Run-Pass Option 101: The RPO Basics

In this article coach Todd Greenwell breaks down the basics of the RPO. Make sure you follow him on Twitter for more RPO awesomeness!

Downhill defenders and extra defenders near the line of scrimmage are the death to an offense and its running game. When the offense cannot move the ball with the run, the passing game becomes more problematic. To fight against these forces, offensive coordinators have turned to the modern day option, the run-pass option, or RPO.

A complete mastery of a defense is not necessary in order to understand the value of RPO’s, but an understanding of its basic structure is needed.  An offense normally defines its running lanes as ‘holes’, whereas the defense likes to defend ‘gaps’.  These gaps are the spaces between adjacent offensive players. Because the rules of football require there to be 7 men on the line of scrimmage, the defense will always be required to defend 8 gaps.

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Further, the playing field is further divided beyond the line of scrimmage into passing zones. At a minimum, there are 8 passing zones to defend, 5 under or low zones, and three deep or high zones.

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That means there are 16 zones and gaps to defend, with only 11 defenders. The modern spread offenses have further manipulated the field to create extra gaps by inserting receivers for running backs and placing them near the line of scrimmage.

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So, there are legitimately 10 gaps and 8 passing zones for 11 players to defend.

The defense will have to assign a single player to cover multiple pass zones and or it will need to assign a defender to cover both a run gap and a pass zone. It is the latter defender the RPO is best designed to attack. [other passing concepts are used to attack the defender required to cover multiple pass zones.] The defense can align in many fashions but offensive coaches tend to group them as “box” players, pass defenders, or “dual”. Again, it is this dual player the RPO wants to exploit and make wrong.

If a defense aligns with a 6 man box versus a one-back formation it’s stronger to defend the pass and weaker against the run. In theory the offense has 6 blockers for the 6 defenders and the quarterback would carry the football untouched into the passing zones.

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Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 8.58.48 AMFrom this simple diagram, we can see that the SAM linebacker has moved into the run box and the free safety has moved out of the middle of the field. If the offense had called a quarterback run, the defense would have a free hitter on the quarterback.   But, had the offense called a stick passing concept the offense would have a larger window between the Sam, corner, and the linebacker for #2 receiver to get open or for the running back to catch a swing pass.

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So, to get to the best play, offenses played a game of “check with me”.  It would get set in its alignment and the quarterback would begin a dummy cadence to ensure the defense was aligned.  After the dummy cadence, the eligible receivers would then look to the sideline to see if the call was going to be stick or quarterback draw.  The play would be signaled, the quarterback relays to the ineligible players and the play is run.  Of course, defenses quit, [if they ever did], staying in the same alignment as the offense looks to get the play, leaving the offense back in the same guessing game.

To counteract this offense turned to the world of the RPO. In this instance, the offense will combine the stick passing concept, with the quarterback draw. The offensive line will block draw, the backside receivers will run any passing concept the coordinator chooses, and the frontside receivers and the running back will run the stick passing concept. The quarterback will either execute the stick pass, or he will pull the  ball down and run the quarterback draw. His decision will be made by reading what the seventh defender does once the ball is snapped.

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In this case, the conflicted defender is the one over and inside the #2 receiver.  If he bails to cover the #2 stick space, the quarterback will pull the ball down and run the draw. The offense is now in the best position to run a favorable play.  This plus one advantage holds up as long as the quarterback is the ball carrier. But, it is not advisable to bank on season-long success with inside quarterback runs.

To get the plus one advantage and have the running back be the ball carrier against a 6 man box, the offense must leave a defender unblocked and keep the seventh defender from entering. With the RPO, any run can be used. Some like zone, some like gap based power runs. In this example, the run will be  the common  inside zone run, and the pass will  be a hitch and fade on the front and the backside route will be an out and fade.

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The quarterback will take the snap and immediately get his eyes to the conflicted defender. If that defender comes downhill to fill the B gap, the quarterback will pull and throw to the slot receiver who is going to make sure to body up and block out any safety who may be coming down to rob. By leaving the linebacker unblocked, the offense gains a plus one in the run game. By separating the field and sending routes deep, it forces safeties to remain out of the run game, ie to keep the seventh defender out.  Because the backside is running a speed out, the defender over him will be unable to come into the run box.  As defenses adjust to what is happening the offense must continue understand what gaps or passing zones are being left open, or being defended by dual defenders.  As long as the offense knows the answer to that question, there is an RPO to attack with. Ultimately, the final chalk lies with a cover zero. At that point, it is my man against your man. Play ball.

About coach Greenwell
Todd Greenwell has coached youth, middle school and high school football in Louisville, KY for 15 years.  Football is his vice, and he is currently coaching freshman defensive backs at Louisville, Trinity High School.  Trinity plays in the highest class in Kentucky and has 23 State titles in 58 years of football. Make sure you follow him on Twitter for more RPO awesomeness!

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