A quarter of the way into the new season, it is clear that NFL defenses have come up with some of the answers that eluded them last season when option offenses were becoming such a craze. Two of the teams that thrived the most a year ago with such offensive approaches, the Redskins with Robert Griffin III and the 49ers with Colin Kaepernick, are struggling with their quarterbacks in their second seasons as starters. League-wide, the average gain per rushing attempt on option plays has dropped by nearly a yard.
“People are defending the read option better across the entire league,” said Charley Casserly, the former general manager of the Redskins and Houston Texans.
According to Ben Stockwell, the director of analysis for the Web site ProFootballFocus, option-play runs league-wide this season had gained an average of 4.9 yards through last weekend’s play, down from 5.8 yards per attempt last season. The Redskins are averaging 3.9 yards per option rush, down from last season’s six yards per attempt, according to Stockwell’s figures. The 49ers have plummeted from 4.5 yards per option run last season to 1.1 yards this season.
Redskins fullback Darrel Young said that defenses “absolutely” are playing the option differently and better than last season, and added: “They’re doing a good job of trying to stop it. I don’t know what they’re doing. I don’t know what they’re talking about. But they’re doing a good job.”
Said former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso: “I do think they’re playing it better. It’s not a strategic problem. It’s never been that. It’s an execution issue.”
The problem for defenses, which was particularly acute last season when the option offenses first became so fashionable, was that “it’s not a play that NFL defenses tend to see,” Kelso said. In addition, he said, “You don’t have scout teams that can replicate it in practice.”
Kelso said that, in his view, defenses have a few viable approaches against the option, the simplest of which is to move a safety close to the line of scrimmage to provide an additional defender against the run.
“You pretty much have to devote an extra defender to stop the read option,” Kelso said by phone. “If you do that, you become vulnerable on the back end. I don’t know that it’s difficult for defensive coordinators to devise a way to stop it. It’s whether you can execute it after you come up with your way to stop it. And it’s whether the offense takes advantage of where you’ve left yourself vulnerable.”
Those comments echo the remarks made recently by Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who said the league’s option-style offenses are “not shocking people” as they did last season, when “a lot of people weren’t ready for it at all” and “it was easy at times.”