The RPO is one of the hardest to defend in football. Primarily because the constraint is added into the play like an option off a bad look. The offense can adjust to the defense even after the defense has already adjusted to the offense. And now with the development of packaged-plays, or more famously known around the coaching circles as RPOs (Run-Pass Options), they can now play with the defense among three axes of direction in one play call. The amount of stretch that an RPO can create on a field is hard for a defense to cover using a traditional coverage. And then offenses have the capability to get the play off in thirteen seconds after the last play has occurred. Not only are defenses struggling with stretches in space, they are also dealing with fatigue, a disastrous element in a game that averages 10 more plays per game than twenty years ago.
As offensive schemes keep attacking the weaknesses of traditional coverages, they are in danger of becoming obsolete. RPO’s stretch zone coverage, provide an outlet against man, take advantage of a light box versus Cover 4, and get the quick bubble vs Cover 3. All defensive coordinators can do is teach their players the fundamentals, install the packages, and hope their players are aware enough to recognize what is happening. It’s a pickle to say the least.
Thankfully or unfortunately, depending on which side of the ball you are on, there are ways to combat the RPO.
In short, the scrape exchange is a technique that changes the gaps the play-side end and linebacker are responsible for. If the linebacker is normally responsible for the B gap and the End is responsible for the C gap, the two players will switch responsibilities so that the End is responsible for the B gap and the linebacker is responsible for the C gap. This creates a crashing motion which forces the QB, the one assumed as a least threatening runner, to keep it and the LB cleans up the mess by containing him in the C-gap. The QB is forced inside where all of the traffic is and hopefully, tackled for a loss. Defense dictates the direction of play, and the offense is forced to abide. Or so the theory goes.
If the offense is in a gun set, the scrape-exchange always occurs to the side of the RB. If the offense is in pistol however, then this is where it gets a little tricky. Most teams will key the scrape-exchange to the side of the TE, some will key the scrape-exchange to the wide side of the field. Depending on the team and the setting (HS, College, Pro), either one of them works.
Teams like the Steelers or the Sapp-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers benefit most from this exchange because the action is already installed into their package. The old Tampa Bay team especially, because they have stunts involving the 9 and 3 tech that adding something like this is pretty familiar. Which means not only are you practicing the skills needed to do this in your summer camps and weekly practices but, you also can hide it in all of your other schemes which makes it that much harder to identify pre-snap. Teams can’t check out of something they can’t see.
Against the RPO, the scrape-exchange defends the pitch player by putting a helmet on the QB before he can get it to him. The LB off the scrape exchange needs to fly to the QB as soon as he can so the QB can’t get rid of it. Once he gets rid of it, the only defender that can tackle him is the one assigned to the pitch player or a perimeter defender. Open-field has to be made by this point or, it results in an explosive play.
Every team in the NFL has some wrinkle of this to combat the read plays. Since it relies heavily on the ability of the front 7, they must execute and fly to the ball right away. Teams that do not have a good front 7 will find this technique hard to implement as they will not be able to switch gaps effectively much less fill their own gap.
If teams have an aggressive secondary however, this is where things can get interesting.
Bracket Coverage is a Cover 4 hybrid between man and zone. It’s objective is to defend the RPO by bringing their second and third-level players into the run game. They will read the offense to determine whether or not to come up into the “alley”, or the space in between the perimeter blockers and the tackle in a given concept, and help the front 7 or, help defend the pass.
As expected, the defensive backs are lined up in a Cover 4 alignment. The CB’s are 7-8 yards off the ball and the safeties are 10-12 yards off depending on the situation. Third and long calls for deeper depth. Second and short calls for the reverse. It aims to double the pitch player if he is open while also getting velocity on the ball carrier if he gets the ball. Responsibilities are divided in halves, so if a player is to the strong side of the play, he only worries about the strong side. If the player is on the weak side of the play, he only worries about the weak side. Should be easy enough to execute, right?
Here it is in its visual form:
Lots of lines? Don’t worry, let me break it down for you.
Let’s look at the left side of the drawing. In order to start the concept, we need to count how many wide receivers are on that side. In this case, there are two receivers. The one closest to the sideline will be called the #1 receiver, the one in the slot will be called the #2 receiver. Since the H is off the LOS, the safety will become the read defender. This is because the H has the leverage on the LB to make a nice crack block if he wants it. The eyes of the W will be on the R, so he won’t see it coming. Therefore, the FS needs to occupy the run fit for him.
Once the play starts, the FS has to read the tackle closest to his side. If the tackle drops back into pass pro, he will cover the #2 receiver offering inside help to the W. If the tackle steps up in the run game like he is now, he is going to dive straight for the QB. By this time, he should have enough momentum to tackle the QB for a loss if he decides to pull it. Based on whether it’s a run or pass, the safety will react to whatever the tackle does and fill his responsibility accordingly.
Now let’s look at the other side. The Y is our #2 receiver according to the count. But, he is on the LOS. So instead of the safety reading him like our last one, the S will read him instead because the Y does not have the leverage anymore. Since the eyes of the S is going to be on the tackle and near the Y, he will see the potential for a crack and evade it with his vision. Therefore, it makes sense for him to be the read defender. After the play starts, the LB will read the tackle to his side. If he drops into pass pro, he will double the #2 receiver helping inside with the $. If the tackle makes an initial run step towards the LOS, the S will fill in the run game in either the B gap or D gap depending on the action of the line. See a trend here?
All other players will play man to man against their assigned defender. The M takes the R, CBs take the #1 receiver, and the defenders working with the assigned read defenders will double the #2. If you know what a man-free looks like, it’s pretty similar in structure. Only different in that the free defender and the deep defender double the #2 to their side, or come up in the run. There’s a version called Cover 5, but it requires the two safeties to double the #1 receiver and leaves them out of the run fit.
Teams that do run this like to stunt their linemen inside so that the run bounces out toward the read players. They believe if they can clog up the middle and force the runner to bounce it outside, they can use the read players to wipe out the ballcarrier and get him down for a loss. So, they incorporate a lot of stunts like a “Games” or a “Tom” to screw up the middle.
The rules change a little bit if the defense faces a three man surface on one side. The safety to the three receiver side will midpoint, or protect the deep quarter of the field and the S will become the read defender. The free safety on the back side will become the read defender and double the #1 if he reads pass.
This is a pretty new development. So much so that only a handful of teams at the college level have it installed at all into their playbook. In time, teams that have aggressive, blitzing secondaries will incorporate it into their scheme but for now, it remains an experimental defense only tested at the Division II and Division I-AA level.
This leads me to the Cut technique. It originated out of the Wyoming football program in 2013 after they were troubleshooting how to contain the outside running game. Since their Front 7 wasn’t very talented, they decided to bring the corners into the run action by invoking the cut. Since the CB was siting five yards off the ball and receivers are arguably the worst perimeter blockers out of any sport, why not have them blitz to the D gap and bring the play inside?
The Cut technique is when the corner chooses to dive into the run game instead of sitting in the flat in Cover 2. The CB will read the QB’s initial drop back steps to see whether he is looking to keep it and throw, keep it and run, or hand it off and let the ball carrier run for extra yards. If the CB is sure that the play is going to be a run in either direction, he will sprint towards the ball as such:
If the CB sees pass, he will drop into his Cover 2, reroute the WR, and sit in the flat waiting for a receiver to come into his zone.
Although a small and simple wrinkle, this technique can be highly effective in defending the perimeter because the corners can take all the wide runs out of the equation. It leaves the offense with no choice but to run it up the middle and hope they get yards grinding through the A and B gaps.
However, because the CB is leaving his responsibility in the flat, he is leaving the honey-hole, the space between the CB’s zone and the safety’s zone along the sideline, wide open. If a WR were to run a hitch in that hole, the QB will throw it over the top to the open man and all the WR has to do is make one miss and he will score for six.
That’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed the series as much as I did writing it. Thanks for reading!
My Writing Schedule as of Now
- The Politics Of Coaching
- June 7-9
- Player Analysis: Brock Osweiler
- June 11-13
- Principles in the Zone Running Scheme: From Zero to Four
- June 15-17
- The Zombie Concept: The Answer to Multi-Layered Defenses
- June 19-22