside linebacker utilizing his rocker step footwork before scraping to play the quarterback. He is replacing the defensive end’s initial feet.
The reason for showing this clip is to showcase the technique of the defensive end. He does a great job of squeezing down the tackle, staying square and reading the quarterback’s hands.
Because he reads the quarterback’s hands, he sees the quarterback pull the ball and is able to play the inside half of the quarterback on the keep and make the tackle.
If the defensive end would have turned his shoulders and tackled the running back on the dive, the defense would have been in trouble with the crease it would have created. The tackle would have pinned the scraping linebacker outside, and the quarterback would have had a lane.
The reason I am putting this clip on here is to show the crease I previously discussed. The defensive end turns his shoulders and takes the running back on the dive. The tackle is able to climb up and pin the scraping linebacker outside and now the quarterback has a lane on the keep.
This is what you want to avoid.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZachSDunn
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