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Read option is back in NFL and better than ever

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Read option is back in NFL and better than ever

Tim Tebow has been out with two broken ribs and maybe a bruised ego.

The read-option lives, however, in Washington, Carolina and San Francisco, where NFL coaches are dusting off the old college formations to capitalize on the skills of quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick.

Nobody's going all-in like the Denver Broncos did last year when it became apparent that Tebow, with his messy mechanics, wasn't going to win as a pocket passer. Instead, teams are sprinkling in the read-option offense to confuse defenses and create running and passing lanes alike, and that makes their traditional play calls all the more effective.

Coaches say it's not a fad, either. This time, it's here to stay.

The Redskins' creativity was on display Monday night in their 17-16 win over the New York Giants as RGIII repeatedly put the ball in running back Alfred Morris' belly and either let go or pulled it back to run it himself - or even pull up and hit wide-open receivers darting through broken coverages.

That led to both crowing and cringing by ESPN analyst Steve Young, who entered the league as an eager scrambler and left as a pocket passer with a championship and a ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Young said RGIII will eventually have to morph into more of a prototypical passer to prolong his career and reach his enormous potential, but Young nonetheless marveled at watching ``NFL defenses truly indecisive.''

``It's fun to see something new that really is putting people in a jam,'' Young said.

Griffin ran for 72 yards to get to 714 for the season, passing Newton for most by a rookie quarterback. He threw the go-ahead 8-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon in the fourth quarter on a read-option play.

The Redskins, Panthers and 49ers have the quarterbacks to use heavier doses of the read-option out of the shotgun formation, where the running back is parallel to the quarterback, or in the pistol, where the running back lines up behind the quarterback.

``People say you can't run the option in the NFL, but we're proving you can,'' said Griffin, who even ran a triple option Monday night. ``It's not something that's our bread and butter, but you can sprinkle it in now and then.''

Therein lies the dilemma for defenses: the threat of the option reduces their preparation for the traditional plays that make up the bulk of their opponents' offensive game plan.

``Teams have to prepare for it,'' Griffin said. ``They spend however (much) amount of time preparing for it and how to stop it, and that's what helps us open up the rest of our playbook outside of it.

``Coaches take a certain pride in shutting down what they call college stuff. They take pride in that. It doesn't bother me. We can run it two times a game. We can run it 15 times a game.''

As with anything else that's good, moderation is the key.

The Panthers have dialed down their use of the option to simplify things for Newton, and the 49ers are giving opponents a new wrinkle to prepare for by using some pistol formations like the ones Kaepernick ran at the University of Nevada.

The Panthers added several new twists in the playbook during the offseason figuring opposing defenses would be better prepared to stop Newton, last year's Offensive Rookie of the Year. But midway through the season, with Newton struggling to produce, coach Ron Rivera and his staff decided to scale back the playbook.

One of the things the Panthers did to help Newton was reduce the number of zone read option plays - ones where Newton has to make a split-second decision on whether to run or handoff. It's paid off in better performances over the last month.

``These last few weeks he has played like the guy that we believe he can become,'' Rivera said.

Broncos coach John Fox, who's enjoying watching the precise passer he now has in Peyton Manning, said quarterbacks are coming out of college bigger, faster and more athletic than ever before.

NFL teams will find ways to capitalize on all those attributes from scramblers too athletic to get hemmed in the pocket - at least while they're young, because eventually they're all forced to rely more on their arm as age and ailments catch up.

``Most people don't count on the quarterback being a viable option,'' Fox said. ``When you have that ability, it opens your run game. How long it will stay around, how long it will be? It's legit. It creates problems.''

One problem for teams with the versatile quarterback, however, is that they are exposing $100 million investments and the most valuable player on their teams in the run game, where all protections for the passer are nullified. Once the QB commits to the run, opponents are free to smack him in the head, dive at his knees, throw him to the ground.

Fox said that doesn't necessarily mean the read-option is more hazardous to their health.

``I can't really say that because you expose the quarterback in the pocket passing probably more than any time,'' Fox said, ``because his eyes are down the field, he's watching routes progress. So, remind people that that can expose a quarterback pretty heavily, as well. You just look at the numbers of quarterbacks lost through time in the pocket.''

Not just anyone can run the option, though.

``There's no doubt when you're asking him to run the ball he'd better be real fast or big enough to take hits,'' Fox said. ``That's the fine line.''

In his last game as a Bronco, a 45-10 playoff loss at New England, Tebow played through rib, lung and chest injuries he sustained on a third-quarter tackle. (He's recently been sidelined with broken ribs but said he's not sure when he got hurt, only that it happened on offense and not in his role as a personal punt protector.)

Griffin, who's listed at 217 pounds - 28 pounds lighter than Newton - took a beating earlier this season, and one reason was that he's so good at pretending he still has the ball after handing it off, giving defenders freedom to clobber him. There were plays, said left guard Kory Lichtensteiger, that Griffin looked sprawled ``like a question mark'' on the field after a tackle.

The solution was to tone down the trickery, stop extending the fake after handing off and have him put his hands in the air instead. While that advice goes against years of coaching that says a quarterback should sell deception as long as possible, it's helped reduce the number of hard hits the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has taken.

Read-option quarterbacks also need to learn when to slide or get out of bounds to protect themselves when keeping the ball. Tebow was probably the best college quarterback ever to operate the option during his time at Florida, but NFL linemen and linebackers are bigger, faster, stronger - and hit harder.

In one game last year, Tebow was hit 17 times. In another, he ran it 22 times, more than any NFL quarterback since 1950, prompting Vikings coach Leslie Frazier to crack that he'd like to get his star tailback Adrian Peterson that many touches.

``There's not a person in the league that says, `Hey, sign me up for a car accident every play,''' Griffin said. ``But we know what we signed up for.''

Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who burnished his head coaching credentials as the architect of the turn-back-the-clock offense in Denver last year, ran the option just one time while he was a quarterback at the University of Utah two decades ago.

``Yeah, I called it once up in Wyoming and I broke my collarbone and my first rib,'' McCoy recalled.

It's not for everybody, but for those teams with the quarterbacks who can do it, the option is turning out to be, well, a great option in today's pass-happy NFL.

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AP Pro Football Writer Howard Fendrich and AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley, Steve Reed and Joseph White contributed.

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Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

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Caps’ dominant power play comes through yet again in win over Rangers

It seems so simple. The Capitals have one of the best goal-scorers of all-time in Alex Ovechkin and on the power play, he’s almost always in the same spot. He sets up in the “office,” the faceoff circle on the left side of the ice, and waits for one-timers. Everyone knows the Caps are trying to get him the puck, everyone knows the shot is coming.

But nobody can stop it.

“It’s still pretty unique,” Matt Niskanen said after the game. “Basic logic tells you it’d be easy to stop, but it’s not.”

Even Ovechkin has no explanation. “It’s all about luck,” he said.

New York Rangers head coach David Quinn had another word for it.

“Sickening.”

Quinn’s Rangers were the latest victims of a power play that has been among the league’s best units for several years. Since 2005, no team in the NHL has a better power play percentage than the Capitals’ 20.8-percent. They once again look lethal this season with the unit currently clicking at an incredible 39.1-percent.

Ovechkin tallied two power play goals Wednesday, both from the office, to help power the Caps to a 4-3 win over New York. Both of Ovechkin’s goals looked pretty similar with John Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office for the one-timer.

Ovechkin obviously is what powers the team’s power play. With him on the ice, other teams need to account for him at all times.

But the real key to the Caps’ success with the extra man is not Ovechkin, but the other weapons around him.

“In order to completely take [Ovechkin] away other guys are just too open and they’re good enough to score,” Niskanen said. “Are you gonna leave [T.J. Oshie] open in the slot from the hash marks to cover [Ovechkin]? Our power play is set up well with what hands guys are and their skill sets so we have a lot of different options. Guys are good at reading what’s open. It’s pretty lethal.”

“Nobody knows who's going to take a shot when we play like that,” Ovechkin said. “And it's fun to play like that, to be honest with you. When [Nicklas Backstrom] and when [Evgeny Kuznetsov] feeling the puck well, they can find you in the right time and the right place -- same as [Carlson]."

With so many weapons on the power play, teams are forced to choose between playing Ovechkin tight and leaving other players like Kuznetsov and Oshie wide open, or trying to play a traditional penalty kill and risk giving Ovechkin too much room for the one-timer.

The Rangers chose the latter on Wednesday and they suffered the consequences.

“I don't think many teams have played him like they did tonight,” Carlson said. “They gave him a lot more space.”

And Carlson certainly took advantage as well.

Washington’s power play seems to have found a new gear now with the emergence of Carlson. He took his game to a new level last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. On Wednesday, as part of a three-point night for him, Carlson provided two brilliant setups for Ovechkin on the power play.

“He dominates the game, I think,” Niskanen said of Carlson. “Moves the puck well, skates well for a big man, can defend. He’s got that offensive feel for the game and offensive touch. Big shot. He’s a good player.”

For many years, it looked like the only thing missing from the Caps’ power play was Mike Green. Carlson has always been good, but no one was able to setup Ovechkin quite as well as Green was in the height of the “young guns” era of the Caps. Now that Carlson seems to be coming into his own as a superstar blueliner who can both score and feed Ovechkin with the best of them, that makes an already dominant Caps’ power play even more lethal.

That was certainly on display Wednesday as the Caps fired eight shots on goal with the extra man. Ovechkin’s two goals tie him for ninth on the NHL’s all-time power play goals list with Dino Ciccarelli at 232.

Even with Ovechkin now 33 years old and after several years of dominance with the extra man, the Caps’ power play may be better than ever.

“They don’t get rattled,” Quinn said. “There’s a confidence to them and a swagger to them, which they should have.  They’ve been playing together a long time and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champions, so they should play with a swagger.”

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5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

5 reasons the Capitals beat the Rangers in overtime

The Caps gave up a 2-1 and 3-2 lead, but ultimately came away victorious on Wednesday in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers thanks to an overtime goal from Matt Niskanen.

Here are five reasons why the Caps won.

1. Djoos saves a goal

With the Caps already trailing 1-0 in the first period, they were about an inch away from going down by two. Luckily, Christian Djoos was there to make the save.

Yes, Djoos, not Braden Holtby.

A diving Jesper Fast got to a loose puck before any of the Caps defenders and beat Holtby with the shot. Djoos, however, was there to sweep the puck off the goal line and out, saving a goal.

That play turned out to be a two-goal swing as less than two minutes later, the Caps scored to tie the game at 1.

2. Carlson off the faceoff

The Caps emphasized the importance of the faceoff this week and worked on it specifically in practice on Tuesday. That practice turned out to be very prescient as Washington’s first goal of the night came right off the faceoff.

Nicklas Backstrom beat Ryan Spooner on the draw cleanly in the offensive zone, feeding the puck back to John Carlson. With the players all bunched up off the draw, Carlson benefitted from Brady Skjei standing right in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Carlson teed up the slap shot and beat Lundqvist who never saw the puck.

Of the five combined goals scored in the game, three were directly set up off a faceoff.

3. Hand-eye coordination

With the Caps on the power play, Fast tipped a pass meant for Carlson that looked like it was headed out of the offensive zone. Carlson reacted to the puck then stretched the stick and somehow managed to control the bouncing puck and keep it in the zone.

Fast charged Carlson at the blue line so he chipped the puck to Ovechkin in the office. Ovechkin managed to hit the puck just as it hit the ice and somehow beat Lundqvist with the shot.

Ovechkin was by the boards at the very edge of the circle. It was an amazing shot and it was set up by the great hustle play from Carlson. Both showed tremendous hand-eye coordination to control that puck.

4. Braden Holtby

Lundqvist entered this game with a 1.99 GAA and .939 save percentage, but he was outplayed by his counterpart from Washington.

Holtby had himself a night. He was particularly strong down low with the pads as he made a number of key pad saves throughout the game, particularly in the second period when he recorded 17 saves including a shorthanded breakaway save on Kevin Hayes as time expired.

Of the three goals Holtby allowed, the first he made a great save on Chris Kreider who looked like he had an empty net to shoot at. Mike Zibanejad would score on the rebound. The second goal came as a shot deflected off Devante Smith-Pelly and went right to Jimmy Vesey for an easy tap-in. The third was a deflection goal from Kreider to redirect a shot that was going wide.

Can’t blame Holtby for those.

5. Working from the office

The Caps had three power play opportunities on the night. They scored on two of them and those two goals looked pretty darn similar.

There was the one described above in which a hustle play by Carlson at the point kept the puck alive and he fed to Ovechkin in the office. The second goal came with Carlson on the point feeding Ovechkin in the office.

Those two goals give Ovechkin 232 power play goals for his career, tying him with Dino Ciccarelli for ninth on the NHL’s all-time list.

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