The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t need to watch how the Jacksonville Jaguars used running back Corey Grant to exploit the New England Patriots defense- they already had an entire section dedicated to RPOs in their playbook.
You’ll hear about RPOs a lot in this Super Bowl and for good reason. An “RPO” is a run pass option that gives the quarterback the flexibility to read the defense and change from a running play to a passing play at the last second. The play stresses the linebackers because they have to decide whether to commit to the run or the pass and the Patriots linebackers made the wrong decision multiple times in the first half of the AFC Championship Game, giving up huge chunks of yards to the Jacksonville offense.
No team uses the RPO more than the Eagles, according to Pro Football Focus, and you can be certain Bill Belichick and company will have the entire defense ready for the playcall. It just comes down to execution.
Linebackers are often at the center of the RPO because they’re the link between the defensive line and secondary. While the defensive line can focus on winning at the line of scrimmage and the defensive backs stick with the receivers, the linebackers want to be aggressive against the run, which can get them out of position to defend the passing play.
In the first quarter, the Jaguars ran this RPO to gain 20 yards and move down the field. The Patriots make a late adjustment to crowd the middle of the field and move Kyle Van Noy to the line of scrimmage to create a 5-man bear front.
The bear front allows each player to have a one-on-one battle, often tipping the scale in favor of the defense against the run. While I don’t know the exact play, it would seem Van Noy’s responsibility switches from covering the wheel route against Corey Grant to taking backside contain against the run and Patrick Chung is supposed to take Grant in coverage.
Whatever the responsibility, no one covered Grant out of the backfield and the Jaguars have two lead blockers to take on the two outside defensive backs.
“I think you have a lot of defensive teams planning for the run and then you give up the pass,” Patriots defensive lineman Trey Flowers said. “You just got to play disciplined. You got to read your keys, obviously on the defensive front our number one thing is stopping the run. Once we can establish stopping the run, without the back end helping, they can play the pass.”
A simple counter to the RPO is to play man coverage against the five skill players because that prevents any miscommunication. It’s clear that Blake Bortles was reading Chung or Van Noy when he decided to throw the ball instead of handing it off because of the clear distance between either defender and Grant (some teams just rely on counting players in the box to determine whether to run or pass), so playing man coverage would have led Bortles to handing the ball off.
The tight man coverage would also remove the quick slants to the receivers and further entice the Eagles and Nick Foles to hand the ball off instead of throw it and risk an interception.
“With all those RPOs, I think one major change [for the Patriots], I think those cornerbacks are going to play a lot of aggressive man-to-man coverage,” retired Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. “If you look at Philadelphia and a lot of other teams they’ve faced play a lot of off coverage. If you watch and you see those run-pass options, those corners are going to play a lot of press coverage, they’re going to take away that quick slant, and they’re going to force Foles to have to beat them deep.”
New England can also play their own games against the RPO if they’re able to determine who Foles is using as the read to determine the option. Elandon Roberts is known around the league for being over-aggressive against the run and could be targeted in the RPO when he’s on the field.
If Foles is counting players in the box to decide the play, the Patriots could line up in the box and start dropping into coverage to try and force a turnover. If he’s using a single player as his read, the Patriots could start dropping the backside contain player into coverage.
“It’s not easy, but it can be done,” Van Noy said about defending the RPO. “Other teams have done and we’ve done it before against other teams. Just trust your instincts and play ball.”
And it’s also important to note that even if the Patriots have success stopping the RPO, the game won’t be over. Even though they lead the league in RPOs, they only use them on 16.4% of their offensive snaps. They have the best offensive line in the NFL and a host of talented skill players that can win their battle without leaning on misdirection.
“You know what, I think they’re just good all around,” Van Noy said about the Eagles offense. “I know the big fad right now is the RPO, but, man, their offense has been good without the RPO, just running the ball and throwing the ball. It just adds another element to their success.”