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Colts University: RPO 101

The number of Colts fans who obviously don’t understand how RPO’s work was so alarming that I was tasked with creating an unaccredited online university to fight the ignorance.

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

Hello, and welcome to your first day at Colts University. Your very first class is RPO 101.

Of course, RPO stands for Run-Pass Option, but I suspect most of you knew that much, already. Some of you no doubt will have a firm grasp on the subject, but in reading Colts fans' reactions to these concepts, they are a mystery to many.

At the end of this course there will be a test (no really), answers should be submitted in the comments section and those that pass this open-book, open-note test will receive an acknowledgement in the introduction to the next Colts University class, as well as an emailed certificate (to the email address listed in your account, unless another address is requested in your comment) which you can print and hang in your home or office, right next to your actual diplomas.

Let’s begin.


Why

The first thing you need to understand about the RPO, really about football, is that everything is a numbers game. Every aspect of the game is dictated by the number 11. This number can be broken down in a variety of ways, and game rules may dictate possible locations at specific times, but no matter what, the number can never be higher than 11.

We all know that most often offenses have five down linemen and a quarterback. Meaning six of an offense's 11 are decided by the nature of football itself. What we’re left with is five. Those five players are usually some combination of receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Those five could, and sometimes do, include a sixth offensive lineman, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s rare and isn’t something we need to spend any time on in RPO 101.

The five players that the offense chooses to send onto the field dictate to defenses what combination of linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs they will have on the field. What both offensive and defensive coaches hope for on every play is a numerical advantage, somewhere, for their unit. It might come on the line, it might come in coverage, but offensive and defensive coaches hope to have one more player in a specific area of the field than their opponent has accounted for.

It sounds simple but both teams have 11 men on the field at the same time, and coaches have been trying to figure out how to gain that advantage over their opponent since football's inception more than a century ago. For more than 100 years, coaches have dedicated their working lives to cracking this code.

Surely if there was a good way to guarantee a numerical advantage someone would have come up with something by now, right?

And that, class, is why the RPO came to be.


What and How

So what does an RPO look like? How does it work?

I’m glad you asked!

Finally, we get to some film!


Example 1

When looking at Example 1, you see Carson Wentz hand the ball off before faking a throw with his feet to the receiver.

You will also notice the right tackle run horizontally at the snap to get out wide to possibly block for the receiver. Let’s look at how these numbers break out on this RPO:

Some of you might be wondering how this could be considered a numerical advantage. But as you can see, the Ravens have six defenders in the box to match up with the Colts' six blockers. The ball carrier is the seventh man for the offense, and if all goes well, there won’t be anyone available to tackle him before he picks up a nice gain. If the offense has as many blockers as the defense has would-be tacklers, it’s a win for the offense as you expect your players to make their blocks, or simply get in the way long enough to prevent a tackle.

So what about that seventh defender, the one who goes out with the tackle? After all, he is the one who eventually makes the tackle.

Now it’s time to look at Example 1a.

That outside linebacker is the force player. This isn’t the right class to fully define what a force player is, but the quick version is that he’s the player who is responsible for setting the edge for the defense. He has to ensure that no run gets outside of him. So when the right tackle pulls to the edge player’s outside shoulder, alarm bells should be going off in his head. Either the tackle is trying to get to his outside shoulder to block him back inside, or that tackle isn’t interested in blocking him at all.

Either way that edge defender just became the most important defender on the field, and he knows it.

Here’s why:

As soon as the ball is snapped Carson Wentz’s eyes lock on this defender to see what he does. Wentz’s decision on what to do with the ball will be made based on what this defender does. Calling this a “decision” doesn’t mean Wentz has the freedom to just do whatever he wants, his actions are decided by the force defender. Wentz has a duty to his team to make the correct read and distribute the ball accordingly. As such it is incorrect to say that a quarterback could “check out” of the run after the ball has been snapped as a “check” is made at the line before the snap- this topic will be covered more completely in Pre-Snap 101. Be sure to see your advisor to sign up for that course next semester.

If the defender squeezes down to try to tackle Nyheim Hines, Wentz’s job is to pull the ball out and throw it to his waiting receiver.

This is what that might look like:

Had the edge defender stayed inside, he wouldn’t have knocked the right tackle off of his path to the outside, and he would have had a free run at the only defensive back who could have made the tackle before Parris Campbell was able to pick up a lot of yards.

Instead, the edge defender stays wide and forces Wentz to hand the ball off.

Nyheim Hines was able to pick up five yards on this play, so did Stampede Blue really create Colts University just so this made-up online university (offering real and completely unaccredited certificates) could create a detailed breakdown of a play that’s only designed to pick up five yards?

Yes, we did the first part, but the second part isn’t accurate. This play could have gained a lot more than five yards, had two things happened. The first thing is that Nyheim Hines would make a good decision, which is realistic given what we know of Hines, and the second is that 40 percent of the offensive line doesn’t get destroyed by the defense:

Chris Reed and Eric Fisher both get beat on the play, which causes Hines to cut back and follow Jack Doyle. As a result, Hines is tackled by the force defender while being chased by the Ravens defenders that Reed and Fisher let through. If Reed and Fisher win their blocks, there’s no telling how far Hines goes on this play, but even with those failed blocks this play still gains five yards, in no small part due to the linebackers staying back to prevent a possible pass.

Let’s review what we learned from this play:

  1. On each RPO, there is a defender that is going to decide if it is a run or a pass.
  2. The quarterback must read that defender and act accordingly. At no point is it accurate to say the quarterback has “checked” to a run or pass after the ball has been snapped.
  3. If the play is designed well, there isn’t much room for interpretation. The defender either plays the run or the pass, no one can be in two places at once.
  4. RPO’s tend to hold linebackers in place longer than normal, as they have to read the quarterback, who has to read a defender.

Expanding on each review point:

  1. Years ago I explained the RPO here on Stampede Blue and a commenter said something to the effect of “I don’t get how one defender can be the entire read. Defenses will figure it out. It can’t be that easy.” But the thing is- it is that easy, kind of. It’s not that the quarterback just has to make one read, he has to make one read after the snap to determine run or pass. But before the snap, he has to make sure that those numerical advantages are possible. Once he sees that they are, then, and only then, can he make a single read and decide what to do. Also, it’s not as easy as it looks. That’s a really fast decision to make based on the actions of a great athlete. And finally, there’s nothing for a defense to figure out. They have to decide what they would rather defend and live with the consequences, because they’re only allowed to have 11 men on the field at a time.
  2. If the quarterback makes the decision based on the location of a single defender, doesn’t that mean that a defense can dictate that you only run or only pass on RPO’s? Yes. That’s exactly what it means. But on the other end of that is the fact that due to the nature of football (11 players on the field for each team), a well-executed RPO should always create a numerical advantage. That means the offense should never be in the wrong play given what the defense has called.
  3. This one is self-explanatory. The hand-off/throw read is usually pretty straightforward.
  4. This is part of the reason the play gained five yards. This works, in effect, like a draw play. The linebackers can’t bite up in case Wentz pulls the ball out to pass, but they can’t bail out in case Wentz hands off. It results in the Colts’ blockers making first contact with the second level of the defense 2-3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. This isn’t something that typically happens with traditional run plays.

Example 2

In Example 2, you see Wentz offer the ball to Jonathan Taylor before pulling the ball out and throwing upfield to Kylen Granson.

Before the snap, you should notice two things that are important in this play; 1. Michael Pittman Jr. goes in motion, and 2. the Colts have a big numerical advantage in the box. There are seven Bucs defenders and seven potential Colts blockers, with Jonathan Taylor making the 8th. Right away we know that this play should be set up for success, just due to this fact alone.

The fact that Pittman went in motion is important, because it shows that the defense is in some sort of zone coverage. If you’re unsure how we can tell this is zone (possibly match) coverage, that will also be covered in Pre-Snap 101 which should be taken concurrently with Coverage 101. As I said, be sure to see your advisor about signing up for that course, as well. Just know that Carson Wentz knows this isn’t pure man-to-man coverage on his left side.

You will also notice that there were two routes run on that side of the field, and both receivers on the backside of the play immediately looked to block.

Michael Pittman Jr. runs a quick route to the flat while Kylen Granson runs a short comeback at five yards. Granson catches the ball, and he picks up 10 more yards and a first down.

Let’s take a look at Example 2a:

Look at the way Pittman and Granson are stacked in tight next to Eric Fisher, Pittman inside of Granson. Pittman gives the outside linebacker a double move and, while I can’t be sure, that double move indicates to me the Colts were hoping that edge defender would stay with Pittman long enough to justify handing this ball off. If there were no preference, Pittman simply could have run to the flat without the extra move.

Instead, the edge defender came crashing down into the box to try to make a play on Taylor. Here we see Wentz make his initial read of the edge defender:

Wentz sees the force defender has chosen to play the run, so he does the right thing and pulls the ball out of Taylor’s gut. Next, we see Wentz make his second read:

Let’s refresh our memory of what the Bucs coverage looked like before the snap from Example 2:

The Bucs have one defensive back close to the line of scrimmage and one 6-7 yards off the ball. The inside linebackers will no doubt be staying inside to stop a potential run, and once the edge defender plays the run, it leaves one defender to cover two routes close to the line of scrimmage.

The DB playing 6-7 yards off the ball, reads the routes in front of him, sees that his responsibility has become Granson, and tries to gain depth to prevent from getting beat:

Had that DB tried to close the gap on Granson, the rookie tight end could have stuck his foot in the ground and broken to the outside, or turned on the jets and gone deep. The defensive back doesn’t know what route he’s running, but he knows he can’t get beat deep. He’s willing to give up inside leverage, because he should have more help coming from the middle of the field than the absolutely no one he has outside the numbers.

Granson’s route is important here, too. Had he run a curl route and turned back to his right, that defensive back could have put his foot in the ground and driven toward the TE. Because he turned to his left, the DB waited for a split-second longer to defend against a potential out-breaking route.

Carson Wentz knew all of this before the snap, because of the motion in which MPJ went. He knew Granson was turning to his left, and he knew that the DB close to the line could only cover one of his potential targets, which is why he started his throwing motion before ever looking at Kylen Granson:

Wentz has already started his windup, still looking at MPJ. Just before the ball leaves his hand he turns his head to locate Granson:

All that’s left to do is make an accurate throw and a wide-open catch.

Here, the RPO created a disadvantage for the defense in multiple ways and ultimately resulted in a short, high percentage throw that gained 15 yards. That's exactly the kind of play that defensive coordinators hate to give up, and one that offensive play callers spend countless hours trying to figure out how to create.

Let’s review what we learned from this play

  1. Reading a defense before the snap with a called RPO is important for both the run and pass.
  2. When the force defender crashes inside, the quarterback has to pull the ball out and throw the pass.
  3. There can be more than one receiving option on an RPO.
  4. The first post-snap read determines run or pass.
  5. The quarterback will often make another read in coverage, but may not have to depending on the routes ran and defensive alignment.

Alright, we’ve seen a run and a pass from the RPO. Now, we’re going to pick up the pace in the last few examples.


Example 3

Looking at Example 3, and the first thing that jumps out to you is what?

That’s right! This is the same exact concept that we saw in Example 2!

The backside of this play doesn’t really matter, but you’ll notice that the formation is different. Example 2 featured two receivers out wide but in Example 3 you see there is a tight end next to the right tackle and a receiver in tight.

On the play side, MPJ isn’t lined up like in Example 2. He is out wider but still in tight. Kylen Granson is lined up inside. This time, Granson runs the quick out while MPJ runs the short comeback.

The Bucs matched up with one DB over MPJ, and they left a linebacker to cover Granson.

Now let's look at Example 3a:

Wentz sees the edge defender bite up and play the run, and the linebacker responsible for covering Granson is held by the threat Hines poses as a runner. Both the backer and force defender have their eyes in the backfield, which, once again left Granson wide open. Wentz made the short, very high percentage throw (one might call it a long handoff), Granson caught an easy ball and gained a nice chunk of yards.

Review from Example 3

  1. When the edge defender crashes inside toward the running back, the quarterback is required to pull the ball out and throw it to his receiver.
  2. The RPO, once again, put the defense in an unwinnable position.
  3. The pre-snap read let Wentz know that he was only going to have to make one read on this play. Either the edge defender was playing the run, or he was sticking with Kylen Granson. If he didn’t stay on the TE, no one was going to be covering him.

New ideas introduced during Example 3

Though controversial, many RPO passes, especially those at or near the line of scrimmage, are considered by many to be an extension of the ground game. Even though it goes down on the stat sheet as a pass, many consider these high percentage throws no different than a called run play.

Without telling you my opinion on this subject, the question you need to ask yourself is this; At the end of the day, how different are they?

Some of you will decide they are very different.

Some of you will decide the outcome is so similar, that they could easily be considered an extension of the ground game.

Again this is a debatable piece of knowledge. There is no single correct answer here, and, as such, it will not be on the exam. I felt this should be included in RPO 101, if for no other reason to get you to question the beliefs you might hold and think of them in new ways. We’ll save further discussion of this topic for RPO 201. If you have a strong interest in this type of discussion, you might also consider majoring in Football Theory with a minor in Strategy and Tactics.


Example 4

There’s not much in the Example 4 clip that you shouldn’t be able to gather now on your own. Many of you would do fine breaking down this play completely on your own, if you’ve made it this far in the class, but we’re already here and I’ve already pulled five clips for this class, so we’re going to take a nice look at Example 4a.

The edge defender drops out to go cover Jack Doyle.

If the force defender drops into coverage, what kind of play does an RPO become?

That’s right! A run!

And they do that because?

That’s right! The offense now has at least one more person than the defense, thus putting the defense in an impossible situation to win if everyone does their job!

Man, you guys really are learning!

So why doesn’t Jonathan Taylor get more than four yards on this run?

Wait, you mean you saw Ryan Kelly’s left foot get stepped on? He then fell to the ground, which prevented him from making his second level block on #45, which allowed 45 to flow to the backside of the line to take on Taylor after he made his cut?

You guys should ace the exam!

One thing that you might not have noticed is how Lavante David (#54) was impacted by the receivers running the route, and the quarterback continuing his motion, rolling out toward his receivers, after handing the ball off.

David can’t tell who has the ball, so he continues to drop into coverage. Had Ryan Kelly been able to make his block, Jonathan Taylor might have scored on this play.

Take a look at what I mean:

Review from Example 4

  1. The force defender drops into coverage, so the quarterback is tasked with handing the ball off.
  2. The offense gained a numerical advantage right away.
  3. It was impossible that the offense would be in the wrong play given that advantage.
  4. Without execution from all 11 players on the field, even a perfectly called play tends to result in a play that doesn’t gain all that it can.

New Ideas to Consider

According to the official, 2021 NFL Rulebook (which can be downloaded by clicking on this link), no ineligible receiver may be more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is thrown. Here’s how the rulebook puts it:

So what does this mean for teams running RPO’s?

It means you can’t throw deep passes on called RPO’s.

But why?

The offensive line doesn’t know if the play is going to be a run or a pass, and you can’t expect them to fire one yard out and stop until they realize it’s a run. They have to run block which doesn’t leave enough time for slow developing deep routes. It’s why every clip you’ve seen here, and every RPO you’ve seen in an NFL game, couples their run option with quick, short passing options.

This rule is also why RPO’s in the NFL are (almost) exclusively from zone run blocking concepts. If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between zone and gap (aka man) blocking concepts, make sure you sign up for O-Line 101. We don’t have enough classroom time here in RPO 101 to fully explain it. The short version of the difference between the two is that zone blocking concepts start out moving East and West before moving North and South. Gap blocking moves North and South right away. Even running quick, short routes most of the offensive line would be more than a yard down field before the quarterback has a chance to read the force defender.

Just know that RPO’s at the NFL level almost always include zone blocking run concepts and quick hitting routes because of this rule.


Example 5

I like the play in Example 5 because it shows you something that the other examples really don’t:

If the force defender doesn’t strongly commit either way, the RPO almost always defaults to a handoff.

The Colts have numbers at the snap. It’s six on six, if you don’t count Michael Pittman Jr aligned tight on the right side of the formation. Over top of Pittman and Jack Doyle are two defensive backs 7-8 yards off the line of scrimmage.

If the force defender turns and runs with either receiver, this is a big gain for the running back. If he stays inside to take away the run, someone is making a catch with 5-6 yards between them and the nearest defender.

Let’s look at Example 5a to see what happens when the force defender tries to be in two places at once:

This force defender takes two read steps to his right, but he isn’t really crashing to play the run. A strong case could be made that Carson Wentz would have been justified in pulling this ball out because of those inside read steps from the edge defender. Would there have been an open receiver, if he pulled the ball out? Let’s look back at Example 5 at this exact moment:

Jack Doyle is wide open and the nearest defender is 5-6 yards away from him. By the time he got the pass, that gap might have been closed to 3-4 yards but I trust a 260 pound Jack Doyle to fall forward and gain an extra 2-3 yards against a 220 pound safety who is chasing him to the sideline.

Instead, because that defender didn’t strongly commit in either direction, the quarterback defaulted to handing the ball off, because handing the ball off is the default when the read isn’t clear.

New Information to Consider from Example 5

If the glove don’t fit, you must hand it off.

-That’s an OJ Simpson trial reference. Also, in my opinion, OJ Simpson would have absolutely dominated RPO’s.


Additional Study Materials

Film Room: The Colts could see the return of the RPO with Carson Wentz by Zach Hicks

The 2019 Indianapolis Colts Passing Offense; A Scouting Report by Chris Shepherd

Frank Reich’s offense: The assistant coaching years | Ken Whisenhunt and Doug Pederson by Chris Shepherd


Answer Sheet Format

Please copy and paste this answer sheet into the comment box before answering the questions.

  1. This statement is _____________.
  2. _______
  3. This statement is _____________.
  4. _______
  5. This statement is _____________.
  6. This statement is _____________.
  7. _______
  8. _______
  9. _______
  10. _______
  11. _______
  12. _______

EXTRA CREDIT

_______

Final Exam

  1. True or False- numerical advantages are only important when running the ball.
  2. The RPO is used as a way to ______________________. A- increase rushing production B- increase passing production C- create a numerical advantage D- annoy defensive coordinators
  3. True or False- the quarterback decides what to do with the ball, hand it off or throw, and the rules for deciding when he should choose either option aren’t well defined.
  4. If executed correctly, RPO’s allow you to create a numerical advantage for what kind of play? A- Run. B- Pass. C- Both. D- Neither.
  5. True or False- RPO’s eliminate the need for pre-snap reads.
  6. True or False- On a called RPO, the quarterback can check out of the run or pass after the snap.
  7. RPO’s in the NFL most often use what kind of blocking? A- Gap. B- Vertical Set. C. Slide Protection. D- Zone.
  8. If the force defender doesn’t strongly commit to the run or the pass, the rule for RPO’s is to A- scramble. B- read the coverage before deciding. C- throw. D- run.
  9. Offensive linemen can be how many yards down field when the ball is thrown? A- 1. B- 2. C- 3. D- this is not a rule.
  10. If the force defender doesn’t commit to either the run or the pass, the play defaults to: A- a broken play. B- an audible. C- a run. D- a pass.

Practical Application

11. Watch the video below and determine if the quarterback should A- Hand the ball off. or B- throw.

12. Watch the video below and determine if the quarterback should A- Hand the ball off. or B- throw.

EXTRA CREDIT

Watch the video below and determine if the quarterback should A- Hand the ball off. or B- pitch the ball to the tight end.

(Technically an RPO, we can debate if it is or isn’t, but bottom line the decision to run or pass is based on the same read. This is also why this question is extra credit.)


Congratulations on completing RPO 101! You should now have an academic understanding of the basic Run-Pass Option! You do not know all that there is to know about the RPO, but neither do I. But we both know more about the RPO than 98% of the old guys you overhear talking ball at a bar, and knowing your football knowledge is superior to 98% of old bar guys is all the reward you should need. That said, hopefully you have learned something during this course that will improve your knowledge of the game and enhance your ability to enjoy the game of football and the NFL.

As your professor I will grade your exams as quickly as possible, and then get your certificates sent out as soon as possible. If I have an issue sending your certificate, I will respond to you in the comments. If you haven’t received anything (an email or a reply to your exam comment) in the next week it means you either A- Failed or B- I forgot. So feel free to question the status of your certificate.

In the event that you do fail, (how?) please feel free to take the course as many times as you please. Also this is open note, open book, open Google, and open looking at other comments. Just be careful who you trust in the comments section. This definitely isn’t you, but some people around these parts can’t tell the difference from a pick-and-roll and an RPO.

Good Luck!