Trend #1

Man Coverage RPOs

Football is a cyclical game. Offensive and defensive concepts continually get resurfaced only to be tagged with a cute new label to freshen them up. 

After all, the new “RPO” is the old triple option. The new “rugby” style tackle was modeled after some of the same techniques players were using while playing with leather helmets. 

Yet coaching is a competitive profession. Just as coaches tell players, “you don’t stay the same. You either get better or get worse.” But to get better it’s important to stay in front of the game, by not only continually tweaking your own systems, but also by studying emerging trends. Doing these two things can produce a significant advantage heading into the 2017 season.  

Which is why for the first time, X&O Labs has partnered with Hudl to present research on the five most trending football topics heading into the 2017 season. These trends were generated from X&O Labs’ research network of over 50,000 football coaches at the high school, college and professional levels. Each of these trends contain game film, as current as this spring, from high school and college programs across the country. 

The following trends are in no particular order…

Trend #1: Building Man Beaters into the RPO System

RPOs (run pass options) have been the sexiest trend in football since they saturated the coaching market in 2014. Having published four reports on this topic alone, we must admit we’ve contributed to the hype. But there is good reason for the mass appeal: these types of offensive concepts put run/pass defenders that are in zone coverages in the ultimate dilemma, asking them to play both the run and the pass while the quarterback reads them post-snap. It’s a lose-lose situation. Whatever they do is wrong. 

Basically, there are two distinct run/pass option concepts: 

  1. Box Read RPO: Quarterback is reading a second level defender in the tackle box such as an interior linebacker. 
  2. Perimeter Read RPO: Quarterback is reading a second level defender on the perimeter such as a drop safety or outside linebacker. 

Fast forward two years later and defenses have done their research. They are now utilizing more single high safety structures, such as pure man coverage or cover three to defend these schemes. Reason being, it allows defenses to match each receiver with a defender who are assigned either a run or pass responsibility, not both. This methodology takes away any post-snap conflict in those defenders. 

Why It’s Trending

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. Steve Rampy, the offensive coordinator at Pittsburg State University (KS) says because of man coverage, RPOs have become the “new” quick passing game. “We always have the ability to throw quick game without changing protections, when defenses overload the run box,” he told us. “We threw more quick game routes last season than anytime in my coaching career.”

This approach leaves an offense with two options; either eliminate the pass option off the RPO and keep it a run/run read based off the reaction of a first level defender such as a defensive end or try to “win” on the perimeter by getting the ball in the hands of a receiver on a personnel mismatch. “At whatever point we are playing against someone who is playing us straight-man coverage, we then have to win on vertical and rub/scissor-type concepts,” Hendrix College (AR) offensive coordinator Jordan Neal told us. “When we encounter a team that commits to man coverage, our RPO game becomes more of a run-run option. We must determine what run play we can be most effective blocking up front and determine which defender in the box we can isolate and read. We supplement that with play-action pass and man-beating route concepts that give our receivers the best chance to create space from secondary players.”

How It’s Being Implemented 

In order to combat man coverage structures, coaches are deciding this spring whether to build man beaters into already designed RPO concepts or to use picks or rubs to free receivers on the perimeter. 

Box Defender Reads

The benefit of using RPOs to influence box defenders in man coverage is that many times the linebacker to the side of the back is responsible for him in coverage. This helps to open the space that he vacates. So, continuing with the methodology of box defender reads, quarterbacks are still making decisions based on those players that have to fit an interior run game but also have to play a “low hole” zone area to wall off any crossers. This still leaves him in a binding responsibility between pass and run. 

Coach Blevins, the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma Panhandle University uses a 3x1 levels concept to combat man coverage but instead of running a regular dig, the number three receiver will push out and “pick” the defender on number two by making him go over the top. The number two receiver will run a stutter in his shallow route allowing number three time to make the pick. Number one will run a five-yard in-route (see Diagram 1).

Diagram 1
Perimeter Defender Reads

Because of an experienced quarterback, Brent Dearmon, the offensive coordinator at Arkansas Tech University has sold out to RPOs this spring and is building in man-beaters to his already established RPO concepts. He’ll do this by having a quick game tag to one side of the formation and an RPO tag to the other. The RPO is denoted by the side in which the QB opens. The quick game side is activated by a leverage, grass numbers or personnel advantage. Against 4-2-5 defensive structures, the structure the Wonder Boy defense employs, either the boundary safety or the Sam linebacker are usually involved in the run fit. In order to play man coverage, one safety will need to drop. Coach Dearmon’s RPOs are usually designed to manipulate that defender.

One of those concepts is a pre-snap field slant to manipulate the Sam linebacker and a post-snap RPO to manipulate the boundary safety who is getting the divide zone run action in his face (see Diagram 2). If the quarterback likes the slant, he throws it, otherwise he reads the boundary safety’s action off the run. 

Diagram 2

The clip below is the same concept with a different result. It’s a six-man pressure concept with off coverage. The quarterback likes the spacing on the slant so he takes it (see Diagram 3)

Diagram 3

Since so much of designing man beater routes is about personnel and defender leverage, using verticals against press coverage and out routes against man coverage work just as well. Coach Dearmon will also use quick outs against press coverage, particularly to the boundary where the boundary safety is asked to be the additional run fitter. The out route helps to work away from the boundary fitter (see Diagram 4)

Diagram 4

Finally, many coaches have tied the field side slant RPO with the pin and pull buck sweep concept to the boundary. While this concept is an effective zone beater, it also can be an effective man beater that pits a slot receiver to the field against an outside leveraged outside linebacker who must be the force defender in four down fronts (see Diagram 5)

Diagram 5

Against man coverage, Coach Blevins will utilize a first level read in his man concept RPOs, which will essentially turn into a quarterback run or sprint out depending on how that read reacts. According to Coach Blevins, you can combine a perimeter read with any man beater concept, but his preference is out-breaking routes that are run away from pursuit. 

In his “Fitch” concept, the quarterback will sprint out to read the defensive end for run or pass. The number one receiver runs an eight-yard hitch and the number two receiver runs an inside fade while the Y will arc to protect the quarterback (see Diagram 6). The hitch is effective against off coverage. If he gets a pull read, the quarterback will read inside out. 

Diagram 6

“Hog” is another pick RPO concept that is being paired with a sprint out pass concept to the field, but is used from an unbalanced formation. The number one receiver runs a post at the defender over number two forcing him to go underneath. Number two runs a hitch and go. Just as before, the Y will again arc and protect the quarterback. Number three runs an occupy vertical route. The defensive end is still the read (see Diagram 7).  Now on a pull read, the quarterback is reading the number one receiver to the number two receiver.

Diagram 7

Continue to trend #2: Solution to Defensive Backgapping

Chat with other coaches about this trend by visiting the Hudl Forum.

X&O Labs 2017 Football Trends