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A look at the Buffalo Bills’ success using the RPO

They use it a lot, and for good reason

Buffalo Bills v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills were resting up and getting healthy during their bye in Week 7. With no game to review this week, we have a chance to reflect on what worked well for the Bills through their first six games. Run-pass-option plays (RPOs) have been popular in the college football world for a while, but recently these play concepts have become prominent in the NFL.

The RPO concept gives the quarterback the option to either hand the ball off to the running back, fake the handoff and throw a pass, or sometimes keep the ball and run it himself. It’s hard to diagnose an RPO when watching film because they often just look like a normal run play, or a play-action pass. The key to running an RPO is the offensive line blocking like a run play, and at least one of the wide receivers running a route like they plan to catch a pass. This forces the defense to cover both the run and the pass.

The Bills have run 401 offensive plays so far this season, and by my count, they have run RPOs on 37 of those plays. This means on 9.23% of Buffalo’s offensive plays, they have run a play with an RPO action—and two of those plays have gone for touchdowns. Let’s break down some of the successful RPOs the Bills have run so far this season.

Play 1

This play is an example of an RPO where the quarterback keeps the football and runs. You can see on this play all of the actions I mentioned earlier: the offensive line is run blocking, quarterback Josh Allen has the option to hand the ball off to the running back, and wide receiver Gabe Davis is running a route in case Allen wants to throw the ball.

Play 2

On this RPO, Allen notices the defensive back is playing off coverage on wide receiver Stefon Diggs, which allows for a quick and easy completion. The offensive line performs a run-block look, which makes the linebackers step up to defend the run. In this play, you can see I point out an offensive lineman run-blocking beyond the line of scrimmage. These linemen are allowed to be one yard beyond the line of scrimmage at the time of the throw.

Play 3

Here, the Bills run the same action as Play 2 above, and net a similar result. This time, Tennessee brings a blitz that doesn’t allow Allen much time to run through his options. As soon as Allen sees the blitz coming off the edge, he pulls the ball from his run fake and fires it to Diggs for the completion.

Play 4

Reference plays 2-3 for similar looks from the Bills. On this drive, Buffalo actually ran this exact same look on three of four total plays. Except for the first two times this play was run on this drive, Diggs ran a quick out, but this time the pattern was switched to a post route that leads to a touchdown.

Play 5

This RPO comes down to a numbers game. Allen still has the option of handing the ball off or pulling it and throwing the slant/bubble route concept on the back side. As you can see, the Bills had better numbers at the bottom of the screen, and it turns into a 43-yard run for running back Zack Moss.

Play 6

The Bills run a little more creative run-block look in this RPO—they show a counter, with left tackle Dion Dawkins pulling. The Miami Dolphins bring seven players on a blitz, which leaves Diggs wide open. Allen barely bothers with the run fake and gets the ball to Diggs for a nice gain.

Play 7

If this play looks familiar, reference Play 4 above. Buffalo shows a similar look, but adds a wrinkle to their run-block action with an inside trap. Just like in Play 4, Allen reads the defensive back—and as soon as Diggs has inside leverage, he rifles the pass for a touchdown to Diggs.

Play 8

Another numbers game here for the Bills. Allen knows that the play call has the guard and center pulling to the outside, which gives Buffalo an advantage on the top side of the picture. Allen could have pulled the ball and thrown the bubble screen on the bottom, but he didn’t have better numbers there. This is a nice run play for the Bills.

Play 9

Tell me if you’ve seen this play before. (Hint: look at Play 8 above.) The Bills run the same guard and center pull play to the outside, but this time Allen notices that Diggs has a one-on-one. I’ll take Diggs one-on-one in the slot all day long. It’s wonderful when something so simple works so well.

Play 10

When Diggs is this wide open, forget faking the run—just get it to Diggs as quickly as possible! Allen realizes this and pulls the run fake immediately to set up Diggs for a nice 13-yard gain.

In Summary

The RPO play call has been a “bread and butter” play for Buffalo’s offense throughout the first six games of the season. When you have a quarterback with the rushing and throwing skill of Allen, it’s a weapon that should be a fundamental part of the offense. The Bills can use these RPO plays to take advantage of a defensive weakness, but I also think it can help them get into a rhythm during a game. Clearly, it’s been a vital component of their offensive success so far this season.