Analyzing Read Keys: Did Justin Herbert DEFY the Experts?

Charles Fischer Analysis 76 Comments

Oregon won the Pac-12 Championship game over Utah for a variety of reasons on both sides of the ball, but the most noted tactical change in this game was the running of Justin Herbert in the Outside Zone Read plays out of the Shotgun formation. Coach Ken Woody pointed it out in his analysis article, as did Eric Boles in his recent analysis, and he demonstrated the profound impact on the rest of the game. But the question to FishDuck is .. .Did Justin Herbert truly follow his “Read-Keys”? Let’s take a look …

The video above shows Oregon’s second play from scrimmage, where Herbert pulls the ball on the “read” due to what appears to be nobody in the outside lane either “sitting” in the gap or chasing the running back inside. Note how the five yard gain was easy … when nobody is there on defense to stop Herbert!

Screenshot from Video

Herbert WAS reading No. 20 as his key on the play …

Yet if we look closer and watch the video again (above the screenshot) — as we note in the screenshot directly above — it’s apparent that Herbert was watching the Ute inside linebacker, No. 20. At the snap of the ball the linebacker did a “run-blitz” into the gap (Red dotted line and arrow) to plug the run from the Ducks’ running back.

Herbert saw this inside move by the linebacker, which made the outside gap wide open and hence the easy yardage. Teams would not employ this defensive strategy if they respected the quarterback run. It is evident that Utah did not, and Oregon just messed them up — big time.

From Video

There is no doubt … the Ute defensive end is “sitting” and the read is to hand off.

The “read-key” is obvious to all; if the defender being “read” is chasing the running back inside, then the quarterback pulls the ball and runs through the lane vacated by the defender. But if the defender “sits” in the gap, then the correct decision is the hand the ball off to the running back every time. On the play above — the Utah defensive end/linebacker is clearly sitting in the lane, and the obvious decision by Herbert is to hand-off, right?

Herbert defied all the experts on this play, as he pulled the ball and ran for a first down. There is no doubt in looking at the replay from two angles; the defender “sat” and Herbert is supposed to hand-off, and he did not. Was this a mistake? Was Herbert so rusty with the “read” that he made a bad split-second decision?

I don’t believe so …

It is my contention that Offensive Coordinator Marcus Arroyo determined (after looking at extensive tape) that the defensive end would not taking the QB running threat seriously, and that even with the Ute “sitting,” Herbert could pull the ball and beat him to the outside, which is precisely what happened. What you watched rarely occurs, because although Herbert is athletic with decent speed … an alert defensive end could nail him immediately under normal circumstances when he is residing in the gap as you saw.

The two plays above had to be very disconcerting to the Utah defensive coaching staff, as it was clear that Herbert was reading the linebackers at times (first example above), and other times was willing to ignore the correct read and sprint to the perimeter. That effectively froze the defenders being read the rest of the game, whether in a Shotgun or Pistol formation, as Utah could not take the chance of having a quarterback running against them on the big plays.

Mid Line Read

From Video

Darron Thomas running a sophisticated Mid-Line Zone Read versus Wisconsin in the 2012 Rose Bowl. (How cool that FishDuck.com has existed long enough to have the archival video?)

Wisconsin coaches will no doubt take notice and thus must “sit” the defender, which Oregon will now not have to block, and thus it will have an extra offensive lineman on the playside. It is my belief that the one extra blocker also helped jump-start the Duck running game in the Pac-12 Championship, and can have the same impact in the Rose Bowl. The quarterback threat makes all the difference!

“Oh how we love to learn about our Beloved Ducks!”

Charles Fischer    (FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon                                                                                                                                            Top Photo From Video

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FishDuck….you are one WEIRD Dude.

I’ve heard that before. Often people do not like my contrarian view to some topics, but being a football critic is who I am.

I will call it as I see it whether positive or negative, and I will never create anything to simply generate a response; I believe in everything I write.

If we were all in agreement, then there are fewer opportunities to learn and I do love the debates we have in our protected environment.  More discussion creates more learning, which makes us all better fans.  Let’s make the most of it!