MINNEAPOLIS -- It was late in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game, score tied at 7-7. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles was lined up in shotgun, with LeGarrette Blount offset to his right. At the snap, Foles kept his eyes up, reading safety Harrison Smith, who had moved up to assume the role of weak side linebacker. Smith was waiting on Foles to either hand it off to Blount or pull the ball out of his belly and attack the right side of the defense.
He guessed wrong on both counts. Instead, Foles zipped a tidy six-yard completion to Alshon Jeffrey, throwing the ball into the area Smith should have been defending. The Eagles offensive line also sold the ruse, zone blocking to the opposite side of the throw and getting the linebackers to flow that way as well.
Welcome to the world of RPOs -- run-pass option.
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Once considered a college offense, it’s become all the rage in the NFL. Super Bowl Sunday will be the third straight game the Patriots will face an offense and a signal caller that lean on the run-pass option as an important piece of their game planning and play calling.
“They think (you need a) young, athletic college quarterback (to run RPO plays),” said Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. “That’s not what the RPO game is all about. It’s centered on accurate throwing, good decision-making and good execution. When we use it, Nick has shown a great aptitude of doing that very well.”
The Eagles haven’t scaled back their use of RPOs since the gifted Carson Wentz was lost for the season with a torn ACL and PCL. Actually they’ve leaned on it more since Foles has taken over, using it first as a means to get their backup into the flow of the game. According to Pro Football Focus Foles is 15-of-16 on such plays, averaging over seven yards a throw. Wentz, who was in the conversation for league MVP prior to getting hurt, was 23-of-35 on such plays but averaged just 5.9 yards on those passes.
“Everyone wants to hate on Nick Foles, but he’s done a great job,” said Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Van Noy is one of those Pats defenders who will find himself caught betwixt and between when forced to defend the RPO. I asked him about the challenge and he was as nonchalant as possible.
“You just want to read your keys and play football,” he said. “Not try to overthink. Guys that are playing run play run, guys that are playing pass play the pass.”
Sounds simple, but it’s not. The Pats had their hands full with the Titans in the divisional round before Marcus Mariota strained his quad. That essentially wiped out a portion of Tennessee’s playbook, the portion that was working. A week later, in the AFC Championship Game, Blake Bortles played the game of his life for three quarters, relying heavily on being able to exploit Van Noy and company with RPOs.
“At the end of the day you’ve got guys who are assigned to certain things," said Van Noy. "You’ve just got to do your job.”
And if you don’t do your job?
“You’ll hear about it.”
Trey Flowers didn’t have to hear from any coaches after a play early in the second quarter against Jacksonville. Faced with a 1st-and-15, the Jags had Leonard Fournette offset to the left of Bortles, who was operating out of the gun. The offensive line did a tremendous job selling run action to the right side, aided by a quick belly fake to Fournette. But Bortles quickly wheeled and hit Corey Grant, who had lined up in the left slot. Van Noy overreacted but Flowers blamed himself. He hesitated for just a second. That was all it took. The Jags blocked it up well on the outside but if anyone had a chance to submerge the 15-yard gain, the third-year pro from Arkansas thought it was him and him alone.
“I could have made that play," he said. "I should have made that play.”
Looking over the film, it’s hard to agree with Flowers. His idea of hesitation was a split second. It also appears Flowers read his keys and -- wait for it -- did his job.
The Patriots buttoned it up in the final stretch, but a further review of the tape shows that the Jaguars had no plays left in their RPO reservoir. They had run through every wrinkle, every formational variance they had in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s playbook. And just like that, the dreams of a Super Bowl withered and died at Gillette Stadium.
“Hey, they had a hell of a plan and they executed it well,” said Duron Harmon. “They didn’t get to that point without being a great team. But I think our guys just handled their responsibilities better and we recognized what was happening a little quicker than we did, say, in the first or second quarter.”
The Eagles' RPO package will post an even bigger threat to the Patriots than the Jags. They’re better at all levels, with a more diverse and explosive group of weapons. Don’t believe me? I’ll turn it over to Bill Belichick.
“They do a good job of creating conflicts for the defense and that’s difficult, too,” Belichick said of the Eagles. “When a guy gets a key and two different plays look like the same play . . . if he's right on one, he's wrong on the other. A lot of those plays are read by the quarterback, so actually both plays are in play and then the quarterback makes a decision on what to do as he reads the defense. So you can’t be right defensively is the philosophy there. There's a lot of that; yeah. They do a real good job of attacking every inch of the field.”
Another example of what Belichick is talking about happened later in that NFC title game. The Eagles came out in a similar set to the one highlighted at the beginning of this piece, only this time Jeffrey tightened up his split -- a minus split in football-ese. That forced the Vikings corner to back off, fearful that if he pressed Jeffrey, there was too much room to defend from where Jeffrey was lined up all the way to the sideline. It essentially created a two-way go. The space that corner surrendered once again provided Foles with a window to fake the handoff and hit his wideout for another positive play, this time for eight yards.
“We have a method and a madness for why we do what we do,” said Foles. “It starts with execution, specifically in that aspect of the game, It’s knowing who you’re reading, what we’re trying to accomplish and as a QB you have to make good decisions on the fly.”
Unless you’re inside the head of Foles or his coaching staff, it’s usually hard to decipher the read that triggers the decision to throw instead of hand it off on each individual play. What’s not hard to understand is why the Eagles are doing it they way they do.
“The key to any great offense is you want to keep teams off balance,” said Foles. “You want to show them looks that (appear) similar but you can do anything out of it. Anyone who’s ever played football will tell you that. Think about it: If you’re seeing the same thing but you don’t know what’s coming, it’s very hard to play. So you just have to wait and see what’s going on.”
By then, it can be too late. Just as Foles has to make good decisions on the fly, so too does a defense that doesn’t actually know what was called in the huddle or audibled to at the line of scrimmage. That means defenders have to make even better decisions and do it in a shorter period of time.
“I mean, look, everything we have to defend in this league is a challenge," safety Devin McCourty told me. "But sure, [the Eagles] really force you to read and react as quickly as possible."
And that holds true not just for the front seven but but for the guys who usually act as the last line of defense: The secondary.
“When you have that run-pass option, pass players that sometimes turn into run players because a guy is blocking him, a receiver or a tight end,” said McCourty. “You can’t free up and just go to the ball because you still have to cover your guy because he’s not blocking. He’s running a route. So for you, it’s a pass play. For the six or seven guys in the box it might be a total run look, so you might not gain any help underneath because they’re playing the run. Individually, matchup-wise if we're in man-to-man or it’s a zone and a guy is in our zone we've got to be sound and be able to play what we're getting. It’s a run-pass option so it could be a run, but if you’re getting a pass play in coverage then you need to play the pass. When the pass comes up you’re ready to play and the guys up front that play the run have to play the run.”
Doug Pederson had never called his own plays until he took over as the Eagles head coach. He’s a West Coast-offense disciple, having learned under Mike Holmgren. He was introduced to the RPO game while serving as offensive coordinator in Kansas City under Andy Reid, who felt it was the best way to utilize then-QB Alex Smith’s skill set. It was something San Francisco had done well with Smith before handing the keys to Colin Kaepernick.
Part of what fascinated Pederson about that style of offense was how it often tested the opposing team’s discipline or, even more finite, that one player who is being read.
If it’s the linebacker and he sells out to stop the run, a smart quarterback knows to fake and hit the receiver running to that vacated area on what’s usually a simple slant. But if that ‘backer is thinking pass first and peels back into coverage, usually the quarterback is taught to quickly turn his attention to the edge player, be it a defensive end, outside linebacker or even a safety or slot corner. If they crash down, it’s on the QB to keep the ball himself. Bortles did that with some success against both Buffalo and Pittsburgh in previous playoff rounds. To the Pats' credit, they handled that end of it two Sundays ago.
At the end of the day you’ve got guys who are assigned to certain things. You’ve just got to do your job.
-- Kyle Van Noy
Foles hasn’t had to show off whatever athleticism he possesses on that front, either. It’s not that he’s gone undefended in those instances. It’s just that the more desired options have been available to him.
Carolina Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis has seen just about everything in his decade-long career. Speaking at the end of the season, he made it clear that the RPO game isn’t going away any time soon because -- quite frankly -- it’s too damn hard to defend.
"It's pretty much a play where you can't be right as a linebacker," Davis said. "Because if you guess and you play downhill to play the run, they're going to throw the ball right where you were. If you drop back and you play the pass, then they're going to hand the ball off. So the quarterback is basically reading the linebackers and safeties in that situation and it's a situation where a lot of the time you can't be right.”
But as has been illustrated here, it’s not just the linebacker who’s getting put into the blender. Go back to Flowers, who grew quite animated when I asked how much of a challenge it is to not go with the flow of the play, especially if that flow has ripped off five, six and seven yards a pop.
“You say to yourself, 'Stay, stay, stay,' " he said. “It challenges you instinctively because they’ll fake you here and throw over there. They’ve got a lot of things going on the other way and that means you definitely have to go against your instincts.”
How hard is that?
“Very hard. But that’s what we need to do if we’re going to be successful Sunday.”