Four RPO Answers to Beat Man Coverage

The popularity of RPOs have exploded in the past couple of years and there are very few offenses that don’t use some aspect of them. With that being said, defensive coordinators have been scheming at a consistent rate to stop the advantage the offense gains. In doing research, I have found that the only sound answer they have, without guessing, is to play man coverage. This kills most RPOs that are out there because it triggers an automatic give to the running back or forces you to win the 1-on-1 between the wide receiver and defensive back. Another huge problem that this creates is that defenses then can have a +1 advantage in the box. My goal was to find simple answers to flip the advantage back to the offense and take advantage of the matchups that man coverage creates.

The 4 Answers
As I said before, man coverage forces RPO teams to go a different route. I wanted to keep things simple for my kids, so I wanted to create RPOs that would work against man and zone. In looking for these answers, I found that there are 4 things that mess with man coverage that you can use as part of your RPO.

  1. Pre-Snap Motion: This can be in the form of a jet motion or sending the running back to the flat.
  2. Hit the Edges: With the defense having a possible +1 advantage in the box, you have to go outside. The extra linebacker on the backside is not going to be a threat at the point of attack.
  3. Be Creative with Your Running Back: In most cases, when a team locks up with you, there will be a linebacker manned up on your running back, if he starts in the box. This is a great matchup in regard to skill in the open field. Find ways to exploit this matchup.
  4. QB Runs: If your QB is the ball carrier, then you have a chance to even out the +1 advantage the defense creates or even make it a +1 for the offense.

Blocking Scheme

One of the four answers to defeating man coverage in an RPO offense is to hit the edges. I have found the best way to do this is with an outside zone blocking scheme. We treat it differently against an even front than we do against an odd front. When facing an even front, we cut off the backside as opposed to leaving the backside unblocked. We do this because we want to create cutback lanes.

The play side blocks are key with this scheme. On the play side, we always gain ground laterally and try to reach and seal the play side defender. If we can’t seal him, then we run him to the sideline. If we are uncovered play side, we work a combo/fold to the next level and try to seal that level off. 

Head and hands are key for the play side blocks. Our goal is to get our head to the play side shoulder of the defender and get a quick hook. We teach zone holds to lock onto the chest plate and push/pull to help us get our head where it needs to be. We want to lock out with our play side arm and pull with our weak side arm to naturally turn the defender. We then want to run our feet to get our head where it needs to be and turn our hips to get the seal. If we can’t get our man sealed, this is usually because he is running outside and his hips are turned that way. If this is the case, we then push/pull the opposite way. This pulls his hips the opposite way that he is running and normally results in a huge wash or a pancake. A wash is just as good as a hook in this scheme

As you can see from the diagrams above, the play side linebacker is unblocked by linemen against an even front. This linebacker will do one of two things with the flows and backfield actions he is seeing with this RPO package:

  1. Fast flow read and attack C gap: In most cases, he will read fast flow and attack C gap. If he does this, we will crack him with our #3 receiver/wing or will RPO him.
  2. Shoot B gap now: If he shoots B gap, we will change our route tags and RPO him.

If we see an odd front team, we will use a more traditional outside zone scheme and leave the backside outside linebacker free off the edge

Outside Zone:

Now that we have the blocking scheme in place, we will attach that scheme to multiple RPOs. The first of these RPO concepts is our outside zone play and our sweep play. 

This is a play to counter one of our bread and butter plays, power read. We primarily are in a Trio set or a King set, and run power read as shown below.

The hardest block in that scheme is for our #2 receiver on the force player. When he becomes too aggressive to block, we run outside zone. 

Outside Zone/Sweep Breakdown:

Play Side Tackle (PST): Reach or wash

Play Side Guard (PSG): Reach or wash

Center (C): Down

Weak Side Guard (WSG): Fold

Weak Side Tackle (WST): Zone, float, wheel

Receivers: In our offense, we have the ability to tag different routes to our run plays. This allows us to make adjustments to different coverages and still execute RPOs the way we want to. On any “zone” play call, we will by default run a fade/out combination with #1 and #2. Our #3 receiver will run what we call “crack to stick”. He will look to crack the inside linebacker unless he shoots B Gap or is occupied by a lineman, in which he will stick up or go up to safety. If we get a cover 2/cover 3 roll look pre-snap, we will run fade/stick. This is an automatic adjustment based off of the corner’s pre-snap alignment. If we are getting a 4-3 cover 5 look, (cover 4 strong with cover 1 on the backside), we will tag smash. Lastly, if we are covered 3 over 3 (or 2 over 2 in our king set) and they are within 5 yards, we will tag verts. You will see how these scenarios play out in the diagrams below.

Receivers: We want our backfield action to look as much like power read as possible to influence the force defender. Even with this being the case, there are two things that are different between these plays.

The first difference is in the pace and eyes of the running back. With power read, he is told to shoot out of a canon and get to the sideline. He must get his eyes on the #2 receiver’s block and get outside of it. With outside zone, he will mesh with a controlled pace so he can cut back. His eyes will be on the PST’s block. If the PST gets the hook, the running back will stick his foot in the ground and hit C gap. If the PST washes, the running back’s eyes will find the next gap inside. That can be A gap or B gap depending on the PSG and his block.

The second difference is with the QB’s footwork and eyes. With power read, we teach the QB to only take one shuffle as a mesh and his eyes will be on the EMOL. He will either give it or pull and attack downhill based on what the EMOL does. With outside zone, we tell him to take two shuffles and his eyes will be on the force defender. We do this to give him more time to make a decision and let the routes develop. His rule is to always give unless the read key attacks the line of scrimmage.

We use this terminology for all of our RPOs. Applying this to the diagram below you can see that the QB will give to the running back unless the outside linebacker attacks the run. If he does attack on run, the QB will disconnect from the mesh and throw the flat route. We do not worry about the strong safety because he is deeper than 5 yards. If he begins to bite with our cross-face mesh, we will use play action to take advantage of him. 

If the QB and WRs see a cover 2/cover 3 roll look to the play side, the automatic check will be to fade/stick. The QB’s read and footwork don’t change.

If we see a 4-3 cover 5, we will tag smash to the outside zone. Our flat route now becomes the hitch and the corner should carry/occupy the strong safety and corner enough to complete the hitch. It is important for the corner route to get an outside release on the strong safety to hold him in. Again, the QB’s read and footwork stay the same.

After we adjust outside zone to different zone coverages, we will see defensive coordinators start to lock us up to stop our RPO. We have to go back to two of our four answers to make this a successful play against man. The answers that marry with this play are “hit the edges” and “QB runs”. 

We see two types of man looks against our trio and king formations, man 1 free and cover 0. Both of these looks present a 3-over-3 look or a 2-over-2 look on our play side receivers. In almost all cases, we will see these defenders less than 5 yards off of our receivers. When we have a fade/out combo and we see 3-over-3/2-over-2 less than 5, we automatically check to verts and the QB will be the ball carrier. This does two things. First, it clears out the play side force and edge players. Second, it evens out the numbers at the point of attack as the running back now becomes a lead blocker for the QB. The running back will still mesh, read the PST, and run the open path. He will end up blocking the play side linebacker in most cases as the QB follows him.

Above is an example of how hitting the edges evens out the numbers for the offense. The weak side linebacker has no impact at the point of attack.

The next tweak that we have for outside zone is to deal with a play side inside linebacker shooting B gap and we can’t crack him. Our answer to this is already built in. Our #3 receiver/wing will always “crack to stick”. If the ILB is shooting B gap consistently, we will then look to hit the stick. We will always give unless he attacks the line of scrimmage. If he does attack downhill, we will hit the stick right behind him.

The last tweak to this scheme is technically a different play call, but is built off of the same concept. I call this play sweep. It is basically the auto adjustment for outside zone against a man situation, just now the QB is the ball carrier with the ability to run or throw. This is beneficial against man still, but is even more effective against zone coverage because you gain the extra hat blocking at the point of attack with your RB. This can be done with a mesh or you can align the RB to the Sweep side to have him climb quicker.

Flood Option:

The next RPO scheme that we will go over is called flood option or flop for short. This play is a combination of a flood route to the play side (or you can tag a vertical) and a load option. We still use our “outside zone” blocking scheme as before.

Flood Option Breakdown:

PST: Reach or wash

PSG: Reach or wash

C: Down

WSG: Fold

WST: Zone, float, wheel

Receivers: In most cases, the receivers will be running a flood route on the play. Our #1 receiver will run a fade and our #2 receiver will run a 10 yard out. Instead of using our #3 receiver to flood the zone, we use him to crack the first linebacker in the box. The backside receiver will run a post. We also will tag vertical routes against safeties that bite on run or single high safeties. Our #1 receiver will run a fade at the bottom of the numbers and our #2 receiver will run a seam. It is important for the seam to find the void in the coverage and check his route down in that void. 

Backfield: As I stated before this is a load option for the backfield. We teach our running backs to get in a 5x1 pitch relationship (5 outside, 1 behind). The QB will have three options on this play. First, he will attack the force defender and make him commit. If the force defender attacks and #2 receiver is open, the QB can hit it. If the QB sees it covered, he can then pitch the ball to the running back. The running back essentially becomes the flat route in this combo and the QB’s safety valve. If the force defender attacks the pitch man, the QB can tuck it and attack the end zone. If the defense locks it up, the load option is still a great play.


The last RPO scheme that we will go over we call “swing”. This play uses all four of the answers to defeating man while still being an RPO. This also uses the outside zone blocking scheme that we have gone over already.

Swing Breakdown:

PST: Reach or wash

PSG: Reach or wash

C: Down

WSG: Fold

WST: Zone, float, wheel

Receivers: The rules for receivers on this play are simple. If a defender over the receiver is deeper than 5, they will stalk block them. They need to sit on the outside shoulder of the defenders. If all the defenders over them are less than 5, they will run verts. This will set up a big play when the defenders become too aggressive.

Backfield: As I said before, this play uses all four of the answers to defeat man and zone, yet still maintain an RPO. The first piece of that is to get creative with your running back. We are fortunate to have kids that can run and catch in this position. Because of this, I want to use that skill to exploit the defense. The next piece is pre-snap motion. The running back will go into a full speed swing motion to the side he is aligned just before the snap. The QB will read the last linebacker attached to the box. To us, that means he is no more than 5 yards back or out from the PST. The QB will always throw the swing unless the last linebacker attached to the box attacks the line of scrimmage toward the swing. If the linebacker doesn’t react, the QB will throw the swing and we will have an athlete in space. If the linebacker runs, the QB will run outside zone where the linebacker vacated. When the corners start to become aggressive on the swing, you can hit the verts for a big play.

As defensive coordinators look to evolve their schemes to defend RPOs, we must continue to adapt on the offensive side of the ball. These are only a few examples of what can be done with the four answers that I have talked about. These concepts do not require a ton of repetition and keep it simple for the guys up front. We feel that these concepts give us answers and allow us as an offense to not be wrong no matter the defensive alignment and coverage.

Meet Coach Smith 

Jeff Smith is the offensive coordinator at Warrenton High School in Missouri. Warrenton is a Class 4 school outside of St. Louis and this is his second year at the school. Before coaching in Warrenton, he coached at Marshfield High School, Belton High School, Glendale High School, and was a student-assistant at Missouri State University.  

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