You know how you wake up on Sunday morning and enjoy the challenge of trying to complete the crossword puzzle or the Sudoku in the newspaper? That’s how NFL defensive coordinators and coaches when they wake up in the morning feel about the read-option offense, which puzzled many teams during the 2012 season.
Three NFC playoff teams from a season ago -- Washington, Seattle and San Francisco -- made the read-option running game a staple of their offenses, using their poised, mobile young quarterbacks to terrorize defenses.
Since the season has ended, though, we keep hearing that coaches are champing at the bit to figure it out.
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"I think it's the flavor of the day," Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. "We will see if it's the flavor of the year. We'll see if guys are committed to getting their [quarterbacks] hit."
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III led all quarterbacks and finished 20th in the league overall with 815 rushing yards. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson ranked third among quarterbacks in that category, running for 489 yards, which were nearly as many yards as Ravens rookie running back Bernard Pierce recorded during the regular season. 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made just seven starts but ran for 415 yards.
For each of those quarterbacks, a big chunk of those yards came after escaping the pocket on passing plays, like the Week 14 scramble against the Ravens when Griffin first tweaked his knee.
But as I wrote before the Super Bowl, the designed read-option plays teams like the 49ers used caught defenses off guard because defenders hesitated while trying to figure out if the quarterback was going to hand the ball off to the running back, keep it and run, or keep it and throw a play-action pass over their heads.
Many had never faced it before. Sure, younger defenders saw these kinds of plays in college, which are now being infused into pro offenses, but before playing the 49ers in the Super Bowl, when do you think was the last time Ray Lewis defended an option play?
Players and, probably more importantly, coaches have gotten a bitter taste of that flavor of the week, though, and coaches in particular seem to believe that the read-option is a passing fad, one that will go the way of the Wildcat.
“It’s like when the Wildcat first came out and [the Miami Dolphins] sprung that on some people. It kind of caught some guys off-guard. But everybody, like us, is going to do their due diligence in the offseason,” Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano said at the NFL owners meetings. “We feel very confident from a defensive perspective that we can come up with some scheme and we can get those schemes taught.”
It was a mixed bag for the Ravens when it came to defending the scheme in the Super Bowl. Kaepernick ran for 62 yards and a touchdown and the 49ers as a team rushed for 182 yards on 6.3 yards per carry in the Super Bowl. But Kaepernick actually only kept the ball on a read-option run once, picking up three yards on the play. And the 49ers did most of their damage after defensive tackle Haloti Ngata got knocked out of the game.
This upcoming regular season, the Ravens will not play any teams that ran the read-option in 2012. Their schedule is filled with more traditional pocket passers like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. And their division rivals in Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati aren’t expected to ask Ben Roethlisberger, Brandon Weeden or Andy Dalton to try to do their best RGIII impersonation.
But I’m sure for a defensive mind like Dean Pees -- and for guys like Tomlin and Pagano, too -- there is a curiosity there. There is also something to prove. That’s why they will spend some of their downtime this summer trying to solve the read-option puzzle. They will eventually see it again, and they want to be ready for it.