Defending RPO and Triple Option – Case 3: Zone Based Coverage Structures to Defend RPOs

Sep 9, 2016 | Defense, Game Planning, Defending Specific Offensive Systems and Concepts

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



By now, the RPO (run/pass option) game has arrived at a ball field near you. According to our research 80 percent of defensive coordinators have experience defending RPO concepts. While these concepts are proliferating, we wanted to research how defensive coordinators were using a holistic approach in defending them. Were they treating them as triple option elements? Where they using a certain coverage or front to contain them? Since many of these offensive concepts are still being developed, we were not surprised with how many coaches were still grasping for answers. It may be perhaps the number one course of study this off-season for defensive coordinators. In fact, many coaches we researched either didn’t have the confidence to put their names to the report or plainly chose not to for fear of being exposed. Naturally, we did our due diligence to find those that believed in what they are doing and had the credibility to put their name to it.

We decided to segment our research in this case to certain coverages that coaches are using to defend RPO concepts. We also detail which types of RPO concepts or constraints (stick draw, zone bubble, zone pop, etc.) that these coverages are efficient in defending. This case will focus on zone-based configurations, whether it be split field variations or whole field variations. Our research shows that the majority of coaches, 32 percent, will use split field coverage principles to defend the RPO game.

We selected six sources that have had a win percentage of .750 or higher in defending these offenses to explain how they were successful. Their system analysis is below.

Quarters/Split Field Coverage Families:

Source 1: Henderson State University (AR)
Co-Defensive Coordinator Jeff McInerney

Henderson State University finished third in the country among Division II schools with 29 interceptions and did so by teaching their secondary to read the eyes of the quarterback even in zone concepts. They play their corners in the off position at eight yards and read the quarterback to determine run or pass. According to co-defensive coordinator Jeff McInerney, it’s a concept he learned from TCU’s head Coach Gary Patterson that has made a world of difference in them breaking to the ball. “Yeah, it can be scary,” he told us. “But if you do it right, you will confuse him and more importantly bait him into making a poor throw.” Henderson State is a 3-4 outfit that will rush an additional fourth defender at times. They play split field, matchup zone coverage structures, but will choose to play with at least two deep safeties to limit the vertical gains. “We will rally and tackle,” said Coach McInerney.

QB Down Elbow Trigger Point:
When Henderson State preps against RPO offenses, they will use the quarterback’s down (or play side) elbow to determine whether it’s give of pull. “We teach our defensive backs to have a visual aiming point of the quarterbacks midsection to down elbow,” co-defensive coordinator Matt Gordon told us. “If he is a right handed quarterback, we are staring at his belly to his left elbow. If that left elbow stays high and up, we will stay with our flat footwork progression. Quarterbacks are not going to pick their arms up after they handoff the ball. They will go through the mesh and the progression, but they are lazy. When the ball is out, the elbow stays high. When the elbow pops back up, we find our pass responsibilities.” While this is apropos for offset situations, Coach Gordon tells us the pistol is harder to read, but the triple option component is not there. “In Pistol for us it’s ‘is his back to me or is his back away?’ Is the quarterback pushing to me or is his back being turned at me?”

We talk a lot about angles of departure. By the receivers third or fourth step, we have a good feel of what he is running. We should know by the third step what he is running.

Deuce Coverage:

Constraints Defended: 3x1 Stick Draw Concepts, 3x1 vertical concepts

Deuce coverage is a four down front coverage where the additional rusher will come from the second level. It’s similar to a read two coverage in quarters where the trips side corner will play the out routes of number two while the free safety will play the vertical of number two behind him. The Nickel is the short wall player of number two while the Sam is the short wall player of number three. The safety plays number two only if he’s past linebacker depth. In 3x1 sets, the Nickel is inside number two and the apexed Sam linebacker will play the short game of number three and does so by reading the quarterback for his run/pass demeanor before breaking on the ball. He will be the quarterback player on zone read option. The coaching point is not to get beat inside and rally to the flat.

“The Sam must see the mesh of the quarterback,” said Coach McInerney. “Once the ball is thrown, he has to get here in a hurry.” It’s basically a matchup cover two. To the backside, the weak safety will start at 12 yards and come down to 8 to be on top of number three. He will poach or play anything past five yards on the backside number three. The corner plays man-to-man backside. “You have to match up on number three and number two without playing true man free. We widen our backers vs. trips but we don’t pull them. The Mike has to get under number three if it’s trips. We matchup with the Nickel on number two and the strong safety will carry number three to the backside safety. (Diagram 62).”