Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower was describing this past week the difficulty in defending the Chiefs’ offense, and how it forces linebackers to defend everything on every play.
“It’s difficult because it’s both run and pass,” he said. “A lot of times it’s putting that one guy who has responsibilities in the run game and pass game, so that’s kind of what causes the confusion.”
Is it important to defend the pass, and not to bite on the handoffs?
“Well, if you don’t bite on it, they’re going to run the ball,” Hightower said.
So it’s kind of a Catch-22 then?
“It’s kind of an RPO,” Hightower quipped.
If you’re an NFL fan, you’ve heard the term “RPO” a lot the last couple of years. And you’ll hear it a ton on Sunday night when the Patriots play the Chiefs. The “run-pass option” play is the NFL’s hottest new trend, with the Chiefs at the forefront. In 2017, the top RPO teams were the Eagles (181 plays) and Chiefs (168) — i.e. Chiefs coach Andy Reid and his protégé, Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who run the same offensive system.
This year, the Chiefs are running their RPOs to perfection with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his explosive targets — Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Kareem Hunt, Sammy Watkins, and more. The Chiefs enter Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium ranked No. 2 in the NFL at 35 points per game, and are doing it with a significant package of RPO plays that until five years ago was seen mostly in high school and small college football.
“A season ago if you really wanted to see RPOs there were two offenses to watch, and that was Philadelphia and Kansas City, who sort of mastered this art,” said NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth, who is calling Sunday night’s game. “It’s an offense that creates a lot of open throws that can help a young quarterback.”
So, how exactly do RPOs work? The beauty is in their simplicity.
It’s no longer about presnap reads, or moving the chess pieces around before the snap, or audibling at the line of scrimmage. The RPO requires the quarterback to simply read one defender after the snap and make the right decision.
The RPO starts with the premise that the offense is going to run the football. And before the snap, the quarterback identifies the key defender — usually a linebacker but sometimes a safety.
The quarterback takes the snap, the offensive linemen will run block, and the quarterback will hold the ball to the running back’s chest. But the receivers also run their routes — usually something quick, like a slant or hitch.
If the linebacker bites on the run, the quarterback pulls the ball back and throws a slant pass to the area that the defender just left.
If the linebacker plays back, the quarterback will hand off the ball, and the offense should have a blocking advantage up front. The receiver running a slant will simply block the safety downfield.
“It makes the defense have to account for one more thing in the run game and in the pass game and so forth,” Mahomes said on Wednesday. “For us, the linebackers have to make a decision if they want to go out to the run or if they want to stay back for the pass, and I just have to make the right decision if I’m handing it or throwing it.”
RPOs don’t produce long passes down the field, but can open up the middle of the field for catch-and-run opportunities, such as Hill’s 58-yard touchdown against the Chargers in Week 1. The quick-throw nature of RPOs also neutralizes a good pass rush.
Details matter on RPOs, too. It is imperative that offensive linemen stay within 1 yard of the line of scrimmage no matter if it’s a pass or a run, to avoid illegal man downfield penalties. And RPO passes need to be quick, so other receivers blocking downfield can avoid a similar penalty.
The RPO makes for a difficult night for linebackers, who are under constant pressure to not overplay a run or pass.
“There’s a feeling that no matter what the linebacker does, you can’t be right,” Collinsworth said. “If that backside linebacker goes shooting off at the handoff, then they pull the ball out and throw it behind the back. If the linebacker is deep in coverage then they hand the ball out and you don’t have that backside pursuit coming across on the backside linebacker.”
The concept of the RPO has been in football for decades — making a decision based on the read of a defender. But it was mostly relegated to high schools and gadgety college programs. Drew Brees ran a similar style at Purdue 20 years ago. Art Briles ran RPOs for years at Baylor. Urban Meyer’s read-option offense had similar principles. Jimmy Garoppolo ran RPOs at Eastern Illinois under Dino Babers.
“Like a lot of things in football, there’s really nothing new,” NBC’s Tony Dungy said. “First time I saw it was in 1997 when I was in Tampa.”
Reid said he began using RPO principles with Donovan McNabb, and has evolved the concept with several of his subsequent quarterbacks — Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, Alex Smith, and now Mahomes.
The RPO trickled up to the Southeastern Conference and other major college programs, then made its way into the NFL in 2012, when Redskins coach Mike Shanahan combined his West Coast offense with Briles’s RPOs to create an offense for Robert Griffin III. Chip Kelly also did it at Oregon, and brought the principles to the Eagles in 2013.
Now with the success of the Eagles and Chiefs last year (and the Rams, too), the RPO is quickly spreading across the NFL. Reid’s former offensive coordinator, Matt Nagy, is running RPOs proficiently with Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago. Pederson’s former offensive coordinator, Frank Reich, is doing the same with Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. The Ravens have incorporated RPOs into their scheme.
“It’s pretty common now in almost every offense,” Collinsworth said.
It represents a sea change in the NFL, which for decades thumbed its nose at gimmicky college plays. Now NFL coaches are embracing them, and adding their own spin. RPOs are much easier to teach a young quarterback than a complicated pro-style offense.
“These colleges and high schools have been doing it a lot longer than what we have,” Reid said. “So, we’ve just kind of grown with it and these kids know how to do that.”
The Chiefs’ RPOs are a blend of Mahomes’s offense at Texas Tech and Reid’s West Coast offense principles.
“I got to watch how Alex [Smith] did it and learn how he kind of read it, as well as from how I did it in college, and kind of mix the two and make it my own thing,” Mahomes said.
When Bill Belichick travels to college campuses each spring to scout players for the draft, he spends a good chunk of his time picking the brains of the college coaches about how to execute and defend plays such as RPOs.
“These guys do quite a bit of it,” Belichick said of the Chiefs, “but we’ve seen it all year. We saw it last year. I’m sure we’ll see it all year.”
So, how to defend an RPO? Man-to-man defense, and superior skill.
“The secret to defending it is not easy, but it’s simple,” Dungy said. “You have to have a front seven that can defend the run without the help of the secondary, and you’ve got to be able to play man-to-man coverage. Teams that have both of those elements can stop the RPOs, but not many people do.”
The Patriots may be tempted to play zone to prevent the Chiefs’ big-play ability, but RPOs shred zone defenses, because linebackers have dual run-pass responsibilities.
The RPO can be stopped by a straight man-to-man defense that consistently wins one-on-one battles (not exactly the Patriots’ forte).
“RPO success is really dependent on the opponent rather than yourself,” former 11-year NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. “You can get shut down using the RPO if the team is just better than you talent-wise.”
Of course, that’s what makes the Chiefs so difficult to defend — in man-to-man situations Hill, Kelce, Hunt, and Watkins are usually better than their defenders.
“It just comes down to one-on-one, being able to make a play,” former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said.
But defenses have found some success against RPOs with postsnap rotations (baiting the quarterback into a false read), or by going with smaller, quicker defenses (think safety Patrick Chung playing down in the box), or simply by forcing the offense to run the ball, which is often less dangerous than a pass.
“We are seeing defenses obviously defend it a little bit better, so the ball’s not coming out as a throw as much anymore,” Pederson said this past week. “You’re seeing defenses kind of defend the pass a little bit more, things of that nature. So without getting into a lot of specifics, it’s what you’re seeing and so it’s just creating more runs.”
The Chiefs are expecting the Patriots to have a new defensive wrinkle on Sunday night to stop the RPOs. But if the Chiefs execute properly, the plays may be indefensible.
“It’s a really difficult scheme,” Collinsworth said. “It reminds me a little bit of the wishbone stuff, the concepts of that. That was all running, but the concept was, there was nothing the defense could do that was right, as long as you executed it properly.”