Seahawks find value in read option

RENTON — The bye week and the extra time it affords an NFL coaching staff is a great time to make a few subtle changes, an opportunity to add a wrinkle to the playbook that can help a team down the stretch.

The Seahawks, however, started adding new elements to their offense a while back.

Early this season, Pete Carroll watched Washington and its rookie quarterback, Robert Griffin III, succeed by running plays that are common to the college game but rare in the NFL. Specifically, Griffin was torching defenses with the same zone-read option attack that made him a Heisman Trophy winner at Baylor.

So on the flight home from his team’s game in St. Louis earlier this season, Carroll studied what the Redskins were doing, and set in motion a plan to implement elements of the read option in his team’s offense.

“I was impressed with how much they got out it,” Carroll said. “… They’re way ahead of everybody else in terms of their commitment to a college style of offense, and it’s been very effective.”

The Seahawks began working option plays into their offense not long after Carroll studied Griffin and the Redskins, though they waited a few more weeks before calling those plays in games. And while Seattle is far less reliant on the read option than teams such as Washington and Carolina, Carroll is pleased with what he has seen so far.

“It’s helped us a little bit,” he said. “I was influenced a little bit more than I thought when I first looked at it. You’re seeing some of our stuff coming to life and it’s helping us some.”

In a zone-read system, the quarterback, who is in a shotgun formation next to a running back, shows a handoff, then reads the end or outside linebacker to see if the defender is going to stay home and protect against a quarterback run, or come crashing down the line to tackle the running back. The quarterback then makes a split-second decision to hand the ball off or keep it.

It’s a scheme that requires a mobile quarterback, which the Seahawks have in Russell Wilson, and one that, when properly used, is very hard to defend (just ask anybody who has played the Oregon Ducks in recent years). Take, for example, a few plays in the second half of last week’s win over the Jets. Late in the third quarter, Wilson handed off to Marshawn Lynch out of a shotgun for a modest 3-yard gain. Two plays later, from the same formation, Wilson recognized that the Jets were keying on Lynch and kept the ball for an 18-yard gain.

What the Seahawks are seeing is that, even in moderation, the zone-read option is a valuable tool to soften defenses. Carroll isn’t about to have Wilson run the option 30 plays a game, but just the threat of it makes opposing defense work that much harder when they prepare for the Seahawks.

“It really does call for very specific discipline for the defense,” Carroll said. “Whether they decide to have their ends or outside backers be responsible for the quarterback, or whether they’re asking them to stay down on the handoff, that takes coordination, because if they keep a guy down on Marshawn, then somebody else has to tackle the quarterback. And if they do it all one way, then it’s easy for us, so most teams have to do it more than one way. …

“We’ve made a lot of yards handing the ball off out of the gun this year, more so than in other years, and that’s because of the threat of the quarterback. It softens the defense some so that they can get their stuff right.”

What the Redskins, Panthers and to a lesser degree, the Seahawks, are doing is hardly revolutionary. It is seen all over the country every Saturday in college football.

It is, however, far from the norm in the pro game, where there is far less variety in offenses than there is in college. However, more and more often these days, pro teams are finding ways to take advantage of athletic quarterbacks, and over the past few weeks, the Seahawks have joined the club.

“There haven’t been too many other guys besides (Griffin and Cam Newton) recently, but there’s no question that there is room in the league for stuff if you have the right people,” Carroll said.

Wilson ran elements of the same offense while at N.C. State, so the adjustment hasn’t been too much to take on during his rookie season, and like everyone else, Wilson is all for change if it makes Seattle’s offense more dangerous.

“I think that just being versatile, and being able to do different things in terms of the running game and the passing game, it really puts pressure on the defense,” Wilson told reporters after last Sunday’s win.

While Wilson’s athleticism forces defenses to respect the threat of the run, Carroll points out that his willingness to slide or get out of bounds minimizes the injury risk to his quarterback.

“The issue has always been about … how many hits can (the quarterback) take?” Carroll said. “… We don’t ever want our guy to carry the ball a lot. We just want to take advantage of the opportunities. You see for the most part he can take the ball and slide, and that’s what we’re hoping for — get out of bounds or slide and don’t get hit at all.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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