The zone read offense wasn't something the New Orleans Saints defense had to concern itself with for 14 seasons when playing the Atlanta Falcons.
Matt Ryan was Atlanta's quarterback, and Ryan wasn't that kind of quarterback. The pocket passer was mobile enough to evade, but not a threat to overly influence a game with his legs.
On Sunday, in New Orleans' regular-season opener against the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Marcus Mariota will be Atlanta's starting quarterback. And Mariota, with 1,574 career rushing yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging six yards per carry, is what Ryan wasn't – a mobile quarterback fully willing and able to befuddle a defense with the zone read.
That offense totally hasn't been Kryptonite for the Saints' formidable defense, but it hasn't been anything near totally solvable, either.
"Understanding what my responsibility is and make sure I take care of my responsibility," Saints Coach Dennis Allen said. "For a long time in the NFL, you didn't see much of it, so you didn't work on it very often. And I think now, you're seeing a lot more athletic quarterbacks playing in college and that's transitioning back up to our league, and so we're seeing a lot more of it.
"You have to be fundamentally sound to be able to stop it and look, it's difficult because they make you play 11-on-11 football. When it's a dropback passer and you're not worried about him running, you kind of get to play 11 defensive players on 10 offensive players and when you get an athletic quarterback and they're running some of the quarterback-run game, you have to play 11-on-11. So that's what makes it difficult."
Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts was a significant thorn for New Orleans; in two Eagles victories over the Saints in '20 and '21, Hurts totaled 314 passing yards and a touchdown on 30-of-54 passing, and ran for 175 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries.
"We very rarely saw it," Allen said of the NFL's adjustment to the zone read. "I remember going visiting Nick Saban at Alabama and asking about stopping the zone read, and he said, 'Which one?' I was like, 'There's only one.' Because that's all we saw in our league. And now you see it in a lot of different looks. It's a challenge, but certainly it's something we spend a lot of time working on."
But the Saints also were dinged by the mobility of Daniel Jones (four carries for 27 yards, 28-for-40 passing for 402 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception) and Josh Allen (eight carries for 43 yards, 23-for-28 passing for 260 yards and four touchdowns, with two interceptions) in losses to the Giants and Bills last season.
The exposure is something that New Orleans hopes can help with defending Atlanta and Mariota, who last started a season opener in 2019, with Tennessee. That also was the last season in which Mariota started a game; Oct. 13, against Denver.
"He's been in this game for awhile, and has done some good things," Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. "He's a guy that's smart, keeps their offense on track, tons of athleticism. He's dangerous, not just with his arm but with his legs as well. And he's got some good weapons around him. It's challenging enough to stop a good quarterback, but when a good quarterback has weapons around him, it makes it even more challenging.
"Read-option is just a facet of what they do as an offense. You've got to be ready to stop that, but they're dangerous in their run game, in their one-back, two-back offense. They have a lot of weapons they can get the ball to, some good concepts that are challenging in their dropback passing series. They're good with play-action and boot. And so, read-option is just another facet of what they do. And that makes it challenging, because you have to study for that as much as everything else. We've got to be ready for that, but we've also got to be ready for everything else they do."
Defensive end Cameron Jordan said the Saints would look at film from Mariota's previous stops in Tennessee and Las Vegas.
"We've got to break down who he is, because he's not a traditional pocket passer like Matt was," said Jordan, whose 23 sacks of Ryan is the NFL record for one player against another. "This is going to change up their game a lot.
"We've dealt with Tyrod Taylor multiple times over the years, dealt with Kaep (Colin Kaepernick) back in the day, Cam Newton at MVP level. We've seen the pantheon of mobile quarterbacks. We've seen Jalen Hurts twice the last two years and I wouldn't say that's a great one to go by since we didn't win those, so we've got things that we have to iron out and stretch out."