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The Evolution of the Run-Pass Option and What it Might Mean for LSU

A primer on one of the other elements discussed with Steve Ensminger and LSU’s offense in 2018.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

In all of the talk regarding the offense LSU wants to implement this season with Steve Ensminger running the show, the one constant through all the talk has involved the letters RPO. So what does that mean, exactly? It’s become such a ubiquitous term as of late that people tend to overuse it (if you watched last year’s Super Bowl, Cris Collinsworth seemed to think the Eagles were calling one on every other pass).

RPO, of course, stands for Run/Pass Option, a play where the offense has the ability to move the ball either way all in one play. They come in tons of shapes and sizes these days, and almost every team runs them in some form or fashion. They’re not even really new to LSU — Cam Cameron installed them, but never called them very much. Ensminger made some use of them once he took over with the Cameron playbook in 2016.

Notice how Malachi Dupre runs a slant and looks for the ball here — Danny Etling had the option to either hand the ball off here, or throw that slant. Obviously, he made the right call.

So what exactly will this look like in the 2018 LSU offense? Well, I’ve always been a fan of looking back to look forward, so let’s start with a bit of a history lesson.

Offenses have always tried to find ways to “make the defense wrong,” no matter what. The reason people throw out cliches about “assignment football” on defense is that if a defense just reads their keys and reacts appropriately, they’ll be in the right position to make the tackle. Plays like the option, reverses, etc... use that trope against them. Take advantage of how the defense is supposed to react, and make sure that, even if everybody does what they’re supposed to do, the offense still makes the play.

And of course, making sure that the offense (specifically, the quarterback) always had an answer was one of the central principles of Bill Walsh’s approach. Walsh, and other offensive coaches with conceptual passing games began to package, or combine, different pass plays together (one of the first Chris Brown Smart Football pieces I ever read discussed it here). A five-step, intermediate-to-deep play to one side of the field, a three-step quick play to the other.

If the quarterback reads zone coverage, he drops and throws the front-side concept, if he reads man, he throws the back side slant. Other versions may put a concept designed to different zone coverages to either side.

Eventually, the mentality bled over into the running game as well, with quarterbacks developing quick throws — sometimes known as “smoke” calls — on designed running plays if the offense either left a receiver uncovered or had the cornerback playing off the line. Brett Favre talked about coming up with the idea in practice in a John Gruden QB Camp segment from two years ago:

Tag a run call with “Z now” or “Z smoke,” what have you, and the receiver knows to run a quick slant, and the quarterback knows to throw it if the lane is open, while the rest of the offense is carrying out their assignments like a regular running play.

By the late 90s and early 2000s, college coaches began combining these quick throws into the running game by taking advantage of spread formations and the option. The first teams I saw to incorporate were the Urban Meyer Utah teams in the early 2000s, and later the Chip Kelly Oregon teams, usually by adding a quick bubble throw for the quarterback if he kept the ball on a read play:

Bruins Nation

It’s important to remember here, that any throw tacked on to the play had to be quick or to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage. Football rules have always dictated that pass blockers cannot move down the field beyond the line of scrimmage. More on that later. The natural progression from the bubble was to have one of the receivers blocking for the bubble, to just run a quick slant:

Offensive Breakdown

If that Will linebacker tries to jump the screen or is playing too far outside, the receiver and quarterback have open space to throw into, plus the route creates a natural block for the bubble just by getting in the defender’s way.

Eventually, coordinators realized they could just throw those quick-hitting passes on any given run. It could be a “pop” pass down the seam, or a slant, or a stick route by another receiver. In some more free-flowing offenses the quarterback will just “tag” the receiver pre-snap, based on how the defense aligns and where he has a throwing lane.

That brings us back to the rules. Again, offensive linemen are not allowed to block down the field on any pass play, unless the ball is thrown and completed behind the line of scrimmage (the screen pass). At the college level, that’s limited to a three-yard limit; in the NFL, it’s even shorter — just a one-yard limit. For play-action pass protection, linemen will fire out and engage a defender, but then settle into pass-blocking at the line of scrimmage. So a good key to remember on whether you’re watching an RPO or just a straight play-action pass, is to look at whether the linemen look like they’re actively moving down the field, or settling back into a pass-pro stance.

Ian Boyd wrote this handy primer on the differences in college vs. NFL RPOs at Football Study Hall earlier in the year. Basically, NFL teams involve the quarterback less as a runner, with slower-developing running plays to help prevent linemen from being down the field in case of a pass. A sweep or counter, for example, which involve pulling linemen, with the quarterback reading a linebacker for a slant versus handing it off.

So what did we see LSU install in the spring? A couple quick looks:

Old-school here — from the I-formation, LSU motions to Justin Jefferson to the slot. Defense is playing soft, so rather than make the tight zone handoff (notice the linemen blocking down field), Justin Jefferson runs a basic bubble screen and Justin McMillan gets an easy first-down completion.

Inside zone with a slant tag for the slot — Lowell Narcisse makes the right read of the linebacker, but Eric Monroe is in tight coverage and breaks up the pass.

Which brings us to how defenses have adjusted to the RPO game, for the most part — tightening coverage and rolling a safety down, with press, pattern-matching coverage. A few years back, Chris Brown wrote this excellent explainer of how Mark Dantonio’s Quarters style fits to the modern offense. This passage, in particular, sticks with me:

Eschewing conventional wisdom, Dantonio and Narduzzi sincerely believe it’s easier to play press coverage on the wide receiver than to play off of him. Against press, a receiver has fewer routes he can run, and must declare right away which ones he’s running as he releases inside or outside at the snap. Against soft coverage, however, a receiver has the freedom to run any route he wants without giving clues to the defense. Thus, it actually “takes a better player to play off the receiver than in press coverage,” Dantonio said at the clinic. “If the corner can run and has good balance, he will be a better press player than an off-player.”

The defensive backs can roll up, and will maintain deep leverage — i.e., don’t let them get behind you — so they can still press for the first couple of steps and then bail out deep. That makes it a lot easier to squat on short, quick throws while the front seven is thinking run. As this style becomes as ubiquitous as the RPO, offenses will likely make it more of a tactic than a strategy.

Still, it’s something that offenses will continue to mix in along with the rest of their passing attack, and one that Ensminger hopes to make a successful portion of the Tiger offense moving forward.