Three RPOs – Three Stop Calls

Defending the Spread’s three top RPOs.

It is never too late to look for innovative ideas to stop RPOs. The game of football is changing on a yearly basis for defenses. Offensive coaches are finding interesting ways to combine plays, all while simplifying the playbook. It is amazing to think that one simple read-arc play shown below can have four different outcomes. The multiplicity that is a simple 20 personnel read-arc play combined with tempo can stress even the most experienced coordinator.


Defensive coordinators in the modern game have to prepare for all four plays shown above when deciding how to attack the formation shown. Add tempo into the mix, and to the untrained eye, it looks like the offense is running multiple plays. Offenses can even use the H-back and a hybrid slot to align in 11, 10, 20, or 30 pers. looks without subbing one play. That is a lot for a defense to handle.

A great example of how this particular formation and play can be used was seen in the 2013 BBVA Compas Bowl between Pitt and Ole Miss. Following a touchdown by Pitt in the 2nd Quarter, Ole Miss came out and ran one formation and the same play five times in route to a quick strike touchdown. Pitt never adjusted to the tempo and Ole Miss hit every available option on its way down the field (Inside Zone, Hitch, QB Keep, Bubble, & finally the Hitch read for a touchdown).

Defensive coaches need to have simple adjustments that can combat a multitude of different plays and formations. When facing tempo a DC needs to have simple, one word calls that can help the defense quickly align and attack. Tempo forces the defense to be vanilla and if reacting slowly, can get them out of alignment. It is important to have counters to the Spread offense’s top RPO play.

Three RPOs and Three Stop Calls

1. Spot Draw

The Spot Draw or Snag route stress teams that run an Over Front to Trips and asks the Mike to hold the “A” gap while being responsible for the #3 WR in a 3×1 formation. Add wide splits into the mix and a DC might as well spin to Cover 3 when attempting to keep a six-man box, which has its own set of issues versus Trips. Teams that run an Over Front consistently versus 3×1 formations have to use the backside safety as a stop-gap to allow the front side ‘backer to vacate the box. The better option is an Under Front.

In an Under Front, the pass distribution is better protected and a defense doesn’t have to spin to single-high, but the Mike is still in a run/pass conflict because he has to fit the “B” gap versus the run. RPO teams love the Spot Draw/Snag because either way a defense sets the front, the Mike is conflicted, or a defense has to spin/kick the safeties and expose the boundary corner to the vaunted backside Post.

Spread teams want to find the open “B” gap, and are looking for ways to get people in run/pass conflicts. One way to confuse offenses is to change the “B” gap and eliminate the conflicted player altogether by using line movements and sinking in a man from the secondary. A simple interior line stunt (Under to an Over Front) allows the Mike to cover down to the “snag” route. The boundary safety drops into the newly formed “B” gap, and cuts under the single WR if pass. Take a look:

01 Spot Draw

Below is an example of what Saban calls “slide.” The play that Clemson runs is similar to the one above, except the run play is a QB Counter (GH). Alabama typically will align in an Over Front to Trips. To combat the push to Trips by the A-Behind motion, the backside safety has to “sink” into the box and “slide” the LBs to the field. In Saban’s Nickel defense the “$” LB is “pushed” out by the safety and allowed to cover down to the snag route ran by the slot.

Spread offenses use multiple formations and motions to make pass concepts look different. The play Clemson runs is no different than the diagram shown above. The RB push route replaces the speed out by #2 and the slot for Clemson runs the snag. If the “$” ‘backer were to stay in the box (creating a seven-man box), the QB will throw the snag route. The video below demonstrates the flexibility of the check regardless of the run play and the initial strength call by the defense.

2. 2×2 Zone Read (Bubble)

The Zone Read in itself is a tough play to defend, add in an RPO, in this case, a “bubble” route, and it can be unstoppable against the right defense. Running an Over Front versus a 2×2 spread formation allows the Sam to cover down for the bubble, and the Mike and field defensive end work the QB/Dive exchange. For a changeup, and to get the Will’s run/pass conflict eliminated to the boundary (Flop Read) a defense can use a simple edge pressure, keep the split field look, and create hesitation in the QB’s decision making or force him to pull the ball versus a “free” hitter.

In this particular edge pressure shown below, the blitzing Sam takes the Dive, Mike has the QB, and the safety takes the “Pitch” (Bubble). If the QB pulls the ball, the Mike takes the inside shoulder of the QB and the safety takes the outside shoulder if the QB does not throw the ball. The line movement allows the Mike to “cheat” to the edge of the box anticipating either a cutback by the RB or the QB pull versus a read play. Full line movement creates a natural “wall” to the boundary. As stated this “wall” allows the Will to cover down to the boundary slot.

If the QB decides to throw the Bubble, the safety takes the WR in the open field with Mike careening right behind him on a ball thrown. This pressure gives the illusion of a pull/throw scenario for the QB. If the Bubble is the chosen play, the safety has to attack and make an open field tackle, but with help from the Mike. It is always easier for a player to make a play on a WR screen if he is already working downhill. The movement for the safety is similar to the “sink” technique shown above or running the alley which is a natural play for a safety. The Mike, versus a Bubble, shoots to the inside hip for the cut back in case the safety misses or overruns the WR. This pressure also eliminates the Flop Read RPO. That’s an RPO that reads the LB away from the RB (Read Side), against an Over Front the Will is in a run/pass conflict. This particular pressure allows the Will to cover down and eliminate the Bubble.


Below is an example of the pressure shown above. Iowa State runs a Stretch Waggle with a Fade/Out (HBO) combo to the field. The Sam takes the Dive, running down the line in case the RB cuts back. The Mike works with the Stretch flow, but keeps his eye on the QB and quickly reroutes to take the QB. The presence of the Mike forces a quick to the drag from the opposite side of the field. Finally, the field safety takes the out route by the slot forcing the QB to take the drag. One adjustment defenses can make if the offense is taking advantage of the safety to the blitz side is to run a Cloud/Trap concept over the WRs to the blitz side. This allows the CB to quickly access any out route by the slot.

3. Two Back Read-Arc

The two-back Read-Arc is the play that is shown most when talking about RPOs because of its versatility. This is the play made famous by Ole Miss versus Pitt in the 2013 BBVA Compass Bowl (shown earlier). In a little over one minute, Ole Miss drove the field, ran the same play five times, hit all four of the run/pass options, and scored a touchdown off a simple hitch pass. Tempo is what allowed Ole Miss’ offense to be so deadly. Tempo freezes the defense and makes them predictable. In the case of Pitt, they never adjusted or had time to, and Ole Miss continued to take what they were given. Alignment alone, pre-snap, can tell the QB what RPO to choose. The question now is, how does a defense attack such a multiple play?

Alignment is key to start. A defense must eliminate as many RPOs as it can pre-snap. Initially, a defense running a split-field match Quarters scheme can eliminate the hitch read to the single WR by pressing the CB on the single WR side. Most OCs will go away from a pressed WR if they are they reading the boundary CBs leverage. The Bubble screen to the field is taking care of by covering down the Sam LB over the slot or running a Cloud concept over the two WRs. These two adjustments allow the defense to eliminate the passing RPOs just on alignment alone. The boundary safety in Sky (Quarters) coverage can quickly insert into the box if needed against a run. Now the defensive coordinator has to decide who he wants carrying the ball, the RB on the Zone, or the QB on the Read-Arc.

In the diagram below, the defense is shown pressing the WR to the boundary and using an interior line stunt to make the QB pull the ball. Since Mike’s gap is moving to the “B” gap, and the field DE can now close for the Dive because 3 technique will become the Nose, he continues to travel to the outside reading the QB. The Mike’s attack point will initially be the inside shoulder of the arcing H-back, but if the QB heads outside on a sweep path, The Mike can climb over the arc-block.

Over the Bubble, the field safety plays off the leverage of the Sam. Since the Sam is pushing with the Bubble from a full cover down, the field safety can now attack the QB once he has pulled the ball. The reason the Sam takes the Bubble is to muddy the waters of the RPO even more. If the Sam triggers on run, the QB has time to flip the ball out to the slot and forces the safety to make a play from depth. By switching the responsibilities of the Sam and safety a defense can create even more hesitation.

Once the QB pulls the ball, the field safety’s initial point of attack is the outside shoulder of the QB. The arcing H-back now has to choose: seal the Mike or head out to the dropping safety. Either way, he is wrong because the defense has created a plus-one scenario. This “clamping” action combined with other alignment/movement tweaks allows the defense to cover all four potential plays and forces the QB to carry the ball. Here is a diagram of the play:

.03 ARC

3 Tips for Defending RPOs:

  1. Eliminate as many RPOs you can pre-snap – Alignment is everything!
  2. Choose who you want to carry the ball, the RB or QB. Who is least likely to “hit a home run?”
  3. Once you’ve figured out the WHO, create line movement to cause hesitation by changing the “B” gap and create different cover downs and reads for the QB. Never allow the QB to get comfortable.

MQ’s original RPO Clinic:

Check out these other resources on RPOs and Read plays by MatchQuarters:

  1. 5 Tips for Defending Spread Option Teams
  2. Defending the Zone Read
  3. Defending the Power Read
  4. Using Split-Field Coverage to Counteract RPO & Check-With-Me Offenses

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Author: MatchQuarters


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