Defending RPOs from Four Down, Two High Spacing: Case 1 – Box Defender Reads & Fits vs Option Runs

Jan 23, 2018 | Front, Even Front Structures, Defense

By Mike Kuchar 
Senior Research Manager 
X&O Labs 
Twitter: @MikekKuchar 


Special Reporting by Adam Hovorka, X&O Labs Contributing Writer 



Playing a four down front, two-high defense can place a good amount of stress on the box defenders. In most 4-2-5 structures, these box defenders consist of the front four linemen plus the strong side and weak side inside linebackers. In 4-3 looks, the presence of the Sam/Nickel or strong safety is added into the equation. How a coaches trains those defenders can have a major impact on defending the first level option principles most associated with RPO offenses. After all, RPOs are option offenses at the core, and taking away the first two threats (dive and pull) usually equates in defensive success. Like defending flexbone schemes, the more the ball gets pitched the better off a defense is, the quickest way to gash a unit is north to south. And the while the onus of that responsibility falls on the box defenders, it’s the defensive line that has to be able to cancel gaps along the front.  

This case is devoted to how coaches are training their front four to react and defend the more common run sequences associated with RPO football (zone, single pull and double pull concepts). But before we uncover our research on how these coaches are defending them, we thought it necessary to briefly summarize the type of personnel each of our contributors are using in their base defensive outfits.  

Editor’s Note: Our contributors to this report all base out of a four down front, some are 4-3 in structure, while others are 4-2-5.  


Chris Endress, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Seneca High School (MO): “We play with a field defenisve end and a boundary defensive end. Our defensive tackles adjust to and from the call.  We always call our fronts to where the Eagle (3-technique) will go such as Eagle left or right. Tite or open is based off the tight end placement and field and boundary. We will also use back and bop, which is to or away from the running back. Our linebackers are the same. The Eagle linebacker goes with the 3-technique and the Hawk LB goes with the Shade. In our 2x2 looks, the Hawk LB is the one who leaves the box, but he is always to the boundary. He will have less ground to cover. Overhangs are similar. The Gorilla (SS) always goes to the field. The Willie (WS) always aligned to the boundary. So they can align pre-snap. It also allows me to cross-teach the reads, fundamentals, alignments, etc.” 

Rob Everett, (@nineinthebox) Defensive Coordinator, Bridgewater College (VA): “We play with a true quick defensive end and a guy who is more suited to go against the tight end.  Our 3-technique is the more athletic of the two tackles. We rotate many defensive linemen. Our Field Strong Safety we call our Whip. Our Rover is the weakside safety and he always travels with the backer, the weak-side inside backer. When we play against 2-2, we basically become 4-3 so that backer is a hybrid player. “ 

Adam Hovorka, Head Football Coach, Schneiber High School (NY): “We always play quick athletic types at defensive end as we want kids that can get off the ball and bend and chase. We will play with one bigger tackle as our 3-technique and one quicker kid at the Nose. We will play one true middle linebacker (Mike) and he is an old school plugger. Our other box linebacker is the Bandit and he is a hybrid inside backer and 4-3 OLB. He has to be able to run and be a great blitzer. We already play with quicker defensive end types to begin with. We want long quick kids that can pass rush and bend and chase. We play a field defense with a strong safety (Strike) that will go the field 90% of the time. He aligns with the FS and they are in split field coverage to the read side.   

“On the opposite side we play a weak safety (Whip) that will determine the coverage to his side. Verse tight formations, the Mike aligns to the strength and the Bandit opposite. In open formations, the Mike goes to the read side and the Bandit will go to the away side with the Whip. At times, we will sub out our Strike and put a pure pass cover player there also. If we do this we are probably moving our Strike either to Mike or defensive end. In obvious pass situations, we will play with the four best pass rushers and as much speed on the field as possible. If we are doing this we are either blitzing or we are expecting an obvious pass situation. We will have our Strike get some reps at walling of #2 or #3 in trips just like our Mike would.”  

Chris Kappelmeier, Defensive Coordinator, Sparta High School (NJ) 

“We play a field defense versus open formations. We will read the wide side of the field. The Strong Safety and Free Safety align to the wide side of the field regardless of the formation. The Free Safety makes a reading right or a reading left call to call the passing strength of the formation. He then makes a coverage call for his side of the formation which will be the corner, strong safety, and one of the linebackers. The Weak Safety now makes a coverage call for his side, which is the away side, for himself, the corner and the other linebacker. Our defensive ends are generally linebacker type players to start with so we do not sub them out. We will play our regular strong safety who is a linebacker/defensive back hybrid.”