By Mark Theophel, Defensive Coordinator
With RPOs being talked about at almost every level of football across the country, it’s becoming increasingly important for defenses to come up with ways to deal with multiple options on every play. These Run/Pass Options aren’t going anywhere and Offensive Coordinators are getting more and more creative about how they use them. Despite underperforming defensively this past season, we managed to be fairly efficient defending against RPOs. This is encouraging moving forward given the popularity of these types of plays and the troubles many defenses have with them.
Our answer to RPOs was simple – we ran our defense. Much of the discussion surrounding how to defend RPOs typically is about how much these plays limit defensive schemes. Some will make the claim that man coverage, rather than zone coverage, is optimal. Another common argument is that pressures are rendered ineffective by RPOs. Since we’re a zone pressure-heavy defense, I’m glad that we have not necessarily found those theories to be true. We ran the stats on how we did vs. RPOs and found that using our base coverages and pressures, we were able to defend these types of plays quite well without having to re-invent the wheel defensively.
Looking at our stats against RPO pass-attempts, we differentiated between downfield throws (i.e., anything thrown across the LOS) and lateral throws (thrown behind the LOS). It was important to make this distinction because the lateral throws are extremely high percentage passes, so most of them would be completed, though that would not necessarily be indicative of a positive play. Conversely, the opposite is true for downfield throws because those receptions are typically automatic gains of 5+ yards. On downfield pass attempts in RPOs, we were able to hold our opponents to 46% completions. Using our zone pressures, we reduced that number to 33% and forced multiple takeaways. Though the lateral throws (mostly just bubbles) yielded a higher percentage of completions, a quarter of those throws resulted in no gain or a loss. Zone pressures increased our effectiveness against those throws as well, with 38% of attempts resulting in no gain or a loss. We forced only one takeaway vs. the bubble, though it resulted in a defensive TD. When the ball was handed off in RPOs, we were fairly successful as well, holding opponents to less than 3.5 yards per carry.
We often use quarters/half-field coverage to defend teams that rely heavily on pre-snap RPOs and throw the bubble often. The diagram below illustrates how we defend the bubble vs. a two-WR set in those coverages. The Corner will act as the force player and
trigger aggressively on the bubble, with the Safety fitting off the stalk block by the outside WR. The OLB will take an appropriate pursuit angle to the inside hip of the ball-carrier.
* If the Corner fits the stalk block on the outside, the Safety should come downhill and cap the up-field progression of the ball-carrier. The OLB should take a direct angle to the back hip of the ball-carrier, allowing absolutely no cutback.
* If the Corner is sure he can make the play inside the block, he has that option but he must be extremely aggressive, so as to define the fit for the Safety. In that case, the Safety should approach the ball-carrier’s inside hip, pinning him to the sideline. The OLB will adjust to a deeper pursuit angle as the play turns up the sideline.
When it comes to post-snap RPOs, we were often tasked with defending individual routes on the backside of a two-back or trips formation. The most common route we faced to the single WR side in RPOs was a slant. We chose to attack this with a weak-rotated 3-deep zone (with the safety robbing the slant) or half-field coverage (with the corner jumping the route), often behind a run-stopping zone pressure to that side. Typically, these routes were used to compliment two-back runs such as power/counter or split zone, which typically featured kick-out blocks to the weak side by fullbacks and pulling linemen. These runs can put the perimeter force players in conflict with a WR running routes behind them.
Spill theory is central to our defensive teaching, and the key to alleviating this problem. We want defensive ends/rush LBs to get inside of kick-out blocks, forcing the play deep and to the outside, where we can contain the ball-carrier with our perimeter support and surround him with the pursuit. Spilling effectively falls directly in-line with what we ask our safeties and corners to do in weak-rotated zones. They are the force players vs. perimeter run and we rely on them to defend the single WR slant. Getting a spill means the play can’t hit downhill and put those players in conflict. Instead, they are able to play through the slant window and rally to the perimeter as the play extends to the outside after being handed off.
(Diagrams 2 and 3)
Using run-stopping zone pressures is often an effective way to ensure that we guarantee a spill. Collapsing the edge with our defensive ends and spilling the kick-out with a linebacker helps make the play extend to the outside where we are often bringing an additional linebacker in the blitz. This serves to “force the fit” that we would ideally want in our base defense by putting those players in an immediate position to defend the power running game and force the QB to choose between handing the ball off into a blitz or potentially throwing a pick. We can play the same basic 3-deep and half-field coverage behind those blitzes, with the rules slightly adjusted for the drop LB.
(Diagrams 4 and 5)
Another common theme in RPOs is an offense using a trips formation to spread defenses out and put LBs in conflict. Quite often, we face offenses that like to run the ball weak out of trips formations and attack the middle of the formation with slants and hitches by the inside WRs. We could run virtually any coverage that we want to defend this, depending on how we want to approach that week’s game-plan. What needs to be consistent is our ability to get the weak side run support involved so that our linebackers can lean their gap fits to the strong side of the formation. This ensures that the defender (often a LB) whose zone/progression is tied to the #3 WR can be more patient in the run game and protect us vs. hot throws to the middle of the formation.
Using zone pressures is also effective against these types of plays, provided those blitzes are designed to run the ball down from behind and eliminate the cutback if it is handed off. Again, we will run a variety of coverages behind these blitzes, with the common theme being the drop linebacker pushing to the trips side to undercut hot throws. This increases our chances of us getting a takeaway, which could be by the drop LB or (more often than one might think) the DBs sitting in a soft zone coverage and making plays on tips/overthrows.