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Breaking down Ryan Tannehill read-option runs versus 49ers

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A closer look at the Miami Dolphins’ use of the read option against the San Francisco 49ers.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins came away with a 31-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, giving them their sixth win in a row and setting them up in the AFC Playoff picture. The win came largely because of the right arm of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, but the game also featured three instances of the quarterback executing the read-option, with Tannehill keeping the ball all three times.

During the game, the commentators mentioned that Tannehill should give the ball to the running back on at least one play, so that the 49ers defense would have to respect the fake. It made me want to go back and look at the three instances, and see if Tannehill was making the correct play, based on the defense. And, if he was, then it was clear the 49ers were actually respecting the running game for the Dolphins - even as they struggled to get it established - with the defense crashing down toward the running back.

1st-and-10

6:27, 2nd Quarter

The first read-option came at the Miami 43 yard line, just over half-way through the second quarter.

Tannehill was lined up in the shotgun, with Jay Ajayi to his left and a step behind him. The team spread out three receivers and had tight end Dion Sims on the right side of the offensive line.

As Tannehill starts the handoff on any read-option, he is reading the outside linebacker or defensive end. If that player is crashing down toward the running back, Tannehill pulls the ball back and runs around the outside. If that player remains on the edge, Tannehill gives the ball to the running back. In this case, the outside linebacker appears to be crashing in, so Tannehill keeps the ball.

Turning to the endzone angle, the read from Tannehill is a little easier to see. Linebacker Eli Harold is sizing up Ajayi to make the stop. Tannehill is clearly watching him to see what he does, before taking the ball back from Ajayi to make the run around the outside.

Tannehill picked up 17 yards on the run, moving the ball to the San Francisco 40-yard line and giving Miami a first down.

1st-and-10

5:47, 2nd Quarter

The next read option play came on the next snap.

This time, Miami has flipped the receivers, with two to the right and one to the left, as compared to the previous play. Kenyan Drake is now in the backfield with Tannehill, still to his left but even with the quarterback. Dion Sims is still to the right of the offensive line, but is now three yards behind the line of scrimmage rather than up on the line.

Again, Tannehill is reading for the crash or the staying out on the edge by the outside linebacker. This time, the Dolphins pull Sims across the line of scrimmage to add an additional blocker to the weak-side.

Jumping again to the endzone view, Harold appears to be staying a little more home this time, but he is still inside, plus Tannehill is probably anticipating a block from Sims to free up the outside.

This is the play that the commentators reviewed after, showing how, if Drake had been given the ball, he would have had open field in front of him. However, looking at the play at this moment, as well as the next couple of steps for both the defensive line and the running back, it would appear the hole that eventually appears, is not here at the moment, and likely only shows up because the lineman recognize Drake does not have the ball.

As Tannehill starts to run, you can see the amount of daylight that appears to be available both to him and to Drake, if the running back had the ball. However, looking closely at Drake in the middle of the offensive line, 49ers defensive lineman DeForest Buckner has Drake lined up for the tackle. A beat later, he realizes Tannehill has the ball and turns to start chasing the quarterback, which does give the impressing that Drake could have broken a big run, but it was actually an illusion created by quick reactions on Buckner’s part.

And, speaking of quick reactions, the 49ers do a really good job of flowing with Tannehill and stopping him quickly. The play results in a one-yard gain for Miami’s quarterback, bringing up 2nd-and-9 at the San Francisco 39-yard line.

1st-and-10

7:22, 3rd Quarter

Miami comes back to the read-option in the third quarter, again running it on first down.

This play is set up the same way as the previous read-option play, but with the formation flipped and Ajayi in the backfield rather than Drake.

The Dolphins again bring Sims across the line of scrimmage to pick up the block on the inside linebacker, with Tannehill reading to keep the ball and run around the outside, this time to the right.

Looking at the read, it is understandable that Tannehill would keep it here, reading linebacker Ahmad Brooks as coming insider for the tackle and knowing Sims is coming for the block. Seeing inside linebacker Nick Bellore with a clear shot at the hole where Ajati would likely run also means Tannehill keeping the ball probably makes sense. However, this could be the one time of these three plays where giving the ball to the running back was the right call.

Ajayi may not pick up a huge gain here, but Sims is still too far away to be effective on the block, and Brooks will have an easier time reacting and getting to Tannehill than the previous two read-option plays showed for the linebackers.

Brooks actually reacts to Sims more than he reacts to Tannehill, and the Dolphins could have set up a read-option pass on this play, with the idea to have Tannehill roll right, then connect with Sims in the flat, but, if that was the play, Brooks keeps it from happening. Bellore is in the hole where Ajayi was heading, and would have had the tackle on the running back, so perhaps Tannehill made the right call.

Brooks reacts well to Tannehill and manages to close the ground back to the quarterback. The 49ers stop Tannehill for a two-yard loss on the play, moving back from the San Francisco 24 to the 26-yard line and bringing up 2nd-and-12.

Analysis

It looks like Tannehill likely made the right choice on all three read-option plays, thought the third one could have been a hand off just as easily. That play does seem to have a pass option built into it, so it is something that may have to be watched later in the year. The 49ers reacted well on the second and third times they saw the play. It is good to see Miami bringing back the read-option, giving Tannehill more options with the ball and making teams respect his ability to run. Tannehill may need to remember to slide rather than taking unnecessary hits.