Defeating RPOs (Run-Pass Options) By Utilizing Defensive-Line Movement & Match-Quarters

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By Cody Alexander, Cornerbacks Coach, Lovejoy High School, Lucas, Texas, & Author, Coaching Blog,

The best offenses are chameleons. We know a chameleon is a reptile, but chameleons do something different than most other creatures – they change their appearance depending on their environment.

In the past, to effectively change and adapt, an offense had to have a huge grab bag of plays. As offenses evolved and grew more complex, it resulted in massive playbooks, dense verbiage and constrictive offensive rules.

Just listen to Jon Gruden go through a play call, it’s like a mini paragraph. Now turn around and teach that to a 15, 18, or 20-year-old football player. NFL teams structure their play calls by telling each individual player what they will do on each play.

This style of play calling creates long, wordy plays and restricts the speed of the game. Offenses that run a multitude of plays become masters at nothing. Offensive coaches and coordinators soon began to understand that if you limit the plays, and instead, focused on creating a mastery of an offense, that it can move at lightning speed. Everyone associated with football knows the term, “Speed Kills.”

In offense, “Speed Kills” means explosive plays, keeping defenses off-balance, and players streaking untouched into the end zone.

The question now – for all coaches on the other side of the ball – is…

How do defenses catch up?

Before diving into the tactics necessary to try to stop today’s offenses, it’s important to understand how the trend toward simplifying the playbook came into vogue.

At the lower levels of football, these dense offensive playbooks don’t make sense. Over the past decade, the spread has developed to fit the unique needs of the lower level coach.

Starting with the Air-Raid (Leach version) offense, with playbooks on a wrinkled piece of paper, to the spread option attacks of Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer, the spread has exploded and is revolutionizing America’s game.

The latest epoch change in the development of spread football is packaged plays, called “run-pass options” – know primarily as just “RPOs.”

Through RPOs, now, with one play call, an offensive coordinator has several ways to attack the defense, playing off what the defense gives them. By packaging plays, an offense, theoretically, can never be wrong. That puts a lot of pressure on a defensive coordinator.

Watch the Dummy Snap Count cited below in Video No. 1 and it’s no wonder why RPOs seem like an attractive offensive solution.

(VIDEO 1) Dummy Snap-Counts In The NFL

What’s an RPO?

Run-Pass Options, or RPOs, have revolutionized the game of football. Offenses at all levels have made a feast on opposing defenses while becoming simpler and faster.

The proliferation of spread has even reached the highest level of football. NFL teams are now using simple RPOs to confuse defenses and create advantages.

The age of the inches thick playbook, with hundreds of diagrams filled with dense offensive jargon, are gone. Many teams don’t even have playbooks. Teams are shedding the “weight” to gain an advantage on the field. As offensive coaches ditch the playbook and look to gain efficiency and speed, they cut the fat out of their playbooks, trimming verbiage and redundant plays.

The dilemma for offenses in cutting plays is that they may become predictable in nature. To counteract this fact, offenses speed the game up by running play after play with little time as possible between the snaps.

As the spread developed, offensive coaches realized that by creating an up-tempo style of play, you can force the defense to become more predictable. The speed of the offense puts pressure on the defense to line up the same way every time and react the same way every time.

There is no sweeter feeling for a football coach, than to know exactly how an opponent will react. As long as the quarterback makes the right read, an RPO-team can slash a defense and create havoc for a defensive coordinator.

Add in the fact that the offensive-line blocks as though it’s going to be a running play on every play, and it takes advantage of a primary technique that has been traditionally taught by defensive coaches – called, “high-hat, low-hat” defensive position – and it also puts the defense in a run-pass conflict. Now, more than ever, defensive coordinators are reliant to have sound, efficient defenses.

DIAGRAM 1: Typical 2-Back RPO (Run-Pass Option). Note how the QB can read one of three defenders with four different results.

Simple RPOs read a defense’s alignment pre-snap. In a typical 2-back set, an offense can run four plays. Starting to the boundary, the offense reads the leverage of the corner.

In most RPO offenses, the backside wide receiver runs a hitch if the corner is backed off, and a vertical route if the CB is aligned in press coverage.

If the boundary CB is off, the QB reads this and throws to the quick-hitch route. This high-percentage pass play usually results in a quick and efficient 5-yard gain, and is no different than a good, safe and effective running play.

To the field side, the QB has three options:

  • Hand the ball off to the running back on a zone.
  • Pull the ball and take off on QB keeper.
  • Throw a quick screen pass to the WR to the field side.

All three of these options are available to the QB while only reading the reactions of a few defenders, and the leverage of the defense.

In a perfect world, an offensive coach can call the same play over and over, and get a different result on every play.

Add in a team that runs a Baylor-style of offense – that options their vertical routes – and the scoreboard might break.

RPOs are the reason why defensive coaches are starting to adjust how they break down offenses and read the tendency data when developing scouting reports.

Video Clip No. 2 (seen below), shows one of the best, and most-used examples of a no-huddle, spread offense at work. In this bowl game, on four consecutive plays, Ole Miss ran the exact, same play. All the QB did was read the defense and take what they gave him.

(VIDEO 2) BBVA Compass Bowl: Ole Miss Vs Pitt

Change the “B-Gap”

How can a defense, especially one with limited talent, contain an explosive offense that relies heavily on RPOs? Move the “B-gap.”

The legendary Kansas State football coach, Bill Snyder, once told Phil Bennett, the current defensive coordinator at Baylor University, that “the most-difficult thing for an offense to deal with is post-snap defensive-line movement.”

By moving the defensive-line you can place stress on an offense’s blocking schemes and change the read. RPO teams rely on pre-snap reads. By moving the gaps after the snap, a defense changes the read, and can confuse the QB.

When designing a defense, it is crucial to start with the run-fits first. Most offenses understand running the ball wins games. The run-pass conflict is where teams gain explosive plays – primarily, by using their lineman as bait.

Every defensive coach in the country has argued about how to play offensive linemen downfield. By always firing off the line, and giving a “low-hat read,” it draws the defense closer to the line of scrimmage, and potentially, opens up passing lanes.

Say a defensive coordinators sells out on the run, the offense uses that aggressiveness, and subsequently, the open passing lanes, to blow the top off. The next play, when the DC sells out for the pass, and utilizes an aggressive zone blitz, by sending an edge-blitz to get a sack – it usually means that they forgot to fill the “A-gap” – and now they’re forced to watch the RB scamper untouched up the middle.

These types of run-pass conflict scenarios are what RPO teams rely on to gain their advantage. Add an up-tempo style of play into the mix, and the defense is on their heels.

Defenses can counteract this by using line movement to change the gaps and how the defense looks post-snap.

Take a look at the top defenses in college football and you’ll notice a trend. Most are all running some version of a match-quarters scheme.

What’s the new en-vogue defense that most teams are switching to? The old-school 4-3 Over Defense.

Even Nick Saban, who traditionally, utilizes a 3-4 defense, now runs four down-linemen against spread teams.

When talking about defending the spread, Baylor’s Phil Bennett always starts by moving the “B-gap.” Most spread teams want to attack the open gap and play off the run-pass conflict created – by what appears to be – this natural opening.

Whether it is whole line movements, or just moving the interior line, by moving the gaps you change the shape of your defense.

An RPO team relies on precise reads by the QB. When an RPO team plays up-tempo, a defense is forced to line up and simplify things. As stated earlier, simple can mean predictability, and in football, predictability gets you beat.

Using gap-exchange, post-snap, can cause hesitation in the QB. Hesitation in football means mistakes. Look at any top team in the country and they probably have a plus turnover-margin. Mistakes by an offense lead to turnovers.

Creating doubt in a QB’s mind can derail any explosive offense. Whether you implement simple line movements, or exotic stunts, it doesn’t matter. As long as a defense can simply change the read, and the gaps post-snap, an RPO offense will struggle.

As show below in Video Clip No. 3, Baylor uses full line-movement with an edge pressure against a 3×1 single-width set. The read for the QB in this clip should be a pull, but he hands it to the running back only to be tackled by the Mike LB. Watch as the Will LB, align in a “Zero-technique” rocks to the field side. The edge-pressure LB is in charge of the dive, and the Will LB rocks to take the QB. Either way, this play was covered.

(VIDEO 3) Sept 6, 2014 (Week 2) Baylor Vs Northwestern State

Attack the Tendencies

All offenses have tendencies, even those who utilize RPOs. To determine what type of line movement to use, a defensive coach must determine where the offense wants to get the ball. To determine this, a defensive coordinator must begin by asking two questions.

Question 1: Does the opposing offense prefer that the RB run the ball, or the QB?

Question 2: Is the quick screen their go-to pass for the RPO, or is it a pass to their stud X-receiver to the boundary on a hitch or vertical route?

Once a defense has an understanding of an opponent’s tendencies, it can play on the reads.

Maybe your defense has a stud Mike LB, and the offense wants to make him wrong every time, change his gap responsibility and move him around.

Or perhaps, the offense reads the leverage of the safety to determine the RPO route, in which you play quarters and change the coverage on the single WR-side from Cover-2, to Cover-4, to man-free.

Always be gap sound, and always have a backup plan. Defensive coaches should regularly move the interior line from one play to change the cover down, then utilize full-line movement on the next play to get the QB to pull the ball.

DIAGRAM 2: Using Defensive Line Stunts. By utilizing an interior line stunt, the defense moves the “B-gap” and changes the read of the opposing QB post snap.

In this instance, the QB read will now go from a “give” to a “pull read.” Even with a lead blocker, the defense has a plus-1 advantage with the Mike LB inside and the Sam LB outside.

Meanwhile, the Cover Safety triggers on the screen pass with the Sam LB serving as late support. The key here is Sam LB – who can be patient and sit.

The Down Safety fills the “O-gap’ to the boundary in case of stretch, the Will LB reads flow and rocks back.

Formation Blitzes, Alignments

Another way defenses can gain an edge on an RPO offense is to formation their blitzes and alignments. Not every blitz, line movement, or even coverage, works against every formation.

If there was one, umbrella defense that worked, then everyone would run it. Even Rex Ryan, in the NFL, during a press conference before he played the “spread guru” Chip Kelly’s “check-with-me” scheme, remarked that “all teams in college are just going to run quarters.”

Well, there might be a reason for that. Offenses have the advantage, and the antiquated days of putting your best players on defense are gone.

Defenses have to rely on LESS to get production against explosive offenses using schemes that spread them out and play off traditional run-pass rules.

Modern offenses are putting their best players at slot and QB. So what has been the subsequent reaction by defensive coaches? Nothing new, just using match quarters, the 4-3 Over Defense, and mixing in well-timed line-movement and blitzes to change a QB’s reads and apply pressure.

Cody Alexander is the Cornerbacks Coach at Lovejoy High School in Lucas, Texas. He is also the author of the coaching blog,

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