Husson University (ME) finished first nationally at the Division 3 level this season in the following categories: total defense (181 ypg), rushing defense (47 ypg), yards per rush (1.59), third down percentage (.199) and first downs allowed (86). Many of these numbers came at the hands of RPO based offenses in which defensive coordinator Grant Caserta opted to defend using man free principles. In this exclusive clinic report, Coach Caserta details the most common RPOs Husson saw this season and how he defended them. Read the report...
By Grant Caserta
Defensive Coordinator, Defensive Backs Coach
Husson University (ME)
You can always spot a defender in conflict. He is the one sprinting in from the outside to fill his gap on an inside zone play. Only, it’s not a run - the QB pulls it and throws to the perimeter. This defender is now turning and sprinting back to the outside, while his pass responsibility is gaining an easy first down. Run-pass options have been effective in recent years by exploiting defenders that are “in conflict”, or asked to do two jobs. A linebacker that is responsible for both an interior run gap and also an outside passing zone is “in conflict”. He cannot fill his gap and also simultaneously fulfill his pass responsibility. It is one or the other. In the past, defenses could get away with teaching defenders to have a run gap and also a pass zone, because a run was a run, and a pass was a pass. As long as the defender made the proper run-pass read off his initial key, he would get to where he needed to go. However, the RPO has exposed the flaw in having defenders tied into both the run game and the pass game.
Recently, offenses have taken advantage of defenders in conflict by optioning them. This causes that defender to be wrong no matter what he does. If he stays back for the pass, his run gap is open. If he fills his run gap, his pass zone is vacated. At Husson, we have eliminated conflict in our defenders. Each position on our defense is either a “run first player” or “pass first player”. The four defensive linemen and the two inside linebackers are always run first players. The two corners are always pass first players. The three safeties will be either a run first player or pass first player, depending on the formation.
By identifying who is responsible for run and who is responsible for pass, we prevent anybody from being in conflict. We will always have all run gaps covered and we will always have all receivers covered down. This system allows our players to aggressively play their responsibility with no conflict. Run defenders can focus on eliminating the run, while pass defenders can focus on stopping the pass. This concept is certainly nothing new or revolutionary that I’ve come up with. Everything I know and teach, I stole from someone else. However, I hope to be able to share some of these things I’ve learned and that you can find them useful as well.
Most Commonly Defended RPOs
Although there are many different types, the RPOs that we see the most are what we call “zone read triple”. The interior mechanics of the play involve zone blocking, with the backside end being unblocked (and read by the QB). The outside part of the play usually involves a vertical release by #2 (pop pass, hook, etc) or a bubble by #2 (which could be accompanied by #1 blocking or running a slant). For this article, we will focus on this type of RPO.
Inside Run Defenders Responsibilities vs. Zone Read Triple
The crux of our entire defense is having all interior run gaps accounted for. If we leave open gaps inside from tackle to tackle, there is no way we will stop the run consistently. Fitting gaps properly on the interior is crucial. We feel like the strength of our defense is stopping interior runs, so that is where we prefer the ball to go on option plays.
As a general rule, anybody who is blocked has the dive. The unblocked defender will play the QB. (This would apply against other types of RPOs as well, such as when defensive tackles or linebackers are read.) As I said, typically we want the ball to be handed off on any kind of zone read, RPO or any other kind of option. All inside run defenders need to fill their gap based on the run scheme. We stress to these players that they need to stay in their gap and take care of the RB. They must trust that the perimeter players will do their job and take care of their respective responsibilities. For these inside run defenders, it does not matter if there is a “read” element to the play or not - they should fit the run the same way regardless.
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- How he is able to cross train his free safety to be an extra fitter in the run game.
- Why he feels playing slot receivers in outside alignments helps to defend RPOs.
- How he manipulates a C gap defender to play give or keep option and the defender over #2 for the QB keep or throw.
- How he teaches the C gap defender to restrict the run lane vs. zone read triple.
- The slot defender’s technique in zone read triple RPOs.
- Plus narrated and raw game cutups of these coverage concepts.
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The challenge for the defense is getting 11 players to do only their job and nothing more. This type of structure requires great discipline and trust in the other players on the field. If one player tries to do someone else’s job, the defense is exposed to big plays. There can be no “covering” for someone else, or trying to make up for another player’s mistake. Especially against RPOs, it is vital that each player does his job. When all 11 work together, we have had very good success containing RPO packages using these base rules as a foundation. As I said earlier - we don’t have all the answers, but I hope that some of the items here may be useful to you and your defensive game plan. Thank you to X&O Labs for allowing me to share some of our ideas with you.
Meet Coach Caserta: Grant Caserta recently completed his second year as Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach at Husson University (D3 – Bangor, Maine). Prior to that, he served as the linebackers coach at Maine Maritime Academy in 2014. He started his coaching career at his alma mater where he was the assistant defensive backs coach at Saginaw Valley (MI) in 2013. Caserta played at West Ottawa (MI) High School (2005-2007) and Saginaw Valley State University (MI) (2008-2012). Grant lives in Bangor, Maine with wife, Caitlin and son, Jameson.