The Keys to Defending RPOs

By Jarry Poth, FNF Coaches Magazine Contributor

About the Author: Jarry Poth is the defensive coordinator at Somerset High, a 4A Div. 1 powerhouse in Texas. He is also a defensive coordinator at the NCAA Division 2 and Division 3 levels.

The hottest thing in football right now is Run/Pass/Option offense. RPOs are very difficult to defend, and I don’t have all the answers to stopping this type of offense. I do however have many failures in attempting to stop it to know what not to do. I also have an idea of how to slow it down. I have learned the hard way by giving up several yards and points to RPO teams. The most difficult RPO to handle is teams that execute at a fast pace.

Photo by Cody Alexander,

Running the RPO Offense

I am a huge fan of RPO offense and have been for a while. In 2012 at Sul Ross State University, Scotty Walden, Christian Cruz, Donald Williams and I formulated the best offense in the NCAA. We ran nothing but RPOs. We were throwing screen, horizontal and vertical RPOs off of zone- read game out of pistol and tilted open sets. We had a trigger that was a dual threat in running, passing and had trained eyes.

We were able to capitalize on the faults of the defensive rules. At Sul Ross, we were able to average 580 yards of offense a game – the best in college football that year. We also played very fast, averaging 97 snaps per game. The allowed us to handcuff a defense into a certain call the entire game with little to no pressure.

By playing in a tempo system and using horizontal RPOs, we saw perimeter pressure with gap exchange to stop our zone-read RPOs.  We then started to run the vertical RPOs with pops, spots, scats, and snag concepts to keep perimeter pressures at bay.

We would replace the blitzing overhang with a receiver and delivered the ball before the pressure would get to us. It was a really creative concept at the time. So, with that being said, I have been on the other side of the ball calling those plays to combat the rules of the defense to make this article even better.

Defending RPOs

I have a great understanding of the RPO offense and how it works and what will give it some trouble as well. I have been on the other side of the ball teaching offensive linemen in this scheme. I then went to Oklahoma Panhandle State University in 2014-2015 as the defensive coordinator. OPSU’s head coach, Russell Gaskamp, and Lucas Peters are probably some of the best RPO minds in NCAA football. They challenged me every day in practice so I had to tighten up my defensive rules and how we defended the RPO offense.

Coach Gas and Coach Peters run an 11-personnel downhill RPO system that is very difficult to stop.  At OPSU, Coach Anthony Randle, Coach Jihad Wright and I were able to put together a great defense set up to defend the RPO offense structure by establishing defensive rules instead of changing from week to week.

By installing rules and techniques in the secondary and linebacker level at the beginning of the season and working on those rules individually every day, it made us into a great defensive team. At OPSU, we had the No. 1 pass-efficiency defense in the country; we were also in the top five in every major statistical category. The most important one for us – in my opinion – was tackles-for-loss.

Here are my top five agendas to defending a tempo RPO team.

Game plan and stop first down. What formation, personnel and concepts are paired with the other team’s running plays? What front and coverage puts us in a positive situation to get tackles-for-loss on first down? These are things that I go through in Hudl to make sure we are set up to defend what they do. How many hats do I need to contain run and be sound on pass? What is the quarterback reading on his progression? To defend tempo, you have to defend first down. If the offense doesn’t get more than three yards on first down, I feel like we are in good shape to keep the other team out of RPOs and get to third-and-long quicker. That’s easier said than done. We must get tackles-for-loss on first down run and pass to get the opposing offense off schedule.

Change the conflict defender. Every position on the second level knows every other positions’ job on a call. We have rules, so telling a linebacker he is on a three-read, two-read or two-mod is easy for us to manipulate the defense and morph into what we need to stop certain RPOs. Switch the responsibilities within the called coverage. A safety on a three-read will be a B-gap backer on that snap with run-first progression with a No. 3 read. The outside linebacker will take the No. 2 read of the safety and take a pass-drop to try to get a bad ball thrown. I don’t want the offense to know who the conflict defender is in the coverage we are in. We do our best to disguise coverage, and if we have the athletes to run post-snap disguise, it is even better. We constantly change the conflict defender to give a false key.

 Attack the mesh point. On first down, I want our defense to attack the mesh point of the quarterback and try to get him into some hurried and bad reads for an RPO offense. We know we are getting a pull to the three wide receivers probably with a curl-flat concept behind it. Mix in some two off-the-edge overload with a hard and soft blitz angles to the tilt and attack the mesh to get the quarterback to throw the gift route. I always want to give the gift route to the quarterback. Give him inside leverage pressed man on a one-clue read and try to set a trap to the gift route. If we can get the trigger into some cloudy reads and cause turnovers by attacking the mesh point, I feel like we have a good chance to win.

Example Call Front: Texas  D-Line; Lion Secondary: Ram Dice Cut Strong

Tackle in Space. Once we can execute these things – read, react, play physical fast football without thinking – I feel like we can give an RPO offense a bunch of trouble. The most important aspect to me in defending any offense is being a great tackling team. RPO offense puts the demand on the defense to defend the entire field. We must be a great tackling team that plays with extreme effort. We are constantly improving our tackling skills daily in order to allow our team to have a chance at winning a game. We always work on tackling in space or a profile tackle. We teach it just as if you were teaching man coverage.

Simple plans. All 11 players are two-gap defenders. By keeping changes from week to week simple, we can morph the defense into what we need for that week. If we need to stop the run more than the pass, we can. If we need to tweak the plan that week for a big wide receiver, we can. We want to play simple, fast football. Easy reads take away what they do best.