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What the heck is an RPO?

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As the Bears enter the brave new world of modern football, let’s take a look at the new “buzzword” in the NFL: The RPO.

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Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Mitch Trubisky and Tarik Cohen at the “mesh point.”
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

As the title would suggest, we are going to answer the question of what is an RPO (run/pass option). While the Bears aren’t totally new to the concept that is sweeping the league, but they are far from the top teams. According to Pro Football Focus, the top-2 teams which utilized the RPO in 2017 were the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles. Coincidentally, those are the 2 offenses in which Bears fans can look to for a glimpse of the future.

So what is an RPO? Well the easiest answer is a packaged play which includes both a run and pass in the play design. This concept works best if you have a smart, mobile quarterback. The decisions are entirely up to the quarterback based on how the defense either aligns or moves post-snap. Make no mistake, this play is gaining in popularity because it works. The stress that is put on the defense is enormous, often times leaving defenders in un-winnable situations.

If the Bears new head coach Matt Nagy—who is calling plays this season—uses the RPO as much as he has in the past, we should expect around 18% of the plays to be an RPO next year. When you consider that Jordan Howard ran the ball on 29% of the plays last year, you get a sense of just how many plays that really is. Certainly not an insignificant total. I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of all running plays come from an RPO in 2018.

Possibly the best feature of the RPO is the fact that it is run from a shotgun formation. Dating back to his college days, Mitch Trubisky ran roughly 98% of his plays from the shotgun. Clearly this is where he is most comfortable. In addition to this, Jordan Howard rushed out of the shotgun 128 times during his first two seasons and gained 831 yards. That comes out to an average of 6.5 yards per attempt, however, only 34 of Howard’s 276 carries in 2017 came out of the shotgun.

It might not be evident simply from watching a play if it is an RPO or simply a designed run or pass out of a shotgun formation. There are a few keys that you can look at however to make the determination. The first key is watching the offensive line. If the Bears throw the ball but the offensive line appears to be run-blocking, there is a very good chance you have an RPO on your hands. The other key is to watch the wide receivers. Are they all blocking or are there routes being run while there is a running play happening behind them?

Passing Plays

Here is a typical passing play where the offensive line pass blocks and the receivers are simply running routes. We have all seen passing plays like this one many times over the years. The key here is to watch the offensive lineman’s feet. They take a step backwards—called a drop step—in conjunction with their initial “punch.”

Another thing to note here is that there is no play-action, meaning that both running back Benny Cunningham and fullback Michael Burton immediately go into a route and neither fake a handoff. If you watch the inside linebackers, they both flip their hips and drop into zone coverage as soon as they see the backs head into their routes. A play-action or RPO would freeze the inside linebackers had the Bears shown that look.

On the very next play, there is another pass. This could be misconstrued as a simple wide receiver screen, but let’s look at this play a little closer. The offensive line are “firing out,” which is the telltale sign of run blocking. The other thing to note here is that Cunningham is running here as if he is going to take the handoff. Note that he doesn’t initially block and after realizing it will be a pass, he turns to look to chip the backside defender.

At the top of the screen, wide receivers Bennie Fowler III and Marlon Brown are blocking the whole way while Joshua Bellamy is running a bubble screen route. At the bottom, tight end Dion Sims runs a 5-yard out-route which, in hindsight, might have been the better read for quarterback Chase Daniel to have made.

So on this particular RPO, the quarterback (Daniel) has to choose between handing the ball to the running back (Cunningham), throwing the wide receiver screen (Bellamy), or hitting the tight end (Sims) on the right side. Daniel correctly reads the blitz and goes with the quick screen pass to Bellamy for 3 yards.

Running Plays

This first clip is of a normal running play and the first key here is the offensive line “firing out” like they normally would on a called run. The second is to watch the wide receivers and tight end Daniel Brown. All 4 of those players are blocking from the snap. When you can check both of those boxes, you know that you have a called running play.

Here you have all of the obvious signs of called run but with one huge difference, Bellamy runs a bubble screen route while Brown purposely runs his defender deep before blocking. While hindsight is always 20/20, it appears to me that Daniel missed his read here. Slot cornerback Tavon Young (25) shows blitz and ends up playing inside coverage on Bellamy. This is exactly the look you would want from the Ravens.

Had Daniel gone to Bellamy here, the play almost certainly would have ended up being better than the result of the run. Although Jordan Morgan was way too far downfield getting out on a linebacker, so perhaps that would have been a penalty for ineligible player downfield.

The Bears offense certainly looked different last Thursday, but even that was a very watered down version of what those who have been to training camp have seen. Even in these rather vanilla plays, you can see the kind of stress that RPO’s put on the defense. There are times where all 11 guys on defense can do their job perfectly and still can’t stop the offense.

While the Bears only ran 3 RPOs in the first preseason game (4%), I would expect that number to increase significantly as we get closer to the season. Mitch Trubisky is a much more athletic quarterback than either Daniel or Tyler Bray and will offer the additional option of running the ball himself.

On a more positive note about the first preseason game is that the Bears ran 54 plays from the shotgun out of 75, or 72%. Again, I would expect that number to increase a bit during the regular season with Trubisky under center (or behind it maybe?). That is a huge difference from what we saw last season where the offense can best be described as a rusty, 1981 Chevy Caprice that has its original suspension and is missing the muffler.

The 2018 Bears offense will have a little bit of everything. Power running, quick passes, straight-line speed, stop-and-go quickness, and some go up and get it guys. Perhaps one of those Jeep Cherokee Hellcat’s would be an apt description for this offense.