It’s a challenging time to keep up with scheme development in the NFL. With innovators like Sean McVay, Andy Reid, Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, Matt Nagy, and Kyle Shanahan finding new ways to improve their offensive performance, layered concepts are finding their way onto the field, and they can be difficult to process in real-time.
At the end of the day, the goal of an offense is to stay on schedule and generate big plays. As defensive linemen and linebackers become more athletic, smart teams look for ways to simplify decisions for their signal caller and force these athletes to move in the wrong direction, creating space for successful plays. That’s why the “run-pass option” is starting to come into vogue. The Buffalo Bills used this concept Sunday, and with Josh Allen under center, it wouldn’t be shocking to see it called a lot more frequently. How does it work? To understand the RPO, you need to start with something that’s spent decades in NFL playbooks: the play action pass.
In a play-action pass, the goal is for the offense to gain an advantage by moving defenders out of position with a dramatic fake motion. With the best selling technique, a quarterback might run away from the line of scrimmage with his back turned, before rotating around and attacking the space where the linebackers vacated. Everyone on the offense knows that this is a passing play, and the runner’s job is to sell the motion so space opens up for a throw.
A play-action pass play creates a numbers of advantage post-snap by putting defenders out of position. It requires the quarterback to read the field for an open receiver, and it needs to fool someone to work best.
In a run-pass option, there are literally two plays being called simultaneously: A run play and a pass play, on two sides of the field (or two depths of the field, perhaps). Compare the offensive-line movement from the play action pass to this play. Those linemen are run-blocking the whole way.
The quarterback’s job on a typical RPO is to read the alignment of defenders pre-snap. He wants to find a numbers advantage. For example, the Bills have three receivers lined up on their offensive left side, against two cornerbacks and a safety over top. That’s three-on-three, and it’s an advantage for the offense.
Thinking about this a different way, if the offense wants to run the ball, they have six blockers for LeSean McCoy. If there were six defenders in the box, it’s a numbers advantage for the offense - each blocker takes a man, and McCoy is free to run for positive yardage. In this case, there are seven defenders, which is an extra defender able to cover McCoy. That’s why the Bills know they’re throwing.
This concept doesn’t have to be exclusive to running and passing, though. You can have a pass-pass option, with two concepts on either end of the field. Maybe you have three WRs running a bubble screen with two blockers on the left side of the field, and two WRs running a bubble screen on the right side. If one side has a numbers advantage, you throw to that side post-snap. If you have an athletic quarterback, and both sides are covered, then you can run with a numbers advantage up the middle!
To make things more complex, you can sometimes see a very similar play design, but have a post-snap decision attached to it. If you remember hearing the term “packaged play” when Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett were hired to coach the Buffalo Bills, that’s what this refers to.
The concepts are very similar to the run-pass-option, where you’re running two plays layered within the same time span. In fact, the throw in the above video is the exact same throw Nate Peterman attempted. The difference is that in this play, the quarterback spends more time with the ball in his hands, reading a specific defender to determine if he should hand the ball off post-snap. The goal is to make the defender commit one way, then pull out the rug.
The zone read is a purely post-snap decision, an extremely common play call in the college game. Normal running plays assume the quarterback is out of the picture. With five offensive linemen and one running back, a defense with six players in the box can effectively funnel a running play into a smaller gain, and if they have seven or more players in the box, running is a death wish.
But if the quarterback is a running threat, the numbers tilt in favor of the offense. That’s why the option play is valuable - a running quarterback requires one extra defender in the box before the defense has favorable numbers again.
The zone read is a schematic choice to tilt a play even more heavily in favor of the offense: Intentionally leave a defender (usually, but not always, an edge rusher) unblocked, but use misdirection to take him out of the play. At the mesh point between the quarterback and a running back, the defender will either crash on the runner or stay home in his gap. Based on that choice, the QB either hands off or keeps the ball.
In the above play, the defensive end does an excellent job staying disciplined at the mesh point, and Josh Allen keeps the ball where he would’ve had better luck handing off. Had number 90 cheated a little further one way or the other, this could’ve been an easy touchdown.
The zone read is a sort of packaged play of its own, with the QB reading a post-snap defender and choosing one of two run options. You could even layer in another play above this one—for example, giving the QB a chance to hand off, run the ball, or keep the ball and throw a quick hitch to a slot receiver, all based on reading one or two defenders.
Breaking it down
And this is why it can get confusing to compare RPOs and packaged plays with the zone read. We don’t know what the quarterback’s doing presnap, unless he’s pointing at the MIKE linebacker or telling receivers to change alignment. Before players start moving, you have limited information. Once the play begins, you need to digest the impending play action, see the offensive line moving, watch the movement of the ball, and then try to guess the reads based on what you saw on instant replay.
This is a challenge for defenders live in the moment - it’s a series of concepts designed to make them uncertain about their actions - so of course it’s going to confuse the viewer at home. This is why coaches say “we need to look at the tape” after the game. They were there, and they knew 50 percent of the plays being called, but they can’t always know if a player was open because of an individual mistake or because of scheme. A player might look “open” on film, but if he’s on the opposite side of the field from the half-field read that the quarterback determined pre-snap, he isn’t a valid option. And sometimes a play will fail because of decisions made before any players started moving. If you want to see more of this on game day, create your own “numbers advantage” - watching enough football plays that you can recognize increasingly common plays like these.