The Green Bay Packers found themselves in a new world last weekend, when Christian Ponder's injury forced the Minnesota QB to the sideline. In Ponder's stead, Joe Webb took the snaps for the Vikings in their wild-card round game against Green Bay.
And along with Webb came the zone-read option. It was, for all intents and purposes, the first time that the Packers had seen that particularly offensive attack this season.
Green Bay played at San Francisco in Week 1, before Colin Kaepernick took the reins as QB; then met Seattle in Week 3, when the Seahawks were still feeling out their offense with Russell Wilson at the helm. No one else on the Packers' 2012 schedule really incorporated any QB-run packages -- according to ESPN.com's Mike Sando, the Packers' defense faced just two option plays during the regular season.
The "zone-read" phrase has been used a bit as an umbrella term to describe the ongoing offensive revolution in the NFL, one that utilizes the pistol formation and takes advantage of athletic quarterbacks.
However, each offense still maintains its own unique characteristics and, certainly, what the Packers saw from Webb only scratches the surface of what they might see from Kaepernick and the 49ers this weekend.
Our final "Break It Down" of this week looks back at what Minnesota did on the ground (and how Green Bay defended it), then glances at how the 49ers might mix it up for the divisional round ...
Quite frankly, it is baffling that Minnesota did not call more zone-read or straight run plays last week. The Vikings ran for 167 yards against the Packers (68 from Webb) and averaged more than 10 yards on six zone-read attempts. Most of those came early in the game -- the Vikings ran the ball on their first eight plays and 10 of their first 11.
All of their zone-read runs came out of the exact same formation: Webb in the shotgun with Adrian Peterson next to him, one wide receiver wide on one side, and a trips formation (three players) on the opposite side of the line.
The Vikings flipped this formation a couple of times (trips right and one-wide left, as opposed to the photo below), but this is how they started. And on every zone-read play, the most inside player from that trips formation shot across the backfield at the snap.
On plays when Webb kept the ball, it was that moving blocker that he followed out wide. Webb's responsibility on the play was to read the defensive end -- if he crashed, Webb's No. 1 option was to keep the ball and run outside. The blocker, tight end Kyle Rudolph in this case, then had the job of sealing off Green Bay's outside linebacker.
Webb even kept the ball once when the defensive end stayed home, knowing that he had an extra protector flying across the line.
The two players X'd in that picture above are Packers safety Charles Woodson (far left) and linebacker Brad Jones. The reason is that those two were the keys on zone-read handoffs to Peterson.
Jones' responsibility was to stay home and plug the middle of the field; Woodson had to make the decision to either crash on inside runs or hang wide in case Peterson bounced outside the line. If and when San Francisco employs these looks Saturday, Frank Gore will be the primary target of Woodson and any Packers' inside linebacker.
If those players both get blocked off on inside runs, this happens:
Minnesota fired an offensive lineman to the second level to block Jones, while one of the receivers out of that trips formation took care of Woodson. As a result, Peterson had ample space up the middle to pick up a big gain.
The zone-read is such a difficult offense to defend because it relies so heavily on misdirection. When run correctly it can keep a defense totally on its heels, even unsure of where the ball is.
And on most plays, there are four options available for an offense:
A run either inside (3) -- which Peterson took on the play pictured above -- or bounced wide (4), a QB keeper (1) or a play-action pass (2).
The play-action passes can be the most deadly of all, if the defense overcommits to a run. Here's a look at one such play-action pass -- and you can see Webb realistically had all four of those aforementioned options available.
Peterson had a gap up the gut, plus room off right tackle. Webb, meanwhile, had Jairus Wright flying parallel to the line as a ready blocker, plus several receivers were running patterns.
When that extra Green Bay defender (red arrow) charged the line in anticipation of a run, Webb waited an extra beat, then dumped one off in the flat to Wright, who continued out as a receiver after Webb opted to hang in the pocket.
Just to give you a little better idea where that play started, here is the pre-snap alignment:
There are both good and bad elements for the Packers to take away from all this. At the very least, they have some game tape to look at and analyze.
However, the 49ers probably enjoyed watching Minnesota pick up big chunks out of those looks. Because of Kaepernick's ability to throw the football (something Webb did not bring to the table), the San Francisco attack is even more dangerous.
For one, expect to see San Francisco use this formation:
That's Kaepernick in the "diamond" pistol -- Frank Gore behind him, with Bruce Miller (49) and Delanie Walker (46) flanked alongside him. This look opens up just about everything, in terms of where Gore or Kaepernick can run, plus leaves extra blockers back on passing plays.
Usually, this takes the zone-read off the table, since Kaepernick has to turn away from the defense to hand the ball to Gore.
However, the 49ers will throw frequently out of that formation -- giving Green Bay more to worry about than Minnesota. And a lot of those passing plays, the 49ers will utilize a three-tiered look, like this one:
What I mean by "three-tiered" is that they like to attack different levels of the field -- on that play, one of the blockers releases into the flat, a wide receiver curls in about 15 yards downfield, and a third option runs a deep post.
Kaepernick opted for the third choice there and delivered a big play.
When the 49ers do run the zone-read, expect to see less of the bunched formations Minnesota used and more of a spread field. For example, in the shot below, only Gore and Kaepernick are in the backfield -- San Francisco then used four wide receivers to extend the defense horizontally and limit the number of defenders between the tackles.
So, what can Green Bay carry over from one playoff week to the next here?
Well, the Packers' defenders ought to have a better feel for the misdirection that San Francisco will utilize, be it out of the diamond look or the normal pistol. In some ways, the 49ers' use of that diamond and the Vikings' "trips" formation are similar -- both shift blockers to the backside for extra protection, and both rely on releasing wide receivers to either get open or provide key blocks.
The 49ers, though, bring a more complex, more diverse system to the table than what the Vikings implemented last minute for Webb. The Packers did not exactly excel against the zone-read option last week. They'll have to be much better, and much more disciplined, against San Francisco.