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Summer School: Defending the run/pass option

Two of the best RPO teams in the NFL reside in the NFC East. How could the Giants defend them?

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants have a problem in 2018.

It isn’t a problem that can be solved by personnel, or scheme, or coaching. Or perhaps it’s a problem to which the solution is “d) all of the above.”

The problem the Giants, and defensive coordinator James Bettcher in particular, need to solve is the RPO, or Run/Pass Option.

Every few years it seems as though a new offensive concept bubbles up from the college ranks and takes the NFL by storm.

A decade ago the Miami Dolphins rode the “Wildcat” past the New England Patriots and won the AFC East. Within a year there were imitators across the league, and not even a year after that, the fad died out as defenses adapted and perfected their counters.

Five years ago, the Read-Option offense became the new “It” offense after the success of offenses featuring quarterback capable of running, such as Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson. In short order the NFL’s defenses once again adapted and teams largely ceased to use read-option plays as the foundation for their schemes.

Of late, the newest wave to break on the NFL’s shores is the Run/Pass Option, or RPO. And, as you might expect from the name, the RPO is similar to the read-option in many respects.

Read-option plays feature two running plays, in which the quarterback and running back would “mesh” while the quarterback read an isolated defender and either kept the ball or handed it off based on where that defender wouldn’t be. Not only does this put the keyed defender in a bind, but it also makes the game truly 11 on 11.

RPOs follow a similar concept, with the difference that instead of the quarterback keeping the ball and running with it, he throws a pass if the defender he is reading plays the run.

Let’s take a look at a quick RPO in action.

The Eagles start with what appears to be blocking for an inside zone run. But as the play develops, watch the quarterback’s head as he and the running back mesh. He is watching the inside linebacker and reading whether or not he is coming up to make a run fit or drop back to defend the pass.

The Patriots are using a zone coverage scheme on the outside, so Nick Foles knows that the quick bubble screen will be there if the linebacker doesn’t immediately drop back into coverage. Instead, the linebacker tracks the running back as he, apparently, takes the hand-off. Foles sees the linebacker playing the run, pulls the ball back, and delivers the quick ball to the receiver on the outside.

The play is a nice, but not huge, gain and illustrates well how an RPO simplifies the defense for the quarterback while making defender’s lives harder.

Why does it matter for the Giants?

The RPO obviously presents a problem for defenses league-wide, so what makes it one that the Giants, in particular, should be working to figure out?

Well, the answer is in their schedule.

Per Pro Football Focus, the RPO could play a major role in the Giants’ season.

To start with, no team ran more RPO plays than the Philadelphia Eagles, and they were fourth in the NFL in yards-per-pass attempt (8.5). No team in the NFL had more yards per pass attempt off of RPOs than the Washington Redskins, who averaged more than two yards more than the next-best team at 11.0 yards per attempt.

The Jacksonville Jaguars finished just behind the Eagles in yards per attempt on RPO plays, with 8.2.

The Kansas City Chiefs, and Matt Nagy, ran the second most RPO plays in 2017, and he is now the head coach of the Chicago Bears, who averaged an absurd 8.1 yards per carry on RPO runs. The Carolina Panthers, who were fourth in number of RPO plays called were also fourth in the league on yards per carry on RPO runs with 5.5 yards per carry.

Going back to the Giants’ schedule, they play the Jaguars in Week 1, the Panthers in Week 5, the Eagles in Week 6, the Redskins in Week 8, the Eagles again in Week 12, the Chicago Bears in Week 13, and finally Washington in Week 14.

That’s seven games, nearly half of the Giants’ schedule and includes four divisional games, in which the ability to deal with the RPO could be a deciding factor.

Defending the RPO

The basics

At the most basic level, RPOs attack zone coverage. They take advantage of the fact that in zone coverage, defenders need to play with their eyes in the backfield and react to what the offense does. By offering contradicting options, RPOs force defenders to make a decision and the quarterback simply needs to pick whichever option isn’t defended.

Here we see an RPO paired with a simple tosser concept (parallel slant routes) to attack the defense’s Cover-2 zone look.

At the snap the quarterback reads the inside linebacker. If he drops into coverage, the QB will hand the ball off, and if he comes up to play the run, the quarterback will then read the cornerback and throw to whichever slant route he doesn’t cover. The play isn’t a guaranteed success, but it is very difficult for the defense to be “right.”

How then, can the defense adapt and frustrate the RPO and be right?

The first, and simplest, answer is to play a more aggressive brand of defense.

Here we have the same offensive play, but the defense has rotated to a Cover 1 look just before the snap.

By moving one of the zone defenders down and playing man coverage underneath, both receivers in the Tosser concept are accounted for, hopefully with the timing of the pass upset by physical coverage. Meanwhile, the linebacker the quarterback was reading is free to come down in run support.

As it so happens, physical press coverage is a hallmark of James Bettcher’s defenses. But if simply playing man coverage was the solution to RPOs, they never would have gotten such a foothold in the NFL to begin with. To go further will be to descend down the rabbit hole that is strategy in the NFL — one side of the ball introduces a new concept, the other side adapts, and then the first side has to adapt to the adaptation.

So on and so forth we go.

For example, rather than a passing concept which attacks zone coverage, such as the Tosser, the offense could use concepts such as the “Mesh” concept which attacks man coverage.

But let’s take things a step further and see what the Giants can, and might, do with personnel and scheme to combat the RPO in 2018.

Battle in the trenches

The first thing any defense wants to do is to win the line of scrimmage. Much has been made of the defense’s switch from to a (base) 1-gap 3-4 defense. For the most part, while the names of positions might have changed from the Giants’ previous defenses, edge players (such as OLBs Olivier Vernon and Kareem Martin) will be playing similar roles to the 7-technique defensive end and SAM linebacker in a 4-3 Under defense. However, the Giants’ front will be significantly bigger than in previous years. Rookie B.J. Hill has surprised members of the media by (apparently) seizing one of the starting 5-technique jobs opposite Dalvin Tomlinson and next to Damon Harrison.

Tomlinson and Hill were both regarded as potential nose tackles coming out of college, but both have surprising movement skills for players their size, which should allow them to be effective as defensive ends in a 1-gap 3-4 at the NFL level. Adding another 315-pound lineman and going from 250-pound Devon Kennard to 270-pound Kareem Martin should make it that much harder for offensive lines to find a double team. By making it harder for the offensive line to open holes and get to the second level, it becomes easier for linebackers to hang back a bit and play both the run and the pass.

As we have discussed before, Bettcher is both creative and aggressive in how he aligns his defensive fronts. If the Giants suspect that the offense is running an RPO, they can switch to an “Under” defense and move one the defensive end on the side of the running back (which is the side RPOs are usually run) from the 5-technique to the 3-technique. This, too, will help linebackers by shifting gap responsibilities from the B-gap to the C-gap, which shrinks the amount of field for which they are responsible.

Coverage, versatility, and duplicity

As mentioned previously, one of the first counters to RPOs is to play man coverage. By defining responsibilities for the defense, they are able to take defenders out of conflict. It also just so happens that the Giants’ top corners, Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, are both at their best when playing man coverage.

But, as was also mentioned previously, there are plenty of concepts designed to defeat man coverage which can open up RPOs against more aggressive schemes. So while the Giants will surely want to play their best corners to their strengths, they will also need to incorporate some wrinkles into their schemes to prevent teams from easily exploiting their weaknesses.

The first tactic the Giants could use is rotating coverage at the snap. Doing so would give the offense one look — say, a Cover - 2 shell, as in the first example — only to have a safety sprint down into underneath coverage while the other comes over to man the centerfield after the snap — as in the second example. The late movement prevents the offensive coordinator, or quarterback, from switching to a man-beater route scheme, and hopefully causes some confusion in the offense.

The next tactic would be to use combination coverages — that is, calling one coverage on one side of the field and another on the other side of the field. For example, the defense could use a Cover 6 scheme, which blends Cover 2 and Cover 4 principles.

The offense could also mix man and zone concepts.

In this case, they would call man coverage on the side of the offense with the running back — which is likely to have the RPO — while calling zone on the other side of the defense. By blending in some zone concepts, the defense can be more flexible and potentially devote more personnel on the RPO side, or free up blitzers.

That, of course, brings us to a tactic which will likely be a favorite of Bettcher’s — blitzing.

The Giants’ new defensive coordinator doesn’t hesitate to turn his defenders loose and get after offenses. During his tenure as the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator, they were among the league leaders in blitz percentages. It also happens to be a solid tactic against RPO concepts.

On this play we tie a couple things together, with the defense showing a 3-4 Under front, with a Cover 2 shell (two deep safeties, corners playing off, likely in zone).

The offense has their RPO called, with an inside zone run and a tosser concept outside.

But at the snap, the safety on the RPO side rotates down in man coverage of the slot receiver, while the other safety rotates to the deep middle. With the safety coming down in coverage, it frees up the outside linebacker to blitz. This effectively replaces the linebacker with the safety as the ‘conflict’ player, throwing off the quarterback’s read. Also, with the left guard and left tackle responsible for the 3-technique, inside linebacker, and blitzing outside linebacker, the defense is likely to have a free rusher into the backfield. The running back should be accounted for by the defensive line, while the blitz forces the quarterback to throw into a covered passing concept and a free rusher.

While anything can happen, that is a win for the defense, at least on paper.

The rub in all of this is that adding wrinkles to a defense places a tremendous amount of pressure on the defensive players to execute properly, and this is where “versatility” comes in. If the defense wants to be able to effectively disguise its intentions, it needs players who can be credibly believed to perform multiple roles. Players like Curtis Riley who has coverage experience at cornerback but seems to be stepping up as a safety, Lorenzo Carter, who has the size and athleticism to play coverage or rush the passer, or Darian Thompson, who has the size (6 feet, 2 inches, 215 pounds) and down-hill aggression to credibly play a pseudo-linebacker role and the football IQ to communicate and read the offense as a deep safety.

Final thoughts

Like just about every aspect of football, Run/Pass Option plays are something that look simple on the surface. But as you take a closer look, they have an almost infinite depth of nuance and complexity.

That combination of simplicity and complexity are what make them both increasingly popular and so dangerous when executed properly. Those traits, and the prevalence of teams which use them well on the Giants’ schedule, make crafting a defense for them of vital importance to the Giants in 2018.

The trick, as it were, isn’t defending the RPO but making a reliable defense for the concept a part of the team’s regular defense. Unlike using the Wildcat or the Read Option, the RPO doesn’t take the quarterback out of the play, or put him in harms way. Instead it strives to simplify the defense for him while also keeping him out of harm’s way and easily mixed in with the rest of the offensive scheme.

RPOs may never become the foundation of an offense, but it is also difficult to see them going away any time soon, so defenses need to be ready for them.