Designing RPO Systems: RPO Route Designation to Combat Man Coverage

The talk around the clinic circuit this off-season was that man coverage provides a viable answer in defending these RPO schemes. We have the research to back it up. We found that 46 percent of defensive coordinators either use pure man coverage or a version of split field coverage (which essentially turns to man post snap) to defend run/pass option concepts. So, this case serves as the pure counterpoint to the topic, how offensive coaches are attacking man coverage in their RPO game.

We’ve segmented our research into the following perspectives of opinion:

  • Coaches who rely on quick game methodologies
  • Coaches who use stacked and compressed formations.
  • Coaches who rely more on the run game component of RPOs

Quick Game Methodologies

Lynn Shackelford at Cashion High School (OK) started to see an abundance of man coverage later on in the season due to the success rate of his RPO game. When he was presented with man coverage, he relied on quick game routes such as slants, arrows, posts, outs, seams and fades. He would use a built-in man beater to attack the side of man coverage. “For example, if we called a man side and a zone side, the quarterback would pre-snap to see coverage and what side he is working,” said Coach Shackelford. “If he likes the man leverage, he catches and throws the man side. If he doesn’t, he hands the zone run play.” Coach Shackelford will often have a slant/seam built into the man side as a man beater, which is paired with his zone run game. The quarterback is double reading here post snap from the inside linebacker to the strong safety. “If backer run fits, he reads the strong safety. If strong safety is peddling, he is throwing the slant.”

Zone Slant RPO: Cashion High School (OK) (Diagram 76)

Diagram 78

Zone Out RPO: Cashion High School (OK) (Diagram 77)

Diagram 77

Jake Olsen, the offensive coordinator at Loras College mixes in man beaters when he knows he will see man coverage and signal it in from the sideline. He will run fades by number two and slants by number one. He will also bubble the inside slots and run slants by the outside receivers. “You get the safety to drive on the bubble, which opens the slant,” said Coach Olsen.

Since Head Coach Jesse Montalto at Ellsworth Community College (IA) will have an entire quick game menu prepared to the front side of his RPO concepts. He will usually run slants to the front side coupled with bubble (see Diagram 78). He makes the quarterback convert the routes to man beaters with a signal. “The way we install it, we call Indy (zone) right and that means everyone on right side of the formation has quick game tags and everyone on left has bubble, so they already know what’s built-in,” said Coach Montalto. “Even if we are running power right, the guys on the right side have quick game and the guys on the left bubble. Our quarterback would signal in what quick game we want. We signal in everything anyway, so that’s no big deal and we usually have game planned what we want in that week.”

Eric Davis at Mankato East High School will look to create the best matchup possible against man coverage. “Sometimes it’s as simple as aligning 3x1 to the field and working the matchup with our X receiver to the boundary against the corner,” he told us. “This can often be a pre-snap decision made from the sideline. In terms of a quarterback read, it would be the second or third level defender most likely to obstruct the throwing lane. “This could be an outside linebacker against a hitch/speed out or a backside inside linebacker on a slant. It is the wide receiver’s job to beat the corner and the quarterback’s job to account for any ‘danger players.’ Sometimes creating the best matchup will involve getting one of our best receivers into the slot against an outside linebacker or safety. Now the quarterback’s eyes will move to the hook player, which is usually an inside linebacker with heavy run responsibility. This is where the RPO concept comes to life and throwing lanes are created that do not exist in the traditional drop back game.”

An example of this is what Coach Davis calls a “slant to win” off his buck sweep RPO (see diagram below). “We give the slot receiver a fair amount of freedom to win inside against man coverage,” Coach Davis told us. “We’d still like him to keep it fairly ‘skinny’ in order to avoid inside linebackers. The only time we would want him to come very far inside is against a blitz to his side, in which case he can replace the blitzer on his route. That’s a more advanced technique that requires the quarterbacks and wide receivers have a good feel for each other.”

Go/Flat Concept: Albion College (MI

Offensive coordinator Dustin Beurer prefers to use a go/flat route combination, or what he calls “93” to affect man coverage. “You can look to the go route if teams are playing the slot on outside leverage,” he told us. “Go/flat has been a good one for us.
We are looking at the alignment of the flat man defender. Most are going to play head up or inside leverage. The quarterback also wants to see pre-snap where that free safety is aligned. If the flat route gets jammed he can ride to the guy running the fade.”  

Hitch/Seam Concept: Albion College (MI)

Another option against man coverage is a hitch/seam combination, but the inside receivers are running more pop rules (as described above) while the outside receivers use the hitch.
Hitch/Seam with Inside Zone:

Hitch/Seam with Outside Zone:

Using Stacks and Compressed Formations

Editor’s Note: Former Nassau Community College head coach Joe Osovet will use stack and stack extend formations in his RPO concepts to manipulate both man and zone coverages. He details these formations below:

Stack and Stack Extend: Joe Osovet

Our “Stack” and “Stack Extend” concept is something we benefited greatly from in our spread no huddle offense in 2015. The alignment and built-in manipulations (RPOs) packaged with our read game allow us to severely stress safeties and overhang players both pre and post snap.

Additional Attributes:

  • Gives offensive linemen and quarterbacks a nice clear picture of the box.
  • Creates more explosive plays in run game, as a result of outside hash-aligned safeties.
  • Limits stem disguises by defense.


We have the ability, regardless of personnel grouping, to line up in our stack or stack extend configuration at any given point during the game. All alignment communication is signaled in from the sideline.

Stack alignment

Any double or triple width wide receiver alignment (2x2-Trips open, Trips closed, etc.)

– Ball in the middle of the field – WR will align on the bottom of numbers.

– Ball is on the hash

  • Field side: WR aligns bottom numbers/3 yard from sideline. This is predicated on secondary manipulation built in off of “pull read.”
  • Boundary side: WR aligns 3 yards from sideline

Stack Extend:

– Ball in the middle of the field – WR will align on the top of numbers.

– Ball is on the hash

  • Field side: WR point man splits hash/numbers
  • Boundary side: WR aligns 3 yards from sideline


Make overhang players declare if they want to be a box player and separate safeties outside hashes to be late in run support.

Pat St. Louis, the offensive coordinator at Morehead State University did two things against man free coverage: he would either run his screen game or ran more man routes like slants where you had to win one-on-one with pull reads from the quarterback. “We would call more man route beaters like go and outs,” said Coach St. Louis. “If they load the box, we won’t show the ball (on a run fake) and we will get rid of it right now. Coach St. Louis would also use bunch formations and if teams pressed the point man, a lot of time he would use him as a decoy to get the stacked receiver open. He would run the point man on a delayed slant while number one ran a post and number three ran the bubble. If the inside backer steps up, the slant should be thrown right behind him (see Diagram 79). “We would run him sometimes right behind him and sit in the zone,” said Coach St. Louis. “It really depends on how they align the other defenders and if the stay on or banjo to each other. If they stayed on we would try to rub. If switching we would have to decide how we could attack that.”

Diagram 79

Mark Holcomb at North Davidson High School (NC) will stack his two inside players for a natural rub off man coverage. “We don’t see a lot of teams that banjo it, so we will trade one in and one out for a natural rub,” said Coach Holcomb. “We will also motion the inside guy. We will put the inside receiver on the ball and bring number two inside him. We will have the number three receiver run vertical, the number 2 will work inside him so that number three will pick him. Number one crosses his face to read the linebacker. It’s an answer for pop, where we pop the number two receiver. We will also use a snag with a corner route by number two.

Using Pre-Snap Motion

Lee Sadler, at Marshall High School (AR) will also use motion against man coverage teams. “We will motion backs out of the backfield or motion receivers across formations,” said Coach Sadler. “If we’re playing against a team that doesn’t usually play a lot of man coverage, adjusting to the motions can cause big issues and demand a lot of time during game-prep. We will not emphasize the run any more than we normally would. The only thing that we will talk about is with using motion we often can create better leverage for some of our RPOs. Man is a common answer for defenses playing against RPO teams. Last year in particular, we saw one team play a 3-4 defense with man free coverage. We’re going to use a lot of motion to cause them trouble. And then of course, you have those “man-beater” plays that you carry into the week as well.”

One of the first things Coach Sadler will do against man teams is immediately jump into a 20 personnel set. “This gives me the option to motion one of the two backs out of the backfield to create either a 2x2 or a 3x1 formation at the last second,” said Coach Sadler. “This will cause the defensive players to adjust to the formation on the fly.” For example, in the diagram below the defense has gone to a man coverage.

The 11th defender (*) has come down to man one of the receivers, and their box has basically stayed base. “The first question to ask is who is conflict? On the right side, because there are two receivers, the * is the conflict defender. He’s in man coverage, so he isn’t in conflict at all. To the left to the single receiver side, the Mike backer is the conflict defender. Without motion, he would need to help the corner defend the slant route, but his main responsibility is to stop the run first. Now when you add the motion to it, you really put him in conflict because if he doesn’t go with the motion, you have a two on one matchup on the outside. With this play we are running the inside zone to the right, with a pop tag to the backside. Since there is a post safety, the pop will be run like a slant, instead of getting back vertical. If the Mike backer stays in the box, the QB will pull and work the slant to the flat. If the Mike backer runs with the motion, or simply leaves the box, the ball should be given and the RB “should” be able to work to the cutback.”

Emphasizing Run Component Methodologies

Other coaches are finding ways to simply focus on the run concepts of these RPOs when a man coverage situation presents itself. Lance Parker at Bryant High School (AR) is one of those coaches who emphasize the run portion. “Our thinking shifts from an ‘option’ mentality versus zone, to a pre-snap choice versus man,” said Coach Parker. “If the situation is one where we believe man coverage is likely, then we tag ‘man beaters’ onto the backside of the run, as apposed to live routes onto the front side of the run for zone coverage. Logically, you cannot influence a man coverage defender with run action if his eyes are not in the backfield. There have been game plan scenarios where I have used RPO in a man coverage scenario. However, this is usually where a particular LB is keying a certain position and also responsible for a back out. In these scenarios, we give him run action that takes him away from his pass assignment.”

One of these concepts is what Coach Parker calls a “Pipe” concept which is a vertical concept with the H/Y off that he tagged onto one back power and dart. It’s an RPO off a counter blocking scheme and puts the H vertically down the field. “I just told the quarterback to check green grass behind linebacker before it was okay to read him,” said Coach Parker. On the clips below, the first one is a hand or throw. The second is a quarterback run or throw. Both examples the ball was thrown. In both of the examples on film, the H will either work inside the tackle or outside the tackle. Coach Parker would tell the Y/H that if the B gap was open to go inside, but if he was the least bit unsure go outside.

Many of the contributors to this report talked about defeating man coverage being the next adjustment in the RPO game. Having answers in your arsenal (either pre or post snap) will at least give players a chance to be successful by the time the coverage is identified. 

About X&O Labs

As the leading football research firm, X&O Labs provides its Insiders members with an early advantage by identifying emerging trends and reporting on the evolutions of established coaching concepts. X&O Labs’ research team releases over 200 new special reports, clinic reports, and research reports every year — with over 800 game and practice videos. These reports dig deeper than the general overview found in other coaching resources — and brings its Insiders members multiple options to solving the same issues thousands of coaches face every day. For more information, visit X&O Labs’ website.

X&O Labs 2017 Football Trends