Of­fense em­brac­ing RPO el­e­ments

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS -

Don “Wink” Martin­dale said Thurs­day, is the ease of use. A quar­ter­back’s reads are sim­pler in RPOs. Lin­ing up in the shot­gun, he can make a pre- or post­snap read on where to force the ac­tion. At the snap of the ball, the quar­ter­back rides the hand­off to the run­ning back and ex­am­ines his op­tions.

If the “con­flict” de­fender — nor­mally a line­backer, but some­times a slot cor­ner­back or safety in the box — hangs back as the play un­folds, the quar­ter­back com­pletes the hand­off to the run­ning back, who has one less de­fender at the line of scrim­mage to worry about. But if the con­flict de­fender crashes down at the hint of a run, the quar­ter­back keeps the ball, sur­veys his op­tions, sets his feet and throws to a re­ceiver run­ning a fast-de­vel­op­ing route. Out wide, it might be a bub­ble screen. Down the mid­dle, maybe a seam route from a slot re­ceiver or tight end.

All the while, the line­men up front are run-block­ing. Their down­field move­ment is cru­cial. Nor­mally, on pass plays, they shuf­fle back. On run­ning plays, they drive for­ward. The con­flict de­fender can make the right read and still lose out.

“It puts a lot” of pres­sure on de­fenses, Ravens rookie cen­ter Bradley Boze­man said Satur­day. He was part of an Alabama of­fense last sea­son that leaned on RPOs through the Crim­son Tide’s run to the na­tional cham­pi­onship. “It’s a run a pass op­tion, and some­times there’s three op­tions in there, de­pend­ing on the play. So it makes de­fenses stay true to what they do.”

Un­der NCAA rules, the de­cep­tion is eas­ier. Col­lege of­fen­sive line­men may block up to 3 yards down­field on a pass­ing play; in the NFL, the limit is just 1 yard. Al­though the league’s en­force­ment is in­con­sis­tent, the smaller mar­gin for er­ror in­forms the types of RPO plays nor­mally called. Run-block­ing that flows hor­i­zon­tally, such as the zone, power and trap schemes used to great ef­fect with the Ravens’ Alex Collins last sea­son, is of­ten a good fit.

“I think that it takes the sting away from the whole de­fense,” left tackle Ron­nie Stan­ley said of RPOs. “It gives them an­other thing to think about, to worry about all week, and I think it’s a great dy­namic that we have in our of­fense.”

Morn­hin­wheg said the Ravens have used RPOs over the years, but only spar­ingly. Last sea­son, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, the Ravens used 11 RPOs in 16 games, the fewest in the league. In the Su­per Bowl alone, ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, the Ea­gles ran nine RPOs; for the sea­son, 181.

But RPOs are not es­sen­tial to a thriv­ing of­fense’s DNA. The Los An­ge­les Rams, Pa­tri­ots and San Fran­cisco 49ers fin­ished with the sec­ond, third and fourth fewest RPOs last sea­son, re­spec­tively, and all fin­ished in the top 12 in yards per game. At Louisville, Jack­son over­saw a pro-style of­fense sprin­kled with RPO ac­tion, and he be­came the first player in NCAA his­tory to put to­gether back-to-back sea­sons with over 3,000 pass­ing yards and 1,000 rush­ing yards.

“We had some col­lege coaches come in and talk to us [over the off­sea­son] about it and how they see it,” Martin­dale said. “We’re see­ing it a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently than how they see it in col­lege, in the col­lege game. It really helped us, and it’s really helped us de­fen­sively get a grasp of it all, be­cause there are a lot of teams that are go­ing to it.”

And for good rea­son. Ac­cord­ing to Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus, RPOs last sea­son gained over a yard per play (5.01) more than tra­di­tional hand­offs with no quar­ter­back op­tion (3.95).

It helps to have an ath­letic quar­ter­back with a quick re­lease — the Kansas City Chiefs’ Alex Smith (now with the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins) and the Green Bay Pack­ers’ Aaron Rodgers helmed the two of­fenses with the next-most RPOs in 2017, af­ter the Ea­gles — but Flacco’s tal­ents could be well tai­lored to RPOs. And for the same types type of rea­sons he was crit­i­cized last sea­son.

“I think that’s hon­estly all good stuff,” Flacco said of RPOs. “It puts stress on the de­fense. I think it opens up lanes for the run­ning backs, so I think those are def­i­nitely good things when you pick to do them in the right spots.”

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