Now that NFL commentators and analysts are screwing it up at every turn, Rookie Scouting Portfolio contributor Eric Stoner shows you how to tell what is and isn’t an RPO.
When you’re watching a game live, every shotgun run or play-action pass can look the same. You already see announcers calling everything an RPO or “Run-Pass Option.”
On the flipside, if you do any play-by-play charting data, it’s extremely important to understand the difference in these concepts. They’re all trying to attack different things.
When you go through a play-by-play box score, all of these concepts are just going to be labeled “play action” leading to really unspecified data. That’s where superficial “just run more play action like the Rams do” type of analysis comes from.
The easiest way to discern between an RPO and a packaged play is to figure out whether the quarterback is making his give/keep decision pre-play based on the defense’s alignment (RPO) or post-snap by reading a defender (a packaged play).
It’s similar to the difference between a zone naked bootleg and the zone read. The naked boot is a pre-snap decision by the quarterback to keep the ball, where-as the zone read makes the unblocked defender “wrong” by using his rules against him.
These two plays are attacking the same backside, unblocked edge defender in the exact same way. Again, the difference is the pre-snap decision vs the post-snap read.
The Original RPO
I don’t know who can really take credit for being the “originator” of the RPO. [Editor’s note: Jon Gruden says it’s Brett Favre…] What I can tell you is that high school Wing-T offenses have been doing something similar since at least the 1990s.
At their hearts, Wing-T offensive coordinators would love to be able to run the trap play 35 times in a row if they could. It’s the foundation to the entire offense.
The wrinkle they’d use to help open up the trap would be to motion the tailback (H) into the slot and have him run a bubble screen or quick hitch.
The weakside linebacker in red is put in a formation bind. Pre-snap, the quarterback checks the linebacker’s alignment. If he apexes out with the H, the offense can run the trap at will against advantageous box numbers. If the linebacker stays in the box, the quarterback can run the bubble screen or hitch, utilizing the 2-on-1 numbers advantage the offense has in space.
Every NFL team’s Day One RPO install: outside zone/bubble screen. If your quarterback can count, he can run an RPO.
All 32 NFL teams run some variation of this RPO: they align the running back to the same side as trips and have him run outside zone with a bubble screen attached to the backside. Aligning the back to Trips put the defense in a particular bind by offsetting the pass and run strength of the offensive formation.
They must choose to be one body light to a run to the left or one body light vs Trips to the right. The QB’s pre-snap read is a simple box count.
If they have even numbers to run outside zone – in this case, five offensive linemen and a tight end – versus six box defenders, the offense will gladly take a “Hat-on-Hat” situation and poke out runs of 4-5 yards every down. If the Apex defender (No.52 in this case) stays in the box, the offense will take their 3-on-2 to the opposite side.
Here is a video of the play in real time:
RPO QB Running
When a team has a running threat at quarterback, it can really flesh out their RPO packages. By using the quarterback as a runner, the offense can re-establish a numbers advantage in the box. What was a -1 disadvantage now becomes a hat-on-hat situation. What was a hat-on-hat situation actually becomes a +1 advantage in the box for the offense.
Again, here is the play in real time:
A lot of people conflate packaged plays and RPOs, because, well, during the game they look almost exactly the same! The back and offensive line typically run some type of zone action and the quarterback either gives or pulls and throws the ball.
The major difference comes down to when the decision to pull the ball and throw happens. With an RPO, the quarterback makes the decision pre-snap based on the defense’s alignment and box count. In a packaged play, the decision happens post-snap. The quarterback must make a read of the defender who is being put into a run-pass bind.
Standard Play Action and Shotgun Zone Runs
Lastly, these concepts can be conflated with regular play-action passes and zone runs from shotgun. Deciphering them from each other is pretty easy though. For a regular zone run, the wide receivers will be blocking instead of trying to run route combos. For a regular play-action pass, the offensive line is going to pass set and form an actual pocket.
Compare the pocket here:
Note the get-offs by the wide receivers, too. In the top picture of the standard play-action pass, we have four immediate vertical releases. At its heart, Play Action wants to get vertical and hit big plays against third-level defenders.
RPOs and Packaged Plays can’t really do that due to protection issues. They’re run to put second-level defenders in run-pass binds and to take advantage of structural inadequacies in the defense’s alignment.
Now you can discern the difference between an RPO, a Packaged Play, and regular Play Action. Let your favorite play-by-play announcer or advanced stats play charter know that I am available for consultation.
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