It turns out Seattle’s zone-read offense doesn’t involve much reading at all.
In a copycat league, the Seahawks borrowed concepts from other NFL and college teams, but have put their own stamp on the misdirection, timing-based offense.
Boasting the NFL’s leading rusher over the past four seasons in Marshawn Lynch and a 5-foot-11 quarterback in Russell Wilson, the Seahawks’ zone-read attack at times looks more like a power running game.
“We run the zone read, but the read is really to hand the ball off to Marshawn,” Wilson said Thursday. “We try to hand the ball off to him. They have to give so much attention to him because he’s the best. He’s the Beast. They call him the Beast (Mode) for a reason.”
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Seattle’s zone read is different than the Carolina Panthers’, as are the teams’ quarterbacks. While the 6-5, 245-pound Newton is often said to be built like a tight end, Wilson draws comparisons to a point guard.
“We’re not trying to run the quarterback. We’re not trying to get the quarterback hit. With Cam, they run him up inside a lot. That’s not something we’re trying to do,” Bevell said.
“Totally different players – not the same size, not the same structure,” he added. “So our goal is to hand it to Marshawn every time they’re going to let us. We have a smart enough quarterback that understands reads and is able to pull it when we’ve got the free yards.”
Carroll ran a pro-style offense when he was at Southern Cal, where quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart each won the Heisman Trophy during Carroll’s tenure.
But Carroll’s team’s had to defend the zone option every year when they faced Oregon, which helped popularize the offense under Chip Kelly, now the Eagles coach.
“Chip Kelly really had the big factor in bringing that to prominence, but he wasn’t the only one. ... But that’s when we really started to pay attention to it and when we really had to mess with it,” Carroll said. “Having to stop it and having to deal with it is also having to respect it and regard it in a manner that if we could incorporate it into our football, we knew we would be creating more problems for our opponents.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the quarterback that doesn’t have the dynamics to make something of it. We fortunately do.”
Carroll arrived in Seattle in 2010, two years before the Seahawks drafted Wilson in the third round. After Wilson beat out Matt Flynn for the starting job, Bevell and Carroll realized they needed a wrinkle to take advantage of Wilson’s dual-threat abilities.
No one on Seattle’s staff had much experience in the zone read, so Bevell began studying tape of Oregon and Auburn, where Newton won the Heisman and a national championship in 2010 running the zone read.
Bevell said the process also involved a lot of trial and error.
“It’s evolved. It’s become a little bit more a part of us,” Bevell said. “At the beginning we were just barely dabbling in it. I don’t think we had a full understanding of it. Now we definitely do.”
Former coordinator Rob Chudzinski brought the zone read to the NFL after the Panthers took Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. Carolina’s version features Newton “riding” the handoff to the running back – mainly Jonathan Stewart last season – while surveying the defender at the end of the line to decide whether to pull the ball and keep it or leave it with the back.
Mike Shula, who succeeded Chudzinski, has added to the package by motioning receivers into the backfield to give Newton a third option.
Seattle’s zone-read plays often end up with the ball in Lynch’s hands, but Wilson runs it enough to keep defensive coordinators honest.
“I just hand the ball off to (Lynch). Then if nobody’s over there, then I’ll run over there and get down. I slide,” Wilson said.
After Seattle recovered an onside kick late in its comeback win against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, Wilson started the go-ahead drive by keeping the ball on a zone read for a 15-yard run and getting out of bounds before the 2-minute warning to preserve a timeout.
“It puts pressure on the defense. They have to make decisions,” Bevell said. “It’s something they don’t see every single week, so they’ve got to learn it. Do they have the players that can give them the right look in practice? All those things come into play.”
Carroll called Wilson a “master” at reading the zone option and recognizing times when he can keep the ball without taking a big hit.
“If he was getting hit all the time we wouldn’t do it. We’ve just incorporated it in hopes, in complement to the rest of the things we do,” Carroll said. “(Former 49ers coach) Bill Walsh said a long time ago, ‘If you can do a lot of things really well, then you’re really hard to defend.’ ”