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The evolution of the Run-Pass Option, and its impact in the Steelers new offense

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One of those football terms which has been burned into everyone’s mind is ‘RPO’. Here we explain what an RPO is, where it originated, and how it could impact the Steelers’ offense under Randy Fichtner.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who watched Philadelphia’s recent run to the Super Bowl title heard a host of TV commentators talk about the Eagles’ extensive use of the RPO, or “run-pass option.” Many of these analysts discussed them as though they were revolutionary. However, football junkies who have been watching the game at the high school and college level have been studying the RPO for years. Let’s dive into the concept by looking at its history, how it works and what to expect of its use in Pittsburgh.

RPOs developed at the lower levels last decade as part of the ever-evolving chess match between offensive and defensive coordinators. Offenses gained the upper hand in the early 2000s with the introduction of spread offenses designed to exploit less athletic defenders by making them play in space. Defenses countered by implementing the 4-2-5 scheme, which removed a traditional linebacker and replaced him with a more athletic safety-type who could line up in the slot and run down all of the bubble screens and perimeter concepts the spread employed. These 4-2-5 looks were initially effective, until tricky OC’s figured out their next move: the RPO.

The RPO borrowed from a spread offense staple, the zone-read, by leaving a defender unblocked and subsequently “read” by the quarterback. The zone-read left first level defenders unblocked and provided the quarterback two run options. He could give to the back running between the tackles or pull and keep it himself into the alley. RPOs changed that equation by leaving second-level defenders unblocked. Now, the quarterback would read one of those fast bodies the 4-2-5 had put onto the field. By reading a linebacker or safety, the quarterback had a run-pass option.

The run option was usually a sweep or power play that developed slowly enough for the quarterback to read the second-level defender. The pass option involved a quick throw into the area the read-key had voided. This quick throw was essential to the RPO’s success. It allowed offensive linemen to run-block because the ball was out of the quarterback’s hands before they were illegally downfield on a forward pass. And it got the ball into the hands of playmakers with space to run after the catch, which created opportunities for bigger chunk plays than did the “run-run” option of the zone read. Plus, unlike the zone-read, the quarterback wasn’t employed as a ball-carrier. This meant he got hit less, which OC’s favored for obvious reasons. Teams soon began to build RPOs into their base run plays and to get creative with the formations and personnel groups from which they used them.

Here is an early RPO concept I first learned of at a clinic back in 2009. I was a high school offensive coordinator at the time and I was looking for ways to get the ball to the perimeter in the shotgun spread offense we’d just installed. The presenter was Chris Ault, the head coach at the University of Nevada, and he was talking about Nevada’s signature sweep play, which they called “Horn.” What I thought made Horn unique was that Nevada pulled the center, which wasn’t something many teams did. But when Coach Ault started talking about their built-in pass concept on the backside of the play, it blew my mind. No one was using the term RPO yet so I didn’t know what to call it. But I scribbled it into my notes and told myself we would have to find a way to incorporate it into our offense.

(image courtesy of X and O Labs)

A few years later, we had our own version of “Horn X Pop.” The formation was different but the idea was the same: a pin-and-pull sweep with the QB reading the backside LB for a simple throw into the alley. Here is a breakdown of our version:

In the images above, you can see the read key flow with the run action. This prompts the QB to pull the football and flip it to the TE running up the seam. The TE receives the ball with plenty of space to run after the catch, and the result is a big play. When executed properly, the concept is almost unfair to the defense.

Why, then, did it take so long for the RPO to infiltrate professional playbooks?

Professional football has long been effected by a group-think mentality. There are only so many ways to skin a cat, and for NFL coaches that means sticking to the tried and true schemes that have worked for decades. The zone and gap run game. The 3-4 or 4-3 defense. Cover 1, 2 or 3. Every team in the NFL builds their system around these basic schemes. Why? Because they’ve worked. So-called novelty schemes like the Run n’ Shoot offense (which Buddy Ryan once famously called the “Chuck n’ Duck”) and the 4-6 defense have come and gone for a variety of reasons. Some coaches have not understood them well enough to properly implement them. Others have not been able to find the right players to make them work at the NFL level. And some have struggled to find success with them only to be replaced with a more traditional coach. The latter reason seems the most likely explanation for the slow matriculation of the RPO to the NFL. Coaches stick to traditional paradigms because they don’t want to get fired, and employing perceived novelty schemes is a sure way for that to happen if success isn’t found quickly.

(Side note: it’s interesting that the 3-4 defense was once considered a “novelty,” and that for a time in the 1980s the Steelers were the only team in the league who played it. Chuck Noll suffered some down years while using it, and a different franchise may have fired him or forced him to revert to a more traditional defense. The Steelers are unique, however, in that they believe in stability. Thus, the 3-4 took hold because the Steelers were a patient organization and took the long-view on its inception).

One other reason is took so long for the RPO to reach the NFL is because football at the college level has been far more fertile ground for experimentation. College coaches have had to get creative to narrow the talent gap that exists in many conferences. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention, and the Kentucky’s of the world have had to innovate to compete with the giants of the SEC. That’s how Hal Mumme’s Air Raid found its way into the game. Kentucky was never going to win playing power football against the likes of Georgia and Alabama. So Mumme modified the BYU playbook from the 1980s, put a bunch of wide receivers on the field and started chucking the football 50 times a game. The results were amazing. Innovations like the Air Raid have allowed teams like Appalachian State to upset Michigan and, more recently, 45-point underdog Howard to best UNLV.

Talent disparities like these don’t exist in the NFL, however. Some teams are clearly better than others but not because one has a roster of 5-Star recruits and the other has a bunch of glorified walk-ons. Things like coaching, culture and even the nature of the schedule have a much greater impact on NFL success. Thus, the urgency of creating new and exotic schemes designed to bridge the talent gap isn’t as pressing.

Now that the RPO has finally arrived, what does it mean here in Pittsburgh? Some of you may recognize the “Horn X Pop” play discussed above. Todd Haley ran a version of it the past few seasons, with Maurkice Pouncey pulling and Antonio Brown in the role of X receiver. At times, Haley ran RPOs both extensively and effectively. According to Ted Nguyen of FanRagSports, the Steelers ran 7 RPOs for 77 yards, an average of 11 yards per play, in their October win at Kansas City. Despite that success, Haley’s enthusiasm for the concept seemed to wane as the season progressed.

New offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s preference for gap run concepts at Memphis, which blend nicely with pin-and-pull RPOs, and Ben Roethlisberger’s stated desire to add flexibility to the offense seem to indicate they will play a larger role next season. Fichtner may expand on existing concepts like Horn X-Pop or he may introduce an entirely new series of his own. I’d look for him to get big bodies like Vance McDonald, Jesse James or even Juju Smith-Schuster up the seams on RPO concepts that exploit safeties filling aggressively to stop outside runs to Le’Veon Bell. Bell will be a huge key to the success of any RPOs Fichtner might employ. Without a successful run game, defenses have no need to be overly aggressive at the second-level, thus nullifying the effectiveness of the RPO.

Regardless, with the entire stable of offensive weapons expected to return, and with enthusiasm for the RPO growing rapidly throughout the league, their proliferation seems inevitable. Get ready for a barrage of commentators gushing about them in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in 2018.