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Understanding the fundamentals of the Run/Pass Option (RPO)

(Adam Bow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Around the NFL these days, Run-Pass Option (RPO) has become a widely-used term.

In its literal form — which the Patriots just saw a lot of with the Chiefs, and will see Sunday with the Bears — it is exactly what it says. The quarterback has the option to hand the ball off to the running back or throw the ball to a receiver. If that definition works for you, you can stop right here. However, I’d like to dive into the details of this offensive philosophy and hopefully explain what actually makes this thing go!

To start, RPO’s have been around in some form or another for at least 20 years. When the shotgun/spread offenses came into vogue, the RPO quickly followed. In its original form, the RPO was the zone-read bubble combination. As the play has developed, teams have found ways to utilize much of their general three-step or quick passing game concepts.

With the evolution of the passing concepts attached to the run game, they've also found ways to have a pass option with not only inside zone but also the stretch play, the power run game (ISO, Power, Counter), pin and pull, and the draw play.

So why does this concept work? The objective of a well-designed RPO is to put the defense in a run-pass conflict. In doing so, the RPO forces defenders to make a choice between playing the run or defending the pass.

From an offensive perspective, there is a much more specific approach. The quarterback has to try and uncover or figure out what coverage the defense is in, because coverage determines how they will fit the run game. Once the QB knows the coverage, he can then determine who to key, based on the route combination tagged with the play.

In this scheme, the quarterback literally keys one defender and that's who he makes his decision based on. If the designated defender plays the run, the quarterback will throw the ball. If the defender plays the pass, the quarterback will hand the ball off.

Typically, the hot- or read-side is to the side of the pre-snap alignment of the running back. That allows the quarterback to have vision on the mesh point of the handoff and key the determined defender. However, offenses are quickly evolving and moving the hot- or read-side away from the pre-snap alignment of the running back. This, of course, puts more pressure on a defense.

Speaking of defense, when it is executed properly, the RPO concept effectively does what it is intended to do -- put a ton of pressure on the defensive scheme. Simply put, it prevents you from playing traditional zone coverage. In straight zone coverage, you will always be in conflict.

The easiest way to defend an RPO team is to play some form of man coverage. This puts a body on a body and your gap control against the run is sound. Unless of course, you have a quarterback that can run ... then you have some problems to deal with. Fortunately for Bill Belichick, the NFL is not a QB-run game.

The challenge of living in man coverage is twofold.

First of all, you need to have some talented players who can cover. Secondly, a well-coached offensive team (i.e. the Chiefs), will do things formationally, with motion and scheme, that will create a schematic disadvantage.

The college game has evolved widely to match coverage with elements of zone coverage based on pattern reading. In my opinion, this is the most sound way to handle the RPO. In this scheme, you determine your run fits based on the running backs' pre-snap alignment and your coverage is adjusted to allow for you to handle both the run and pass. This defensive scheme was created by Bo Pelini and his staff during his Nebraska days specifically for RPO’s and zone-read offenses.

At the college level, the RPO game is widely utilized. As college quarterbacks and coaches make their way into the NFL, it will become more and more prevalent. Maybe Pelini will be visiting Foxboro in the not too distant future and bring with him his match concepts? Or, the Patriots could just bring in some elite cover guys and stay with their man free based scheme.


Cory Bailey, a Wrentham native and former Xaverian Brothers standout, will be providing some film analysis for BSJ this football season. A former captain at Fordham as an offensive lineman and long snapper, Bailey signed as a free agent with the Giants and played a season in NFL Europe. A former coaching intern with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bailey has had a long career as a college coach with stints at Dean and Iona before becoming the head coach at Assumption and, most recently, as the recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach at Coastal Carolina the previous six years. A former Patriots ballboy in the 1980s, Bailey recently relocated his family back to Massachusetts.