Reading between the lines of the zone-read

Posted Nov 20, 2012

The running and decision-making ability of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson is allowing the Seahawks to dabble productively with the zone-read option as they prepare for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins.

Why have the Seahawks been able to produce positive plays by using the zone-read option, a ploy that is begrudgingly finding its way from the college game to the NFL?

Leave it to Max Unger to iron out the latest wrinkle in the team’s still-expanding offense.

“Because we can,” the Seahawks’ center and offensive captain said through a smile in the locker room at Virginia Mason Athletic Center after the team’s “Bonus Monday” practice.

It starts with the player making the read – rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who has 189 rushing yards in 10 games as the Seahawks prepare this week for Sunday’s game against the Dolphins in Miami. Wilson has 61 of those yards in the past two games, as the Seahawks used the zone-read more in their back-to-back wins over the Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets.

“Russell has run that play, I’m sure, a number of times before this,” Unger said of Wilson doing just that during his stints as the starter at the University of Wisconsin and North Carolina State. “It’s just a play that we’ve worked on and kind of expanded on.”

But the most important ingredient is the player who’s there to take the pitch or handoff from Wilson if he deems that is the better option – running back Marshawn Lynch, who is second in the NFL with 1,005 rushing yards and is riding a streak of four consecutive 100-yard performances.

“We don’t like to run it too much, because it kind of gets away from kind of what our focus is,” Unger said. “But it’s typically a play that has gotten us a lot of yards.”

And what does the this-one-or-that-one option mean for Unger and his mates on the line – left tackle Russell Okung, left guard John Moffitt, right guard Paul McQuistan and right tackle Breno Giacomnin?

“It’s the same stuff,” Unger said. “We’ve had that play; it’s just a little wrinkle basically.”

As successful as Wilson the runner has been, Wilson the quarterback understands what the preferred option is.

“Obviously the goal is to hand the ball off to the running back and not for me to run,” he said. “So that’s always my mindset, and our offense’s mindset.”

But when that option isn’t as inviting as Wilson darting through a gap, he has shown that he can pick up the needed yardage.

“I think you see it’s one of his strengths. I mean he has the ability to run,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “I wouldn’t call him a running quarterback, but he has the ability to run. It just gives you another dimension – the ability that he has to get first downs with his feet, I think that helps.”

Wilson is all about doing whatever he can to help the offense, and he also appreciates the help he gets while trying to do it.

“The biggest thing is the offensive line is doing a great job of moving their feet and blocking the guy that’s upright,” Wilson said when asked about the merits of the zone-read and the priorities that go with it. “Then, Marshawn Lynch, Robert Turbin and Leon Washington are tremendous running backs, so it’s great to give them some space and let them run and see the holes that they want to run into. And if nothing else is there just try to get a positive play out of it with me possibly running it.”

But that’s why more teams don’t utilize the zone-read. When the passer becomes the runner, it can put him directly in harm’s way.

“I always try to protect myself,” Wilson said. “I think the biggest thing is you have to slide and protect our football team, protect myself and be smart with the decision. Obviously I can run the ball well and make plays and first downs. I think the biggest thing is just get positive plays and keep the ball moving.”

As Wilson has done in the past two games. Against the Jets, he ran for 9 yards on third-and-2 to sustain one touchdown drive. He then ran for 18 yards to spark another touchdown drive. He added an 8-yard run to a third TD drive. The week before, against the Vikings, Wilson ran for the needed yard on fourth-and-1 on one TD drive, then added an 8-yard run to another TD drive. As the Seahawks were burning the final 6½ off the clock to seal the deal, Wilson had a 13-yard run and another 1-yarder on fourth-and-1.

That leads to the more hidden element of having your quarterback more visible as a runner: The opposition has to spend time during the week preparing for the wrinkle, even if the Seahawks don’t use it that much on any given Sunday.

“I’ve always liked this quarterback,” Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle told reporters in Miami on Monday. “He is a football player. You use that term, but his guy he just has a strong arm. He can make the throws, but he has a knack for making the big play. He’s poised and he’s elusive.

“When there’s no option to throw, he’s a good runner with the ball in his hands. So he has some unique elements about him and I think he’s just going to keep getting better.”

Throwing the ball, as well as running with it.