Breaking Down the ‘Sweep Read’ RPO
The idea behind RRO’s (run-pass options) is surprisingly simple: merge a pass play and run play into a single concept. The offensive line will run block while the receivers and tight ends run pass routes. The quarterback will decide whether to hand-off to the running back or throw a pass to the receiver based on the action (or key) of a single ‘read’ defender. The goal is to put the read defender in pass-run conflict by forcing him to choose between a run fit or coverage responsibility, making him wrong no matter what.
RPOs work particularly well in a no-huddle, hurry-up offense as they allow the quarterback to make quick, simple decisions without the need to make complicated line calls and pre-snap coverage reads. The passing aspect of the play allows the offense to get the ball to playmakers in space, as the pass routes consist of quick-game slants, hitches, and seams that are a broken-tackle away from going for six. Most packaged plays do not utilize intermediate or vertical routes (although this is changing) as the offensive line cannot block further than five yards downfield (a controversial issue within the coaching community as this rule is rarely enforced).
Let’s examine the various moving parts of an RPO by breaking down Cam Newton’s signature moment of the 2015 playoffs, a 12-yard touchdown scamper during the third quarter of the Carolina Panthers’ 49-15 NFC Championship victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
The Panthers have the game well in hand, leading the Cardinals 27-7 late in the third quarter. The NFL champs have driven the ball into Arizona’s red zone using an effective combination of pass and run calls that have the defense off-balance. Facing 1st and 10 from the 13-yard line, offensive coordinator Mike Shula dials up a beautiful RPO combining a quarterback ‘Sweep’ (popularized by Vince Lombardi with his classic halfback sweep) with a flare screen to the running back.
We’ll look at the run and the pass individually, and then put both together to see how they put the defender in run/pass conflict.
Let’s start with the running back flare. After aligning to the right of the quarterback, Panthers’ fullback Mike Tolbert motions pre-snap across the formation to the left flat. With three receivers to that side of the field, the offense has enough blockers to pick up the MIKE (middle linebacker), cornerback, and nickel. The strong safety is left unblocked; although he is aligned ten-yards deep making it unlikely he will make the tackle before a positive gain
The Quarterback Sweep is run to the right side of the field, opposite the running back flare. The concept is a variant of the famous Wing-T Buck Sweep (run by many coaches including Gus Malzahn, Urban Meyer, and Chip Kelly)
The backside (away from the play direction) tackle and guard will block the right defensive linemen and defensive tackle, with the center and frontside guard pulling to pick-up the cornerback and first defender that threatens to cross the face from the inside. The right tackle and tight end will down block the 3-technique (outside shoulder of guard) and defensive end, walling them off from the play. The only unblocked defender is the alley fill (responsible for the area of the field between the front seven and cornerback), although like the strong safety his depth will likely prevent him from making the tackle before a positive gain.
Putting the running back flare and Quarterback Sweep together gives us the RPO, or ‘packaged’ play. Because the play decision is made post-snap, the next question naturally leads to how the offense chooses which play to run.
The play decision hinges on a single pre-determined read man–in this case the MIKE (middle linebacker)–located behind the right defensive end. The read is very simple by design: If the MIKE widens with the running back’s motion, run the Quarterback Sweep as a run defender has now been eliminated from the box. If the MIKE stays flat-footed, throw the running back flare as the offense will now have blockers for the cornerback, nickel, and strong safety (the MIKE will not be able to make the play as he is out-leveraged by remaining inside the box).
Moving on to the play, we see how aggressively the MIKE widens with Tolbert’s pre-snap motion. Because Tolbert initially aligned to the right of the quarterback, his motion to the left changed his coverage responsibility from the WILL to the MIKE. You’ll see the WILL tear after him at the snap, taking another run defender out of the box. This is a great example of using pre-snap motion to confuse coverage assignments.
- The left tackle and left guard do a great job walling off the right-side of the defensive line. Notice how the left tackle ‘swings the back door shut’ on the defensive end, while the left guard reaches the play-side shoulder and turns the 2-i technique (inside shoulder of guard)
- The tight end and right tackle execute outstanding down blocks to seal the D-gap. Part of concept design’s beauty is the blocking angles created for the down blocks. It is much easier to execute the block on a defender aligned away from the play’s direction, as the angle allows the blocker a clean shot into the vee of the defender’s neck
- The right guard (#70) pulls around the tight end looking to block the first player he encounters in the alley, while the center (#67) looks for the first threat to cross his face from the inside (in this case the free safety, as the WILL ran himself out of the play with the blown coverage assignment).
- Cam Newton does the rest, reading his blocks and leaping over the final defender for six.