Inevitably when a team wins the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup or NBA title, the rest of the league will do a deep dive into what pushed the victorious organization to the top.
In basketball, the Golden State Warriors led a revolution of three-point shooting. Everyone is tanking because of the Houston Astros. Puck possession was king for awhile in hockey. And with the Philadelphia Eagles’ win over the New England Patriots behind backup quarterback Nick Foles, the rest of the NFL has its eyes on the Run-Pass Option plays Philadelphia used to succeed.
On Tuesday, The Ringer published an in-depth article breaking down the present and future of the RPO. The piece featured Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who broke down several ways the Eagles used the RPO to beat the Vikings.
In breaking down a six-yard completion in the red zone during the NFC Championship game, DeFilippo told author Robert Mays:
“[That was] a special play specifically designed for third-and-short situations. It works particularly well against teams that rotate their safeties hard [like the Vikings].” Devising concepts to beat man coverage is a requirement for dropback passing games in the NFL, so merging those route combinations with RPO principles doesn’t require a huge leap.
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is anticipating that opponents will be implementing RPOs into their schemes when they match up with his No. 1 ranked defense this year.
“An RPO typically is no different than when they used to line up under the center and the receiver would run a dart, so it’s a quick, short throw most of the time,” Zimmer said. “But just because they line up like that doesn’t mean it’s an RPO, so you have to be able to cover all the same things.”
“That will be the rage of the NFL,” Zimmer added.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins was not known for using tons of RPOs while with Washington, but it’s clear that the Vikings are putting effort into getting him comfortable with running them in 2018.
“I think like any other play it takes a feel, it takes reps, it takes time and so the more you can put time on task and build a foundation of an understanding of the different looks and the challenges and how a defense tries to counter RPOs the better off you,” Cousins said Thursday. “Then when you get into a game and get the unique look you can say I’ve seen this before, I know what to do or how we answer it. But if you don’t have that time on task and you get some exotic looks it can become hard to know, “Okay, what do I do now?” I know the base looks but I don’t know the wrinkle to it so we’re just trying to get all the wrinkles worked out and work through the different looks we could get so when they are called we’re ready to answer.”
Cousins joked about the Vikings’ defense getting good experience against RPOs because the team would practice 10 in a row in practice.
One of the ways that has been used to slow down RPOs is by creating a pass rush and hurrying the quarterback’s decision making.
“A good pass rush pretty much ruins everything an offense is trying to do,” Cousins said. “You can throw out any element of offensive football. If you have a good rush, a stout defensive line, you can pretty much say that is going to stop whatever it is that we are trying to do. In the RPO game, you do hope that the ball is out quickly enough that a rush isn’t going to get home. But a really good rush, maybe it can create some push and get the linemen in your lap and then it’s that much harder. That can certainly be a way to defend it.”
DeFilippo also told The Ringer that opponents often sent linebackers as a response. Some have pointed to man-to-man coverage as a solution. Zimmer said a key part of stopping RPOs involves figuring out when they are coming.
“I don’t think you can just play man coverage because they’ll get in stacks and run pick routes off of it and it’s two-on-two basically at the end of the day, so you’re going to have to have a few different things,” Zimmer said. “There’s some tips on when they’re doing it and things like that. Typically not on third down, it’s going to be first and second down, so you have to be able to have a plan when you get those tips.”
On the offensive side, Kirk Cousins’ previous offenses were not known for RPOs, but DeFilippo has casually mentioned their presence during press conferences this year.
“We’ll have our own spin to it,” DeFilippo told The Ringer. “I’ll leave it at that.”