The NFL has long been a copycat league, a euphemistic term to describe the act of copying, borrowing, or “stealing” plays. Every week, film of each team’s successes and failures is documented and uploaded for all to see. Once a team achieves success with a new or reused concept, other coaches across the league take notice and quickly adapt that play to their own needs. There’s no hiding in this game.
No one is above the use of this tactic, including the Dallas Cowboys. With players and coaches on vacation until the start of training camp later this month, there’s plenty of time to speculate and theorize about what Scott Linehan’s offense will look like in 2018.
In an interview during the week of Super Bowl LII, Dak Prescott details that among their plans to further develop the offense to fit his style of play is to watch “what the Panthers are doing, what the Chiefs did” regarding the use of run-pass options or RPOs.
Normally, each play of the offense is predetermined before the snap to be either a pass or run. What sets the RPO apart is that it’s dependent upon how the defense reacts after the snap. The quarterback reads a specific defender and based on their actions after the snap, he’ll either hand off the ball (or run it himself) or pass.
A good rule of thumb on identifying RPOs is to watch if the offensive line run blocks, meaning they actively attempt to drive the defense off the line of scrimmage, at the same time that the receivers run pass routes. Here’s an example from smartfootball.com’s Chris Brown:
With the use of run-pass options comes the opportunity to execute fake RPOs. A fake RPO is essentially a play-action pass, only it looks like a run-pass option. The difference on film can be subtle and difficult to see. But when the offensive line pass sets instead of run blocking at the same time that the quarterback fakes a hand-off, then the play could be a fake RPO.
Roseman and Pederson took a blueprint, played trends and out executed. You want to give real credit, look to McVay with the Rams for his fake RPO plays they used to get WRs wide open. Used them like the new wave Play Action Pass. https://t.co/JuppjcJN3Y
— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) February 6, 2018
Yes, if you can run RPO effectively you can call a run in a fake RPO and give Zeke read the Mike to determine run lane. Or like Eagles in the SB and run fake RPO like play action and get the DBs to bite on stutter go and take it deep on the outside. https://t.co/6lThZSjA2t
— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) April 7, 2018
The Kansas City Chiefs’ offense was mentioned by Prescott as an example of what Dallas could emulate in 2018. In the Chiefs’ Week 16 matchup against Miami, they called a fake RPO on 1st and 10 against the Dolphins’ Cover 3 zone defense.
Although Cover 3 has numerous variations, the general concept is a 3-deep zone with four underneath defenders.
An important piece of context about NFL defenses is that they often play Cover 3 on 1st down. This allows them to add an extra defender to the box because so many runs are called on 1st down, especially for a Cowboys’ offense that relies heavily upon their dominant ground game.
Likely aware of this fact, Kansas City dialed up a fake RPO and ran a post route with a deep crossers concept.
This well-designed play defeats Cover 3 by attacking the deep safety with three different routes. As stated before, the fake RPO acts as a play-action pass with the hope of freezing or fooling the defense. Both the tight end and inside bunch receiver cross the middle of the field with over routes while the outside bunch receiver runs a post route.
Unless the defense has a rule that the underneath defenders must carry their receivers up the field, the three deep defenders will be on their own. And because the defense is in zone, the crossing routes may confuse the responsibilities of the deep safety and the cornerback on the tight end’s side of the field. Are they supposed to follow their receiver or stay in their zone?
If the cornerback follows the tight end, which is often a sound decision in this scenario, he’ll likely be out-leveraged running across the field. The deep safety now has to decide if he’ll help cover the tight end or stay with the other deep crosser. If he moves with the tight end, the other crossing receiver will be open for an explosive play.
If the safety covers the inside bunch receiver, then the tight end should be open for a sizeable gain.
But the safety can’t forget about the outside bunch receiver running the post route. The receiver’s outside release widens that cornerback, allowing him more space to gain inside leverage when he cuts to the middle of the field. A well-timed pass will beat both deep defenders.
One safety, three routes to defend. What would the end result look like?
Unfortunately for Alex Smith, Travis Kelce drops the pass on what would’ve been a large gain. However, Smith either didn’t see the over route by the wide receiver or committed himself to Kelce too soon. Had the newly signed Redskins quarterback thrown to the inside bunch receiver instead of the tight end, the Chiefs would’ve likely scored a touchdown.
Also, watch how the deep safety gets caught moving forward due to the play fake by the former Chiefs quarterback. His reaction helps both wide receivers get open because he reduces the time and space he has to redirect himself to the vertical routes.
This Cover 3-beater would be an excellent addition to Dallas’ arsenal of play-action passes. Don’t be surprised to see this play called on 1st downs in 2018.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.