Cleveland Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson Offense Preview: Run/Pass Options

Expect new Cleveland Browns’ head coach Hue Jackson to integrate a variety of modern-day spread concepts into his offense, including the RPO (Run/Pass Option), or 'packaged play'.


With today's signing of Robert Griffin III, expect run/pass options (RPOs) to take an even more prominent role in Hue Jackson's offense as the new quarterback has extensive experience running the concept back to his days at Baylor. Good coaches put their players in the best position to succeed, and one of Jackson;s greatest strengths as an offensive coordinator is utilizing his talent in ways that maximize what they do well. 

Let's briefly review RPOs before diving into the film. The concept blends passing and running plays, allowing the quarterback to decide who gets the ball based on what the defense does pre and post-snap. Generally a single defender is designated as the 'read man'. His actions will dictate where the ball goes. In its original form the concept combined inside zone and wide receiver screens, but innovative coaches have adapted the concept to include the power-run game and a variety of short-game routes like hitches, slants, and 'pop' passes.

In RGIII's first game as a pro former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialed up several RPOs to take advantage of his rookie signal-callers comfort with the concept.

Our first example combines split zone, a variation of inside zone in which an H-back arc blocks across the formation, with a wide receiver bubble screen. The read man is free safety Kenny Vaccaro, who has crept up to linebacker-level to run blitz.

Vaccaro takes the decision out of the play, run blitzing just before the snap, leaving the bubble screen with numbers on the outside for an easy 9-yard gain.

Our next example occurs on the very next play, with the split zone and bubble screen flipped to the opposite side of the field, with the read man becoming the SAM (#57)

The wide receiver already has the SAM outleverage to the outside. Because the linebacker stays flat-footed at the snap, Griffen again makes the easy throw for six yards and a first down.

Our final example does not include a run play. Instead, a bubble screen and rocket screen are packaged to each side of the play. Griffen will read the field (wide-side) safety to determine which screen to throw. If the safety flows inside at the snap, throw the bubble screen as the unblocked defender is eight yards off the line of scrimmage and will be forced to tackle in space. If the safety remains flat-footed or follows the bubble motion outside, throw the rocket screen as the offense will have numbers at the point of attack.

The safety's pre-snap creep again provides Griffen with a clearly-defined throw. The slot receiver does a great job getting just enough of the cornerback to push him wide of the play, with the right tackle and right guard picking up the SAM and MIKE. Watch the center get 15-yards downfield 'looking for work'. Great hustle and execution for another low-risk first down.

During Jackson’s previous stints as play-caller in Oakland and Cincinnati, the two-time head coach utilized his Air Coryell-inspired offense to establish a strong ground-and-pound run game (Cincinnati averaged the 7th-most rush attempts in the NFL last season) in conjunction with an explosive downfield pass game (Cincinnati averaged 8.13 yards per passing attempt, good for 4th in the NFL last season). Although Jackson’s philosophy is rooted in a 40-year-old offensive system, the widely-respected play caller has proved adept at integrating modern-day ‘spread’ concepts (think college football) into his offense like the zone read, a diverse wide receiver screen game, shotgun formations with at least three receivers (44.9% of all snaps), and RPOs (Run/Pass Options). In this film study we’ll breakdown how Jackson creates pass-run conflicts on a single defender via the RPO concept.

Also known as ‘packaged’ plays, RPOs have been run at the high school and college level for several years. The concept worked its way up to the NFL-level over the last few seasons, starting with teams like the Bears, Panthers, Packers, and Chiefs.

The idea is surprisingly simple; merge a pass play and run play into a single concept. The offensive line will run block while the receivers and tight ends run pass routes. The quarterback will decide whether to hand off to the running back or throw a pass to the receivers based on the action of a single ‘read’ defender. The goal is to put the read defender in a pass-run conflict by forcing them to choose between their run or pass responsibility, making them wrong no matter what they do.

RPOs work particularly well in a no-huddle, hurry-up offense as they allow the quarterback to make quick, simple decisions without the need to make complicated line calls and pre-snap coverage reads. The passing aspect of the play allows the offense to get the ball to playmakers in space, as the pass routes consist of quick-game slants, hitches, and seams that are a broken-tackle away from going for six. Most packaged plays do not utilize intermediate or vertical routes as the offensive line may not block further than five yards downfield (a controversial issue within the coaching community as this rule is rarely enforced).

Before breaking down some examples from Jackson’s 2015 season, let’s examine the various moving parts of an RPO by breaking down Cam Newton’s signature moment of the 2015 playoffs, a 12-yard touchdown scamper during the third quarter of the Carolina Panthers’ 49-15 NFC Championship victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

The Panthers have the game well in hand, leading the Cardinals 27-7 late in the third quarter. The Panthers have driven the ball into Arizona’s red zone with an effective combination of pass and run calls that have the defense off-balance. Facing 1st and 10 from the 13-yard line, offensive coordinator Mike Shula dials up a beautiful RPO combining a quarterback ‘Sweep’ (popularized by Vince Lombardi with his classic halfback sweep) with a flare screen to the running back.

We’ll look at the run and the pass individually, and then put them together to see how they create run/pass conflict on the read defender.

Let’s start with the running back flare. After aligning to the right of the quarterback, Panthers’ fullback Mike Tolbert motions pre-snap across the formation to the left flat. With three receivers to that side of the field, the offense has enough blockers to pick up the MIKE (middle linebacker), cornerback, and nickel. The strong safety is left unblocked; although he is aligned ten-yards deep making it unlikely he will make the tackle before a positive gain

The Quarterback Sweep is run to the right side of the field, opposite the running back flare. The concept is a variant of the famous Wing-T Buck Sweep (run by many coaches including Gus Malzahn, Urban Meyer, and Chip Kelly)

The backside (away from the play direction) tackle and guard will block the right defensive linemen and defensive tackle, with the center and frontside guard pulling to pick-up the cornerback and first defender that threatens to cross the face from the insdie. The right tackle and tight end will down block the 3-technique (outside shoulder of guard) and defensive end, walling them off from the play. The only unblocked defender is the alley fill (responsible for the area of the field between the front seven and cornerback), although like the strong safety his depth will likely prevent him from making the tackle before a positive gain.

Putting the running back flare and Quarterback Sweep together gives us the RPO, or ‘packaged’ play. Because the play decision is made post-snap, the next question naturally leads to how the offense chooses which play to run.

The play decision hinges on a single pre-determined read man, in this case the MIKE (middle linebacker), located behind the right defensive end. The read is very simple by design: If the MIKE widens with the running back’s motion, run the Quarterback Sweep as a run defender has now been eliminated from the box. If the MIKE stays flat-footed, throw the running back flare as the offense will now have blockers for the cornerback, nickel, and strong safety (the MIKE will not be able to make the play as he is out-leveraged by remaining inside the box).

Moving on to the play, we see how aggressively the MIKE widens with Tolbert’s pre-snap motion. Because Tolbert initially aligned to the right of the quarterback, his motion to the left changed his coverage responsibility from the WILL to the MIKE. You’ll see the WILL tear after him at the snap, taking another run defender out of the box. This is a great example of using pre-snap motion to confuse coverage assignments.

  • The left tackle and left guard do a great job walling off the right-side of the defensive line. Notice how the left tackle ‘swings the back door shut’ on the defensive end, while the left guard reaches the play-side shoulder and turns the 2-i technique (inside shoulder of guard)
  • The tight end and right tackle execute outstanding down blocks to seal the D-gap. Part of the beauty in this concept design is the blocking angles created for the down blocks. It is much easier to execute the block on a defender aligned away from the play’s direction, as the angle allows the blocker a clean shot into the defender’s shoulder.
  • The right guard (#70) pulls around the tight end looking to block the first player he encounters in the alley, while the center (#67) looks for the first threat to cross his face from the inside (in this case the free safety as the WILL ran himself out of the play with the blown coverage assignment).
  • Cam Newton does the rest, reading his blocks and leaping over the final defender for six.

Now that we’ve broken down at the basics of an RPO, let’s go to the tape to see how Jackson utilized RPO’s during the 2015 season.

Our first example comes from the Bengals’ 31-10 week-nine victory over the Browns in front of a national audience during a Thursday night game.

A very common RPO run from high school-on-up (and the play those with familiarity of packaged plays likely think of) integrates the ubiquitous Inside Zone with a ‘Pop’ pass to a tight end or wide receiver aligned tight to the line of scrimmage.

Inside Zone (think Ohio State’s go-to play in the run game) requires linemen to block an assigned area based on a set of rules. The running back will read a defender (generally the first defensive linemen to the play’s direction) and make a cut based on his linemen’s blocks and defensive line movement.

The Pop pass is run away from the running play’s direction, as the angle of the quarterback’s body at the mesh point (the point where the quarterback and running back come together to execute the handoff) allows him to easily read the assigned defender. The read must be made quickly, otherwise the run/pass window will close. Don’t give the defender time to correct his mistake.

The throw is a simple pass route run straight off the line of scrimmage on the edge of the box. The route runner will often subtly bend the route outside to put more distance between themselves and the linebacker, creating a wider throwing window for the quarterback. The receiver must whip his head around quickly; the ball should be out within 4-5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Cleveland Browns’ linebacker Karlos Dansby (#56) is the read man here. Remember the term run-pass conflict? We see it in action here due to Dansby’s run fit.

The third-year player is responsible for the A-gap (the gap between the center and guard) to the running back’s side. When Dansby reads his run key (likely the left guard or the running back’s flow), he must fill his gap or the tailback will hit the huge cutback lane created by his lack of movement.

The conflict arises when Dansby aggressively hits his run fit as he has now created a throwing window to the tight end. This example serves as a great illustration of the run-pass conflict RPOs put on the read defender. If Dansby plays the run the ball will be thrown behind him into the open window. Conversely if the inside linebacker cushions the seam to take away the Pop pass, he will create a huge hole in the backside A-gap a running back of Giovani Bernard’s caliber will easily crease.

Dansby is damned if he does; damned if he doesn’t.

Focus on Dansby at the snap. Notice the aggressive read steps towards his A-gap and the open window to the tight end created by his run fit. Because Eifert’s defender (free safety Tashaun Gipson) is aligned on the goal line, he has no chance of stopping the six-foot-six, 251-pound Pro Bowl selection before he breaks the plane.

What does the Inside Zone/Pop pass combo play out when the defender plays pass at the snap?

In our next example the read man is located just outside the box, roughly two-yards wide and six-yards deep off the tight end.

Again, if the read man remains flat-footed give on Inside Zone as the defender will not be able to get in the tackle until the play has hit for good yardage. If the read man aggressively enters the box when he reads his run key, throw to the tight end on the Pop pass.

Focus on the defender just outside the left hash. Although I won’t say with 100% certainty (anyone who claims 100% confidence analyzing a play without the call should be ignored as a general rule) that he is the read man, he is the most likely target. I base this assertion on Eifert’s eyes as he releases at the snap. Look how quickly he gets his around in case the Pop pass comes his way. If Eifert was releasing to block for Dalton on a quarterback bootleg, the tight end would have his eyes inside looking to pick up the first threat to cross his face from the inside. In addition, if the read man was the MIKE, the proper play was the Pop pass as he is flat-footed over the left guard.

Watch the read defender’s feet at the snap. He remains flat-footed, likely to read and break on Eifert’s route if the ball comes out, taking himself out of the run play. Dalton makes the easy read, handing off to the running back for a solid six-yard gain.

While the run portion of RPOs was originally constructed off zone-based concepts, in recent years innovative coaches have utilized gap-based concepts like power and halfback/quarterback sweeps to add variety and misdirection.

As newer RPOs utilize gap-run concept, we’ll look at a run/pass combo using ‘Power’ and a slant route from the slot receiver.

The read man is the SAM (strongside linebacker), located just inside the slot receiver below the 40-yard line. Because the SAM slides outside over the slot just before the snap, the quarterback’s decision is made for him as the offense now has six blockers to match six box defenders.

The left tackle and left guard do a great job double-teaming and turning the tilted 4-technique, although the left tackle (#77) needed to come off the block to pick up the scrapping MIKE (#94). In spite of the free hitter, the running back is able to cut inside the tackle and gain a solid ten yards with a little help from his friends.

Our final example combines Inside Zone with a wide receiver screen out of a stack alignment. The read man is the linebacker (#53) aligned just under the 30-yard line. Because the EMLOS (End Man on Line of Scrimmage), #52 will be unblocked by play design, the offense has 5 blockers for 5 defenders in the box. These box numbers are advantageous for the offense, as they can account for every defender with a blocker, but like all explosive offenses the Bengals want more.

Because the slot defender is aligned five yards inside the second receiver in the stack, he has little chance of making a tackle without a running start at the snap. To take advantage of this leverage, Dalton will throw the screen if the defender remains flat-footed or flows inside towards the run action after the snap.

Watch the read man at the snap as he remains flat-footed. He must play this technique because he is responsible for the quarterback bootleg if Dalton pulls the ball off inside zone (based on the Bengals’ pre-snap look, they could be running basic inside zone with the left defensive end being the read man; RPOs add uncertainty and variety to the offenses’ game).  The defender faces a run-pass conflict as he has responsibility for covering the stacked receiver on a pass and playing the quarterback bootleg on a run. The defender’s dual responsibilities have horizontally stretch him across half the field, a schematic mistake by the defense that Jackson exploits with a low-risk pass for an easy 10-yard gain.

Although former offensive coordinator John Defilippo did an admirable job manufacturing yards with his available talent, Jackson comes in with a proven track record at the NFL level. A large part of this success can be attributed to jackson's creativity, flexibility, and ability to integrate 'new' concepts into his established system. With Duke Johnson and Gary Barnidge already on the roster, Jackson already has some pieces in place to run RPOS. After finishing the seasons 30th in scoring at 17.4 points per game, these skills will be a welcome sight to fans fed up with boring, uninspiring offensive performances.

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