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Summer School 2022: The RPO chess match

If the Giants use more RPOs in 2022, how might they adapt to defenses’ adjustments?

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

There’s some early evidence that the Run-Pass Option (RPO) could become a bigger part of the New York Giants offense under head coach Brian Daboll and offensive coordinator Mike Kafka.

Last time we took a look at the nuts and bolts of a basic RPO. We went over what RPOs are, and some of the differences between them and similar concepts. This time around we’re going to dig a little deeper and get into the chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators.

Defending RPOs

As useful as RPOs can be for an offense — and as difficult as they can be to defend for a defense — they aren’t a perfect play. Defenses at the college and pro levels hit upon several counters to the RPO and any decent defensive scheme has them in its arsenal.

We’ve already covered some of the ways in which defenses have adapted and countered RPOs in a a previous Summer School (linked below). So I won’t belabor the topic too much, though it’s still an important step before we get to the ways in which offenses adjust to defenses’ adjustments.

Man coverage

As we saw in the previous piece, RPOs function by isolating a “read” defender who has both coverage and run defense responsibilities in a zone coverage scheme. From there, the quarterback serves as something of a point guard, who simply directs the ball to where the defense isn’t.

So the first adjustment a defense can make is about as obvious as it gets: Play man coverage.

Basic RPOs thrive on the ambiguity inherent in zone coverage. Because the defender is covering an area of the field instead of an individual offensive player, his exact duties are somewhat undefined. In man coverage schemes, however, every coverage player knows exactly what he’s doing.

Here we have a very similar took to the 4-2-5 Cover 3 we looked at in the previous piece, but instead the defense is playing Cover 1. Every receiving option is accounted for, the deep safety is free to add a double team to a deep route, and the two linebackers are free to account for both the running back and quarterback. There isn’t anything for the quarterback to read, and both of his options in the previous RPO are accounted for.

Coverage shifts

Another weakness of the RPO is that they, at least in part, rely on the defense doing what’s expected. RPOs work when the defense reacts in a predictable way to what the offense shows it. If the defense suddenly changes alignments after the snap, a player the offense expects to run into open field could instead run himself into coverage.

In the above example, the defense is in a Cover 2 shell. The offense would be expecting a void to open up behind the linebackers if they play downhill in response to the potential of a run. Instead, the defense rotates to a “robber” alignment, filling that void while also allowing the linebackers to play downhill. There are, obviously, a huge variety of ways in which the defense can disguise its coverages. Some are easier than others, and some require more discipline in execution than others, but playing on an opponent’s expectations can be a good way of forcing a mistake.

Blitzing

Countering RPOs with man coverage and coverage rotations (or deception) naturally lend themselves to a third way of frustrating RPO offenses: Blitzing.

There are many, many ways to scheme a blitz, and nearly as many successful blitz schemes. They can come from zone or man schemes, involve coverage replacements or all-out pressure, and use rushers from nearly any area of the field.

For our purposes, let’s go back to that generic RPO against a Cover 3 shell.

In this case we can see how man coverage on the outside and coverage rotations in a pressure package can combine to frustrate an RPO scheme.

The outside cornerback on the playside is in man coverage, accounting for that receiver. Meanwhile, the right edge defender drops into coverage and, along with the MIKE linebacker and free safety, account for the slot receiver.

With the receivers on that side of the field accounted for, the slot corner and WILL linebacker blitz into the backfield. This accounts for a hand-off to the running back, while also pressuring the quarterback. Not only will the slot receiver be running into coverage, the quarterback needs to make a decision at lightning speed due to the free rusher.

Also of note, one of the limitations on RPOs at the NFL level is the rules regarding ineligible receivers downfield. NFL linemen are only allowed to block one yard beyond the line of scrimmage on passing plays. That prevents them from climbing to the second level on RPOs, in case they turn into passes. In this case, that prevents the left tackle from immediately engaging the WILL linebacker and encourages him to double-team the 3-technique when the EDGE drops into coverage.

Evolving the RPO

As with the offensive side of the ball, if defeating RPOs were just that easy, offenses wouldn’t bother running them. Instead, NFL offensive coordinators are modifying the concept to adjust to defensive adjustments. RPOs, and spread offenses in general, evolved at the collegiate level as a way to weaponize spacing to allow smaller programs to compete with bigger, more talented schools.

At the NFL level, however, the line between “Best” and “Worst” is much thinner than at the college level. The NFL enforces parody at every turn, and every NFL player was once one of the best players on their college team. Likewise, NFL teams have more and better athletes than the vast majority of college programs. That gives NFL coaches more and better options to adapt.

Look further down the field

While players close to the line of scrimmage are the most common reads for RPOs, teams have begun using third level reads for their RPOs. The general idea is that a deeper read makes for a bigger gain, and if the offense can manipulate a deep safety out of position, that opens the door for a chunk play.

Defenses rarely play true, pure, man coverage schemes. Even aggressive Cover-1 schemes still have the free safety in zone coverage, and a linebacker or the strong safety could be in zone coverage as well. That’s one or two players an RPO can still put into conflict and exploit.

Using deeper passing concepts allows the offense to put the free safety in conflict and keep the RPO as an active part of their game plan.

In this case we’ve paired our RPO with a variation on the “Mills” concept. The Mills uses a high-low read to stress the safety’s discipline and create the opportunity for a one-on-one match-up down the field.

If the safety comes downhill to defend the run, the quarterback can attack downfield with the post to the slot receiver. If the safety drops back to defend the vertical route, the quarterback can either hand the ball off, which could be particularly effective if one of the linebackers drops back to defend the dig route run by the X receiver. The dig route could become an option if the linebackers step up to defend the run while the safety drops back.

As with first and second level RPO plays, there passing concepts designed to exploit one-on-one coverage and attack safeties deep. The play is a bit slower and there’s more onus on the offensive line to hold up while the play develops if the QB pulls the ball back to pass. However, the potential for a run will slow the defense down in a similar way as a play-action pass.

Man-beaters

There are no perfect defenses, that’s a basic rule of football. While every defensive scheme as its strengths and use cases, they also all have exploitable weaknesses. While man coverage is a good counter to basic RPO schemes, they can be beaten by the offense. In some ways, the general idea behind man-beater concepts is similar to the concept behind the RPO. Many “man-beater” concepts involve putting coverage players in conflict where they physically can’t maintain coverage and can’t help but to to give up separation.

There are two potential options in the above diagram. The first would see the X receiver and slot receiver execute a “scissors” with deep crossing routes. The intersecting routes will force one of the coverage players to run around the other receiver or corner, creating separation and increasing the receiving window.

The other potential option shown has the tight end motioning from his “Y” position to an H-back alignment in the backfield. Motion is a great way to force the defense into revealing its coverage, and the strong safety moving with the tight end is a good indicator that the defense is in a Cover 1 alignment. From there we have the tight end running a wheel route, forcing the safety to navigate the traffic around the line of scrimmage and denying him the ability to get in tight coverage.

There’s a wide variety of ways in which an offense can counter man coverage, and these are just a couple examples. Every offense includes passing concepts designed to beat man coverage, the trick is to incorporate them into RPO schemes and knowing when to use them.

Add in the Zone-Read

One of the big changes to NFL offenses over the last decade or so has been the acceptance of — and now preference for — athletic quarterbacks. While athleticism has always been viewed as an asset at the quarterback position, the ability to play from the pocket was always most highly prized.

Lately, however, NFL teams have more widely incorporated the skill sets of “dual threat” quarterbacks into their offensive schemes. That’s opened up the world of Zone-Read concepts for Pro offenses, and forced defenses to play true 11-on-11 football.

We mentioned above that man coverage allows the defense to remove ambiguity and responsibility conflicts from their assignments. However, man coverage also forces defenders to take their eyes out of the backfield and keep them on the players they’re actively covering. That can create the opportunity for an athletic quarterback to keep the ball and run for a decent gain before the defense is able to rally to the ball.

This is also where the lines between RPOs and Package Plays get blurry.

The initial read would be for the quarterback to decide whether to pull the ball back and throw, or if a run is the more advantageous play. If the quarterback reads “run” from the defense, his next decision would be whether to complete the hand-off to the running back, or run it himself. If the defenders playing downhill key on the running back, the quarterback has the option to simply keep the ball himself and run while the defense tries to stop the running back.

The offense can also adapt its blocking scheme to create a free rusher — as in a classic Read-Option play from an outside zone blocking scheme — and give the quarterback the ability to read that defender.

There are, of course, ways to stop Read-Option plays. But the gap exchanges and zone coverage schemes that are most effective are often susceptible to RPOs. Adding a quarterback run to the list of options can be very difficult for a defense to counter. However, it does also open the quarterback up to free hits from the defense — and a greater potential for injury.

So not only do teams need a quarterback who’s a dangerous runner, they need to be judicious in their use of QB runs in their Option concepts.

Don’t use an RPO

Offenses aren’t all one thing, and it’s important for them to not get stubborn about that fact. Perhaps one of the best ways for an offense to adapt to a defense that’s keying on an RPO is to not use an RPO. As we covered in the first post on the subject, RPOs can be difficult to recognize in the moment, and that can be true for defenders as well as announcers or fans.

Doing something like switching from an RPO offense to a play-action pass allows the offense to devote six or seven players to protection while creating stress down the field.

Here we have a modified “Yankee” concept with play-action and a seven-man protection scheme. As with the Mills concept shown above, the route combination creates a High-Low read for the quarterback, and a dilemma for the free safety. By using max protection, the offense is able to devote extra players to pass protection. That should buy the offense time for the receivers to work open and the quarterback to make his read. Likewise, the defense likely won’t be able to immediately differentiate between an RPO and a play-action pass, forcing them to honor their run fits, and slowing the pass rush.

Final thoughts

Strategy, tactics, and scheme are always evolving in the NFL. Teams are constantly tinkering with their playbooks on both sides of the ball, and adding wrinkles to adapt to opponents’ adjustments. Teams are also constantly watching each other, and increasingly watching the college game, for new ideas and innovations.

There are a huge number of ways in which the Giants could incorporate RPOs into their offense. There’s a similarly huge number of ways in which they can adapt them to their personnel and adjust to potential defensive counters. We routinely talk about the chess match between offensive and defensive coaches, and this is all part of it. We don’t yet know how exactly how the Giants will employ RPOs — or how the concept will evolve at the NFL level as a whole. But their presence in the offense will give the Giants an added dimension and way to move the ball that they’ve largely lacked.