Will the Buffalo Bills Use the Zone Read Option in 2013?

Updated: July 14, 2013
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The first round pick of the Buffalo Bills, Quarterback EJ Manuel, was incorrectly labelled as a zone read option quarterback at Florida State by some when he was initially drafted. While Manuel did scramble quite a bit, Florida State ran a traditional, pro style offense that eschewed zone read concepts.

The new for 2013 members of the Buffalo Bills that do have some zone read experience are coaches Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett. In 2012, the duo implemented some read option concepts at Syracuse with Ryan Nassib at quarterback, who wasn’t known for his ability to torch defenses on the ground.

Just because EJ Manuel doesn’t have college experience running the zone read doesn’t mean that the Buffalo Bills won’t use him in that capacity in 2013. If a NFL coach were to experiment with the concepts, few quarterbacks would present a better athletic template than Manuel.

What is the Zone Read?

To have an idea of how the Buffalo Bills might implement a zone read or read option attack, let’s first establish a basic understanding of what the play is. There are many different variations, so we’ll keep things relatively simple for the sake of clarity. Let’s break it down, piece by piece.

In the name itself, the first word is “zone”, which is appropriate considering the foundation of the play is a simple zone blocked run, which we outlined previously. An important distinction is the  possibility to use man blocking on read option plays, like San Francisco often did in 2012. However, zone blocking is more common and likely to be at the heart of the Buffalo Bills rushing attack.

We start with a fairly simple inside or outside zone running play. Below is a diagram of a common inside zone run play.


A zone read play takes this zone blocking and adds a few important changes. Whichever direction the run play is going, the backside end or linebacker is left completely unblocked. The quarterback than “reads” how the unblocked defender reacts, and chooses one of two “options” based on that read.

If the defender crashes down in the direction of the run play, the quarterback keeps the ball instead of handing it to the running back, and runs to the area vacated by the end.

If the defender gets wide to contain the quarterback, the quarterback gives the ball to the running back, who looks for a lane created by the offensive line. It’s the same thing as  an inside zone run play, with a major difference: there is one less defender for the offensive line to block, giving the offense a numbers advantage up front.

Here is a simple zone read play:


If the quarterback, represented by the black circle, makes a correct and well timed read on the circled defensive end, the offense will always have a numbers advantage.

First Hand Experience

An example of this being used in a NFL offense is last year’s Toronto Bills Seahawks game, where the Wannstedt’s 90′s defense was rudely made aware that NFL offenses have evolved, via Seattle’s Russel Wilson.

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Above, the Seahawks are in shotgun, and Mario Williams, #94 is the defender Russell Wilson will be “reading.”


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Williams reacts to the apparent handoff to Marshawn Lynch, and crashes down toward the Skittle fiend.

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Wilson keeps the ball, and sprints outside. Notice the terrible angle taken by George Wilson.

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Russell Wilson beats the Bills defense to the corner and scores an untouched touchdown.

The Seahawks quarterback was able to destroy a completely unprepared Bills defense all game, finishing with 92 yards rushing and three touchdowns on the ground. That would be Wilson’s best rushing performance of the year, but the threat was now it was on tape: Russell Wilson could beat a defense with his feet, which opened up the secondary for the rookie to be an extremely effective passer.

Manuel’s Opportunity

If EJ Manuel is able to make similar read option runs occasionally, it will completely change the looks of defenses thrown at the rookie. Coverages will be more sparse, which will make it much easier for the quarterback to gain the confidence needed to develop into an elite NFL passer.

Manuel doesn’t have the experience running option plays, and NFL defenses will likely be more prepared for zone read plays having had an entire offseason to scheme. Excessive rushing can also put a QB in harms way, as we saw with Griffin’s injury running a similar play last year. An offensive coordinator would need to be careful not to expose the quarterback too many hits by overusing the play.

If these challenges are overcome, EJ Manuel could join Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and Russell Wilson in solidifying the read option’s place in NFL offenses. More importantly, it would transform the Buffalo Bills offense into one of the most dangerous units in the league.

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