Run pass options have become a widely discussed topic this offseason. Even for the 2017 New York Giants, many fans were surprised to see a Pro Football Focus article recently citing the Giants’ yards per carry as 5th-highest in the league (5.4 ypc) when electing to run from RPO. Teams run RPOs for all types of reasons and are certainly more often in some schemes (spread comes to mind). RPOs simply are called runs for the RB and at least portions of the offensive line, coupled with a pass called for at least certain receivers and/or offensive linemen. The read is made by the QB (usually after the snap for a “true RPO”) whether to hand the ball off or pass. Though overcomplicated and misunderstood by many in the media, one of the goals of RPOs is to simplify reads for QBs and tilt advantages to skilled position players, often in space. What types of RPOs might the Giants feature this coming season?
The easy way out here as a writer is to take plays from last year’s Carolina Panthers team, where offensive coordinator Mike Shula ran many RPOs like the one above, with now Giants receiver Russell Shepard. Shula actually combined many spread option looks with downfield Air Coryell routes and terminology for mobile QB Cam Newton at the center of the action. One thing should be clear, though: RPOs do NOT require a mobile QB for their execution. The QB just needs to read defenders post-snap like any other QB at the NFL level. RPOs can help a QB, or any position player for that matter (i.e. Saquon Barkley), without the prerequisite of mobility.
Keeping it simple, let’s go through the mental exercise of choosing a run the Giants will feature in 2018 and then tag a pass play to it to show why RPOs are important. The new Giants administration has made it clear they will run a lot of gap scheme runs, with new LG Will Hernandez and RG Omameh pulling in the power game. But Shurmur ran a wide range of run schemes last year in Minnesota, and in 2016 Mike Shula’s Panthers perhaps had the most diverse rush attack. Both ran a lot of inside zone (Shurmur more than people realize), which features interior combination blocks harnessing the physicality of the new offensive line. Saquon Barkley ran this scheme at Penn State, but still he is not described as a “between the tackles” runner. That topic deserves its own piece (and it will come), but it is clear what Barkley can do with open space to the second level as a result of an inside zone run. See below:
Many considerations go into marrying a run and a pass play. As we stated, RPOs actually help a QB, and one area where Manning may need that at times is versus two-deep safety looks, particularly Cover 4 (or Quarters). Last year, according to Sports Info Solutions, Manning’s completion percentage vs. Cover 4 was 59.4, and although he had only 32 total attempts, he still managed only 144 total passing yards. Two deep safety shells are naturally difficult to read, as the resulting coverages are higher in number (Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6, to name a few), and can even morph into single high coverages (Cover 1 Robber or Cover 3 Buzz, for example). See below from 2016 when Manning faced the Bengals running Cover 6 (or Quarter-Quarter-Half) and attempted an out route to the Quarters side:
Shurmur and Shula can help Manning by stressing two-deep coverages with formation and then reading 2nd- and 3rd-tier defenders with RPOs, putting them in conflict. The issue with two deep safeties is not just “sitting back and playing pass, ignoring the run.” Defenses hold positive gap control, which means they assign defenders to every gap reading run first, from any defensive look. One formation that stresses defenses is 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) with a 3×1 receiver set, with defenses most often responding with nickel personnel:
The play is run from an over front from the defense (the right DT [in between C and LG] is a 1-tech away from the formation). This defensive front allows the middle linebacker to bump out or increase the cover down on the Y inside slot receiver. But, as shown below, it means the weak safety must account for the B gap coming from probably at least 10 yards off the line of scrimmage (unless he sinks substantially, which makes this read even easier). This player is also responsible for the defense’s inner right quarter in pass coverage, as the two images show below, with the run fit on the left and coverage on the right:
Many will wonder why newcomer Cody Latimer is featured at the X-wide receiver position? As the below practice video from last week shows (hat tip to Matt Lombardo on Twitter from NJ.com), he has good footwork using his larger 6′-2″ frame well, as he cuts with minimal effort on the short post to beat Eli Apple after pressing him vertically:
One of Latimer’s real strengths is running in-breaking routes, making him a great candidate to run the replacement post as a 3rd-tier RPO. As a lone X-wide receiver, he is a real threat running the fade, with good hands and athletic ability to high point anything coming his way. Although combination routes are en vogue now, these types of isolation routes on the backside of formations can make him in an asset in attacking the conflicted 3rd tier safety.
It’s that simple, right? In the higher levels of college, NFL, and even high school, that is hardly ever the case. Astute observers would question, “What if defenses lined up in an under front with the 3-technique defender to the boundary?” This would remove the conflicted 3rd tier safety and mean the LB to the field, who was previously freed up, would now be in the run fit. See below:
Against this front, the inside zone could still work to the weak side, but it is no longer low hanging fruit. Remember from above, the goal of RPOs is to put position players on sides of the field with a numbers advantage. So, the QB could change the direction of the original play (running it to the strong side at the LB in conflict), or change the play altogether. Both options take time, effort, and communication, which can tip your hand as a play-caller, as well as be difficult to execute on the road.
Instead, Shurmur could make the original play a half-field read where before the snap Manning would decide whether to run the RPO or run the other side of the formation based on what coverage he sees. If Manning ran the pass on the right side, the resulting mesh and fake with Barkley would be play action and not RPO (because he is not reading a defender after the snap). Instead, he would read the defense’s pass coverage to that half of the field and throw accordingly:
The motion was added to change the angle at which Engram would run the arrow-type route against the middle of the zone (as illustrated) or against the likely defender LB (in man). This would also help “sell” the run fake, as he would mimic the backside blocker position from almost the wing. Beckham, who has started the season practicing from the slot often, is running a slant and go/fade, a very dangerous route from a dangerous position, in the outer slot of a 3×1 formation. The nickel back, safety, or hybrid defender covering him faces a two way go from a receiver he can not effectively jam, and multiple combination route potentials from either side. This route is particularly dangerous if the defense were to come out in single high, or if they spun one of their deep safeties to the 3 receiver side (as a buzz safety or to the flat). See this route below, run by the Vikings’ Adam Thielen when Shurmur called it out of a 3×1 last year versus Cover 1 from the Rams:
This play call pays homage to the West Coast Offense identity of multiple answers to many coverages without the need to change the play, but it puts the keys in the hands of the QB and his choice of half-field read versus relying on a full-field progression read. This is empowering to the leader of the offense, and it simplifies the reads, freeing him up to do what he does best. The Giants’ position players as a whole could use plays like these early in games (as Shurmur is known to do for his quarterbacks) to get into a rhythm. Although obviously a purely hypothetical example, going through the exercise of how a play-caller would construct an RPO gives the best insight as to why a team would want to run it. More clues will emerge as camp goes on, but third-tier RPOs like this one are here to stay in the NFL as teams look to expand their arsenal for intermediate routes.