I have a wee bit of time and an inkling to do an X’s and O’s post, which I rarely find the time to do. So let’s enjoy it while we can.
The hot thing in college football the past few years has been the RPO (a.k.a. Run-Pass Option), a different take on the old double or triple options that have been run for years. RPOs aren’t new to football, but they did disappear from the mainstream for a little while, and the new-ish emphasis on passing the ball has opened things up for offenses. The RPO discussion really ramped up during the Philadelphia Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl championship in the 2017-2018 season, because the Eagles run a fair number of them.
Hit the jump for more on Shea Patterson and RPOs.
Generally, the response to a team running RPOs is to run man-to-man coverage. The reason is that against zone defenses, individual defenders are easier to isolate, and if they vacate their zone because of a poor read, it leaves miles of space. In man coverage, the man defenders keep their eyes on the receivers and “go wherever he goes,” so eye discipline isn’t as important. If your receiver runs a vertical or a slant in man coverage, you’re supposed to follow him. The end.
But that doesn’t mean man coverage isn’t susceptible to RPOs. They can still be beaten, especially if you have a guy on offense who’s flat-out better than the guy on defense.
So here’s an example of an RPO that Ole Miss ran against Auburn with Shea Patterson behind center. Ole Miss was down 38-3 in the third quarter, so it wasn’t a very competitive game at the time, but the scheme is still important. I’ve drawn it up with the skill guys’ numbers that Michigan could employ:
#2 Shea Patterson
#22 Karan Higdon
#7 Tarik Black
#84 Sean McKeon
#13 Eddie McDoom
#9 Donovan Peoples-Jones
As you can see, Ole Miss (a.k.a. Michigan) is running inside zone to the left. The LT is responsible for the playside end, the LG/C combo on the playside DT up to the playside LB, and the RG/RT combo on the backside DT. Meanwhile, the H-back is going from the frontside of the play to kick out the backside DE.
At the skill positions, the Z is blocking/occupying his man on the playside. Backside, the slot runs a vertical route up the seam, and the X receiver runs a slant. The QB and RB are meshing in the backfield on the zone read.
Here’s the pre-snap setup from Ole Miss:
Auburn defends it by running a scrape exchange with the weakside DE/ILB. A “scrape exchange” is where the DE crashes down to take the RB on the dive, while the backside ILB scrapes outside to defend the C-gap and tackle the QB if the QB keeps the ball.
Above: You can see the DE has crashed inside, while the backside ILB is coming downhill to play C-gap; that ILB is in No Man’s Land because Patterson isn’t going to keep the ball. The kickout block from the H-back (which turns into a log block since the DE crashed) basically means the QB won’t keep, because a kickout block would actually push the DE toward the QB if he kept. You’ll also notice above that the field safety, who started the play 8 yards from the line of scrimmage (LOS) is now 6 yards off the LOS. He bit down to support the run, and the slot receiver (imagine Eddie McDoom) is busy beating the nickel corner to the inside.
If you know anything about football, you know that a defender should never get beaten to the inside in man coverage.
So who screwed up? Well, the field safety screwed up in supporting the run. Why? Because his eyes took him toward the LOS to support the run, which is part of his job. (Remember what I said about the problem with running zone coverage against RPOs?) The nickel corner also screwed up by allowing the inside release, but he should have help from the field safety.
On to the next shot:
Above: That’s the Ole Miss slot receiver catching the ball 30 yards downfield. The slot corner is on his back hip, and the WR left the field safety in the dust by 8 yards.
SO WHAT’S THE TAKEAWAY?
Ole Miss has a more wide open offense than Michigan, but it would probably be a little bit foolish to try to take Patterson (a square peg) and make him Wilton Speight (a round hole). Patterson has the running ability to make teams practice scrape exchanges and to send a safety flying downhill towards zone read action. Nobody would have respected Speight or Brandon Peters to hurt them running the ball. And while Patterson is never going to be a dual-threat guy like Cam Newton or Denard Robinson, he’s quick enough and elusive enough to hurt teams on occasion. Opponents have to respect his running ability.
Furthermore, the Michigan coaching staff knows that Patterson can handle those reads at this level. Patterson had to read one guy after he figured out Auburn was running man coverage:
- If the safety attacks the LOS, throw the vertical.
- If the safety sits or bails deep, hand off the ball.
Keep in mind, too, that Patterson could have hit the X receiver running the slant, too, if he knew that guy could win inside.
Michigan has coaches in place who like inside zone, who have coached in spread-to-run offenses, and who have had mobile quarterbacks. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner coached at Ohio State with Urban Meyer. Wide receivers coach Jim McElwain is a pro-style spread guy. Jim Harbaugh used Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick very effectively in San Francisco. These types of play designs could be very easily employed at Michigan, and they should be, because it takes advantage of the talent Michigan has on the roster.
WHAT ELSE COULD MICHIGAN RUN HERE?
Michigan/Ole Miss/any team could run this thing that Michigan fans have learned to loathe against Michigan’s aggressive, man-to-man defense:
That’s the Smash Fade (a.k.a. “slot fade”), which is effectively the same thing as what Ole Miss ran in the play above, just with a slightly different attack. Instead of a slant, the X is running a hitch, and the slot guy is running a fade instead of a seam route. The fade is a tougher throw, so you might as well run a seam route if the field safety is going to vacate and you can get that inside release.
NOTE: If I plan to have someone run a slot fade rather than a seam route, I might change my personnel a little bit to put Tarik Black or Donovan Peoples-Jones in the slot to create a bigger target for the fade route.
The video below should be queued up to the RPO diagrammed above. Happy reading/watching!
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